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THE FALL OF FRANCE
La Gloire est morte
IN the great gallery of Versailles stands the white marble figure of a maiden, young and slender in her knightly armour, her peaked face bent pensively earthward, a sword hilt clasped between her strong young hands.
It is Jeanne d'Arc, the Maid of France, a figure startling in its almost childish simplicity, but by which the fifteenth century is dominated as completely as is the thirteenth by St. Francis of Assisi or the early part of the nineteenth by Napoleon Buonaparte.
Yet for how short a time did the vision of the Maid flash forth upon the startled and incredulous eyes of France.
A little more than a year saw her task accomplished, her reputation won and lost, her story told. And when we realize that the task set before her of saving her country from complete domination by a foreign power was carried out to its successful issue by a girl—a mere child, for she was only nineteen years of age when she was called upon to die—it will be hard indeed to deny the fact that in her we see one of the most striking marvels in history.
In vain does a modern compatriot of the Maid try to belittle her, treating her achievements as the result of a mixture of good fortune and sound common sense, and with odd inconsistency her visions as the fancies of a neurotic girl. If that be so, as another critic has remarked, "the marvel becomes a miracle, and the miracle has to be explained away." For the fact remains that this untaught peasant maiden, at an age when most girls of to-day would, according to their position, be just leaving school, or looking out for a place as under-nurserymaid, proved herself the equal of warriors and politicians, led armies largely disaffected to victory, worsted her foes by her superior military tactics, and ultimately saved France from downfall and subjection.
To understand fully the conditions under which this amazing task was accomplished we must try to get a clear idea of the state of the country for which Jeanne the Maid laid down her life. We must take ourselves in imagination back to the latter years of the fourteenth century, long before the little Maid first opened her dark eyes upon her "sweet land of France," in order to understand the urgency of her call and the greatness of her achievement.
The last quarter of the fourteenth century was a time of unrest and revolt throughout the whole of Western Europe. In Italy, in France, in Germany, in England, a spirit of discontent with the ruling powers, of demand for more equal distribution of the goods of this world, of rebellion against the spell of servitude which the Feudal System had cast over the "common folk," as Froissart calls them, was moving upon the face of the whole land. In England it led to the Peasants' Revolt under Wat Tyler; in France to the outbreak known as the Jacquerie; in Germany to the society named in scorn "The Beghards."
Such upheavals are no doubt necessary from time to time, if only to maintain the balance of justice between man and man; but the actual period in which they occur is invariably one of acute misery and suffering for the poor and weak, and their immediate consequences are, as a rule, far from beneficial to any class of society.
The extraordinary event which marked the closing years of Charles V of France had much to do with this condition of unrest and unsettlement. The most stable fact in Europe, for the last thousand years, had been the position of the Pope, the successor of St. Peter, as Head of the Holy Catholic Church throughout Christendom. To Rome turned the eyes of all men; for there, in the Pontiff's chair, sat not only the spiritual Head of the Church, but a great temporal ruler, swaying the minds of kings. Early in the fourteenth century, however, when Pope Clement had fallen a prisoner into the hands of Philip IV of France, this vast power had been shaken to its foundations, and for seventy years the popes were forced to hold their court at the French city of Avignon instead of at Rome, and to bow to the will of the kings of France. This was a terrible blow to the dignity and reputation of the Papacy, but worse was to come.
In 1378 the "Great Schism of the West" divided Europe into two hostile camps; for one Pope ruled in Rome and claimed the allegiance of the Catholic Church, and another at Avignon made the same claim, while acting merely as the puppet of the French king. The unity of the Church seemed threatened; and all Christendom stood aghast at the spectacle of France, Scotland, and the little kingdoms of Castile and Naples supporting the worldly and self-seeking Clement VII at Avignon; while Northern Italy, Germany, England, and most of the Northern States of Europe acknowledged the supremacy of Urban VI as he wielded his stern sceptre from the seat of St. Peter at Rome.
While this strange state of affairs was shaking the foundations of Europe and causing terrible scandal to the Faith, the death of Charles V in 1380 placed the crown of France upon the head of a handsome boy of eleven years old, who was, through little fault of his own, to bring ruin and desolation upon his country. With grim foreboding of this fact, his father had said to the boy's uncles, the Dukes of Berri and Burgundy, and Bourbon, brother to the Queen, "In you I put my whole confidence; the boy is young and fickle-minded, and there is much need that he should be guided and governed by good teaching." But in those days such a thing as loyalty to a boy ruler did not exist. The one aim of Burgundy was to secure the important domain of Flanders and thus make himself undisputed ruler of the whole of Northern and Eastern France. Berri cared only for the coarse pleasures obtained with the money he wrung from the peasants of the South; Bourbon counted for nothing in the scale of right; Anjou, eldest of the late king's brothers, was a man of vast ambition, whose determination to win for himself the kingdom of Naples and Sicily kept him out of France during most of the coming period.
