Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

Joan of Arc Chapter 16


IN the early spring of 1429 the eyes of all Frenchmen were turned toward Orleans. A year later, the eyes of all men in the north of France were turned toward Compiègne. This was a walled town of five thousand inhabitants or thereabouts, on the left or eastern bank of the Oise, about forty miles northeast of Paris. Its political history had been a varied one: twice it had been held by the Burgundians, and twice had it been taken from them by the Armagnacs; then it had fallen to the English in consequence of the treaty of Troyes, and in August, 1429, it had opened its gates to Charles VII. This had been done quite willingly, and the loyalty of its citizens was real and reasonably unanimous. At Compiègne had been held the conferences with the Burgundian ambassadors, and the truce was signed there. After receiving Charles, the people of Compiègne seem to have desired as captain of their town one William of Flavy, an experienced soldier and a man neither better nor much worse than other French captains of the day. La Trémoille, however, wished the captaincy for himself, and got it as a matter of course, making Flavy his lieutenant by way of compromise.

The duke of Burgundy, having obtained a truce advantageous to himself and injurious to the royal cause, naturally wished some further consideration for his complaisance, and asked that Compiègne be delivered to him for the term of the truce. La Trémoille and the royal council made no objection, and the inhabitants were ordered to open their gates to the duke's soldiers. This they flatly refused to do. Flavy, who was unwilling to offend either the citizens or the favorite, posted off with his excuses to the chancellor. That functionary came to Compiègne, summoned the people, and told them that it was necessary to give up the city to the duke in order to win him from his English allies. The citizens replied that they were the king's humble subjects, willing to obey him and to serve him with their bodies and their goods, but that they would not trust themselves to the duke, on account of the hatred he had conceived against them for their loyalty. The chancellor repeated his orders, but they were not heeded; nothing could shake the resolution of the citizens, who preferred to destroy themselves, their wives and children, rather than give themselves up to the duke's mercy.

The miserable inefficiency of the royal government sometimes served a good purpose. As the citizens were obstinate, a new bargain was made with Philip, and Pont Ste. Maxence was handed over to him instead of Compiègne. The duke did not intend to give up the place, however; during the truce he could not act, but as soon as it was over he was determined to take the town.

Early in January he celebrated at Bruges with great magnificence his marriage with his third wife, Isabella of Portugal. He was probably the richest prince of his time, and his court was the most splendid. On this occasion, after weeks of feasting, he founded with great pomp the Order of the Golden Fleece, which remains to this day in the gift of his descendants, the emperor of Austria and the king of Spain. There were tournaments, also, at Bruges and at Arras, wherein French and Burgundian knights contended in all courtesy, who were soon to be fighting in earnest. The coming of Lent put a stop to the gayety, but Philip utilized the season of fasting by sending out summons to his subjects to meet him by Easter at Péronne. In this stronghold, some fifty miles north of Compiègne, called Péronne the Maid, because it never had been captured, he spent his Easter with the duchess. As soon as the festival was over, and the truce was at an end, he took the field with a large force.

The city of Compiègne is situated on the east bank of the Oise, just south of the place where the Aisne enters that river from the east and the Aronde from the west. To reach Compiègne from Péronne, which is west of the Oise and north of the Aronde, it was necessary for the duke either to cross the Aronde and the Oise, or else to cross the Oise and the Aisne. The fortress of Gournay stood at the passage of the Aronde, while that of Choisy covered the only passage of the Aisne within many miles of Compiègne.

Philip arrived before Gournay at the end of April. There was no French army to take the field for its relief, and the captain of Gournay feared an assault, -- very possibly with good reason. Being summoned by Philip to surrender, he agreed to abandon the place on August 1, unless sooner relieved, and in the mean time to keep strict neutrality. By this treaty Philip secured his communications between Péronne and the camp which he intended to establish in front of Compiègne, on the west bank of the Oise.

Between him and the city, however, flowed the Oise, an unfordable river. It might be crossed, indeed, at Pont Ste. Maxence, fifteen miles downstream, and by way of that place Philip might march against Compiègne; but the position of an army encamped about Compiègne, which could communicate with its base of supplies only by Pont Ste. Maxence, would be greatly exposed. A French army marching along the north bank of the Aisne, and protected by that river from the Burgundians besieging Compiègne, might safely reach Choisy, and, crossing the bridge which Choisy commanded, might fall suddenly upon the Burgundian rear. To make the blockade of Compiègne safe and complete, it was necessary first to reduce Choisy.

