Post-classical history

Chapter Ninety-Three


The Loss of France

Between 1422 and 1453, Jeanne d’Arc helps the king of France regain his throne and dies for it, the French are victorious in the Hundred Years’ War, and both rival kings lose their wits

HENRY V HAD TAKEN FRANCE; but except for the city of Paris and the lands immediately around it, his claim was a paper one. He had the support of the Duke of Burgundy; but the anti-Burgundian party, the Armagnacs, had allied themselves behind the young disinherited Dauphin. Charles VII had handed over the Dauphin’s right to inherit; but the old king was still alive, and Henry V spent the years after the Battle of Agincourt fighting against the Dauphin’s supporters. By 1422, says Walsingham’s Chronica, “a great part” of his army, “weakened through fighting and lack of food . . . went back to England, with very little intention of returning to France again.”1

Henry remained, but all of his adult life had been spent at war, and the dysentery that stalked every army had become chronic in him. He died suddenly on August 30, 1422, just short of ten years on the throne, just four miles away from Paris.

Back in England, his nine-month-old son was proclaimed Henry VI, “king of England and France,” ruler of England and heir to the throne in Paris. Two months later, the mad Charles VI also died. He was fifty-four; he had spent the last thirty years wrestling with his illness, submitting himself to regular bloodlettings, praying for days on end and making pilgrimages to sacred sites, trying every magical cure that was brought to him. He had been “confined to his bed by illness” for some time, says the chronicler Enguerrand de Monstrelet; and at the time of his death, almost no one was with him. His funeral was magnificent, but “none of the princes of the royal blood of France attended the funeral . . . a melancholy consideration, when it was remembered what great power and prosperity the king had enjoyed during the early part of his reign.”2

But he had long been irrelevant to the country’s fortunes, and even now was important only in his absence. It was unclear who would succeed him: the infant Henry VI, whose claim was supported by the Burgundians and the English, or the Dauphin Charles, whose claim was supported by the Armagnac party. The Dauphin was the youngest child of the dead king; his four older brothers had all been Dauphin before him, all of them dying before their father. He was the last surviving son. In 1422, he was nineteen years old. He had been acting for Charles VI since the age of fourteen, presiding over councils, signing royal orders, and generally exercising the power of a much older man. But his natural competency had been too often frustrated at too young an age. His father had given his title away; he found himself constantly blocked by the English-loyal Parisians; and he was now prone to sink rapidly into a despairing apathy when thwarted. And at all times he kept his own counsel: “Willingly,” wrote his chronicler Chastellain, “would he surround himself with wise and bold men, and let himself be led by them. But, unbeknown to them, he would all the while be planning something new.”3

Both of the candidates were hailed king simultaneously: the baby Henry in Paris, Charles VII in the chapel of Mehun, near Bourges. The English Duke of Bedford was also installed in Paris as Henry VI’s regent. Now civil war began in earnest, with the English Duke of Bedford and the French Duke of Burgundy fighting together to expand their power from Paris and the Loire valley south, and Charles VII and the Armagnacs based at Bourges and fortified by soldiers from rebellious Scotland and French-loyal Castile. “The war began with light skirmishes,” writes the English chronicler Raphael Holinshed, “but after it grew into main battles.”4

The first six years of the civil war saw victory after victory for young Henry’s claim. Baby Henry’s regent, the Duke of Bedford, married the Duke of Burgundy’s sister, making the French-English alliance that much stronger; Charles VII’s army was badly damaged by a horrible loss in July 1423, with three thousand Scottish troops lost and an equal number of French killed or captured. The towns of Coucy, Meulan, Rambouillet, Meung, and Compiègne fell as the English alliance pushed north and south; fortress after fortress surrendered. “The Dauphin was sore appalled,” says Holinshed, “for he was driven out of all the counties that appertained to the crown of France.” He set up his court at Poitiers, and from there did his best to play king. But already he was withdrawing, walling himself away from his supporters, shutting himself into inner rooms alone.5

