Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

Jeanne d'Arc: Her Life and Death Chapter 9

COMPIEGNE.
1430.

By this time France was once more all in flames: the English and Burgundians had entered and then abandoned Paris–Duke Philip cynically leaving that city, which he had promised to give up to Charles, to its own protection, in order to look after his more pressing personal concerns: while Bedford spread fire and flame about the adjacent country, retaking with much slaughter many of the towns which had opened their gates to the King. Thus while Charles gave no attention to anything beyond the Loire, and kept his chief champion there, as it were, on the leash, permitting no return to the most important field of operations, almost all that had been gained was again lost upon the banks of the Seine. This was the state of affairs when Jeanne returned humbled and sad from the abandoned siege of La Charité. Her enemy’s counsels had triumphed all round and this was the result. Individual fightings of no particular account and under no efficient organisation were taking place day by day; here a town stood out heroically, there another yielded to the foreign arms; the population were thrown back into universal misery, the spring fields trampled under foot, the villages burned, every evil of war in full operation, invasion aggravated by faction, the English always aided by one side of France against the other, and neither peace nor security anywhere.

This was the aspect of affairs on one side. On the other appeared a still less satisfactory scene. Charles amusing himself, his counsellors, La Tremoïlle, and the Archbishop of Rheims carrying on fictitious negotiations with Burgundy and playing with the Maid who was in their power, sending her out to make a show and cast a spell, then dragging her back at the end of their shameful chain: while the Court, the King and Queen, and all their flattering attendants gilded that chain and tried to make her forget by fine clothes and caresses, at once her mission and her despair. They were not ungrateful, no: let us do them justice, for they might well have added this to the number of their sins: mantles of cloth of gold, patents of nobility were at her command, had these been what she wanted. The only personal wrong they did to Jeanne was to set up against her a sort of opposition, another enchantress and visionary who had “voices” and apparitions too, and who was admitted to all the councils and gave her advice in contradiction of the Maid, a certain Catherine de la Rochelle, who was ready to say anything that was put into her mouth, but who had done nothing to prove any mission for France or from God. We have little light however upon the state of affairs in those castles, which one after another were the abode of the Court during this disastrous winter. They were safe enough on the other side of the Loire in the fat country where the vines still flourished and the young corn grew. Now and then a band of armed men was sent forth to succour a fighting town in the suffering and struggling Île-de-France, always under the conflicting orders of those intrigants and courtiers: but within the Court, all was gay; “never man,” as rough La Hire had said on an earlier occasion, “lost his kingdom more gaily or with better grace" than did Charles. Where was La Hire? Where was Dunois?–there is no appearance of these champions anywhere. Alençon had returned to his province. Only La Tremoïlle and the Archbishop holding all the strings in their hands, upsetting all military plans, disgusting every chief, met and talked and carried on their busy intrigues, and played their Sibyl–/Sibylle de carrefour, says one of the historians indignantly –against the Maid, who, all discouraged and downcast, fretted by caresses, sick of inactivity, dragged out the uneasy days in an uncongenial world; but Jeanne has left no record of the sensations with which she saw these days pass, eating her heart out, gazing over that rapid river, on the other side of which all the devils were unchained and every result of her brief revolution was being lost.

At length however the impatience and despair were more than she could bear; the Court was then at Sully and the spring had begun with its longer days and more passable roads. Without a word to anyone the Maid left the castle. The war had rolled towards these princely walls, as near as Melun, which was threatened by the English. A little band of intimate servants and associates, her two brothers, and a few faithful followers, were with her. So far as we know she never saw Charles or his courtiers again. They arrived at Melun in time to witness and to take part in the repulse of the English, and it was here that a communication was make to Jeanne by her saints of which afterwards there was frequent mention. Little had been said of them during her dark time of inaction, and their tone was no longer as of old. It was on the side of the moat of Melun where probably she was superintending some necessary work to strengthen the fortifications or to put them in better order for defence, that this message reached her. The “Voices" which so often had urged her to victory and engaged the faith of heaven for her success, had now a word to say, secret and personal to herself. It was that she should be taken prisoner; and the date was fixed, before the St. Jean. It was the middle of April when this communication was made and the Feast of St. Jean, as everybody knows, is in the end of June; two months only to work in, to strike another blow for France. The “Voices” bade her not to fear, that God would sustain her. But it would be impossible not to be startled by such a sudden intimation in the midst of her reviving plans. The Maid made one terrified prayer, that God would let her die when she was taken, not subject her to long imprisonment; her heart prophetically sprang to a sudden consciousness of the most likely, most terrible end that lay before her, for she had been often enough threatened with the stake and the fire to know what to expect. But the saintly voices made no reply. They bade her be strong and of good courage: is not that the all-sustaining, all-delusive message for every martyr? It was the will of God, and His support and sustaining power, which we often take to mean deliverance, but which is not always so–were promised. She asked where this terrible thing was to happen, but received no reply. Natural and simple as she was, she confessed afterwards that had she known she was to be taken on any certain day, she would not have gone out to meet the catastrophe unless she had been forced by evident duty to do so. But this was not revealed to her. “Before the St. Jean!” It must almost have seemed a guarantee that until that time or near it she was safe. She would seem to have said nothing immediately of this vision to sadden those about her.