As soon as he had come to terms with the captain of Gournay, the duke ascended the west bank of the Oise to Noyon, a town faithful to his party. His plans had been slightly disarranged by the sudden inroad of Robert of Commercy, the freebooting lord who used to take blackmail of the peasants of Domremy. At this moment Robert called himself loyal to Charles, but his raid accomplished nothing, save, perhaps, easier terms for the garrison of Gournay. He retreated, even before Philip could get at him, leaving the duke free to carry out his operations against Choisy. After a few days spent in Noyon, about May 8 Philip sat down before the place.

Though the duke had been arming openly for a month or more, yet, until the siege of Choisy was formed, the French seem to have done nothing; perhaps they had been trusting in Charles's often repeated promises to lead an army to their assistance. The actual appearance of the duke within two or three miles of Compiègne at last aroused them, and about May 13 the principal French leaders met hastily in the city, being accompanied by a considerable body of soldiers, though their force was greatly inferior to that of the duke. The archbishop was present, La Trémoille's delegate in the government of northern France. With him were the count of Vendôme, who had the military command; Pothon of Saintrailles, a distinguished French soldier, who had lately won honor in tilting with the Burgundians at Arras; and many other captains. Joan heard at Lagny of the movements of Duke Philip, and came at once to Compiègne. She was honorably received by the city, and was offered presents of wine like those given to Vendôme and the archbishop.

A council of war was held. To march directly against the duke was out of the question, partly by reason of his superior numbers, and partly because his camp was protected from the French by the Aisne. They could not pass this river at Choisy itself, because the bridge either had been broken down, or else was commanded by the duke's forces. There was no other bridge over the ing of May 23. There is no evidence that she was at Compiègne in 1430 before May 13, and this is unlikely, for the capture of Franquet, near Lagny, was not earlier than the last days of April, and his trial lasted a fortnight, which would bring his execution not before May 10, up to which date Joan was probably in Lagny. She left Lagny, therefore, not earlier than May 10, reached Compiègne May 13, left it May 18, passed the night of the 18th near Soissons, and on the afternoon of the 22d left Crépy for Compiègne. The battle of Pont l'Evêque was fought before the surrender of Choisy. The surrender could not well have taken place before May 18, on which day the French army marched on Soissons; nor after May 20, since by May 23 the siege of Compiègne was already formed. Philip lay before Choisy on May 10, and was there about ten days. Probably Choisy surrendered as soon as Louis of Flavy learned the failure of the French army to pass the Aisne at Soissons.

The battle of Pont l'Evêque, therefore, was fought before May 20. But it is impossible that Joan, who spent the morning of May 19 before Soissons, should have returned to Compiègne that very day, should have fought the battle of Pont l'Evêque on the following morning, should have left the city at once, just as Choisy was surrendering, and within two days, on May 22, should have again started for the place. Plainly the battle was fought during Joan's first stay in Compiègne, May 13-18, probably on the morning of the 16th or of the 17th. In supposing that the battle was fought after the failure before Soissons, May 18-19, M. Sorel has not studied the dates with sufficient care, as is shown by the fact that, while he supposes the battle was fought to succor Choisy, he yet puts the surrender of that place May 15, three days before the march on Soissons, and, therefore, according to him, four or five days before the battle. The anonymous chronicler in Rev. Hist., t. xix. 82, puts the surrender of Choisy on May 16, and the formation of the siege of Compiègne May 21, but the first date is too early. The same writer puts Joan's capture on May 27.

Aisne nearer than Soissons, some twenty miles up the river and east of Compiègne. In one respect, however, Philip's position was weak. To get at Choisy, he had had to pass the Oise at Pont l'Evêque, near Noyon, and the bridge of Pont l'Evêque was his only means of communication with his base of supplies and with the country which he owned. If the French could seize and hold this bridge, he would be compelled either to fight his way across an unfordable river, or to make a long retreat through a hostile country. The duke had recognized the importance of the bridge, and had intrusted its defense to two English captains, Montgomery and Stewart.