In October of 1428, the Duke of Bedford laid siege to Orleans. The city held out until the late winter of 1429, but as the citizens began to starve, they sent an embassy offering to surrender to the Duke of Burgundy. The French cause was desperate; should Orleans fall, the rest of the south would follow and Charles VII would have to leave his country, perhaps for Castile. “The English continued their siege,” says Monstrelet, “and king Charles was in very great distress; for the major part of his princes and nobles, perceiving that his affairs were miserably bad, and everything going wrong, had quite abandoned him.”6

He was hovering at Chinon, without a plan and daring to approach no closer, when help arrived in the odd form of Jeanne d’Arc: the seventeen-year-old daughter of a well-to-do farmer, a girl who “dressed like a man,” had worked as a chambermaid, and “had shown much courage in riding horses to water, and in other feats unusual for young girls.”7

Since her early teenaged years in the northeastern village of Domrémy, Jeanne d’Arc had seen visions and heard voices. Her parents had tried to marry her off to a suitable young man; she had refused. It was her mission, she told them, to rescue France from the English, to see the Dauphin crowned as the one rightful king of the French people. In March of 1429, she arrived at Chinon to explain her mission to the would-be king.*

Charles agreed to see her; he had, after all, spent his youth watching his father receive magicians and soothsayers who promised miraculous cures. Eyewitnesses later said that Jeanne d’Arc immediately went to the Dauphin, who was wearing no identifying royal robes and standing with a group of his counselors, indistinguishable from them. This alone would not have swayed Charles into listening to her, but (as she later testified at her trial, her words recorded by her confessor Friar Jean Pasquerel), the message she gave him was impossible to ignore.

When [the king] saw her, he asked Joan her name and she answered: “Gentle dauphin, I am Joan the Maid, and the King of Heaven commands that through me you be anointed and crowned in the city of Reims as a lieutenant of the King of Heaven, who is king of France.” And after further questions asked by the king, Joan said to him anew: “I say to you, on behalf of the Lord, that you are the true heir of France, and a king’s son, and He has sent me to you to lead you to Reims, so that you can receive your coronation and consecration if you wish it.” This being understood, the king said to his courtiers that Joan had told him a certain secret that no one knew or could know except God: and that is why he had great confidence in her.8

He was still young himself, only twenty-six; he must often have felt that his right to rule was indeed a secret, unknown even to the father who had given his crown away.

Jeanne d’Arc’s appeal to the rest of his army is harder to understand. But she was not the first charismatic young leader to whip an army into enthusiasm; she was just the first seventeen-year-old girl to manage that feat, and the phenomenon cannot be completely explained in the absence of what must have been a magnetic and hypnotizing personal presence. “Great numbers of those who heard her had great faith in what she said,” Monstrelet writes, “and believed her inspired, as she declared herself to be.”9

Jeanne remained at Chinon with the king until April, planning the assault on the besiegers of Orleans. On April 27, she sent the Duke of Bedford a message (which he ignored) ordering him to surrender all of his properties and leave France. Then she began to travel towards Orleans at the head of the Dauphin’s army. Two days later, she crossed the Loire.

Her energy and conviction had managed to transmit itself to the knights and captains who had been stalled behind the Dauphin’s withdrawn generalship; and in three quick assaults on the Burgundian-English camps, the royalist army forced the besiegers to break camp and retreat by the end of the first week of May. It was the initial victory in a string of triumphs. Like a football team that has suddenly regained its confidence, the Dauphin’s army followed the “Maid of Orleans” into battle after battle—and fought brilliantly. The English and Burgundian forces fell back and back. The English-held Tournelles surrendered on May 8; Jargeau in June; Troyes and Reims in July; St. Denis in August. With Reims finally back in his hands, the Dauphin mounted an elaborate coronation ceremony in the ancient cathedral, following the tradition established by the Frankish king Clovis centuries before.