The frequent quarrels of these "Princes of the Lilies," the greed with which they grasped at the treasure, plate and jewels of their late brother, and the eagerness with which each determined to make himself supreme in one part or another of France, boded ill for a reign of peace and unity; and the boy-King, Charles VI, found himself, from the first, overwhelmed in a maze of intrigues, revolts and petty wars. When Flanders, under the brave Philip van Arteveldt, struck a plucky blow for freedom from the yoke of Burgundy, the young King was induced to march against him; and the crushing vengeance dealt, after the fall of Philip, to the most industrious and peaceful of the subjects of the French crown, marked only too clearly the survival of the old bad spirit of the feudal lord towards his inferior.
Almost at the same moment, Paris and other leading cities of France had seized the chance to revolt against the ever- growing burden of taxation, but the triumph of Charles in Flanders put an end to all hope of redress. Dismay fell upon the citizens as they bowed their necks under the foot of the conquering nobles, who proceeded to make their burdens even heavier than before.
These events of the beginning of the reign were typical of the rest. Yet the character of the young King was not unattractive. One historian calls him "benign and gentle," and says he tried to shelter the conquered citizens from the horrible vengeance wreaked on them by Burgundy. But, as his father had said, he was "fickleminded," fond of pleasure and self-indulgence, shirking the responsibility of a right judgment and the duties it entailed; and when this volatile lad of sixteen married the fourteen-year-old Isabel of Bavaria, a pretty child who was fated in future years to be the evil genius of the land, the fates that frowned on France in the fourteenth century had almost done their worst.
Yet the people believed in their young King with touching loyalty, putting down to the account of the regent uncles all such mistakes as the dismal failure of an expedition against England in 1386, and an equally dismal attempt upon the Rhine borders of Germany.
They rejoiced therefore when Charles, in his nineteenth year, being at Rheims, the religious capital and the ancient coronation place of the French kings, suddenly threw off the yoke of the Dukes of the Lilies, dismissing them "right well and graciously, with many thanks for the trouble and toil they had had with him and with the realm."
The fact that he proceeded to choose his counsellors from his father's old friends, making Oliver Clisson Constable of France, did not sweeten the bitterness of dismissal to the royal uncles, who went off, Berri to the South, Burgundy to his own province, breathing ill-content and hostility with every breath they drew.
The Duke of Berri, indeed, had soon good cause to show his wrath in the open; for the King, in a brief fit of anxiety to relieve his long-suffering people from the shameful burdens placed upon them by the Duke, deposed his uncle and made him thenceforth his bitter enemy.
Meantime, however, there was coming upon Charles a dark hour destined to exact a penalty for his weakness and self- indulgence that more than avenged the irate Duke of Berri.
A certain Peter Craon, a follower of the Duke of Orleans, brother to the King, had been dismissed from Court by the wish of Clisson, the Constable. In revenge this man awaited Clisson on the highway one dark night, set upon him and left him for dead in the wayside ditch. News of this was carried to the King's bedside by one of the men-at-arms of the unfortunate Constable, and Charles hastened there and then to find his body. Clisson, however, though sorely hurt, was already beginning to recover; he was able to denounce his assassin by name, and upon Craon Charles vowed a deadly vengeance. Craon, however, had fled to the Duke of Brittany, who promptly showed his contempt for the Crown by refusing to give him up. The King's uncles advised him to drop the matter; Clisson and his friends were bent on vengeance; and forthwith the King, feverish and uncertain in health, and against the advice of the physicians, set out with his army against the rebellious Duke in a very hot August.
No doubt he brooded secretly on the wrong done to his friend; no doubt also his self-indulgent life had sown the seeds of mind trouble, for as he rode along under a hot summer sun, he was unreasonably startled by the appearance of a wild- eyed man, some wandering lunatic, who rushed from the woods to seize his bridle and to cry aloud, "Go no further; you are betrayed to your enemies!"
The man was driven off, no one paid much heed to the white face and staring eyes of the King, and the cavalcade moved on again. Suddenly, as the heat grew stronger, a page who rode just behind him dozed and nodded, letting his spear fall with a rattle on the helmet of another who rode close by. At the clatter the King's nerve suddenly gave way. With a shriek of "Treason!" he drew his sword, and before he could be hindered, had slain four of his company. He had quite suddenly become a madman, and though there were times when he returned to something resembling sanity, he was never again entirely responsible for the government of his country.