The bridge was chosen by the French as the object of their attack. By night, with about two thousand soldiers, Joan and Saintrailles crossed the Oise at Compiègne, and rode up its west bank, being protected by the river from the duke's army, which lay on the east bank about Choisy. Just before sunrise the French reached Pont l'Evêque and fell upon the English. These were completely surprised, as most of them were asleep and the sentries had kept poor watch; before they could form in order, the French were among them, striking right and left, and killing many. Despite the confusion, however, the English fought bravely, and held out until Burgundian reinforcements were brought up from Noyon. The contest was then more equal, and the French, seeing that their unexpected attack had not secured them a victory, and fearing lest the duke should send further reinforcements from his camp before Choisy, drew off in good order. Their enemies had no intention of following them, and the Anglo-Burgundian losses were fully equal to the French; but the object of the expedition had failed completely, and the battle of Pont l'Evêque was therefore a decided French defeat. Joan had done what she could for French success, but the expedition had been none of her planning. As the time of her captivity drew near, she followed more closely the advice of the captains, fearing, probably, to make herself responsible for some disaster to the French arms.

The battle of Pont l'Evêque was fought on May 16 or 17. For more than a week Choisy had been battered by the duke's artillery; every day its condition became more critical, and the French planned a second attempt to relieve it. They had failed to turn Philip's position by the west; they would now do so by the east. On May 18 the army left Compiègne with the archbishop, Joan, Vendôme, and the rest, and marched up the south bank of the Aisne to Soissons, where was the nearest bridge over that river. Once across the Aisne, they could attack Philip, or, if they preferred, could threaten his communications without actually fighting a battle. Before nightfall they reached Soissons. The officer in command of the place, being bribed by the duke, who was negotiating for its surrender, refused to admit the army, and persuaded the citizens to join in his resistance by telling them that the French wished to quarter a garrison upon the place. This was a calamity greatly dreaded by all respectable cities, and the deluded people, though loyal after their fashion, took sides with the captain. After much parleying, he was induced to admit the archbishop, Joan, and Vendôme with a very small escort, but the army had to sleep in the fields. When morning came, the captain of Soissons was still obdurate; the army could not cross the Aisne except by entering the city, and its leaders were at their wits' end. Vendôme, as the king's lieutenant, had the right, of course, to enter Soissons and to command its captain, but in the feeble misgovernment of Charles VII. no one obeyed his superior officer unless obedience was agreeable or enforced, and even the duke of Burgundy sometimes found the gates of his cities closed against his troops.

In spite of the obstinacy of Soissons, it is probable that the French army would have found some way across the Aisne if it had been heartily set upon the attempt. Except Joan, however, no one cared much about fighting; the defeat at Pont l'Evêque and the disaffection of the men of Soissons had cooled the ardor of the captains. These left the north of France, accordingly, "because they found no means of living off the country, and also because they were great lords, accompanied by many men at arms, who could not live in the said city of Compiègne, inasmuch as its citizens daily expected it to be besieged." The demoralization of the French was nearly as great, indeed, as it had been fourteen months before. If the men of Compiègne could save themselves, so much the better; if the city was taken, so much the worse. The French leaders went to Senlis, a comparatively safe place, leaving Compiègne to its fate. Some weeks after their departure from Soissons its treacherous captain sold his charge to the duke of Burgundy, and the citizens found out how they had been deceived.

The final abandonment of the attempt to relieve Choisy made its further defense quite hopeless. On May 19 or 20 its captain, Louis of Flavy, stole out of the fortress by night and managed to get across the Aisne to his brother, the captain of Compiègne. The rest of the garrison, thereupon, were glad to come to terms with the Burgundians, and to evacuate the place on being allowed a safe retreat. Philip immediately demolished the castle even to its foundation, and then recrossed the Oise. In order to carry on the siege of Compiègne, he determined first to intrench himself on the west bank of the river opposite the town, and then, after having established a bridge across the Oise and transported a part of his forces to the east bank, to complete a close blockade of the place on every side. It will be remembered that the siege of Orleans was begun in like manner from the south bank of the Loire by an attack on the Tourelles.

The duke divided his force into four parts. The Picards were encamped at Margny, directly opposite Compiègne and only half a mile away; the Burgundians and Flemings were at Clairoix, some two miles above Compiègne, under the command of John of Luxemburg, count of Ligny; the English were at Venette, a mile or two south of the town, under the command of that Montgomery who had fought at Pont l'Evêque. The duke himself fixed his headquarters at Coudun on the Aronde, some four miles from Compiègne, where he could cover his communications. He established these positions on May 21 or 22, and made ready for the siege.