Crowned and anointed, Charles now seemed to lose his will to tap into Jeanne d’Arc’s electrical presence. The final step in establishing his lordship over France would be the routing of the English from Paris; but Charles was not enthusiastic about the attack, and Jeanne herself had underestimated the English strength in Paris. She had thought that the people would come over to the side of the rightfully crowned king of France, but there were too many Burgundians and English in the city. After a few initial assaults in late August, she led a major attack against Paris’s walls on September 8, 1429. But, sensing division in their leadership, the French army faltered. Jeanne herself was badly injured, taking a serious arrow wound to the thigh. The royalist army finally retreated. Something had shifted; Jeanne’s injury had turned the angel of the Lord into a vulnerable woman.10

The mysterious momentum of the French army had faded. By early September, Charles VII had decided to retreat across the Loire for the winter. By spring of 1430, he was still sitting, apathetically, at the northern city of Sully.


93.1 The Dauphin against the English

Hoping to recapture the old momentum, Jeanne d’Arc left him and went, with two thousand loyal soldiers, to the city of Compiègne. Compiègne had remained loyal to Charles VII, defying the English; she hoped to use the city as a base for a surprise attack on English troops nearby. Instead, she marched out from its gates and was almost at once driven backwards by the Duke of Burgundy’s men. “During that time,” one of the soldiers who was present later wrote, “the captain [of Compiègne], seeing the great multitude of Burgundians and Englishmen ready to get on the bridge . . . raised the drawbridge of the city and closed the gate. So the Maid was shut outside, and only a few of her men were with her.”11

Later accounts, including Holinshed’s, suggest that the governor of Compiègne was in the pay of the English and that Jeanne had been set up. However it happened, she was forced to surrender, and was taken captive to the Duke of Burgundy’s camp at Marigny. To the English and Burgundians, she was the power that had resurrected Charles VII’s army from the dead; she had to be not just removed from the war but also discredited. So she was treated not as a prisoner of war but as a heretic, accused of “many crimes, sorceries, idolatry, intercourse with demons, and other matters relative to faith and against faith.”12

Charles VII made no effort to ransom her. No contemporary writer makes any mention of his thoughts on the subject; there is nothing but silence. Perhaps he was playing out one of those deep long-term strategies that occasionally surfaced during his reign; or perhaps his coronation had been the only goal all along; or, possibly, he was suffering from a spell of the pathological apathy that occasionally seized him. There is no way to know for sure. But after long and miserable imprisonment, Jeanne was finally put on trial for heresy at Rouen, in Normandy (safely English territory), on February 21, 1431.

By then, Charles was clearly determined to keep far, far away from the taint of witchcraft. But despite the theoretically theological tone of the trial, it was perfectly clear that Jeanne’s condemnation was demanded by military expediency. She was kept in a military prison, given no lawyer for her defense, and denied the company of other women; all of these were blatant violations of Church laws protecting women accused of heresy.13

It was a confusion of procedure caused in large part by Jeanne’s own insistence that God was speaking to her directly, independent of any Church voice or setting (the same heresy that had plagued the institutional church for centuries now), and that He did not approve of the Treaty of Troyes (which had given Henry V the right to claim the crown of France). “Asked whether God hates the English,” the Latin transcript of her trial tells us, “she said she knows nothing about the love or hate that God has for the English, nor what he will do with their souls; but she knows for certain they will be driven from France, except those who stay and die, and that God will grant the French victory over the English.”14

Her prosecutor was Pierre Cauchon, a Paris-trained canon lawyer who was also the Bishop of Beauvais. For three months, she was bombarded with seventy different accusations. The assembled court—131 lawyers, priests, and scholars—decided that twelve of them could be proven. Meanwhile, Jeanne (exhausted, abandoned, poorly fed) sank into an illness that reduced her almost to coma. On Thursday, May 24, she allowed her hand to be guided into marking a cross at the bottom of the accusations: an acknowledgment of guilt, which sentenced her to lifelong imprisonment.

