Bedford had now been regent of France for five and a half years. Throughout that time he had successfully pursued a policy of gradually extending and consolidating his nephew’s kingdom and to that end he had done everything in his power to preserve good relations with Philippe of Burgundy, whose alliance underpinned all that the English had achieved in France. In 1428 all this was to come under threat. The catalyst once again was Humphrey, duke of Gloucester.
On 9 January 1428 the pope had ruled that his marriage to Jacqueline of Hainault was invalid and that she was still legally married to John of Brabant. Jacqueline herself was forced to end her three-year war against Burgundy and accept his humiliating terms, recognising him as her heir, ceding authority to a regency council appointed primarily by him and sharing the revenues of the three states with him.1
Gloucester tried to make up for the failure of his continental ambitions by making a bid for greater power in England. Taking advantage of the absence of both Bedford and Cardinal Beaufort, he demanded that parliament redefine his role and refused to attend until it did so. Again he was robustly rebuffed: ‘we exhort and require you to be satisfied with the . . . declared power with which my lord of Bedford, your brother, the king’s eldest uncle, was himself satisfied; and that you desire no greater power’, he was told.2
Gloucester had, however, found an unlikely new ally in Thomas, earl of Salisbury, perhaps the longest-serving and most experienced of all the English commanders in France. Salisbury had returned to England to recruit a new army and on 24 March 1428 contracted to serve for six months ‘in France, Normandy, and other marches and frontiers’ with six hundred men-at-arms and eighteen hundred mounted archers. The contract was unusual in several respects. It allowed Salisbury latitude to substitute archers for men-at-arms at his discretion and to include in their ranks four master gunners (canoniers), together with ten miners as archers. It also specified the expenditure of 1000 marks (£350,000) on ‘cannons, stone cannon-balls, wagons, carts, iron pincers, ropes and other necessities for cannons.’ More importantly – and ominously – the contract gave Salisbury unprecedented independence from Bedford’s authority as regent of France.3
To pay for the expedition, parliament granted the first direct tax of Henry VI’s reign: levied only on churches and knights’ fees, it raised £12,291 (£6.45m), less than a normal subsidy, but still a generous sum for a country which, since the Treaty of Troyes, was under no obligation to pay for the war in France.4
The decision as to how to deploy Salisbury’s army should have rested with Bedford and in May he had presided over a meeting of the council in Paris which decided that it should be sent to capture Angers, the capital of Anjou. The following month a meeting of the estates-general voted 60,000l.t. (£3.5m) for this purpose, including the purchase of munitions sufficient for a four-month siege. When Salisbury landed in France in July, however, he headed not for Angers but straight for Orléans, 130 miles to the east. Bedford would later complain that this was done ‘God knows by what advice’ but the finger of suspicion pointed plainly at Gloucester, who shared Salisbury’s preference for a decisive military strike against the dauphin rather than Bedford’s slow but steady approach to conquest.5
The choice of Orléans as a target was provocative. Strictly speaking, it was illegal: Charles, duke of Orléans, was an English prisoner and his lands should therefore have been hors de combat because they provided the revenues to finance his ransom. A siege of Orléans was also against the interests and wishes of Philippe of Burgundy, which would have worried Bedford but may have been an added incentive to Gloucester and Salisbury, who, for different reasons, were both hostile to the duke.6
Salisbury began his campaign in such spectacular style that by 5 September he was able to write to Gloucester’s loyal supporters in London that he had already taken thirty-eight strongholds. A month later he had captured the Loire river crossings at Meung and Beaugency to the west of Orléans and Jargeau to the east.7 Orléans itself lay on a plain on the north bank of the Loire, at the top of a loop in the river, making it the closest point to Paris, which lay just eighty miles away. One of the largest and most populous towns in France, it was enclosed by ancient walls with eight heavily fortified gates and more than thirty towers. On the south side of the river, but separated from the bank by a drawbridge, stood the Tourelles, a small fortress guarding the access to the twelfth-century stone bridge whose nineteen arches spanned the Loire, taking in an island between the two shores.8
By a curious twist of fate the captain charged with the defence of the town was Raoul, sire de Gaucourt, a loyal servant of Charles d’Orléans and a formidable opponent. In 1415 he had incurred the wrath of Henry V by bringing reinforcements into Harfleur under the king’s nose and, despite enduring heavy bombardment, starvation and disease, holding out for five weeks before being forced to surrender. As a consequence of his defiance Henry had refused to ransom him and, on his deathbed, had forbidden his release during Henry VI’s minority. Gaucourt had endured ten years of imprisonment in England and had only been set free in 1425, when he was exchanged for John, earl of Huntingdon, who had been captured at Baugé.9 There can have been few Frenchmen more motivated or better qualified to defend Orléans against the English.
