KNAVES AND A KING
THE story of Jeanne d'Arc is the most interesting in the world, because it involves all the elements of human nature, presenting them in vivid contrast, equally engaging heaven and hell in its progress and denouements.
While Jeanne is preparing for her grand essai d'armes, let us take a closer look at those persons about the king who will have a fatal influence upon her destiny. And first the king himself, that sad heir of the Valois, roused for the moment from his wonted lassitude or idle philandering in order to second and promote the great affair in hand.
Charles VII remains one of the enigmatic characters of history. Variously regarded as weak and pliant, indolent and purposeless, sensual and superstitious; and on the other hand, secretive and strong in his inertia, dissimulating a great ambition with a mask of indifference, using others while they appeared to use him, knowing how to wait, tenacious, wordless, and impassive—such was this son of a mad father and a wayward mother, upon whom depended the fate of France at a great crisis in her history. Something of greatness must have belonged to one who equally fooled both friends and enemies, who rose
from the "King of Bourges" to be Charles the Victorious, from a fugitive and sans-sou to be master of a great and opulent sovereignty, worthy to be regarded as one of the makers of modern France.
As we see him now, Charles is but twenty-seven, young but fully matured in the qualities above mentioned, assuredly unconscious of the great career that lay before him. If his attention wandered from the councilors who sought to fix it upon plans for the relief of Orleans, the mobilization of an army with Jeanne d'Arc as chef de guerre (a boresome job to these same councilors), it was doubtless because his thoughts strayed willingly to the lovely Agnes Sorel rather than to his distressed people of Orleans and the "Messenger of Heaven."
Charles's connection with this beloved mistress had a marked influence upon his life, both public and private; French critics are inclined to believe, for the most part a beneficent one. La Dame de Beaute was evidently a pearl among mistresses, even for a king; good as her looks, which were of no common order. She bore the king four children, and died still in comparative youth; most fortunate of royal favorites, perhaps, in that no evil slanders survive to poison her memory.
The liaison of Charles and Agnes throws a clear light upon that left-hand relation, so potent for evil as it was among the royalties of past and indeed quite modern times. But Charles was a venial sinner compared to many of his successors. It was indeed allowed by all right-thinking people that the king
might take one mistress; later on Henri Quatre and Louis Quatorze stretched the point, but one at a time was always considered good form. Medieval casuistry made no great matter of Charles's irregularity in this respect of conduct, and his confessor never left him. The Latin blood is of a great and inherent tolerance touching the natural passions.
Rather singularly, Charles's proper domestic relations were nowise disturbed by the arrangement referred to. The queen, Marie d'Anjou, seemed unaffectedly fond of Agnes, and the queen's mother, Yolande of Sicily, is said to have been responsible for the affair. Certain it is that all four lived in perfect accord, to all appearance happy as bees in clover; and at this time they found a new point of union in their common acceptance of Jeanne d'Arc. The queen-mother was her outspoken champion and rendered her grateful service in those first days of trial at Chinon. In later days, when the loyalty of Charles began to fail, it would seem that Jeanne offended him by protesting against the relation with Agnes. Little is known as to this and nothing from Jeanne herself, but it may well have been a cause of resentment to the jealous and truculent Charles. At any rate, Jeanne passed in 1431, while Agnes the beloved survived her twenty years. (Her death caused a suspicion of poison which seemed to point at the legitimate son of the king, who became Louis Xl. But the charge is discredited by modern writers.)
Of the knaves in the royal circle two demand special attention at this juncture; they will appear often
in the sequence. Georges La Tremoille was councilor-chamberlain to the king and his chief creditor. A forceful, domineering personality, he controlled or appeared to control Charles no less by his will than by the power of the purse. Like Judas, he "carried the bag," and his business was to betray. At an epoch of rich and varied scoundrelism, he was undoubtedly among the worst men in France. He abandoned his first wife and took another whose husband he had killed. La Tremoille followed Charles for his own profit and his "usances," but he was secretly pledged to the cause of Burgundy, which insured his enmity toward the Maid. In addition, he had conceived a great envy of her success and feared thereby to lose influence with the king.