In the meantime, however, there were other adventures in store for her. From Melun to Lagny was no long journey, but it was through a country full of enemies in which she must have been subject to attack at every corner of every road or field. And she had not been long in the latter place which is said to have had a garrison of Scots, when news came of the passing of a band of Burgundians, a troop of raiders indeed, ravaging the country, taking advantage of the war to rob and lay waste churches, villages, and the growing fields wherever they passed. The troops was led by Franquet d’Arras, a famous “pillard," robber of God and man. Jeanne set out to encounter this bandit with a party of some four hundred men, and various noble companions, among whom, however, we find no name familiar in her previous career, a certain Hugh Kennedy, a Scot, who is to be met with in various records of fighting, being one of the most notable among them. Franquet’s band fought vigorously but were cut to pieces, and the leader was taken prisoner. When this man was brought back to Lagny, a prisoner to be ransomed, and whom Jeanne desired to exchange for one of her own side, the law laid claim to him as a criminal. He was a prisoner of war: what was it the Maid’s duty to do? The question is hotly debated by the historians and it was brought against her at her trial. He was a murderer, a robber, the scourge of the country–especially to the poor whom Jeanne protected and cared for everywhere, was he pitiless and cruel. She gave him up to justice, and he was tried, condemned, and beheaded. If it was wrong from a military point of view, it was her only error, and shows how little there was with which to reproach her.

In Lagny other things passed of a more private nature. Every day and all day long her “voices” repeated their message in her ears. “Before the St. Jean.” She repeated it to some of her closest comrades but left herself no time to dwell upon it. Still worse than the giving up of Franquet was the supposed resuscitation of a child, born dead, which its parents implored her to pray for that it might live again to be baptised. She explained the story to her judges afterwards. It was the habit of the time, nay, we believe continues to this day in some primitive places, to lay the dead infant on the altar in such a case, in hope of a miracle. “It is true,” said Jeanne, “that the maidens of the town were all assembled in the church praying God to restore life that it might be baptised. It is also true that I went and prayed with them. The child opened its eyes, yawned three or four times, was christened and died. This is all I know.” The miracle is not one that will find much credit nowadays. But the devout custom was at least simple and intelligible enough, though it afforded an excellent occasion to attribute witchcraft to the one among those maidens who was not of Lagny but of God.

From Lagny Jeanne went on to various other places in danger, or which wanted encouragement and help. She made two or three hurried visits to Compiègne, which was threatened by both parties of the enemy; at one time raising the siege of Choicy, near Compiègne, in company with the Archbishop of Rheims, a strange brother in arms. On another of her visits to Compiègne there is said to have occurred an incident which, if true, reveals to us with very sad reality the trouble that overshadowed the Maid. She had gone to early mass in the Church of St. Jacques, and communicated, as was her custom. It must have been near Easter–perhaps the occasion of the first communion of some of the children who are so often referred to, among whom she loved to worship. She had retired behind a pillar on which she leaned as she stood, and a number of people, among whom were many children, drew near after the service to gaze at her. Jeanne’s heart was full, and she had no one near to whom she could open it and relieve her soul. As she stood against the pillar her trouble burst forth. “Dear friends and children,” she said, “I have to tell you that I have been sold and betrayed, and will soon be given up to death. I beg of you to pray for me; for soon I shall no longer have any power to serve the King and the kingdom.” These words were told to the writer who records them, in the year 1498, by two very old men who had heard them, being children at the time. The scene was one to dwell in a child’s recollection, and, if true, it throws a melancholy light upon the thoughts that filled the mind of Jeanne, though her actions may have seemed as energetic and her impulses as strong as in her best days.

