Joan of Arc and Les Soldats
Today marks the 587th anniversary of the death of Joan of Arc, burned at the stake at Rouen, France. As the flames engulfed her, she clutched a cross made of sticks to her bosom, fashioned by an ordinary English solder. “Jesus!” was her last word. She was 19 years old. In 1920, almost 500 years after her death, she was finally canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.
Everyone in the West knows Joan’s story from the novels of Mark Twain to Thomas Keneally, from filmmakers Carl Dreyer and Robert Bresson to Otto Preminger, from playwrights George Bernard Shaw to Jean Anouillh. In recent years, she has been taken up by multiple video games based on the Hundred Years War. One of her greatest biographers is undoubtedly the French medievalist Regine Pernoud who has written 3 highly readable, deeply researched books on the subject, relying on the Latin transcripts of her trial and rehabilitation trial of 1455-56 to bring Joan into 21th Century relief.
While everyone knows the story of the peasant girl called by Sts. Catherine, Margaret and Michael the Archangel to rid France of the English and their Burgundian enablers, and crown the dauphin Charles Valois king, not many people know her companions-in-arms. The most famous captains of the French army during the latter part of the 100 Years War were Jean Dunois, The Bastard of Orleans, Etienne de Vignolles nicknamed “La Hire” (The Anger) and Gilles De Rais, the Marshal of France. Along with several others, these are the men who rode into battle with her, camped with her and lifted the siege of the city of Orleans that led to Charles’ coronation. These two events would lead to the end of one of the most brutal European civil wars.
Jean Dunois called The Bastard was born in Paris in 1402. He was the illegitimate son of Louis d’Orleans, Duke of Orleans and a long time supporter and campaigner for the House of Valois (the Armagnac Party) in the 100 Years War. Prior to meeting Joan, he fought as a Captain with Etienne de Vignolles in various engagements at Le Mans, Baugé, Cravant, Verneuil and the Siege of Montargis. Like most Armagnac commanders, he was captured by the Burgundians and held for 2 years (his own father being held for 25 years after Agincourt) before the actions at the Siege of Orleans.
Undoubtedly, his fame has been secured through his association with Joan, his public devotion to her and his steadfastness in warfare. Using the sometimes limited man power and short bursts of violence that characterized this war, he engaged with some success the legendary English commanders of fact and fiction: Sir William Glasdale (Classidas), Sir John Falstaff (Fastolf), Thomas, Lord Scales, William de la Pole, the Duke of Suffolk (Suffort) and Sir John Talbot.
From the above portrait alone, it is easy to see why the Bastard has been presented in film and stagecraft as the silky, handsome negotiator between Joan and the dubious and profane officers of the French forces. During the Christmas seasons, with his typical elan and ingrained sense of chivalry, he had his minstrels play for the English and on one occasion delivered fish to Talbot for his evening meal. Some historians have argued that it was this lassitude on the part of the French aristocracy that prolonged the war against the despised “goddams”; nevertheless, Dunois was a brave and wily adversary against the English.
In March of 1429, the French army was encamped at Orleans along the south bank of the Loire River far from the English situated on the north by the gatehouse Les Tourelles. The French commanders were expecting to meet a spiritual adviser* and instead were greeted by an impatient warrior who immediately tore up their battle plans, accusing them of traitorous deception. She demanded to know why the army was on the “wrong side” of the river and did not cross over and engage the enemy. Gently remonstrating, Dunois suggested they wait for better weather and a more friendly wind direction. Joan was having none of it: “In God’s name, the counsel of the Lord your God is wise and safer than yours. You thought to deceive me and it is yourself above all whom you deceive, for I bring you better succor than has reached you from any soldier or any city; it is succor from the King of Heaven. (He) has taken pity on the town of Orleans, and will not suffer that the enemies have the bodies of the lord of Orleans and his town.” At that moment, in one of many weird circumstances that would baffle Joan’s friends and enrage her enemies, the wind switched direction, allowing the French captains to raise sail and cross over into the city. Dunois later described his feelings: “It seems to me, that Joan in battle and in warfare, was rather of God than of men.” He became her fervent friend and defender.
In the days to come, Joan, protected by Dunois, attempted to speak to the English and warn them to retreat. A message sent by arrow towards the fortified gatehouse predicted that William Glasdale, the commander of the remaining bridge over the Loire, would die a watery death if he did not decamp. Instead, Glasdale rained down angry curses on her head, calling her “cowgirl,” “witch,” and “bitch.” The Bastard relates: The moment she was there the English trembled with terror; and the (French) King’s men regained their courage and began to climb, delivering their assault against the bulwark and not meeting with the least resistance. Then that bulwark was taken, and the English who were in it had fled. But they were all killed, among the rest Classidas and the other principal English captains of this bastille, who intended to retire into the bridge tower but fell in the river and were drowned. This Classidas had been the man who had spoken most foully and in the basest and most infamous language against the Maid.