His colleague the Chancellor Regnault de Chartres, Archbishop of Reims, was a type of the political priest who flourished greatly in those times. In petto a Burgundian like La Tremoille, his infamy is the greater, since, a priest of Christ, he lent himself to the betrayal of Jeanne d'Arc. I believe he bore her a more intense hatred than his colleague, the latter being mainly concerned for his money, while he was hurt in his priestly pride—a quality enormous in those times—that a low-born, ignorant peasant should be raised to an equality with, nay a superiority above himself, by the weak complaisance of the king. Priestly spite—la rancune ecclesiastique-breathes from him at his every contact with the glorious Maid who was marring his plots, wounding his sanctified vanity, and depreciating his influence
with Charles. She felt it from the beginning and grew cold in the presence of her implacable enemy; moved, indeed, as she was, to speak of death for herself and the end of her mission. There are moments when the bravest thus reveal weakness to a hostile spirit, in despite of themselves; and Jeanne's clairvoyant sense may well have divined in Regnault de Chartres her Caiaphas and predestined betrayer.
Cunning in evasions, in simulated candor, in all the resources of a bad heart, this proud man in an indiscreet moment, rejoicing at the downfall of the heroic girl to which he and his abettors had contributed, wrote with his own hand the confession of his hatred. I refer to his pastoral letter to the diocese of Reims in which, through a stupid mouthpiece, he imputes her fall to pride, vanity, and a passion for rich garments, etc. Jeanne, as we have seen, affected nothing that might be called luxurious by a stretch of fancy, save the pretty coat worn over her armor. Curious resentment this of the high priest; with his Roman purple and all the grandeur appertaining to his sanctified person, he still allows himself a sneer at Jeanne's poor little coat! But his priestly rancor shows itself plainly in the words that she disregarded the royal council (i.e., the chancellor himself and La Tremoille) and did all things according to her will.
This letter of the archbishop's is one of the shortest and most significant documents in the case of Jeanne d'Arc. Had he not written it from the fullness of a rancorous heart, he might well have passed without
grave censure in this history. But it throws light upon so much that was dark and obscure in the plottings of the council, in the attitude of Charles himself, that it has become worth to Regnault de Chartres an eternal obloquy!
This man was Archbishop of Reims and as such consecrated and crowned his royal master, Jeanne having made the thing possible. It was not to his pleasure that she should make so proud a figure at the ceremony, standing near the king, banner in hand. Even more did he resent her nearness to la Sainte ampoule (the holy ampulla) which contained the sacred oil piously believed to be the same used at the consecration of Clovis. In all this one senses the prejudice of a mediaeval priest, jealous of the rites from which he drew his own importance, and hatred for the peasant girl so honored beyond all precedent and holding head to him as an equal. (Of the same note is the attitude of Zanon de Castignone, Cauchon's predecessor as Bishop of Lisieux, who pronounced against Jeanne at the trial, since, he said, it was "not to be presumed that a person of such low condition could have had visions and revelations from God." Indeed, we are very far from the Carpenter now!)
This man was Archbishop of Reims, a great and venerable see, but he mainly preferred to delegate his spiritual duties to others while he swelled about the court, mighty in the king's business. He represents a type of churchman who did much to bring on the Reformation in the following century. The odium which he and his like cast upon the name of priest has not yet wholly passed away.
A reflection of the priestly prejudice against Jeanne as an interloper among the holy mysteries, which I have noted above, in the archbishop's demeanor, is also to be marked in her questioning upon this point at the trial. (To the same effect may be signaled the following censure of Jeanne which we quote from the trial: "Item. The said Jeanne, by her inventions, has seduced the Catholic people. Many in her presence have adored her as a saint, and adore her still in her absence, commanding still in her honor masses and collections (quetes) in the churches. Even more, they declare her the greatest among the saints, except the Holy Virgin; they raise statues and representations of her in the consecrated basilicas; they wear upon their persons images of her in lead or other metal, as the faithful do for canonized saints; they proclaim her everywhere the messenger of God—an angel rather than a woman."
Behold in this devotion of simple hearts the wisdom of Rome anticipated by five centuries!
La Pucelle was fully cognizant of this popular ecstasy almost passing into idolatry, but she rather discouraged than gave countenance to it, as she declared to her judges.)
Does one get scent of de Chartres here again? Cauchon as Bishop of Beauvais was subordinate to the archbishop—the latter being his "metropolitan," in churchly phrase—and, as many straws point, in secret understanding with him. Beyond doubt there was a pact between the worthy pair, though they might appear to seek different ends politically. Each had an ear in the Burgundian councils, but Cauchon's course was more forthright and open; he remained to the end a faithful servant of the English and incurred for them the deadliest odium of any man mentioned in history. De Chartres was of a weaker stomach, averse to taking great chances, looking always to his own comfort and safety. Both men, we judge, were equally involved in the fate of Jeanne d'Arc.