At last the news came speeding through the country that Compiègne was being invested on all sides. It had been the headquarters of Charles and had received him with acclamations, and therefore the alarm of the townsfolk for the retribution awaiting them, should they fall into the hands of the enemy, was great; it was besides a very important position. Jeanne was at Crespy en Valois when this news reached her. She set out immediately (May 22, 1430) to carry aid to the garrison: “F’irai voir mes bons amis de Compiègne,” she said. The words are on the base of her statue which now stands in the Place of that town. Something of her early impetuosity was in this impulse, and no apparent dread of any fatality. She rode all night at the head of her party, and arrived before the dawn, a May morning, the 23d, still a month from the fatal “St. Jean.” Though the prophecy was always in her ears, she must have felt that whole month still before her, with a sensation of almost greater safety because the dangerous moment was fixed. The town received her with joy, and no doubt the satisfaction and relief which hailed her and her reinforcements gave additional fervour to the Maid, and drove out of her mind for a moment the fatal knowledge which oppressed it. There is some difficulty in understanding the events of this day, but the lucid narrative of Quicherat, which we shall now quote, gives a very vivid picture of it. Jeanne had timed her arrival so early in the morning, probably with the intention of keeping the adversaries in their camps unaware of so important an addition to the garrison, in order that she might surprise them by the sortie she had determined upon; but no doubt the news had leaked forth somehow, if through no other means, by the sudden ringing of the bells and sounds of joy from the city. She paid her usual visits to the churches, and noted and made all her arrangements for the sortie with her usual care, occupying the long summer day in these preparations. And it was not till five o’clock in the evening that everything was complete, and she sallied forth. We hear nothing of the state of the town, or of any suspicion existing at the time as to the governor Flavy who was afterwards believed by some to be the man who sold and betrayed her. It is a question debated warmly like all these questions. He was a man of bad reputation, but there is no evidence that he was a traitor. The incidents are all natural enough, and seem to indicate clearly the mere fortune of war upon which no man can calculate. We add from Quicherat the description of the field and what took place there:

“Compiègne is situated on the left bank of the Oise. On the other side extends a great meadow, nearly a mile broad, at the end of which the rising ground of Picardy rises suddenly like a wall, shutting in the horizon. The meadow is so low and so subject to floods that it is crossed by an ancient foot of the low hills. Three village churches mark the extent of the landscape visible from the walls of Compiègne; Margny (sometimes spelt Marigny) at the end of the road; Clairoix three quarters of a league higher up, at the confluence of the two rivers, the Aronde and the Oise, close to the spot where another tributary, the Aisne, also flows into the Oise; and Venette a mile and a half lower down. The Burgundians had one camp at Margny, another at Clairoix; the headquarters of the English were at Venette. As for the inhabitants of Compiègne, their first defence facing the enemy was one of those redoubts or towers which the chronicles of the fifteenth century called a boulevard. It was placed at the end of the bridge and commanded the road.

“The plan of the Maid was to make a sortie towards the evening, to attack Margny and afterwards Clairoix, and then at the opening of the Aronde valley to meet the Duke of Burgundy and his forces who were lodged there, and who would naturally come to the aid of his other troops when attacked. She took no thought for the English, having already carefully arranged with Flavy how they should be prevented from cutting off her retreat. The governor provided against any chance of this by arming the boulevard strongly with archers to drive off any advancing force, and also by keeping ready on the Oise a number of covered boats to receive the foot-soldiers in case of a retrograde movement.

“The action began well: the garrison of Margny yielded in the twinkling of an eye. That of Clairoix rushing to the support of their brothers in arms was repulsed, then in its turn repulsed the French; and three times this alternative of advance and retreat took place on the flat ground of the meadow without serious injury to either party. This gave time to the English to take part in the fray;[1] though thanks to the precautions of Flavy all they could do was to swell the ranks of the Burgundians. But unfortunately the rear of the Maid’s army was struck with the possibility that a diversion might be attempted from behind, and their retreat cut off. A panic seized them; they broke their ranks, turned back and fled, some to the boats, some to the barrier of the boulevard. The English witnessing this flight rushed after them, secure now on the side of Compiègne, where the archers no longer ventured to shoot lest they should kill the fugitives instead of the enemies. They (the English) thus got possession of the raised road, and pushed on so hotly after the fugitives that their horses’ heads touched the backs of the crowd. It thus became necessary for the safety of the town to close the gates until the barrier of the boulevard should be set up again.”