On 12 October 1428 Salisbury laid siege to the city from the south, concentrating his attention on capturing the bridge. Gaucourt had prepared for this by demolishing the convent of the Augustinian friars, which, standing directly opposite the Tourelles, would have offered a vantage point for bombarding the fortress. He had also constructed a massive earthwork, or ‘boulevard’, in front of the main gate to inhibit cannon-fire and direct assaults. The English nevertheless trained their guns on the fortifications and began to mine beneath them. On 21 October they attempted to storm the fortress but were repelled with boiling water and burning coals and oil, which the women of Orléans prepared for the defenders to shower on their attackers below. Three days later the French withdrew across the bridge into the city, leaving Salisbury in possession of the Tourelles.
It proved to be a hollow victory. For while the English had been attacking the boulevard and fortress, workmen from Orléans had secretly undermined the bridge, waiting only until the garrison had withdrawn before demolishing the final two arches.10 Salisbury was now stranded on the south bank of the Loire with 380 yards of deep and fast-moving water still separating him from his objective. His position was vulnerable, for, with winter approaching, he was not only on the wrong side of the river to receive supplies from the north but also potentially exposed to attack from the dauphin’s heartlands: Bourges and Tours were both only seventy miles away.
Rather than withdraw, Salisbury decided to dig in for a long siege. He set up his headquarters and battery in the Tourelles, training his guns on the city walls, and began to rebuild and extend the boulevard, which would eventually become a massive fortification, 651⁄2 feet long and 85 feet wide, surrounded by a ditch over 26 feet deep. On 27 October 1428, as Salisbury surveyed the city from an upper window of the Tourelles, he was struck by debris from a stone cannon-ball fired from Orléans, which shattered against the window frame and tore away much of his lower face. Mortally wounded, he was carried to Meung, where he died a week later, aged forty.11 Though one has to question his motives and judgement in diverting his forces from Angers to Orléans, his death undeniably removed an able soldier, ‘the most ingenious, expert and fortunate in arms of all English princes and captains’.12
Salisbury’s death left Bedford with the unpalatable choice of either abandoning a siege of which he disapproved or committing more resources to bring it to a successful conclusion. Ten days later he appointed William, earl of Suffolk, to replace Salisbury, issued orders for the siege to continue and called up more troops to reinforce the blockade. Suffolk too was a highly experienced soldier: though only thirty-two, he had served continuously in France since the invasion of 1417 and had fought at both Agincourt and Verneuil. A capable commander rather than a brilliant one, he was about to face his nemesis, an experience that would permanently change the course of his life and career.
Until the arrival of the new forces at the end of December, the siege fell into abeyance and Gaucourt seized the opportunity to strengthen his defences. The twelve watermills between the bridge and easternmost tower which Salisbury’s cannon had targeted and destroyed were replaced by horse-driven mills within the city walls: out of the range of the English guns, they ensured that a regular supply of flour for bread was maintained. Vulnerable gates and towers were blocked up and the extensive suburbs outside the walls were burned and cleared away: at least twenty-three churches and chapels were demolished, together with many fine houses and buildings belonging to wealthy Orléannais. The citizens were drilled in preparation for manning the defences, and weapons, armour, artillery and victuals were solicited from neighbouring towns and stockpiled for a siege. Finally, just before lords Scales and Talbot arrived with their reinforcements, Gaucourt was able to welcome a force of twelve to fourteen hundred soldiers to add to his garrison. These were elite troops, commanded by some of the most potent names among Armagnac captains: the Bastard of Orléans, La Hire and Poton de Xaintrailles. It was the Bastard, as the dauphin’s lieutenant-general, who now took overall charge of the defence of his half-brother’s city.13
Scales and Talbot brought around 2500 soldiers with them, many of whom must have been needed simply to replace Salisbury’s men, whose six-month contracts of service ran out at the end of December. Even with the arrival of fifteen hundred Burgundians there was not therefore necessarily a great increase in available manpower, so that the besieging forces were still unable to surround Orléans completely. Instead, over the next few months, they built a series of bastilles, or small fortresses, at the four points of the compass, each controlling access to one of the city’s main gates. To the south and west, five boulevards (one of them on an island in the Loire) were also erected, to prevent the Armagnacs at Blois from bringing in supplies or reinforcements along the river. Each of these would have been surmounted by wooden palisading to protect a gun emplacement and the men stationed there. The north-eastern corner of the city, perhaps because it had no gate through which the enemy could enter or exit in any number, was left unblockaded.14
The siege dragged on through the winter, marked only by sorties and skirmishes which the chronicler Monstrelet feelingly dismissed as ‘too long and boring’ to describe in detail.15 The intention was clearly to starve the Orléannais into submission rather than take the place by assault, but the length of the supply line from Paris meant that the besiegers also suffered from shortages.
