The Secret History of Joan of Arc

Such a seductive title ‘The Maid and the Queen’ – The Secret History of Joan of Arc and it is indeed an intriguing story, wrapped in faith, hope, superstition, manipulation, cruelty and ultimately the exoneration and beatification of a heroine (Joan of Arc was canonised in 1920).

 Joan of Arc is testimony to the transcendence of the human spirit….She remains an inspiration, not only to the citizens of France, but to oppressed people everywhere.

Ironically, it is due to the inquisition of Joan of Arc that much of the history of the era was documented and preserved, her testimony and the numerous depositions from the many eyewitnesses who knew her and who were in some way involved in the events of the Hundred Years war, that period of conflict between the Kingdoms of England and France and various other alliances from 1337 to 1453, as each sought to claim control of the French throne.

One of the insights that astounded me was the prolific negotiation of the female offspring of nobility to secure territorial alliances or peace between the realms. Daughters were auctioned off as young as 4 years, though depending on how power shifted and who survived into adulthood, those promises could alter.

Nancy Goldstone’s thoroughly researched oeuvre, takes a step back to look at the events, beliefs and susceptibilities of characters leading up the prominence of Joan of Arc, none more so than Charles VII, Yolande of Aragon’s (Queen of Sicily) son-in-law and the man who as a sensitive 11-year-old boy, she had taken into her home, nurturing and caring for him as her own, at a time when he was not destined for the throne (he had two older brothers). His propulsion into the role of King while the English were making inroads into the territory, King Henry having proclaimed himself King of England and France, and his reluctance to engage in battle, were significant risks to the Kingdom of France that required intervention.

Drawing inspiration from ‘The Story of Melusine’, commissioned in 1393 and written by Jean d’Arras (when Yolande was 12-years-old) a propaganda devised to address the political controversy surrounding the Duke of Berry’s appropriation of an ancient and imposing castle belonging to the aristocrat Lusignan family, Yolande of Aragon was able to usher Joan into an audience with the young King.

To Yolande of Aragon, the parallels to the story line of Melusine were obvious… there was just one element missing to turn this fiction into reality. The Queen of Sicily actively sought a Melusine as part of her strategy for reinstating the dauphin as the legitimate heir to the French throne.

That Joan was effectively recruited, is reinforced by a French historian who reported that in 1428 alone, twenty people, mostly women, claimed to have been chosen by God to deliver a message to the King. None of them were given the opportunity unique to Joan, whose faith and convictions aligned with what Yolande wanted to hear and would result in her leading an army to relinquish the city of Orleans. By speaking passionately to Charles inner most fears, in particular an obsession with his possible illegitimacy and by her knowledge of ‘his secret prayer’ to God which he cried out in his sleep, Joan materialised as a sign and a saviour.

Gentle dauphin, I am Joan the Maid, and the King of Heaven commands that through me you be anointed and crowned in the city of Reims as a lieutenant of the King of Heaven, who is King of France.

Having succeeded in turning the English back, Joan was eventually captured and no longer considered useful by her King or sponsor, was sold to the English who sought vengeance, and submitted her to a long inquisition hoping to rid themselves of her and the fervent following she inspired among the people. Though their interrogations were inconclusive, and their hopes to condemn her destroyed by a signed recantation, she was tricked into heresy and sentenced to be executed.

I found the book full of interesting facts and connected events surrounding Joan herself, but I admit it was not an easy read and slow going at times –perhaps by necessity– to comprehend all the characters, families, alliances and influences. I did find myself wishing at times that the author might have used more creative tools to inhabit the emotional life of some of the characters, something that makes reading well-researched historical fiction a real pleasure and certainly adds pace.

But for a factual account of how The Maid came to represent a significant turning point in France’s history, I can think of none better.

If it is accepted, as it is often said, that without Joan of Arc there would be no France, it is also true that without Yolande of Aragon, there would have been no Joan.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.