After the failure at Soissons, Joan did not go with the archbishop to Senlis, but stopped with her own small following of soldiers at Crépy. Here she heard of the fall of Choisy and of the movements of Philip. The famous captains, like Saintrailles, whose advice of late she had been ready to follow, were no longer with her, but only one Bartholomew Barrette, a soldier of no great reputation, who had fought against Franquet at Lagny, and had about two hundred men in his command. Forced to choose between following the captains in their abandonment of Compiègne and acting upon her own impulse to fight for France wherever help was most needed, Joan did not hesitate, though St. John's Day was only a month away. They told her that she had too few soldiers even to force her way through the Anglo-Burgundian outposts, some of which were already skirmishing on the east bank of the Oise. "By my staff, there are enough of us," she said. "I will go to see my good friends at Compiègne." She left Crépy at midnight, and reached Compiègne in safety at the dawn of Tuesday, May 23.

An hour or two afterwards she went to mass in the church of St. James, close by her lodgings. Having confessed and communicated, she took her stand by one of the pillars of the church, and spoke to some of the townspeople, and to a crowd of children who gathered about her. Those who heard her used often to tell the story, until, more than sixty years afterwards, it was taken down from the lips of two old men who, as youths, had been in the church that morning. "My children and dear friends," so Joan said, according to the old men's story, "I tell you that they have sold and betrayed me, and that soon I shall be delivered to death. I beg you to pray God for me, since I shall never more have power to serve the king or the kingdom of France." Probably the story was colored by the happenings of that afternoon. Joan's presentiment could hardly have been as definite as the story represents it, or she would not have gone out to battle on that very day. Beyond doubt, however, she was sad and disheartened, more for the cowardice of the captains who had abandoned Compiègne than by reason of her approaching capture.

From dawn until the middle of the afternoon Joan stayed in Compiègne, preparing for the sally which she was to lead. With whom originated the idea of a sally we do not know; it was not directly counseled by Joan's voices, and after the event Flavy had no desire to claim the plan as his own. The Anglo-Burgundians were many times as numerous as the garrison, and the chance of a successful battle was small. Perhaps only a reconnoissance was intended, perhaps Flavy wished to try the miraculous power of his new ally; it may be that Joan had a return of confidence at sight of the enemy, or it may be that the nervous strain which even she must have felt made her impatient to strike, and settle her fate. She was a girl but little over eighteen years old.

As has been said, the besieging forces on the opposite bank of the Oise lay in three camps, the Picards directly in front of the town, the Flemings and Burgundians above, the English below. The French intended to strike at the centre; what they meant to do afterwards is not clear. Flavy ordered archers and men with arblasts to take post in high-sided boats, ranged along the east bank of the river under the walls of the town. These men, with the gunners on the walls, were to open fire upon the besiegers if they came within range, and to protect the retreat of Joan's force in case of its repulse.

At four o'clock or thereabouts in the long May afternoon, Joan led out her small party. Richly dressed as usual, wearing a cloak of cloth of gold over her armor, she rode her dappled gray horse through the gate of the city and across the bridge, and issued from the boulevard or fortification which covered its western end. With her were about five hundred soldiers. Half a mile back from the river was the Picard camp at Margny.

At once she led her men to the attack. The Picardswere taken by surprise, many of them having no time to seize their arms. Thrown into confusion, some fled, others tried to rally.

The noise of the battle, as well as the arrival of fugitives, soon gave the alarm to the other divisions of the besiegers. At the time of the French sortie, John of Luxemburg, who commanded the Flemings at Clairoix, was riding with a small escort to visit the Picard commander. Seeing his peril, he dashed to his assistance, sending back at the same time to Clairoix for reinforcements.

At Margny the fighting went on with varying fortune, though the French seem to have had the best of it. Doubtless they were outnumbered, even by the Picards alone, but they made up for their weakness in numbers by the suddenness of their attack. It was otherwise when Luxemburg's soldiers from Clairoix fell upon their right flank. The odds became at least five to one against Joan; she charged upon the Burgundians and again beat them back, but the battle was going against her, and before long she was forced toward the boulevard. Her men began to waver and to cry out for retreat. Joan bade them be quiet, and told them that, if they would, they might still win a victory. Whether she believed what she said, or spoke only to encourage the troops, it is hard to tell.

While she was struggling against the Picards and Luxemburg, the English came up from their camp at Venette and fell upon her left flank and rear. The odds against her were become at least eight to one, and, worse than the hostile odds, the advancing English were mingled with the retreating French, so that the latter found it hard to get back into the boulevard, while Flavy's archers dared not shoot into the confused mass of friends and foes. Not unnaturally the French were panicstricken, and saved themselves as best they might. Almost alone Joan minded her duty. "Passing the nature of woman," wrote a Burgundian chronicler, "she did great feats, and took great pains to save her company from loss, staying behind them like a captain, and like the bravest of the troop."