On 12 February 1429 a convoy of several hundred carts and wagons containing flour, herrings and other foodstuffs appropriate for the forthcoming season of Lent was ambushed at Rouvray, on its way from Paris to Orléans. Forewarned of an approaching enemy force, the military escort, commanded by Sir John Fastolf and Simon Morhier, the provost of Paris, quickly drew up the wagons into a circle, hammered in their anti-cavalry stakes across the two entrances and placed the Parisian archers and crossbowmen on one flank and the English archers on the other. The civilians, who numbered almost a thousand, were corralled with the horses in the further side of the circle.
The attackers were led by the count of Clermont, at the head of a relief force from Blois, and a substantial detachment from Orléans which had managed to slip through the English lines. This latter force included the Bastard of Orléans, La Hire, Xaintrailles and the remnant of those Scots who had survived Cravant and Verneuil, led by John Stewart of Darnley. Together they outnumbered the English force by at least two to one.
In the time-dishonoured fashion, the Armagnac captains could not agree among themselves on how to proceed. The Scots wanted to fight on foot, the French on horseback, so in the end they each did as they pleased. The English and Parisian archers, protected by the wagons and their stakes, were free to shoot volley after volley without fear of returning fire. In the resulting confusion the horses of the cavalry, maddened by the barrage of arrows, turned back and ran into their own advancing troops or, pressing on, were disembowelled by the archers’ stakes. The Scots line was broken and then overwhelmed by the English men-at-arms advancing from within their circle of wagons. It was a textbook English victory won by archers and men-at-arms working in concert. More than four hundred Armagnacs were left dead on the field, including Darnley and his son; hundreds more were taken prisoner. The English lost just four men, one of them Simon Morhier’s nephew. Marshal Lafayette had knighted several Armagnacs, including the count of Clermont, before the battle in anticipation of success; the English celebrated their victory by conferring knighthood on those who had distinguished themselves.16
The ‘battle of the Herrings’ as it became known, in reference to the content of the wagons, was the last Armagnac engagement in which the Scots played a significant role. The dauphin had been anxious to renew the ‘auld alliance’, offering to marry his son and heir to James I’s infant daughter and to give James a French county in return for the services of six thousand Scottish troops. Darnley had been sent to Scotland to negotiate the deal in April 1428; it had been confirmed at Chinon in October and the betrothal had formally taken place in December, with James’s envoy, Patrick Ogilvy, standing in for Margaret of Scotland. The bride was to be sent to France the following year, together with the promised army. When Darnley was killed at the battle of the Herrings, the dauphin offered his post as constable of the Scottish army in France to Ogilvy, who had stayed on as a volunteer at the siege of Orléans. James I not only opposed this appointment but also peremptorily ordered Ogilvy back to Scotland: he was drowned at sea on his way home.
James, it seems, was playing a double game, for even as his daughter was betrothed to Louis of France he was negotiating with his own wife’s uncle, Cardinal Beaufort, to marry another of his daughters to Henry VI of England. And the Scottish army never materialised, despite the dauphin’s need for its aid to relieve Orléans.17
Help would come, but it was from a totally unexpected quarter. At the end of February 1429, a mere fortnight after the battle of the Herrings, a seventeen-year-old village girl arrived at Chinon, where the dauphin’s court had taken up residence for the winter. She had travelled three hundred miles from her home in Domrémy, a small village at the most eastern corner of France, on the borders of the duchies of Bar and Lorraine, and her name was Jehanne d’Arc.
