Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

Joan of Arc
Chapter 6

The next day, the 29th of May, Cauchon summoned a large number of prelates and doctors—forty-two in all—to meet him at the archiepiscopal chapel, where he recounted to them all the circumstances of his late interview with the prisoner. He told them how he had found Joan, in spite of her abjuration, again dressed as a man, and of her having reaffirmed all that she had so recently abjured regarding her voices and apparitions. When he had concluded, Cauchon took the opinion of those around him. Without one dissentient voice, they all affirmed that she should be handed over to the secular arm—i.e., burnt. The deliberation had not taken long, and, after thanking the company, the Bishop made out a formal order by which Joan was summoned at eight o'clock on the next morning to the old market-place, there to be delivered into the hands of the civil judge, and by him to be handed over to those of the executioners. 'We conclude,' said the Bishop, as he dismissed the meeting, 'that Joan shall be treated as a relapsed heretic, for this appears to us right and proper in the sight of law and justice.'

Early in the morning of Wednesday, the 30th of May—a date which should be held sacred in France as that of the martyrdom of her who through all time must be her country's greatest glory—two priests (Martin Ladvenu and John Toutmouillé) were sent by the Bishop's order to the prisoner to tell her that her last day on earth had come. Toutmouillé describes, with some pathos, the manner in which Joan of Arc received the terrible news. She, he tells us, at first wept bitterly, and said she would sooner be beheaded seven times than suffer such a death as that of burning. She recalled with pain the promises made by Cauchon to her—that after she had abjured she would be taken to the prison of the Church, for then, she said, this cruel death would not have befallen her; and she called upon God, 'the omnipotent and just Judge,' to take pity on her. While she thus lamented her fate, Cauchon entered the dungeon. Turning on him, she cried: 'I lay my death at your door; for had you placed me in the prison of the Church, this cruel death would not have befallen me, and I make you responsible to God for my death.'

Then, turning away from the Bishop, she appeared more calm, and, addressing one of the judges who had followed Cauchon into the prison, exclaimed: 'Master Peter'—the man's name was Peter Maurice—'where shall I be this evening?'

'Have you not good hope in God's mercy?' he answered.

'Yes,' said Joan; 'and by His grace I hope to be in Paradise.'

Cauchon and the others having left her alone with Martin Ladvenu, she made her confession to him, and when that was finished she begged that the Sacrament might be administered to her. Without Cauchon's leave Ladvenu did not dare to obtain this supreme consolation for the martyr.

He despatched a messenger to the Bishop, who, after consulting with some of the clergy, gave his permission. In the meanwhile, the city had heard that the day of the Maid of Orleans' execution had come, and the people crowded about the neighbourhood of the castle. In spite of the English soldiery, the people did not conceal their grief and dismay on learning that the heroine was so soon to perish. The Eucharist was brought into the prison, but without the usual accompaniments of candle, stole, and surplice. These 'maimed rights' raised the indignation of the priest Martin, and he indignantly refused to proceed with the ceremony until lights and stole were brought. During the time in which Joan of Arc was receiving the Sacrament, those persons who had been admitted within the castle recited the litany for the departing soul, and never had the mournful invocation for the dying, the supplication of the solemn chant, 'Kyrie eleison! Christe eleison!' been raised from a more tragic place, or on a more heart-stirring occasion. Outside, in the street, and all around the prison gates, knelt the weeping people, fervently praying, and earnestly invoking the Almighty and His saints for her who was about to lay down her young life in their behalf. 'Christ have pity! Saint Margaret have pity! Pray for her, all ye saints, archangels, and blessed martyrs, pray for her! Saints and angels intercede for her! From Thy wrath, good Lord, deliver her! O, Lord God, save her! Have mercy on her, we beseech thee, good Lord!' The poor, helpless people had nothing but their prayers to give Joan of Arc; but these we may believe were not unavailing. There are few more pathetic events recorded in history than this weeping, helpless, praying crowd, holding their lighted candles, and kneeling, on the pavement, beneath the prison walls of the old fortress.