Glasdale’s body was not recovered.
It was recorded that Joan cried tears of rage and sorrow over the senseless loss of English lives that day. She attempted to nurse the dying and had the last rites administered to many of the soldiers. This sudden and unexpected loss led the English to completely abandon the Loire Valley although Joan and Dunois followed in hot pursuit. They fought several more skirmishes before they escorted Charles VII to his coronation on July 17, 1429.
After her capture at Compiegne, Dunois led an unsuccessful bid to free her. Despite this failure, he continued to fight against the English for the remaining years of the war. It is unclear if he was at her rehabilitation trial or wrote a lengthy document testifying to her saintliness and patriotism. His testimony is well worth reading and is one of the few direct accounts we have the Siege of Orleans and Joan’s participation in it.
He married twice, was honored in his own lifetime, and died in 1468 at the age of 66.
ETIENNE DE VIGNOLLES (LA HIRE)
Etienne de Vignolles was also known as “La Hire”. There is controversy whether his nickname means “The Anger” or “The Prickly One” or “The Hedgehog” but one thing is clear: it was a byword for fear and terror not only to the English “goddams” but to the people of France as well. La Hire brought Total War to the countryside long before William Tecumsah Sherman made the concept infamous.
In the wake of the Black Death, the 100 Years War was one of devastating consequence to the rural medieval society. Unlike the War of the Roses in England, plundering, murder, rapine, torched homes, farms and cattle were considered justifiable acts to these French guerrilla forces. Up until he met and was influenced by Joan of Arc, La Hire was very much a man of his time and place. It is no wonder that he became a prime villain in violent 21st Century video games: “War and Warriors: Joan of Arc,” “Age of Empires 2: The Age of Kings” and “Blade Storm: the Hundred Years War.” In the latter, he appears as an amusing Hulk-like ogre when, in fact, he may have been a much smaller man. What history does relate is that he cursed so badly during military councils that a shocked Joan immediately set out to put a stop to it. She forced him to the sacrament of Confession and encouraged him to replace foul language with prayer. She banned excessive brutality and cracked down on camp followers who were purposefully ignored by military leaders. She went so far as to smack her sword against a whore’s buttocks and chase her from the field. La Hire supported her in these reforms. He cursed out of earshot and long after The Maid’s death, he prayed before a battle, kneeling upon the ground and intoning a witty supplication: May God do for La Hire what God would have La Hire do for Him if God were La Hire and La Hire were God.
Etienne de Vignolles was born in southern France in 1390 and was not of high birth. He was apparently a lifelong soldier, who may have began his career at Agincourt. He rose through the ranks to become commander of the French forces and was instrumental in lifting the Siege of Orleans. As part of that campaign and prior to Joan’s arrival, La Hire was in charge of provisioning the army. This led to the failed Battle of the Herrings in which he warred against Sir John Fastolf.
We do not know exactly why or when he converted from reprobate and skeptic to true believer in the Maid. All we do know, is that he eventually came to believe that she was a surprisingly good strategist and tactician in warfare and was open to all her advice. (Joan, as always, maintained that any plans she put forward came directly from Michael the Archangel.) After her capture, he attempted two separate rescue attempts at Rouen. During the second, he too, was captured by Burgundians and imprisoned. In typical fashion, he was back in action by 1432, several years after Joan’s death. He died, perhaps killed by that most notorious illness of the soldier great or poor – dysentery – in southern France at the age of 53. His image is said to be the Jack of Hearts figure on the French deck of cards. In examining his signature, he appears to have been almost as illiterate as Joan:
GILLES DE RAIS LAVAL
Gilles de Rais Laval, Baron and Marshall of France, is probably the most famous (or infamous) of Joan’s companions. He inspired the French fairy tale “Bluebeard” – the story of a man who dyed his beard blue and murdered his wives. We do know that in reality Gilles de Rais did not murder his rich wife (he simply kidnapped her) instead concentrating on torturing and murdering over 100 children at his castles in Champtoché and Machecoul over a period of 10 years. For these crimes – as well as the crime of heresy – he was executed at Nantes in 1440.
This aristocratic and immensely wealthy Breton was born in either 1404 or 1405, the son of two rich clansmen, Guy de Laval and Marie de Craon. Orphaned at about 10 years of age, he was nevertheless cocooned in excessive luxury and indolence by his maternal grandfather and swaddled in affection by his doting nurse. His excellent private education was in military matters and Catholic morals. The latter didn’t leave much of an impression but his training was such that in that era of indifferent cruelty he became a highly effective soldier. He was considered a brilliant and handsome young man by most who knew him. He spoke and wrote fluent Latin and was a patron of the arts.
By 1427, well into his military career, he had personally raised 5 companies of knights beautifully clad and richly paid to fight for the Armagnac Party. He employed salaried spies to scour the countryside for information to be used against the English and Burgundian enemies. His vast choir of young boys must have raised amused suspicion among the more cynical soldiers but it was reported to be the finest in all the kingdom.