The story of ‘Joan of Arc’ is so well known that it is sometimes easy to forget that it is also extraordinary almost beyond belief. Her youth, her sex, her background, all militated against what she became: the companion of princes, inspirational military leader, martyr for faith and country. Her brief but dazzling career is recorded in exhaustive detail, most importantly in her own words, through the records of her trial in 1431, and in those of the people who knew her, through their depositions for the process of nullifying the judgement against her in 1456. Yet because she became, and remains, such an iconic figure, any discussion of her life is inevitably mired in controversy. Were her voices genuine or simply delusional? Was she on a divinely inspired mission or merely the political tool of others? Was she the saviour of France or just an enemy of the English? Some of these questions cannot be answered: they are a matter of personal religious faith or instinctive patriotism.
What ought to be possible, however, is an objective analysis of how and why she behaved as she did and the consequences of that behaviour. There is no doubt whatsoever, for instance, that she absolutely believed that she had been called to restore the dauphin to the throne of France by God, speaking through the saints Michael, Katherine and Margaret, who appeared to her in visions. Whether this was true or not is irrelevant: the fact that she believed it to be so is what matters. In the same way, Henry V’s conviction that God had been on his side and would therefore restore to him his ‘just rights and inheritances’ in France was far more potent in determining his actions than the simple legality or equity of those claims.
A further complicating factor in the records of Jehanne d’Arc’s life is that they are biased to an unusual degree. It was not just that she was illiterate and therefore reliant on others to put her words into writing, but that those recording her words and actions were doing so for entirely partisan reasons: in 1431 to secure her conviction as a heretic and sorceress and in 1456 to reclaim her as the innocent victim of the hated English who had only recently been driven out of France. Both sides had every reason to twist the evidence for their own political and patriotic ends.
Jehanne herself would have cared little for such niceties. She had begun to hear voices when she was thirteen, she later told her interrogators, but they had at first simply told her to be good. So she had gone to church regularly, taken a vow of virginity and conducted herself well, incurring her parents’ wrath on only two occasions, first when she refused to marry a man from Toul and had to defend a court action for breach of promise and secondly when, commanded by her voices, she had left Domrémy to go ‘into France’.18
Though it was not recognised by Jehanne herself, the defining moment in her life seems to have been a Burgundian raid on her village in July 1428, when she and her family were forced to flee to the safety of the nearest walled town, Neufchâteau, and returned to find their church and village burned and their fields devastated.19 The experience left Jehanne with an abiding hatred of the Burgundians and, by association, the English. It seems to have prompted her earliest public action, the first of what would be three visits to Robert de Baudricourt, the Armagnac captain of Vaucouleurs, twelve miles north of Domrémy, from whom she demanded the provision of an escort ‘into France’ so that she could ‘raise the siege positioned around Orléans’.20
Baudricourt, not surprisingly, did not respond kindly to such instructions, telling Jehanne’s uncle that he should take her home and beat her. Yet in both Domrémy and Vaucouleurs she impressed others with her sense of mission. ‘Have you not heard this prophecy,’ she would ask, ‘that France will be destroyed by a woman, and restored by a virgin from the marches of Lorraine?’21 The prophecy was later identified by witnesses at the nullification trial as one made by a female recluse from Avignon, Marie Robine, whose story bears a strong resemblance to that of Jehanne. In 1398 Marie had a vision in which a voice told her to go to the king of France and tell him how to end the schism in the church. At Charles VI’s court she had, in the presence of Master Jean Érault, a future professor of theology, described her visions of the desolation of the kingdom and the calamities that it would have to endure:
in particular she saw a quantity of armour which had been presented to her; she was terror-stricken by this, fearing that she would be forced to accept these suits of armour; then she was told not to be afraid, that she would not have to bear these arms; but that after her, a Pucelle would come who would bear these arms and deliver the kingdom of France from the enemy.22
Érault was later convinced that Jehanne d’Arc was indeed the Pucelle, or Maid, whose coming Marie Robine had prophesied.