 

These disastrous accidents had taken place while Jeanne, charging in front with her companions and body-guard, remained quite unaware of any misfortune. She would hear no call to retreat, even when her companions were roused to the dangers of their position. “Forward, they are ours!” was all her cry. As at St. Pierre-le-Moutier she was ready to defeat the Burgundian army alone. At length the others perceiving something of what had happened seized her bridle and forced her to retire. She was of herself too remarkable a figure to be concealed amid the group of armed men who rode with her, encircling her, defending the rear of the flying party. Over her armour she wore a crimson tunic, or according to some authorities a short cloak, of gorgeous material embroidered with gold, and though by this time the twilight must have afforded a partial shelter, yet the knowledge that she was there gave keenness to every eye. Behind, the scattered Burgundians had rallied and begun to pursue, while the armour and spears of the English glittered in front between the little party and the barrier which was blocked by a terrified crowd of fugitives. Even then a party of horsemen might have cut their way through; but at the moment when Jeanne and her followers drew near, the barrier was sharply closed and the wild, confused, and fighting crowd, treading each other down, struggling for life, were forced back upon the English lances. Thus the retreating band riding hard along the raised road, in order and unbroken, found the path suddenly barred by the forces of the enemy, the fugitives of their own army, and the closed gates of the town.

An attempt was then made by the Maid and her companions to turn towards the western gate where there still might have been a chance of safety; but by this time the smaller figure among all those steel-clad men, and the waving mantle, must have been distinguished through the dusk and the dust. There was a wild rush of combat and confusion, and in a moment she was surrounded, seized, her horse and her person, notwithstanding all resistance. With cries of “Rendez vous,” and many an evil name, fierce faces and threatening weapons closed round her. One of her assailants–a Burgundian knight, a Picard archer, the accounts differ–caught her by her mantle and dragged her from her horse; no Englishman let us be thankful, though no doubt all were equally eager and ready. Into the midst of that shouting mass of men, in the blinding cloud of dust, in the darkening of the night, the Maid of France disappeared for one terrible moment, and was lost to view. And then, and not till then, came a clamour of bells into the night, and all the steeples of Compiègne trembled with the call to arms, a sally to save the deliverer. Was it treachery? Was it only a perception, too late, of the danger? There are not wanting voices to say that a prompt sally might have saved Jeanne, and that it was quite within the power of the Governor and city had they chosen. Who can answer so dreadful a suggestion? it is too much shame to human nature to believe it. Perhaps within Compiègne as without, they were too slow to perceive the supreme moment, too much overwhelmed to snatch any chance of rescue till it was too late.

Happily we have no light upon the tumult around the prisoner, the ugly triumph, the shouts and exultation of the captors who had seized the sorceress at last; nor upon the thoughts of Jeanne, with her threatened doom fulfilled and unknown horrors before her, upon which imagination must have thrown the most dreadful light, however strongly her courage was sustained by the promise of succour from on high. She had not been sent upon this mission as of old. No heavenly voice had said to her “Go and deliver Compiègne.” She had undertaken that warfare on her own charges with no promise to encourage her, only the certainty of being overthrown “before the St. Jean.” But the St. Jean was still far off, a long month of summer days between her and that moment of fate! So far as we can see Jeanne showed no unseemly weakness in this dark hour. One account tells us that she held her sword high over her head declaring that it was given by a higher than any who could claim its surrender there. But she neither struggled nor wept. Not a word against her constancy and courage could any one, then or after, find to say. The Burgundian chronicler tells us one thing, the French another. “The Maid, easily recognised by her costume of crimson and by the standard which she carried in her hand, alone continued to defend herself,” says one; but that we are sure could not have been the case as long as d’Aulon, who accompanied her, was still able to keep on his horse. “She yielded and gave her parole to Lyonnel, bâtard de Wandomme,” says another; but Jeanne herself declares that she gave her faith to no one, reserving to herself the right to escape if she could. In that dark evening scene nothing is clear except the fact that the Maid was taken, to the exultation and delight of her captors and to the terror and grief of the unhappy town, vainly screaming with all its bells to arms,–and with its sons and champions by hundreds dying under the English lances and in the dark waves of the Oise.

The archer or whoever it was who secured this prize, took Jeanne back, along the bloody road with its relics of the fight, to Margny, the Burgundian camp, where the leaders crowded together to see so important a prisoner. “Thither came soon after,” says Monstrelet, “the Duke of Burgundy from his camp of Coudon, and there assembled the English, the said Duke and those of the other camps in great numbers, making, one with the other, great cries and rejoicings on the taking of the Maid: whom the said Duke went to see in the lodging where she was and spoke some words to her which I cannot call to mind, though I was there present; after which the said Duke and the others withdrew for the night, leaving the Maid in the keeping of Messer John of Luxembourg"–to whom she had been immediately sold by her first captor. The same night, Philip, this noble Duke and Prince of France, wrote a letter to convey the blessed information:

“The great news of this capture should be spread everywhere and brought to the knowledge of all, that they may see the error of those who could believe and lend themselves to the pretensions of such a woman. We write this in the hope of giving you joy, comfort, and consolation, and that you may thank God our Creator. Pray that it may be His holy will to be more and more favourable to the enterprises of our royal master and to the restoration of his sway over all his good and faithful subjects.”

