Secrets of the maid of Orleans

Secrets of the maid of Orleans
The Maid and the Queen: the Secret History of Joan of Arc and Yolande of Aragon

By Nancy Goldstone (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, €23.95/£20)

Peter Hegarty


This year marks the 600th anniversary of the birth of Joan of Arc. The story of St Joan, the illiterate peasant girl who led the French army to victory against English invaders, never loses its fascination. Her eloquent defiance of her merciless inquisitors has moved people for six centuries.

The Hundred Years War (1337 to 1453) was the background to her life and death. American writer Nancy Goldstone, who specialises in books about medieval Europe, argues convincingly that she would never have come to prominence without the patronage of Yolande of Aragon, the commander of the French army.

In 1429, that army, reeling from a series of defeats, had fallen back on Orleans, the city that commands the Loire. Had Orleans fallen, the invaders would have crossed the river unimpeded and driven deep into France.

For Yolande, defeat at Orleans was unthinkable. To strengthen the defenders’ will to resist, she spread a prophesy that a virgin would deliver France. Of the many young women who began to hear voices as the prophesy circulated none were as intelligent, or as driven, as Joan.

On meeting her, Yolande correctly calculated that her presence in the coming battles would rouse the fighting spirit of her troops.

Inspired by Joan, whom they considered a messenger from God, French soldiers relieved Orleans, and routed the English in battles in the immediate region. With this series of victories they wrested the military advantage from the invaders, whose commitment to an expensive, and now a losing war, began to weaken.

Ironically, Joan helped prolong that war. After Orleans she could have pressed home the military advantage; instead she concentrated on seizing Rheims for the coronation of the dauphin Charles VII, giving the English a chance to rally.

Her impetuosity, and love of being in the van, led to her capture. And her execution deprived France of a charismatic leader, whose brief alliance with the subtle Yolande had saved the country from occupation and vassalage.