Virtually every movie you will see on the legendary French ‘freedom fighter’ Joan of Arc pits her against the scheming heartless brutal arch-villain and general nasty person John Duke of Bedford. Brother of Henry V and scourge of France. Bedford’s reputation seems to have been tarnished for posterity by the Hollywood myth-makers as the man who condemned the innocent virgin saint and saviour of France to burning at the stake.
It is he who is often depicted as the enemy of the French people and the embodiment of English ‘oppression’ of France in the 14th century, which stands in stark contrast to Joan, the personification of freedom, liberty, courage and national resistance. Of course the view of Joan peddled by movies is hardly trustworthy and is often a heavily biased and partisan interpretation of history, which is not uncommonly the reflection of the nationalistic sentiments and prejudices of the (usually American) film-makers.
The myth of Joan, however, transcends the big screen as the Maid of Orleans is almost universally recognised as one of the greatest heroes in French history , who is revered and admired across the world, and especially in the US and Canada. Likely this is because of her perceived role as the representing the ‘spirit’ of active resistance to aggressive ‘British’ Imperialism with which some Americans love to identify their own forbears.
Most people know that Joan first became widely known at the siege of Orleans in 1429, or more correctly Jehanne as seems to have been the correct French version of her name, Joan is simply an anglicised version. The details of Joan’s role in the siege are also widely publicised, as she is often singularly credited with having bought the siege to a victorious end for the French. It has even been claimed that the very presence of Joan scared the English garrison into desertion or surrender, such was the magic later accorded to her name.
It seems however that the siege or Orleans was bought to and end more by circumstances than the divinely inspired succour of a saint in the making.
From the outset the decision to try to take Orleans had been controversial and universally accepted. This was because the Duke of Orleans had been a prisoner in England since 1415 and attacking his lands was regarded as unchivalrous. John of Bedford himself had opposed the idea, and never gave it his backing even when it was approved.
Some weeks before Joan’s arrival the gifted The Earl of Salisbury who had been in charge of the siege had been fatally injured by cannon-shot, this man had been described as “the most ingenious, expert and fortunate in arms of all English captain”. His death seems to have contributed to the loss of Orleans as much as Joan ever did.
What of the infamous desertion of English soldiers? It has been demonstrated that these troops had not been contracted to serve beyond the winter of 1428 so as the siege of Orleans dragged on into 1429 the soldiers were simply no longer required to stay. So it was perhaps simple logistics rather than the fear of God’s instrument Joan that caused some soldiers to abandon the siege. It also seems that the initial role of Joan on her ‘triumphal entry’ into Orleans on 29th April 1429 had been to lead a supply convoy into the town, rather than march in at the head on any army, and that her entry went unopposed because the English were simply too overstretched.
Whilst Orleans was an important propaganda coup which boosted the French morale and Joan’s reputation its strategic importance appears to have been somewhat exaggerated. The loss of Orleans was a blow to the English, but not a serious one. Far more important was the major English defeat at the Battle of Patay on the 18th June 1429 in which Joan played no role.
It is at another siege of the English held town of Jargeau that Joan and her colleagues were not always saintly, righteous or magnanimous in their tendencies or behaviour. The capture by siege of this town is well-known and widely publicised as French victory but often no mention is made of a controversial incident that is alleged to have taken place there, that of the slaughter of the English prisoners following the capture of the town after the refusal of a negotiated surrender
Both were in defiance of chivalric convention and the rules of war, and the behaviour of Joan and her fellow commanders, such as their unconvincing claim that ‘nobody had heard’ the Earl of Suffolk’s request to parlay, show the acts that we would not regard as atrocities were committed by the French as well as the English, and that Joan’s conduct was not always above reproach.
It has been argued that Joan may have played some role in the refusal to negotiate at Jargeau, and that because she was a commoner she did not have so much of regard for chivalric customs and conventions of war. It has also been suggested that Joan may even have had something of an excessive desire to destroy her enemies utterly, and ‘finish the job’.