As the fleeing soldiers rushed through the entrance of the boulevard, with the English pressing upon them, Flavy took fright for the safety of the town. If once the English should enter the boulevard, it would be hard to keep them from crossing the bridge into Compiègne itself. Though he could see Joan and a few others fighting in the rear of the fugitives, in order to cover their escape, he dared not wait for their arrival, but ordered the barriers to be closed. Perhaps he hoped that those who were shut out could swim across the river to the boats stationed along the city's walls. Some did so, but for a man in armor such an escape was hardly possible, especially as the English and Burgundians were crowding close. Seeing the barriers shut, and that she could not retreat directly into Compiègne, Joan tried to cut her way through the Burgundians into the meadows that bordered the Oise above the boulevard. Even had she succeeded, she could hardly have got clear of her enemies; but she did not succeed. They surrounded her, some snatching at her clothes, others grasping her bridle-rein, each one demanding that she should give up herself to him. "I have given myself to another than you, and to him I will keep my oath," she answered. A Picard archer, attached to the troop of the bastard of Wandonne, seized her by her brilliant cloak and dragged her from her horse. Her squire Aulon and one or two others tried to remount her, but they themselves were at once taken prisoners, while she was seized by Wandonne himself, anxious for such a booty.

As soon as she was captured, Joan was taken to the Picard camp at Margny, from which she had been beaten off only an hour before. The battle was quite over; it would have been folly for Flavy to sally out and try to retake Joan, while the Burgundians were not ready to follow up their victory by an attempt to storm Com- piègne. All rushed, to Margny after their prisoner, shouting in three or four languages their delight at their unexpected success. Philip had just come up with the reserves, too late for the battle, just in time to hear the good news. He went at once to the place where Joan was held, and spoke with her for a little time; what they said, the Burgundian chronicler was too excited to remember, or, as is quite probable, did not care to repeat. Joan's capture ended her uncertainty, and relaxed the strain which her nerves had borne for more than a month. Its first effect may well have been to raise her spirits, and very likely she spoke to the duke as she had written to him a year before, words which the men of his party would prefer to forget. It was growing dark, and Philip soon went back to Coudun. Joan was given in charge to John of Luxemburg, and was taken to his quarters for the night.

Since the capture of St. Pierre le Moustier, Joan's warfare had been a failure, broken only by the defeat of Franquet at Lagny. Her voices had spoken to her almost daily, and she had been as instant as ever in obeying them; indeed, her obedience had been more costly when they foretold her capture than when they spoke only of immediate success. But her voices did not make her a great general. Her theory of war, as far as she had a theory, consisted only in seeking out the enemy, wherever he might be, fighting him as soon as found, and never admitting the possibility of defeat. She had not expected that God would dispense with the need of human assistance. "If God wills to free the French, there is no need of the soldiers you ask for," one of her examiners had told her at Poitiers. "In God's name," she had answered, "the men at arms will fight, and God will give the victory." From St. Loup to Rheims the men at arms had fought, some of them, at least, in God's name, and they had had the victory. After Rheims they had seldom been allowed to fight either in God's name or in any other, and their enemies had generally gotten the victory. The more urgently Joan asked for men, or asked even permission to go against the English, the more hostile became La Trémoille and his friends, through fear lest her success should bring about their overthrow, and through very shame for their treachery which her demands forced them to expose. Just after her capture the archbishop wrote to the men of Rheims to tell them the news. He said that Joan had been taken because she would not listen to reason, but did everything to please herself. A young shepherd from the mountains of Gévaudan was come to the king, he added, who professed quite as much as Joan ever had done, to wit, that he had commandment to go with the king's soldiers, and that without doubt the English and Burgundians should be overthrown. The shepherd declared that God had allowed Joan to be taken, so the archbishop said, because of the pride with which she was puffed up, and because of the rich clothes which she wore: she had not done what God had bidden her, but had done her own will instead.

Rather more than a year afterward, the shepherd was taken prisoner, and was exhibited in Paris before he was dispatched, probably by drowning in the Seine. There is no reason to suppose the half-crazy wretch responsible for his words about Joan; he merely repeated the lesson which the archbishop or La Trémoille had caused him to be taught.


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