Reviewed by: Desmond Seward
Author: Nancy Goldstone
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Price (RRP): £20
Joan of Arc’s story is one of the most tragic in all medieval history, yet also one of the most inspiring.
Because of the Valois dynasty’s wretched leadership and feud with its Burgundian cousins, who controlled a large chunk of France, by 1429 the late English king Henry V’s dream of an Anglo-French monarchy looked as if it might come true. With aid from their Burgundian allies, the English ruled almost the entire kingdom north of the Loire river and had occupied Paris for a decade.
The Dauphin still ruled the south, so in 1428 the English besieged Orleans, whose capture would enable them to strike at the Dauphinist heartland.
But in 1429, commanded by visions and voices, a shepherdess of 17 from Lorraine, who was dressed in full armour like a man, led an army to the city’s relief. Under her leadership the Dauphin’s troops went on winning victories, and she stood by his side with her banner when he was crowned as Charles VII.
However, Jehanne d’Arc was taken prisoner fairly soon, a ‘show trial’ by canon lawyers in English pay being staged in 1431, at which she was accused of claiming a personal revelation from God, false prophesy and dressing like a man. She defended herself with remarkable skill, but the future of English France depended on her being found guilty, and eventually she was condemned as a relapsed heretic (for relapsing into men’s clothes) and burned in the market-place at Rouen.
Twenty years later, the by now triumphant Charles VII ordered an enquiry and she was rehabilitated. (The documents of her trial and rehabilitation were published in full during the 19th century.) In 1920 the Catholic church proclaimed her a saint.
For the English, Joan was a witch, a view shared by Shakespeare. (In Henry VI, he calls her “Foul fiend of France”.) In contrast, even today every rightwing Frenchman – or Frenchwoman – cherishes her memory. During recent election campaigns, supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen have squabbled bitterly over which of them has inherited her role as the embodiment of France.
Nancy Goldstone tells the story again, very readably, and adds a new twist by arguing that support from the Dauphin’s mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, was crucial for Joan.
Yet the book is scarcely the radical reassessment claimed by its blurb. Apart from examining and confirming Joan’s virginity, and encouraging her to relieve Orleans, there is little evidence that Yolande was her mentor or played anything more than a marginal role in her career.
Desmond Seward is the author of The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors (Constable, 2011)