The phenomenon of the female visionary and prophetess had arisen in a world where women were denied a formal role within the church hierarchy. The Avignon papacy and the Great Schism had prompted an exponential increase in their numbers, as many pious women, deeply distressed by the chaos and corruption at the heart of the church, sought a direct relationship with God and to bring about reform. The most famous of these were Bridget of Sweden (1303–73) and Catherine of Sienna (1347–80), who were canonisedin 1391 and 1461 respectively, but there were many less well-known figures, such as Ursuline Venerii, a simple girl from Parma who went to Avignon and, in a personal interview with Clement VII, urged him to resign in favour of his Roman rival. Marie Robine (d. 1399) and Jeanne-Marie de Maillé (1331–1414) similarly took their divine revelations directly to the king of France, threatening apocalypse if he did not intervene to end the schism.23
Jehanne therefore had much in common with women such as these, including, in the cases of Marie Robine and Jeanne-Marie de Maillé, a direct connection with the Angevin court. Jeanne-Marie had been godmother to one of the children of Louis I, duke of Anjou, and his wife, Marie. She was also a personal friend of Yolande of Aragon, the wife of Louis II, duke of Anjou. Yolande’s husband had secured Jeanne-Marie’s introduction to the king in 1395 and held long, private consultations with the prophetess. Yolande herself would later testify at Jeanne-Marie’s canonisation process in 1414. Her mother-in-law, the duchess Marie, also knew Marie Robine and was present when she had one of her visions in 1398.24
The significance of the Angevin family interest in religious visionaries is that Jehanne’s home village, Domrémy, was in the duchy of Bar, which belonged to Yolande’s younger son, René d’Anjou, by right of his marriage to Isabella, the daughter of Charles, duke of Lorraine. Robert de Baudricourt was captain of Vaucouleurs on René d’Anjou’s behalf and served him not only as a soldier but also as a councillor, chamberlain and witness to his documents. And it was Charles of Lorraine who, hearing rumours about Jehanne, ordered her to be brought to him at Nancy so that he could question her about his poor health. In her usual forthright manner she told Charles she knew nothing about that but she told him of her mission and offered to pray for him, if he would send René d’Anjou to escort her into France.25
The duke declined, but he did give her his safe-conduct and some money, both of which must have considerably enhanced Jehanne’s reputation. It was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore her and it was perhaps at this point that either the duke or, more probably, Baudricourt, decided to contact the dauphin and inform him of Jehanne’s self-appointed mission. This is suggested by the otherwise inexplicable presence of Colet de Vienne, a royal messenger from the heart of the Dauphiné, in the small military escort that Baudricourt finally assigned to Jehanne. Someone in the dauphin’s innermost circles must have sent Vienne to Vaucouleurs with orders to bring her back to Chinon for personal interrogation. And who more likely than Yolande of Aragon, friend and patron of female visionaries, mother-in-law of the dauphin, and one of the most powerful people at the royal court? She was the natural person to whom Baudricourt would write concerning Jehanne d’Arc.26
The inhabitants of Vaucouleurs rallied round Jehanne to provide her with a suit of male clothing, specially made for her so that she could travel more comfortably and safely through the Burgundian lands barring her way to Chinon. The church considered it sinful to wear the clothing of the opposite sex but Saint Thomas Aquinas had ruled that there were exceptions: ‘this may be done without sin due to some necessity, whether for the purpose of concealing oneself from enemies, or due to a lack of any other clothing’. Jehanne also had a recent respectable precedent in Jacqueline of Hainault, who in 1425 had dressed as a man to escape the duke of Burgundy when he put her under house arrest at Ghent.27
Before she left, Baudricourt gave her a sword and a horse and made those accompanying her swear to guide her well and safely, but his parting words were hardly encouraging: ‘Go, depart and let what may happen, happen.’ The little party, only seven strong, travelled mainly by night to avoid encountering English and Burgundian soldiers on the road and arrived at Chinon eleven days later. That the journey should have been without incident is surprising for, if the Bastard of Orléans is to be believed, rumours even reached him, besieged within Orléans, that ‘a certain young girl, commonly called the Pucelle, had just passed through Gien and claimed to be going to the noble dauphin in order to have the siege of Orléans raised and to take the dauphin to Reims for his coronation.’28