But over the weekend, a spark of resistance flared back up in the battered recesses of her soul. Visited by her judges, early next week, she renounced her confession.

At once, she was condemned as an unrepentant heretic and sentenced to death by burning. The French court had been prepared (and perhaps hoping) for this eventuality all along: the punishment was carried out with immediate efficiency. On May 30, 1431, she was led out to the square of Rouen, where eight hundred armed men had assembled to supervise the execution. It was a hasty execution; the priest assigned to hear her last confession at the stake later wrote that the captain of the troops tried to hurry him through the confession so that he could dismiss his men for dinner.

And impatiently, without any form, or indication or judgment, they sent her to the fire, saying to the master of the work: “Do your job.” And so she was brought and attached to the stake, continuing to praise God and the saints while lamenting devoutly; the last word she cried in a high voice as she died was: “Jesus!”15

JEANNE’S EXECUTION WAS, on the surface, a victory for the English.

It backfired. The sight of Jeanne dying with the name of Christ on her lips had not gone over well with the population of Rouen, and she was more and more widely spoken of as a martyr. The executioner himself later went to a priest, begging for absolution; he was damned, he said, because he had burned a holy woman. Rumors began to circulate that her heart had survived the flames, a miracle in the ashes.16

After the burning at Rouen, the regent Duke of Bedford arranged to bring young Henry VI, now ten years old, to Paris to be crowned at Notre Dame. But the ceremony was greeted with sullen silence, and the people of Paris were so hostile to the young English king that he left after just weeks and went to Normandy instead.

The English position in France was further complicated by a falling-out between the English regent and his longtime ally, the Duke of Burgundy. With the resurgence of Charles VII’s power, the Duke of Burgundy had been contemplating how he could be reconciled to his king. When his sister, the Duke of Bedford’s wife, died in 1432 and Bedford quickly remarried, the two men were pushed even further apart. “The English became very suspicious of the Burgundians,” Monstrelet says, “and guarded as much against them as they had done before against the French . . . and they no longer had confidence in each other.”17

The English had been pushed hard back on their heels, and in the late summer of 1435, Henry VI’s London council agreed to send ambassadors to Arras to meet with two cardinals sent from Rome to help establish a peace between the warring kings. The Duke of Burgundy was also in attendance, as were representatives from a number of French countries; Charles VII sent diplomats of his own. The Duke of Bedford remained away; and it soon became clear that the only useful negotiations were going on between the Duke of Burgundy and Charles VII’s men. The English were “not well pleased . . . for they suspected some treaties were in agitation that would not be for the advantage of their country.” In addition to secret meetings between the French parties, the English ambassadors were continually faced with the French demand that King Henry give up the claim to be king of France, in exchange for sovereignty over certain French territories. By early September, they were fed up. They abandoned the talks and returned to England.18

Just a few days later, the Duke of Bedford, who had been lying ill at Rouen, died. The Duke of Burgundy now concluded that any obligation to the English was at an end. On September 21, he agreed to sign the Treaty of Arras; this did nothing to bring the war with the English to an end, but it reunified the Burgundian party to the crown, bringing an end to the split that had allowed the English to make a play for France in the first place.

Paris itself resisted a little longer; there were die-hard Burgundians in the city who were still unwilling to follow their duke into the French king’s fold; and there was still an English force holding the Bastille. Finally, early in 1436, a French royal army under the command of the Constable of France broke through the gates, surrounded the Bastille, and forced the remaining holdouts to surrender.

Charles VII himself entered the city on November 12, 1437. He had not been in his own capital city for nineteen years, and the date was carefully chosen; it was the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the season of the Messiah’s arrival, a day when kings marched into their own cities in triumph.

France was hardly in a state of victory, though. The devastation of the civil war lingered. Charles VII’s previous royalist soldiers formed robber bands called écorcheurs (the “skinners,” or “flayers”) and stormed the countryside; it took the Constable a long time to bring them under control.