It was about nine o'clock when they placed on Joan of Arc a long white shirt, such as criminals wore at their execution, and on her head they set a mitre-shaped paper cap, on which the words 'heretic, relapsed, apostate, idolatress,' were written.

This was the head-dress which the victims of the Inquisition carried, and in which they were burnt.

When Joan of Arc was taken forth to die, there mounted with her on to the cart the two priests, Martin Ladvenu and Isambard. Eight hundred English troops lined the road by which the death-cart and its load passed from the castle to the old market-place; they were armed with staves and with axes. These soldiers, as the victim passed, fell into line behind the cart, and kept off with their staves the crowd, eager to show its sympathy for Joan.

Suddenly, when as yet the procession had gone but a short distance, a man pushed his way through the crowd and the soldiers, and threw himself at Joan of Arc's feet, imploring her forgiveness.

It was the priest Loiseleur, Joan's confessor and betrayer. Roughly thrown back by the men-at-arms, Loiseleur disappeared in the throng, but not before Joan had bestowed her pardon on him. On the old market-place—where now not a single building remains which witnessed the tragedy of that day—was a wide space, surrounded by picturesquely gabled and high-roofed houses, like those which still survive in the old Norman capital, and within a short distance of the churches of Saint Sauveur and Saint Michel, now destroyed. Two tribunes had been raised on either side of the square. Between this, placed high on a stage of masonry, stood the pile. A placard affixed in front of this pile bore a long inscription, beginning thus: 'Joan, known as the Maid' ... and ending with a cumbrous list of epithets, among which 'apostate' and 'schismatic' were the least abusive.

Pending the final act, a monk named Nicolas Midi was ordered by Cauchon to address the prisoner and those present. The Bishop's words have come down to us.

'For your admonition,' he began, 'and for the edification of all those present, a learned discourse will now be delivered by the distinguished doctor, Nicolas Midi'; and the distinguished doctor then took for his text, from the first Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians, twelfth chapter, the words: 'If one member suffereth,' etc.

The gist of his sermon was to prove that it was necessary, in order to prevent others falling into sin, that the guilty member should be removed. Strange, indeed, how often the words of Scripture have been used and mis-used in excuse, or in vindication, of the most atrocious cruelties by so-called Christians, professing to preach the religion of mercy, of forgiveness, and of humanity.

The sermon being finished, the preacher addressed Joan of Arc in the following words: 'Joan, the Church, wishing to prevent infection, casts you from her. She no longer protects you. Depart in peace!'

Then Cauchon took up his text, which was to the effect that Joan, 'by renouncing her abjuration, had returned as the dog of Scripture did to its vomit; for which cause we, Peter, by the divine mercy Bishop of Beauvais, and brother John Lemaître, vicar of the very reverend doctor John Graverent Inquisitor of the heretical evil [especially retained by Cauchon in the present case], have by a just judgment, declared you, Joan, commonly styled the Maid, fallen back into diverse errors and crimes, schismatical, idolatrous, and guilty of other sins in great number. For these causes we declare you fallen back into your former errors, and by the sentence of excommunication under which you were already found guilty we declare you to be heretical and relapsed; and we declare that you, as a decayed member, to prevent the contagion from spreading to others, are cast from the unity of the Church, and given over to the secular power. We reject, we cast you off, and we abandon you, praying that, beyond death and the mutilation of your limbs, the Church treats you with moderation.'

These last words were the usual formula used by the Inquisition when its victims were about to be committed to the flames. Joan of Arc meanwhile was praying fervently; and when Cauchon had finished speaking, she humbly begged those around her to pray for her. Her tears, her fervour, and her submission, overcame the feelings even of her judges.

Winchester was seen to weep, and a great wave of pity swept over the immense confused crowd; for her enemies as well as her friends among the people were all more or less under its influence.