It has been argued that Joan herself may have had some part in the decision to kill the garrison, and may even have ordered it. As a commoner Joan perhaps did not have the same regard for chivalrous convention as her Noble comrades. Perhaps significantly it is known that two of William De La Pole, Earl of Suffolk’s brothers were killed at Jargeau and third seems to have died shortly afterwards.
One other common (mis)conception about Joan is that she personally persuaded Philip ‘The Good’ Duke of Orleans to abandon his alliance with England and fight for France instead. Many movies depict this incident, and even William Shakespeare mentioned it in Henry VI Part 1, but it is nothing more than a creative fiction. Duke Philip did not actually switch sides until 1435 some 4 years after Joan’s execution, and after his brother-in-law John of Bedford was dying.
What of the widely held belief that Joan’s demise and capture was caused by betrayal? This seems unlikely, especially as Joan herself never claims to have been betrayed into the hands of her enemies. It appears rather that she was simply caught between two opposing armies, and was unable to reach safety with her forces.
It is here that John of Bedford becomes a major player on the stage, at according to tradition, for it is he who if often said to have ‘ordered’ Joan’s execution. Whilst he certainly wanted her ‘out of the way’ and may well have approved this course of action, it seems unlikely that he actually played ant direct role in her conviction and ultimate fate. He simply had more important matters to deal with.
It is also noteworthy that, contrary to what some movies have claimed Joan was not tried before an ‘English’ court under ‘English’ law, buy by an Ecclesiastical court on charges of heresy, in which only 8 of the judges out of well over 100 were English, all the other were ‘Burgundian partisans’. Civil authorities had no jurisdiction over the religious crime of heresy and the proceedings of Joan’s court do not seem to have been out-of the ordinary.
Some claim that Joan was burned simply because she wore men’s clothing, and that because this could be theologically justified her conviction was a sham and a farce designed so suit the purposes of the wicked English. This again seems to be a myth, as the charges levelled against her had more to do with her claims to have been in direct contact with, and directly inspired by God and the saints, in her public “recantation” these were mentioned, alongside the wearing of male clothing and bearing of arms. It seems to have been the former, however, that were or far more import than the Latter.
The Late Medieval church appears to have regarded the notion of direct revelation and communion with Saints or Christ as dubious in itself, and those who claimed it often came under suspicion. There is also some suggestion that Joan may have been associated with a moderately deviant sect who had mystical tendencies. Mysticism was also often looked upon unfavourably by the church at this time. Perhaps it is a brutal irony that the very ‘voices’ which Joan claimed had inspired her to her mission in the first place, and which made her so famous may have been one of the very reasons why she was condemned as a ‘heretic’.
Though initially Joan was not condemned to death, but to life imprisonment when she agreed to recant, it was only when she denounced her recantation that the sentence of burning was passed. Her execution always had a political dimension, poor Joan had simply outlived her usefulness, and her military career had never been especially successful, and certainly not the extent that is widely believed. As a commoner (though she was granted a noble Title by the King of France) Joan was dispensable, and because she was not an astute political player or even a politician, nor an exceptionally skilled commander she lacked abilities necessary for her to survive.
Yet for centuries the blame for Joan’s execution or ‘murder’ as some would have it has been laid squarely at the feet of the English, despite the complexities of her trial and execution and the obvious complicity of French political and religious authorities. Some of these were fully or partially exonerated at Joan’s posthumous retrial, a few years after her death, by which time Joan’s reputation and fame had increased and the tide of the war had begun to change. This was not perhaps because one side was guilty and the other not but because nobody in France seemingly wanted to be seen as being responsible for the demise of the celebrity and Holy Woman that Joan was coming to be regarded as , and possibly it was simpler to shift the blame.
At a later time , after years of myth-making and finger-pointing the official version of Joan’s story seems to have become became the accepted version, especially when it seemed relevant or useful to certain groups or individuals.Thus is often a part of the enduring legacy of heroic myths.