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Charles VII owed his crown to bold commanders and to Joan of Arc

Posted in Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Religion, War on Friday, 20 December 2013

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This edited article about the Hundred Years War first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Burning of Joan of Arc, picture, image, illustration

Joan of Arc is burned at the stake, by Pat Nicolle

The worthy merchant of Paris was wedged tight in the huge crowd. He stared up resentfully at the friar who harangued them from a platform high above. Lunging menacingly over his listeners, wild eyes burning fiercely in his gaunt face, the dark-robed preacher warned them that the evils which they endured would not pass until they had put aside worldly things and turned to God. The merchant snorted; as if repentance could bring down the price of corn. As long as Paris had to supply the troops around Orleans, prices would remain high. Still, the English must soon starve the city into submission and then there would be peace. It was 1429, and, like many people in England and France, the merchant was weary of war.

In 1422 Charles VI of France and Henry V of England had died within months of each other. In accordance with the terms of the Treaty of Troyes, Henry’s infant son Henry VI had been proclaimed king of England and of France. But no one had been deceived. The new dual monarchy would last only as long as England could retain her alliance with the powerful dukes of Burgundy. In effect the old kingdom of France had been divided into three: the Duke of Bedford ruled as Henry’s regent in the north and west; Duke Philip the Good governed the lands of Burgundy in the east; while Charles, the Dauphin who had been disinherited at Troyes, had formed an illegal government at Bourges and drew support from the old Armagnac faction and its homeland, the south.

Charles was a young man of unattractive appearance and unimpressive demeanour who had been content for some years to stay sulkily but passibly under the thumb of his greedy favourite George de la Tremouille. Nevertheless his rule was unlawful and his court a rallying-point for those who wished to break away from English rule. He had to be crushed. Thus in the summer of 1428 the Duke of Bedford had despatched an army to strike at the heart of the Dauphin’s territory; in October, the siege of Orleans had begun.

The city of Orleans, commanded by the Count of Dunois, was well-protected; not only had it a thick wall and five great gates, but mounted on the ramparts were 71 guns of assorted shapes and sizes. The River Loire flowed along the southern side of the city, crossed by a bridge of 19 arches, the southernmost of which was surmounted by a fort called Les Tourelles.

Thomas, Earl of Salisbury, commander of the English army, set briskly to work. He bombarded Les Tourelles and his miners burrowed deep beneath its walls. In two days the French evacuated the fort and the English were well-placed to assault the town. Later, however, as Salisbury peered out from the fort, planning his attack, a cannon-ball fired accidentally by the son of a French gunner, struck the window and a flying iron bar tore away the earl’s face. He died within a week. It was a grievous blow for the English.

The new English commanders, the Earl of Suffolk and John, Lord Talbot, next built a ring of forts around the city to cut off supplies. The inhabitants of Orleans began to starve, and when a desperate attempt to ambush a food convoy destined for the English failed, it seemed that the city must surrender.

At the same time, however, a 17-year-old peasant girl called Joan was making her way to the Dauphin’s court from her home in Domremy, convinced that she could help to drive the English out of her country. Joan of Arc captivated the impressionable Dauphin and, despite the opposition of la Tremouille, he sent a fresh army, under the Duke of Alencon, to the relief of Orleans. Joan, in full armour, accompanied it, having dictated a letter to the English ruler which began: “King of England and you, Duke of Bedford . . . render to the maid who is sent by God . . . the keys of all the good towns you have taken and violated in France.”

The relieving army approached Orleans and, favoured by the wind, men and supplies slipped down the Loire in barges and entered the city A few days later the French defenders, wisely led by Dunois and Alencon, succeeded, despite Joan’s interference, in driving the English from their ring of forts and from Les Tourelles itself. The fight for the fort on the bridge was a bitter one; the English garrison defended it desperately until their powder ran out and cannon-balls trickled out of the muzzles of their guns. They surrendered at last and soon afterwards the siege was abandoned.

The relief of Orleans marked a turning-point in French fortunes. The victory was due less to Joan of Arc’s miraculous intuition than to the generalship of the French commanders. Indeed, Joan’s fame was still limited largely to the region of the Loire and the English neither knew nor cared much about her. Nevertheless Joan had achieved something: she had raised the morale of the Dauphin’s side. The Dauphin began a triumphant march northwards during which many lords flocked to his support. He was crowned Charles VII in Rheims cathedral in July and the settlement of Troyes was thus finally overthrown. The new king began gradually to display a new confidence and decisiveness and although he failed immediately to follow up his initial success, the scene was set for a resurgence of French power.

But Joan did not live to see it. In 1431 she was captured and taken to Rouen where she was tried in secrecy without an advocate to defend her against a succession of fresh interrogators. Her forthright common sense was of no avail in the subtle academic debates in which she became enmeshed. She was soon bewildered by a quickly alternating series of threats and false promises and was finally baffled into admitting her guilt and signing a confession. When she realised what she had done, she repented – and was condemned to be burned to death.

The worthy merchant of Paris, on business in Rouen, was wedged tight in the huge crowd. He watched the spectacle avidly. Was this not the witch who had spoken with devils that called themselves St. Michael and St. Margaret? The witch who had dressed in men’s clothes and cut her hair short? Who had shamelessly defied the learned doctors of the University of Paris when they sought to remonstrate with her? And, worst of all, who had tried to capture the city of Paris itself? The merchant shivered when he thought what damage he might have suffered had the city fathers not withstood the Dauphin’s army. True, this maid had revived the spirit of opposition to the English; but would that bring down the price of corn? It would just prolong the war. The merchant stared balefully at the pathetic figure writhing at the stake and kept on staring until the swirling smoke hid her from view.

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