In her prayers the heroine implored the Divine Mercy to pardon those from whom she had suffered so much. 'Pray for me in your churches,' she said to the priests—to those priests and to the Church that had deserted and condemned her; for in spite of all that she had endured at the hands of those Churchmen, Joan of Arc remained to the end as fervent and loyal a Churchwoman as she had been throughout her life.

One thing she missed. Turning to Massieu, she asked him if he had a cross. He had not, nor could one be found; but an Englishman broke his stave into two pieces, and these tied together formed a rude cross.

This cross Joan took, and placed it against her heart; but she still wanted a consecrated cross to be held before her while struggling in the flames, and this was at length obtained by the priest Isambard, who fetched one from the adjacent Church of Saint Sauveur.

Meanwhile the English soldiers began to grumble at the length of these preparations: 'Do they expect us to dine here?' they growled.

As soon as the cross from the church had been placed in her hands, she devoutly kissed it, invoking God and her saints to assist her in this the heaviest of her needs, when all human help had abandoned her.

The heroine appears to have been then seized by the English sergeants-at-arms, and given by them into the charge of the executioners; and while she was being led to the foot of the high pile of clay and wood—the instrument of her martyrdom—the men-at-arms surrounded and roughly handled their prisoner. The scene had become so poignant that many of the judges left their tribune, unable to endure the sight of that white-robed and helpless figure in the midst of the brutal soldiers hounding her on to her death. It must indeed have been a ghastly spectacle, even for men accustomed to scenes of savage brutality and cruelty. At length she was delivered from her tormentors, and, preceded by the executioner, she mounted the ladder, and was bound round the body by a chain attached to the stake.

The good priest, Isambard, closely followed her, and stood immediately beneath her, with the cross held and raised towards Joan, who but once removed her gaze from off it.

'Keep it,' she said to Isambard, 'keep it always before my eyes, till death.'

Then she took a last look around her—a last look on a world which had been so harsh and cruel a world to her, poor victim of all the powers of evil on this earth! She looked but once on the surging crowd beneath, at the old timbered houses of the town, filled from basement to high-peaked roof, with thousands of its citizens. 'O, Rouen, Rouen!' she cried, 'must I die here? I have great fear lest you will suffer for my death.' And with that she put away from her all earthly things, and gave herself up to Heaven. In the interval the executioners had lighted the lower portion of the pile of wood, and the fire, fed by the pitch-covered fagots, mounted rapidly.

Joan of Arc gave a cry of terror, and called aloud for 'Water, holy water!' The body had for an instant conquered the spirit—but it was only for an instant.

At that moment Cauchon had the inconceivable and apparently devil-driven curiosity to approach the martyr, hoping, perhaps, that in the first terror at seeing the fire springing up to her, Joan of Arc would let fall some words of reproach against her King or her saints.

'Joan,' he cried through the crackling of the flames, 'I have come to exhort you for the last time.'

'I die through you,' she said, as she had said once before, and then she was allowed to die in peace, so far as Cauchon and his Church were concerned. For her all earthly things were now over. Till the last sign of life expired the eye-witnesses who have given us the fullest account of her last moments—the priests Isambard and Massieu—declared that she continued to call on her God and on her saints. Frequently through the blinding smoke and the fierce rush of flame her face looked that of a blessed saint uplifted and radiant.

With one loud cry of 'Jesus!' her head fell on her breast.

Thus came Joan of Arc to her glorious end.

There is a tradition that when the ashes of the martyr Maid were gathered to be cast into the Seine, the heart was found unconsumed—Cor cordium!

Many other traditions are related regarding her death, but none with much certainty. The executioner is said to have come later on that day to Isambard in an agony of grief. He confessed himself, and told Isambard that he felt Heaven would never pardon him for the part he had taken in killing a saint. The poor fellow's responsibility for her death was really not greater than that of the fagots and the flames which had destroyed her life. On Cauchon and his gang of judges, lay and clerical—on the University of Paris and the Catholic Church—on Winchester and the English, noble and simple, who had sold and bought the glorious Maid, the crime of her martyrdom will ever rest, and surely no other crime but one in the world's history can be paralleled with it.


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