Tag Archives: French history

Joan of Arc – Maid, Mystic, Heretic, Saint

joan of arc astride a horse in battle
(Encyclopedia Britanica)

What possessed, Joan of Arc, a normal, 15th century teenaged girl from a modest village, to travel for 11 days to tell the dauphin of France she needed to lead an an army to Orléans to save the country from English power?

What possessed the dauphin to grant her request, against the advice of his councilors and generals?

When I reacquainted myself with the story of Joan of Arc for this blog post, a thought kept popping into my mind: What would happen if a common girl today went to the leader of her country and claimed that God commanded only she could save her country from its enemies? The leader would probably laugh at her and then have her committed. She would not be taken seriously.

At all.

So what made the dauphin and military leaders of the time, follow the advice of this young, country peasant?

#1) Her piety.

Like other girls in the village of Domrémy, Joan helped her mother with spinning and sewing, and her father with watching the cattle and livestock. The daughter of a pious Catholic woman, Joan and her sister Catherine attended confession and mass regularly, helped to nurse the sick of her village, and often visited nearby oratories and chapels. But at age 12 or 13 Joan began to spend more time in church and in prayer. The other children took notice of this and sometimes ridiculed her for her pious ways. What they, nor her parents or sister didn’t know was that Joan had a secret. One she felt she couldn’t share with anyone else.

#2) Her visions and voices.

joan visted by Michael the Archangel
(fr.wikipedia.org)

Joan’s village suffered raids and burnings from the English and the neighboring Burgundians many times. Once, it burned to the ground and had to be re-established. When things calmed down after one of these raids, Joan, while working in her father’s garden experienced something that would change her life forever. The Archangel Michael appeared to her in blinding white light. He told her she would be visited by him again, and to prepare for visitations from St. Catherine and St. Margaret, who had an important message to deliver to her. When they appeared on several other occasions, they told her she must drive the English out of France, and bring the crown prince, the dauphin, to power as king in the city of Reims. Joan did not tell others of these visions and voices until well into her mission.

#3) Her devotion to her country.

Joan dropped everything in her life in Domrémy to save her country. She defied her father, who’d arranged a marriage for her, telling him she had a greater mission in life. She traveled to nearby Vaucouleurs to implore the local magistrate, Robert de Baudricort, to assist her in her mission to reach the dauphin, Charles. After Baudricort laughed at her, he told her to be a good girl, go back to her mother, and find a husband. Joan would not be dissuaded and 6 months later, returned to Vaucouleurs where she convinced a band of men  she was the prophesied virgin destined to save France. She cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and traveled 11 miles with this band of men to Chinon to deliver her message to the dauphin.

#4) Her divine prophesies.

  • When Joan traveled to Vauclouleurs she immediately recognized Baudricourt without having seen him. She later claimed her guides’ voices told her,”there he is.” She explained to him her prediction of the deliverance of Orléans, the rise of the Dauphin at Reims, and of the defeat of the French at the battle of Harengs, as it took place.
  • Once she arrived at Chinon and entered into the chamber of the dauphin, she knew him in a moment, despite his concealment behind a group of 300 people. Amazed at her detection of him, he gave her a private audience where she promised he would be crowned at Reims if she could lead an army of soldiers to stop the siege at Orleans.
  • Still skeptical, the prince told her of a sword buried in the church of St. Catherine de Fierbois, and requested she bring it to him. With the assistance of her divine guides, she found the sword behind the altar of the church. It became her most beloved sword – although she refused to carry a sword into battle, but instead carried a white flag.
  • She predicted she would be wounded at Orléans, where she was pierced with an arrow between her neck and shoulder.
  • After the dauphin had been crowned as King Charles VII at Reims, Joan stated to him she “would last a year, and but little longer.” She also explained she would be captured by mid-summer. Fourteen months later near Compiègne, Joan was pulled from her horse by a Burgundian supporter and taken prisoner. She remained imprisoned until her death.

# 5) She never relented.

Joan at the stake
(Encyclopedia Britanica)

Imprisoned at Beaurevoir Castle by the Burgundians, Joan made several escape attempts, including jumping from her 70-foot tower. Unable to escape detection, her captors moved her to the town of Arras. The English paid 10,000 livres to claim her from the Burgundians and then moved her to the city of Rouen where she stood trial.