This royal master was Henry VI. of England, the baby king, doomed already to expiate sins that were not his, by the saddest life and reign. The French historians whimsically but perhaps not unnaturally, have the air of putting down this baseness on Philip’s part, and on that of his contemporaries in general, to the score of the English, which is hard measure, seeing that the treachery of a Frenchman could in no way be attributed to the other nation of which he was the natural enemy, or at least, antagonist. Very naturally the subsequent proceedings in all their horror and cruelty are equally put down to the English account, although Frenchmen took, exulted over as a prisoner, tried and condemned as an enemy of God and the Church, the spotless creature who was France incarnate, the very embodiment of her country in all that was purest and noblest. We shall see with what spontaneous zeal all France, except her own small party, set to work to accomplish this noble office.

Almost before one could draw breath the University of Paris claimed her as a proper victim for the Inquisition. Compiègne made no sally for her deliverance; Charles, no attempt to ransom her. From end to end of France not a finger was lifted for her rescue; the women wept over her, the poor people still crowded around the prisoner wherever seen, but the France of every public document, of every practical power, the living nation, when it did not utter cries of hatred, kept silence. We in England have over and over again acknowledged with shame our guilty part in her murder; but still to this day the Frenchman tries to shield his under cover of the English influence and terror. He cannot deny La Tremoïlle, nor Cauchon, nor the University, nor the learned doctors who did the deed; individually he is ready to give them all up to the everlasting fires which one cannot but hope are kept alive for some people in spite of all modern benevolences; but he skilfully turns back to the English as a moving cause of everything. Nothing can be more untrue. The English were not better than the French, but they had the excuse at least of being the enemy. France saved by a happy chance her blanches mains from the actual blood of the pure and spotless Maid; but with exultation she prepared the victim for the stake, sent her thither, played with her like a cat with a mouse and condemned her to the fire. This is not to free us from our share: but it is the height of hypocrisy to lay the blood of Jeanne, entirely to our door.

Thus Jeanne’s inspiration proved itself over again in blood and tears; it had been proved already on battle-field and city wall, with loud trumpets of joy and victory. But the “voices” had spoken again, sounding another strain; not always of glory–it is not the way of God; but of prison, downfall, distress. “Be not astonished at it," they said to her; “God will be with you.” From day to day they had spoken in the same strain, with no joyful commands to go forth and conquer, but the one refrain: “Before the St. Jean.” Perhaps there was a certain relief in her mind at first when the blow fell and the prophecy was accomplished. All she had to do now was to suffer, not to be surprised, to trust in God that He would support her. To Jeanne, no doubt, in the confidence and inexperience of her youth, that meant that God would deliver her. And so He did; but not as she expected. The sunshine of her life was over, and now the long shadow, the bitter storm was to come.

Nothing could be more remarkable than the response of France in general to this extraordinary event. In Paris there were bonfires lighted to show their joy, the Te Deum was sung at Notre Dame. At the Court Charles and his counsellors amused themselves with another prophet, a shepherd from the hills who was to rival Jeanne’s best achievements, but never did so. Only the towns which she had delivered had still a tender thought for Jeanne. At Tours the entire population appeared in the streets with bare feet, singing the Miserere in penance and affliction. Orleans and Blois made public prayers for her safety. Rheims, in which there was much independent interest in Jeanne and her truth, had to be specially soothed by a letter from the Archbishop, in which he made out with great cleverness that it was the fault of Jeanne alone that she was taken. “She did nothing but by her own will, without obeying the commandments of God,” he says; “she would hear no counsel, but followed her own pleasure,"; and it is in this letter that we hear of the shepherd lad who was to replace Jeanne, and that it was his opinion or revelation that God had suffered the Maid to be taken because of her growing pride, because she loved fine clothes, and preferred her own will to any guidance. We do not know whether this contented the city of Rheims; similar reasoning however seems to have silenced France. Nobody uttered a protest, nor struck a blow; the mournful procession of Tours, where she had been first known in the outset of her career, the prayers of Orleans which she had delivered, are the only exceptions we know of. Otherwise there was lifted in France neither voice nor hand to avert her doom.

[1] The three camps must have formed a sort of irregular triangle. The English at Venette being only half a mile from the gates of Compiègne.

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