Thus was the doom of France sealed for the next fifty years; for, in the hands of a wicked Queen, selfish and scheming princes and ambitious adventurers, all sense of unity and cohesion was gradually lost, and the land was left at the mercy of a foreign invader.
With one Pope at Rome and another at Avignon, the bond of religious faith, generally the strongest of all to bind a country together, was fast weakening; and even the well-meant efforts of Charles, in one of his more lucid intervals, to put an end to the schism by forcing the French Pope to abdicate only seemed to make matters worse. For France at once split up into definite parties on that very question. The Duke of Orleans and his followers supported him of Avignon, the Duke of Burgundy held with the King that both popes should abdicate, and a third be elected to fill the papal seat at Rome.
These two great parties, the Orleanists or Armagnacs in the South, and the Burgundians in the North and East, began steadily to increase in the fierceness of their rivalry.
A truce of twenty-eight years had been made with England after the marriage of Richard II with the little French princess, Isabel, and this might have given the country an opportunity of recovering after the long nightmare of the Hundred Years War. But with no strong ruler at the head of affairs, with a Queen to whom her subjects merely represented a means of obtaining money for her scandalous amusements, and who was supported by the "aristocratic" party of Orleans, France had no chance.
For even Burgundy, who had some slight pretensions to be considered the "friend of the people," went to the wall at this time in a wild crusade against the Ottoman Turks, failing after a fashion that for a time completely crushed his party and left all power in the hands of the Court—that is, with the Queen and the Duke of Orleans.
And so the gloomy story progresses. On the one hand we see the poor mad King amusing himself with the cards said to have been invented for his diversion; on the other the grim game played by the rival parties, Burgundian against Armagnac, Berri and Bourbon now against one of these, now against each other. The Queen keeps mad revel at her wicked Court; the faces of the peasants are ground that the money may be forthcoming.
When Philip of Burgundy died, his son, John the Fearless, took up the quarrel, posing, as his father had done, as the Friend of the People, and the ally of England.
For a time he carried all before him, and even the Queen and the Duke of Orleans were compelled to acknowledge him as the head of the governing powers. A kind of truce between the two rivals was patched up, and partly owing to Berri's good offices, they so far became reconciled as to appear publicly at Mass together.
But within a week Orleans had been foully murdered by a follower of the Duke of Burgundy; and the strange part of the matter is that this black deed was condoned by the Church and approved by all Paris, and even by the muddled brain of the victim's brother, the poor mad King himself.
The feud was taken up by the young sons of the murdered prince, who henceforth represent not only the aristocratic faction, but what we may call the national party in France. They were bitterly opposed by the Burgundians, representing the citizen element and the English alliance, who still held Paris; so there now commenced what was practically a civil war between the two factions. Sometimes a truce was patched up, and the two dukes appeared before their troops both riding the same horse in token of that fact. More often the conflict was waged to the death; sometimes Burgundy was worsted and fled to his own domain; sometimes the Armagnacs, on whose side we now find that weak-faced lad, the Dauphin, gave way before the onslaught of the Burgundians and their supporters.
Finally, as far as this period is concerned, a treaty signed at Arras drove the latter to the wall; and the wretched young Prince, who was to hand on to his country the fruit of the legacy of vice bequeathed by his mother to himself, made himself ruler of Paris with the aid of the party of Orleans.
Now there succeeded to the throne of England about that time (1413–1414) a certain young King whose keen eyes saw the weakness and the shoddy character of the man who called himself Regent of France. It did not need the insulting present of tennis balls to decide Henry V to revive the claim his great-grandfather had made upon that country. What better moment could he choose than now, when a mad King in name, a dissolute Prince in fact, ruled over a land torn in pieces by internal strife, crushed by taxation, weakened by long years of misgovernment?
In the war that followed every natural advantage lay with the French. As an English chronicle of that day says of the march from Harfleur to Calais, "Bridges and causeways are broken everywhere; the pomp of the French grows and swells. The King (Henry V) has scarce eight days' food; the French destroy farms, wine and victuals. They sought to weary the people out with hunger and thirst."
Yet the result of this weary march was the tremendous victory of Agincourt, in which the Armagnacs had been so confident of success that they had refused with scorn the offer of the Burgundians to help them in the struggle, as well as the well-meant attempt of the burghers of Paris to support their cause.
Excerpted from The Story of Joan of Arc by E.M. Wilmot-Buxton. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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