The English wanted to try Joan for heresy, but no evidence could be found. Hersey was only a capital crime if it had been committed twice, which did not stand up in Joan’s case. They initiated the trial anyway, despite the fact that no one stood to represent Joan—a requirement of the law.

When interrogated, Joan confessed her visions and her voices, stating that she acted according to God’s will. When a clergyman mocked her and asked what language her voices spoke, she claimed they spoke French—far better than he did.

Under inquisitorial guidelines, Joan should have been confined in an ecclesiastical prison under the supervision of nuns, not in a secular prison with only male guards. When captured, Joan wore her usual attire of men’s clothing. Unable to try her for heresy, the English changed the charge to “cross-dressing.” Joan then agreed to wear a dress, but after her a guard tried to rape her, she changed back to her masculine attire. After this abjuration, they claimed she relapsed into heresy by cross-dressing. The trial commenced and Joan was sentenced to death for the crime of heresy.

At the stake, she requested to wear a cross on her breast, and for someone to hold a cross before her. Her last words were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

The Roman Catholic church recognized her as a saint in 1920.

Eleanor of Aquitaine – and the Mystery of Love and Incest

Eleanor of Aquitane
Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most sought after daughter in medieval Europe, became the most wealthy and powerful woman during the 12th and 13th centuries. At 12-13 years of age, Eleanor inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine when her father, William X, died. Orphaned, Eleanor came under the guardianship of King Louis VI of France. Three months later, she married the King’s son, Louis VII. Shortly after the two teenagers wed, the King, known as Louis the Fat, died of dysentery leaving Louis the Younger and Eleanor the Kingdom.

As with most women of power, many of Eleanor’s critics claim she came by that power, and possibly held onto that power, through dubious and immoral methods–meaning, she used her feminine wiles and uncontrolled sexual passion to gain the upper hand. One of the most popular rumors about Eleanor is her alleged incestuous affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers.

Historians agree that Eleanor, reputed to be beautiful, intelligent, and wise beyond her years, enchanted her husband Louis with her wit and charm. Despite his intense love for her, the couple’s 8-year relationship slowly disintegrated as they could produce no male heir. Of course, as with most infertile royal couples of the time, the fault lay with Eleanor, despite the fact she gave birth to a daughter, Marie in 1145.

When Pope Eugene III requested Louis lead a second crusade to the Middle East to rescue the Frankish Kingdoms from the Muslims, Eleanor encouraged her husband to rise to the occasion. She also requested to accompany him. It is debated whether Louis agreed to allow his beautiful, flirtatious bride to join him to keep her under close watch, or he simply desired her company. Eleanor, along with her royal ladies-in-waiting and 300 of her courtiers boarded the ships to Antioch for the campaign.

When the royal couple arrived, they accepted the hospitality of Eleanor’s handsome uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch. Raymond and Eleanor spent constant time in each others company. It didn’t take long for rumors to spread that the two engaged in an incestuous affair. Louis, appalled and affronted with the rumors, pulled up stakes left after only two weeks in Antioch.

Louis VII
Louis VII
(Biography.com)

Eleanor implored her husband to let her stay under the protection of her uncle, but he refused her plea, and bade she accompany him on the rest of the crusade. When they returned to France, the rumors of Eleanor’s infidelity with her uncle further alienated her from Louis, and she asked Pope Eugene for an annulment. She claimed to want the annulment on the grounds of consanguinity—the close familial relation to her husband, her fourth cousin. The Pope refused and tried to reconcile the royal couple.

In 1150, Eleanor gave birth to another daughter—another disappointment that further alienated Eleanor from her husband. The Pope finally relented, and in 1152 gave Eleanor the annulment on grounds of consanguinity, but gave custody of her daughters to Louis.

The second famous rumor about Eleanor concerns the mystery of her Court of Love. After her annulment, noblemen and Kings lined up to win Eleanor’s hand. Still the most powerful woman in Europe, she again became a most sought-after bride. Even if it meant kidnapping her. Eleanor got wind of at least two of these plots, and sent word to Henry, her third cousin, the Duke of Normandy and future King of England, imploring him to marry her. He didn’t refuse.