Jehanne’s arrival at Chinon placed the dauphin in a delicate position. If she really had been sent by God, to rebuff her would be sacrilege. On the other hand, if she were delusional or, worse still, a schismatic, a sorceress or a heretic, then he risked being tainted by association. His councillors were divided on the wisdom of allowing him to meet Jehanne but she insisted that her message was for his ears alone and a few days later she was brought into the great hall of Chinon castle, which was packed with courtiers and soldiers, and picked the dauphin out from the crowd. Raoul de Gaucourt later testified that he witnessed this momentous meeting: ‘he saw her when she presented herself before the king’s majesty with great humility and simplicity, like a poor little shepherdess; and he heard her say the following words in this way: “Most illustrious lord dauphin, I come, and am sent, from God to give assistance to you and the kingdom.”’29
Whether the dauphin actually wanted that assistance was debatable. His position in the spring of 1429 was nothing like as calamitous as Jehanne d’Arc’s cheerleaders have claimed. The greater part of southern France was still in his hands; the truces with the duchy and county of Burgundy were holding and offered the prospect of a negotiated peace. Neither of Jehanne’s stated objectives was high on his agenda: the loss of Orléans to the English would be a blow, but not a catastrophe, and a coronation at Reims, though desirable, was not essential. He was, however, temperamentally drawn to those who said they could predict the future. Senior clergymen had already had cause to rebuke him for his reliance on astrology and some years earlier he had received Jehan de Gand, who had prophesied the birth of his heir and the expulsion of the English.30
The dauphin was no fool. Well aware of Jehanne d’Arc’s potential to help or, conversely, to embarrass his cause, he put her to the test. Her virginity was critically important: it equated her with the saints and gave her a moral authority denied to married daughters of Eve. She deliberately drew attention to it by calling herself ‘La Pucelle’, the maid or virgin, perhaps initially because it explicitly identified her as the virgin of the prophecy, though it also asserted her femininity in contrast to her male garb and the male role to which she aspired. A physical examination carried out by Yolande of Aragon and her ladies proved that Jehanne was indeed a virgin; a witness at the nullification trial claimed that she never menstruated.31
More difficult to prove was Jehanne’s orthodoxy, especially given her male clothing and her devotion to the controversial cult of the name of Jesus, which put faith in the miraculous power of repeated invocations of Christ’s name and was endorsed by the anti-pope.32 Over the space of several weeks Jehanne was interrogated a number of times, both at Chinon by clerical members of the dauphin’s council, and at Poitiers by former students and teachers of theology at the University of Paris who had fled the Burgundian coup of 1418. No record exists of any formal doctrinal examination but both groups of ‘theologians’ had good political reasons for endorsing Jehanne. A document allegedly summarising their conclusions was circulated for propaganda purposes by the dauphin, but it was notably cautious in its endorsement. There was no mention of her voices. It confirmed that ‘no evil is to be found in her, only goodness, humility, virginity, devotion, honesty and simplicity’, and suggested that ‘in light of her constancy and her perseverance in her purpose, and her insistent requests to go to Orléans, in order to show the sign of divine aid there’, she should be allowed to do so. In other words, if she successfully raised the siege of Orléans, then her mission was demonstrably divinely inspired: a particularly convenient conclusion if, as seems likely, the document was drawn up after the event.33
Jehanne’s arrival at Chinon could not have been more opportune for the court faction, headed by Yolande of Aragon and her two sons, which was opposed to any accommodation with the duke of Burgundy and wanted decisive military action. Those in favour of reconciliation with Burgundy, led by Georges de la Trémoïlle and Regnault de Chartres, archbishop of Reims, were in the ascendancy and had just begun an attempt to detach the duke from his English alliance. Poton de Xaintrailles had led a delegation, including representatives of the city of Orléans, to the duke with a proposition: if the siege was raised they would deliver the city into his hands and allow him to appoint its governors. Effective control would therefore lie with him, but the city revenues would be divided equally between Charles d’Orléans and Henry VI. Ever keen to acquire more lands, Burgundy accepted, only to be denied his prize by Bedford, who insisted that the Treaty of Troyes had decreed that all conquests were to become crown lands. Burgundy retaliated by withdrawing his troops from the siege.34
Cautious to the last, the dauphin waited to learn that these negotiations had failed and Burgundy had decided to withdraw before unleashing Jehanne on Orléans.35