According to British author, Jean Benedetti, who took much of his information from “The Chronicles of the Siege of Orleans” by the eminent 19th century French historian Jules Quicherat, Gilles was with Dunois and Vignolles at Orleans while waiting for the arrival of Joan in the spring of 1429. At a hastily gathered council, it was decided that Gilles would travel to the town of Blois to meet with representatives of the King and raise further provisions for the army. He, therefore, missed her magnificent entrance into the town on her white charger with her raised banner of fleurs de lis on one side and the Archangel Michael on the other. When one of the many banners decorating the town accidentally caught fire and risked a chance of spreading, she gallantly rode forth and snuffed it out with her gauntlet. The crowd went wild in jubilation.
Once he returned, Gilles twice rescued Joan from various sticky situations during the Siege and helped her to safety when she was struck with an arrow above her breast. He offered a bit of necromancy in an attempt to heal her which she hastily declined. From there, he accompanied her in all her campaigns as well as attending the Coronation. He was with her again at the failed Siege of Paris when she was struck in the thigh by a bolt from a crossbow. She was dragged screaming from the fight. Exhausted by the war, and secretly plotting to buy peace at any cost, Charles VII declared the battle lost and entreated Joan to withdraw. She would not return to battle until the following year when she rode to relieve to city of Compiegne. Wearing a long tunic over her suit of white armor, a Burgundian soldier grabbed it and pulled her from her horse. She was then sold to the English and imprisoned to await trial and execution on charges of heresy and witchcraft.
For all his help in securing the crown for Charles, Gilles de Rais was showered with many honors, including being created the Marshall of France. Having secured his throne, Charles now retreated into safety and security leaving Joan abandoned to her many enemies and Gilles de Rais to his dark fate. He retired from the army and returned to his many properties, beginning his descent into madness and vast criminality .
He indulged in wild extravagance – the building of homes and chapels (one ironically named The Chapel of the Holy Innocents), lavish theatrical events, experiments in alchemy and black magic, acquisition of fine clothing as well as furniture and paintings – all of which began to erode his vast fortune. His family, the Montmorency-Lavals, were forced to appeal to the King and the Pope to put a stop to his expenditures; a royal edict was issued in which no one was allowed to enter into a contract with him. Then the children of the towns of Champtoché and Machecoul and various other areas began disappearing. Mothers, who had allowed their children to work in the kitchens on the estates of Gilles De Rais had suspicions but feared retribution from this most powerful prince. Hungry, homeless children who wandered the landscape were particularly vulnerable to Gilles’ henchmen. Kidnapped, they were taken into hidden rooms in the castles where they were subjected to beastly sexual torture before being killed by stabbing and beheading and their bodies thrown into fire.
In the late 1430s, the Bishop of Nantes Jean de Malestroit began to investigate the accusations against Gilles brought by both the nobility and commoners. In July of 1440, the Bishop issued a summons against him and he was arrested at the castle at Machecoul and imprisoned at Nantes. He was tried by both an ecclesiastical and secular court on charges of property theft, murder and heresy. During the testimony, the flustered and horrified scribes switched from impersonal Latin to vernacular French to better describe his awful crimes. Gilles, meanwhile, alternated between pitiable submission to the courts and loud arrogance and denunciation of the proceedings. It was only when shown the instruments of torture that would be used to extract a confession, he realized the jig was up. He swiftly admitted guilt and gave a long, grisly recitation of his crimes. He endured excommunication and reconciliation with the Church and was condemned to die by hanging and fire. He met his fate with notable calm.
From there, he would pass from mortal man to the Bluebeard of French children’s nightmares.
*Joan was said to fulfill a prophecy that “France would be ruined through a woman and afterwards restored by a virgin.” The woman in question has often been said to be the profligate and conniving mother of Charles VII, Isabeau of Bavaria. Charles VII doubted his royal parentage because of his mother’s promiscuous behavior and her open questioning of his legitimacy. It is said that the famous secret Joan revealed to him at Chinon was that she knew he prayed to God to reveal who his father was. Joan assured him that he was the true son of the mad King Charles VI. The dauphin cried at the revelation and allowed Joan to escort the army to Orleans.
The Retrial of Joan of Arc, the Evidence for Her Vindication by Regine Pernoud
Joan of Arc by Herself and Her Witnesses by Regine Pernoud
Joan of Arc Her Story by Regine Pernoud and Marie-Veronique Clin
The Real Bluebeard The Life of Gilles de Rais by Jean Benedetti – an excellent and painful study of the Marshall of France.
The Maid and The Queen by Nancy Goldstone
All of the above.
Blood Red, Sister Rose by Thomas Keneally. The great Australian novelist’s story of Joan’s military career.
Falstaff by Robert Nye. The poet’s brilliant and libidinous novel of John Falstaff and his poignant and brief encounter with La Pucelle.