Eight weeks after her annulment to Louis, Henry and Eleanor married. Although they had 8 children together over 15 years of marriage, the two often bickered and fought. Henry spent much time away from England, and also with other women. During this time, Eleanor returned to her castle in Poitiers, France, where she is said to have started the Court of Love.

Eleanor
Eleanor
(www.telegraph.co.uk)

Discouraged by her own two marriages, Eleanor set out to educate men in the areas of romance, love, and chivalry. Noblemen brought their relationship problems to a jury of nearly 60 women, (the Court of Love) including Eleanor and her daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne, in search of answers. The women directed the love-lorn men how to dress, speak, and act with their women, including writing poetry, playing music, and taking an interest in the arts–a far cry from manly behavior of the middle ages.

Many historians deny the existence of Eleanor’s Court of Love, but others say it contributed to the literature, music, and  arts of the time, and into the future. The art of courtly love also grew in popularity from this period on.

Henry and Eleanor’s marriage would see greater decline when their son, Henry the Younger, led a revolt against his father for the crown of England. Eleanor sided with her son, and for this, Henry imprisoned her for the next 16 years. At the death of her husband, her third son, Richard, became King. One of his first acts as King of England? To free his mother from prison.

Though her critics, and her husbands, tried to discredit her time and time again, Eleanor proved to be a woman empowered, and a woman who found a way to survive and prevail. She lived into her early eighties. The mere fact that she obtained an annulment from a King who still ruled, is unfathomable—considering that a woman in the 12th Century, even a ruling woman, only existed as a means to an end—to better the lives of men.

We may never solve the mystery of Eleanor’s relationship with her uncle, or her reported infidelities in the French court, or whether or not she developed a “Court of Love” in Poitiers. We can only go by the records that exist in history, and no one knows whether all the records are true or not. Sometimes, it is up to us to decide. Despite the claims of her critics, Eleanor still remains one of the most beloved, and most empowered women in history.

For more information on Raymond of Antioch, read this blog post by Elizabeth Chadwick.

Photo found in French Quarter Magazine

young catherine de medici

The Mystery of Catherine de Medici – Wicked or Empowered?

young catherine de medici
Young Catherine de Medici
(Themedicifamily.com)

Orphaned only weeks after her birth, and passed around to several relatives before her internment  in several convents, Catherine de Medici had a rough start in life.

Like most children of noble families, Catherine maintained little control over her destiny. Born into the powerful Italian Medici family, whose members included two Popes, Catherine, as an only child, bore the brunt of her family’s successes and failures. When Catherine’s family  lost control of power in Florence in 1527 by a rogue political faction, they took Catherine hostage. Parading her through the streets on a donkey, she served as a symbol of her family’s defeat. They then sent her to live in a convent until 1530 when Pope Clement, Catherine’s great uncle, took back Florence with the help of Charles V of Spain. Clement then set out to find Catherine a husband to help secure the family’s legacy.

At 14 years of age, Catherine married 15-year-old Henry, Duke of Orleans, heir to the French throne. Eager for a happy union, Catherine soon discovered something different. Her husband loved another–Diane de Pointers, his childhood governess. Henry and Diane did little to hide their affair from Catherine. Once crowned King, Henri needed an heir to secure the Valois dynasty. Perhaps Catherine thought this would put an end to her husband’s affair, but it did not. Having to share her husband, Catherine also had to provide an heir. A task that proved impossible for 10 years.

In her desperation, Catherine turned to methods that alarmed the French. Using the advice of known necromancer Cosimo Ruggeri, and the seer Nostradamus, Catherine went to great lengths to bear a child. It is said she drank the urine of pregnant mules, and wore a talisman made of goat’s blood, metals, and human blood. As a Catholic people, the French saw these strange practices as witchcraft, and Catherine as a practitioner of the Dark Arts.

Finally, a true diagnosis for the lack of pregnancy came to light, and it had little to do with the queen. Henri suffered from a penile deformity. After medical consult regarding sexual positions to accommodate the situation, the couple conceived 10 children, 7 who survived.

