Throughout much of the 14th and the first half of the 15th centuries, the history of France was synonymous with the Hundred Years War. Following a series of disastrous military defeats, much of France was occupied by England and its continental allies. Initially a struggle over the monarchal succession, the war took on the tone of a religious crusade in 1429 AD when a young, uneducated and inexperienced maid from the province of Lorraine took command of what was left of the French army, leading them to unexpected victory at Orleans. In 1431, she was falsely tried and executed in Rouen by corrupt church officials at the behest of the English. Rouen is now full of sites related to its favorite daughter, including the church where she was tried, her prison and the place where she was executed. Christian pilgrims and French patriots have been visiting Rouen ever since.
Joan of Arc was born in 1412, around the time that the Kingdom of France was approaching its nadir. As she entered her teen years, she received a series of miraculous visions from Sts. Catherine, Margaret and Michael in which she was commanded to rally France against the English and restore the crown prince of France to the throne. Aided by an earlier prophecy of a savior that would come in the form of a ‘Maid from Lorraine’, she arranged for an audience with Charles VII, during which she convinced him of her divine mission. Charles consented and turned nominal command of the French army over to her. Whether due to divine intervention, an instinct for military strategy or just plain luck, her subsequent campaign to liberate the Loire Rive Valley was nothing short of miraculous.
Joan’s first and greatest victory came at the city of Orleans, which was then under siege by the English. After weeks of stalemate, the French overcame the English siege positions a mere nine days after Joan arrived. While there are some questions about her tactical contributions, there is no doubt of her inspirational role as she rode at the forefront of every French charge. During the final engagement, Joan pulled an arrow from her own chest before continuing to fight. Later, she led the French forces on a march along the Loire Valley. Throughout the early summer of 1429 town after town fell. A reserve army sent out by the English to stop the French advance was slaughtered at the Battle of Patay. On July 16, Joan and her army arrived at Reims, her strategic and spiritual goal. The next day, Charles VIII entered the city to thunderous acclaim and was crowned King of France in the ancient cathedral there.
In less than three months, Joan of Arc had accomplished her mission. However, following the coronation, Joan of Arc pressed the king to march on Paris. Political squabbling prevented him from sending anything but a small token force, and after a short siege, the French were forced to abandon the city. Over the next nine months, Joan participated in a number of military engagements against the enemy, until she was captured at Compiegne on May 23, 1430. The English decided to exact a brutal revenge upon her, and through the machinations of corrupt Church officials declared her to be a heretic. The ensuing farce of a trial was followed by a series of confessions and recantings, at the end of which Joan was condemned to death. The utterly ungrateful King Charles did nothing to intervene. On May 30, 1431, she was burned at the stake in the main square of Rouen.
At first stunned by the loss, the French peasantry and army soon rallied in her memory. The subsequent and last phase of the war lasted another twenty-two years, but when it was over the English were driven out of the whole of France except for Calais. By the middle of the 15th century, Joan of Arc was the national martyr-heroine of France, and a repentant monarchy spent the next four hundred and fifty years finding endless ways to honor her. The Church also had serious second thoughts about the whole affair, and after a review of the case, absolved Joan of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless she was canonized until the 20th century.
The Place De Vieux Marche is the central square of Rouen, and many of the sites associated with the final year and death of Joan of Arc are located here. Most notably, it was in this square that Joan of Arc was burned alive on May 30, 1431. Many who witnessed the event knew that an innocent and probably holy woman was being killed, and so to stave off any belief that she escaped, the English displayed the body and then burned it again. Her remains were dumped ignominiously into the river. A cross marks the spot in the square where she was martyred.
Nearby is the Tour Jean d’Arc, the tower where she was imprisoned and threatened with torture. It is the only surviving remnant of an earlier castle, and Joan of Arc may have spent some or all of her time in another one of the castle’s other towers. The existing structure now houses an exhibit on Joan of Arc. The tower also offers excellent views of the city.
The Place de Vieux Marche is located at the city center of Rouen, approximately ninety miles northeast of Paris. It is an open site. Web: www.rouentourisme.com (official tourism website of Rouen)
During the late Middle Ages, Rouen was one of Northern France’s great cathedral towns. The Notre Dame Cathedral of Rouen was one of the largest cathedrals of its day, and for a brief time was the tallest structure in Europe. The cathedral is also home to the tomb of Richard the Lionheart, although only his heart is located here. Also in Rouen is the 20th century Church of St. Joan of Arc, the remarkably unattractive church dedicated to Rouen’s favorite daughter, as well as the Joan of Arc Museum.