We must not exaggerate the military importance of Joan of Arc; probably Dunois and La Hire would have saved Orléans without her; her tactics of reckless assault won some battles and lost others; and England was feeling the cost of a Hundred Years’ War. In 1435 Philip of Burgundy, England’s ally, tired of the struggle and made a separate peace with France. His defection weakened the hold of the English on the conquered cities of the south; one by one these expelled their alien garrisons. In 1436 Paris itself, for seventeen years a captive, drove out the British, and Charles VII at last ruled in his capital.
Strange to tell, he who had for so long been a do-nothing shadow of a king, had learned by this time to govern—to choose competent ministers, to reorganize the army, to discipline turbulent barons, to do whatever was needed to make his country free. What had wrought this transformation? The inspiration of Joan had begun it, but how weak he still seemed when he raised not a finger to save her! His remarkable mother-in-law, Yolande of Anjou, had helped him with wise counsel, had encouraged him to receive and support the Maid. Now—if we may trust tradition—she gave her son-in-law the mistress who for ten years ruled the heart of the King.
Agnès Sorel was the daughter of a squire in Touraine. Orphaned in childhood, she had been brought up to good manners by Isabelle, Duchess of Lorraine. Isabelle took her, then twenty-three, to visit the court in Chinon (1432) in the year after Joan’s death. Snared in the girl’s chestnut tresses, and in love with her laughter, Charles marked her out as his own. Yolande found her tractable, hoped to use her in influencing the King, and persuaded Marie, her daughter, to accept this latest of her husband’s mistresses.69Agnès remained till death faithful in this infidelity, and a later king, Francis I, after much experience in such matters, praised the “Lady of Beauty” as having served France better than any cloistered nun. Charles “relished wisdom from such lips”; he allowed Agnès to shame him out of indolence and cowardice into industry and resolution. He gathered about him able men like Constable Richemont, who led his armies, and Jacques Cœur, who restored the finances of the state, and Jean Bureau, whose artillery brought recalcitrant nobles to heel and sent the English scurrying to Calais.
Jacques Cœur was a condottiere of commerce; a man of no pedigree and little schooling, who, however, could count well; a Frenchman who dared to compete successfully with Venetians, Genoese, and Catalans in trade with the Moslem East. He owned and equipped seven merchant vessels, manned them by hiring convicts and snatching vagrants from the streets, and sailed his ships under the flag of the Mother of God. He amassed the greatest fortune of his time in France, some 27,000,000 francs, when a franc was worth some five dollars in the emaciated currency of our day. In 1436 Charles gave him charge of the mint, soon afterward of the revenues and expenditures of the government. A States-General of 1439, enthusiastically supporting Charles’s resolve to drive the English from French soil, empowered the King, by a famous succession of ordonnances (1443–47), to take the whole taille of France—i.e., all taxes hitherto paid by tenants to their feudal lords; the government’s revenue now rose to 1,800,000 crowns ($45,000,000?) a year. From that time onward the French monarchy, unlike the English, was independent of the Estates’ “power of the purse,” and could resist the growth of a middle-class democracy. This system of national taxation provided the funds for the victory of France over England; but as the King could raise the rate of assessment, it became a major tool of royal oppression, and shared in causing the Revolution of 1789. Jacques Cœur played a leading role in these fiscal developments, earning the admiration of many and the hatred of a powerful few. In 1451 he was arrested on a charge—never proved—of hiring agents to poison Agnès Sorel. He was condemned and banished, and all his property was confiscated to the state—an elegant method of exploitation by proxy. He fled to Rome, where he was made admiral of a papal fleet sent to the relief of Rhodes. He was taken ill at Chios, and died there in 1456, aged sixty-one.
Meanwhile Charles VII, guided by Cœur, had established an honest coinage, rebuilt the shattered villages, promoted industry and commerce, and restored the economic vitality of France. He compelled the disbandment of private companies of soldiers, and gathered these into his service to form the first standing army in Europe (1439). He decreed that in every parish some virile citizen, chosen by his fellows, should be freed from all taxation, should arm himself, practice the use of weapons, and be ready at any moment to join his like in the military service of the King. It was these francs-tireurs, or free bowmen, who drove the English from France.
By 1449 Charles was prepared to break the truce that had been signed in 1444. The English were surprised and shocked. They were weakened by internal quarrels, and found their fading empire in France relatively as expensive to maintain in the fifteenth century as India in the twentieth; in 1427 France cost England £68,000, brought her £57,000. The British fought bravely but not wisely; they relied too long on archers and stakes, and the tactics that had stopped the French cavalry at Crécy and Poitiers proved helpless at Formigny (1450) against the cannon of Bureau. In 1449 the English evacuated most of Normandy; in 1451 they abandoned its capital, Rouen. In 1453 great Talbot himself was defeated and killed at Castillon; Bordeaux surrendered; all Guienne was French again; the English kept only Calais. On October 19, 1453, the two nations signed the peace that ended the Hundred Years’ War.