Just as she arrived a bit late to the Hundred Years War – about three quarters of the way through – Joan of Arc takes a while to appear in historian Helen Castor’s biography. In fact she only turns up, with a small band of men, on page 86 in Chinon, the bolt hole of the king, when he’s apparently on the verge of quitting France because it had all got too much. Given that he was originally third in line, had been in opposition to his slightly simple father, Charles VI, le bien-aimé, and was now fighting his mother, Henry V of England, as well as the Burgundians who had had control of Paris since 1418, it’s hardly surprising that he’d had enough.
What is more surprising is that – after numerous gynaecological examinations to check she was intact and even more numerous interrogations by clergymen to ascertain whether the voices she heard were really from God – the future king decided to take this little peasant from la France profonde at her word. According to Castor, however, his decision was entirely rational. First there was nothing wrong with her plan: to lead him to his coronation at Reims and banish the English from French shores. Second, there was little hope anyway and Orléans, the city against which she would launch her attack, was already under siege. In truth, it wouldn’t really matter if she lost. Let this be the test. In four days la Pucelle had liberated a town, which had been besieged by the English for six months. Her reputation was made.
And Joan of Arc did this without killing anyone herself. She simply lead on the troops with her fearless rhetoric – written by scribes as she was illiterate – and screamed from atop her white steed, wearing specially fitted armour and hand held abreast brandishing a white banner. Apart from the divine, she heeded no authority, whether ecclesiastical, military or regal; she said to the English king: ‘Wherever I find your men in France, I will make them leave, whether they want to or not, and if they will not obey, I will have them killed.’
Castor portrays her as particularly brave in navigating political and military intrigue. The internecine war was further complicated by intervention from the English on the side of the Burgundians and the Scottish on the side of the Armagnacs. Castor’s writing is wonderfully spiky: ‘Appalled though they privately were at the prospect of their uncouth Scottish duke, the citizens of Tour welcomed Douglas with stiff-necked public ceremony, and watched, grim-faced, while he set about plundering the city’s treasury as thoroughly as his troops were pillaging the countryside around.’
Belief in God’s will was dictated by which side you were on, while God’s will was interpreted by which side was winning. Nobles swapped sides unexpectedly. Powerful women, like the formidable Isabel of Yolande, oiled political alliances through marriage or diplomacy. It is the stuff of Hilary Mantel. Though Joan may have been brave and filled with conviction, at the end of the day, Castor suggests, she was a political tool who, once she’d led the king to Reims, was dispensed with and left to rot in an English jail for 13 months. She’d been a soldier for only seven.
Helen Castor excels at putting Joan of Arc into context. She’s a lone undaunted figure, striding in on the brutal bloody battleground of feminists, nationalists, fighters of the Resistance, monarchists who’ve all tried to rally the figure of Joan to their cause in the intervening centuries. The heroine was one of the few figures of the time who was well documented, in letters, poems, treatises, journals, and the accounts of a few chroniclers who were nothing if not partisan – Castor has some fun pitting them against each other – so there is ample material with which to breathe life into an icon. We even learn what her breasts were like.
The problem with this material is that so much of it is mediated; her words at the trial were transcribed into clerical Latin and the second trial took place 25 years after her death. In the end, Helen Castor is no Dr Frankenstein who can make a living whole out of the disparate parts. She is, rather, a master craftsmen painting as flat, if as luminous, a portrait as a stain glass window in the knave of a church. The exquisitely still maiden warrior glows remotely by the light of others’ testimonies.