Charles VII created an additional disturbance by reorganizing the army. With the cooperation of the Estates-General at Orleans, he decreed that from now on, a permanent, government-controlled army would defend France. All officers were under the direction of the king, and no French duke could have soldiers of his own without the permission of the king. It was the end of private armies, a strike against one of the most treasured privileges of the French aristocracy.

Some of the dukes resisted. They joined forces with the écorcheurs and tried to mount an armed rebellion. But the government army, under the direction of the Constable of France, squelched the resistance before it could flower: the first demonstration of the new French military might.20

By this point, the English had lost almost all their French territories. In 1444, young Henry VI—now twenty–three and in control of his own government—agreed to a temporary cease-fire; he also consented to marry Charles VII’s niece Margaret, a wedding that took place in 1445.

But the union did not save the last English territories. In June of 1449, Charles VII abruptly accused the English of failing to abide by the terms of the cease-fire, and of attempting to incite the French Duke of Brittany, Charles’s nephew, to rebellion against the crown of France. In a series of campaigns between July 31, 1449, and August 22, 1451, the French army reconquered almost every fortress, town, and strategic position in both Normandy and Gascony, the latter English-held for the last three hundred years. Henry VI promised to send reinforcements, but he was preoccupied with domestic matters (a series of court intrigues and plots against him) and never managed to get the ships launched. Finally, the only English territory remaining in France was now a tiny strip encompassing Calais and Guînes. “Thus were the Englishmen clearly displaced,” Holinshed mourns, “and lost the possession of all the countries, towns, castles, and places within the realm of France . . . continually losing and nothing gaining.”21

Not all of Normandy was pleased with Charles VII’s rule, especially since he now imposed new taxes to pay for all the fighting. In October of 1452, citizens of Bordeaux (“already wearied of the French servitude”) allowed an English army of five thousand to land there under the command of John Talbot, son of the Earl of Shrewsbury. The French army arrived with cannon—the first time it had made use of cannon in a siege—and cut the English invaders to ribbons. Talbot died in the fighting, along with over a thousand of his men; the rest of the English fled. It was the dying gasp of the Hundred Years’ War.22

CHARLES VII HIMSELF was showing odd signs of debility: an illness that eventually made his hands too shaky to sign official papers. This illness, referred to only obliquely by his courtiers, began sometime late in 1453. He was forced to wear dressings on one leg to absorb a constant discharge of pus; he ordered special stockings for his bad foot, and his meals were carefully ground up because of a badly ulcerated mouth. He may have been suffering from syphilis; he may have inherited some chronic genetic disorder from his mad father.

His sister’s son was suffering as well. In August of the same year, Henry VI had suddenly lost his wits. “He fell by a sudden and accidental fright into such a weak state of health that, for a whole year and a half, he had neither natural sense nor reason capable of carrying on the government,” says the contemporary Giles Chronicle; and another account adds that the king of England “suddenly was taken and smitten with a frenzy.” It was the same symptom that had first struck his grandfather Charles VI in the summer of 1392; and it soon became clear that Henry had inherited the madness of the French royal family. He did not regain awareness for over a year. Even when he again recognized his wife and children, he remained unbalanced: hearing voices, falling into catatonia, seeing visions, retreating into an imaginary world. The illness would haunt the royal family for generations. This, it turned out, was the longest-lasting prize that Henry V had won for the English at Agincourt.23


*Only a few details of Jeanne d’Arc’s brief and extraordinary life can be covered here. The classic works by Régine Pernoud, Joan of Arc: Her Story, trans. Jeremy deQuesnay Adams (St. Martin’s Press, 1998); Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses trans. Edward Hyams (Macdonald, 1964); and The Retrial of Joan of Arc, trans. J. M. Cohen (Harcourt, Brace, 1955), provide many more details, along with contemporary accounts and a full examination of the charges against her. A detailed and somewhat sympathetic look at Charles VII’s actions can be found in Malcolm G. A. Vale,Charles VII (University of California Press, 1974).

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