When Henri died from a brain infection caused by a lance wound to the eye, Catherine went into deep mourning. It is said her grief prevented her from attending the coronation of her eldest son, Francis II. But, it didn’t take long for Catherine to realize that she, as mother of the King, and several more heirs, finally had control of her court, her country, and her own destiny. As one of her first acts of power, Catherine had Diane de Pointers banished from court. She then turned her full attention to the management of her children’s lives and the Valois dynasty.

Charles IX
Charles IX
(Wikipedia)

Two years after his marriage to Mary Queen of Scots, and one year after his coronation, Francis II, aged 15, died from an ear infection. His younger brother Charles IX, aged 10, succeeded him, making Catherine Queen Regent of France. Catherine dominated her son and the French court. Never known for her love and affection toward her children, Catherine made it her life’s work to secure their power.

With the rise of Queen Elizabeth of England and the protestant reformation, Catholic popularity in France waned. French protestants, called Huguenots, fought to overtake France. Eager to create resolution, Catherine negotiated with protestant Jeanne d’Albret, Queen Regent of Navarre, to arrange a marriage between d’Albret’s son, Henri, to her  daughter Margaret. Jeanne d’Albret agreed, but only if her son could remain protestant. Margaret, in love with Henri de Guise, protested the marriage. Catherine and King Charles had Margaret dragged from her bedroom, and beaten into submission. The wedding would take place August of 1572.

In June, Catherine welcomed Jeanne d’Albret and her son to France. Catherine presented d’Albret with a pair of perfumed gloves. Known for her love of perfumes and potions, Catherine introduced France to the elegant, fragrant, and finely made gloves. When Jeanne d’Albret died soon after her arrival, the Huguenots claimed Catherine poisoned the gloves.

On August 18, 1572, Margaret and Henri of Navarre married, making Henri the King of Navarre and Margaret his queen. Thousands of Huguenots attended the wedding, including Admiral Coligny, their leader. Two days later, Coligny was attacked and killed. The Huguenots blamed Catherine and her Catholic followers, and the uprising resulted in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Charles, some say influenced by his mother, demanded that his soldiers “kill them all.” Hundreds of Huguenots died in the long battle, and Catherine’s name would forever be associated with their deaths. When her new son-in-law, the King of Navarre, converted to Catholicism to avoid being killed, Catherine is said to have laughed at him. From then on Huguenots branded Catherine as a scheming and evil Italian Queen who stopped at nothing to have her way.

The outcome of the massacre took a toll on Charles’ already weakened mental and physical condition. He alternately blamed his mother and himself for the deaths of so many. Catherine referred to him as her lunatic son. When Charles died at age 24, some said Catherine poisoned him to make way for her favorite son, Henri who became King Henri III upon Charles’ death.

Unhappy in her marriage to the King of Navarre, Margaret continued her affair with Henri de Guise, and many others. Embarrassed at her daughter’s behavior, Catherine, through her son, the King, ordered Margaret’s kidnapping and imprisonment in the south of France, where she remained for 17 years. With his mother’s whisper always in his ear, Henri withdrew Margaret’s inheritance and had Margaret’s lover, Henri de Guise, and his family murdered  at the Chateau de Blois. More of Margaret’s story can be found here.

Henri III of France
Henri III of France
(Wikipedia)

Under the rule of Henri III, France fell into a spiral of decline because of the religious war that continued to rage between the Catholics and the protestants. Unable to make peace between the two religious factions, the Catholic League forced Henri to acquiesce to their demands, including paying for their troops. Unable to deal with the pressure, Henri went into hiding, leaving his mother to sign the Treaty of Nemours, giving the Catholics power once again.

After Catherine died, Henri continued his mother’s legacy of ruthless rule which eventually led to his assassination.

Catherine de Medici will live on in history as a woman of controversy. Some see her as wicked, an evil ruler who thirsted for power. Others see her as empowered, an intelligent female leader fiercely determined to protect her family and their legacy. How do you see this unforgettable woman who influenced the history of the Medici dynasty, the Valois dynasty, France, and Europe’s religious war?