On 7th July 1456, an appellate court declared Joan of Arc innocent of any crimes. Unfortunately for Joan, they were 25 years too late. By then, she had already been abandoned to the English by the ungrateful King Charles VII of France who had no more use for her. She had already walked to her death in a white shapeless robe knotted with a cheap piece of cord at her waist after being condemned and sentenced to die as a heretic and a witch by the English. People had already catcalled and laughed as the hem of her robe dragged in the mud making her stumble. Her brown hair had already been shaved as if she was a shameless whore. On her bare cold scalp, where a razor had nicked her pale skin leaving blood slowly congealing, sat a tall paper hat like a bishop’s mitre. On it was the clumsily written words: Heretic, Witch, Traitor.
On 30th May 1431, Joan frantically looked around, her terrified eyes darting everywhere, as she mumbled desperate words. She was not begging for someone to save her as she looked into the faces of the crowd swimming around her, their eyes alight with excitement. She was urgently pleading for an English soldier to give her a wooden cross as she was lifted up towards the bonfire and tied to the stake.
They had built the pyre so high that it was hard for her to get up. Her feet scrambled on the ladder and her free hand could not get a grip. But still they cheerfully pushed her forward, hands on her back, buttocks and thighs. When she still scrambled, a big soldier pushed his way past her on the ladder, grabbing a handful of the coarse white material of her robe and hauling her slight body up beside him, turning her around and pushing her back against the pyre. Someone below threw a length of chain to him and he looped it around her then fastened it with a bolt behind her, to the yells of encouragement from the crowd. He tugged to make sure it was secure and roughly tucked the wooden cross in front of her gown.
A friar pushed his way to the front holding a crucifix in front of him but by then she was staring ahead unblinkingly. She did not hear the priest’s word at the bottom of the pyre cursing at her in Latin, the ritual for a heretic, to the growing excitement of the crowd. As she stared ahead, clutching her cross, men with burning torches came from the castle and walked around the pyre, lighting it at the base before laying them against the wood. Someone had dampened the wood so it would burn slowly to give her the greatest pain and the smoke slowly billowed around her.
As the crowd screamed encouragement, her lips moved silently as she looked down at her cross, muttering “Jesus, Jesus” over and over. Perhaps they were screaming for a miracle to add to the excitement. She was after all a witch. But there was nothing. Just the swirling smoke around her white face and her moving lips.
The fire was slow to catch and as the bell began to toll slowly and solemnly, the crowd jeered at the soldiers for laying a poor bonfire as if it wasn’t already a terrible nightmare they were about to observe. Through the thickening cloud of smoke, her head bobbed under the weight of the great paper mitre as if she was listening for the sound of angels above the tolling of the bell.
Suddenly the wood shifted and the flames started to lick. The inside of the pyre was drier, built weeks ago for her, and the crackle and blaze started to brighten the ramshackle buildings of the square as the flames jumped and loomed higher. The brightness of the fire threw a flickering glow on Joan as she whispered “Jesus” over and over. As the white robe suddenly caught fire and a tongue of flame flickered up her back, the pyre shifted again and the bright sparks flew higher, her paper mitre turning brown and curling. It was only then she became as silent as a stone angel.
She had once been a young woman who had received visions of angels and saints and commanded a French army during the Lancastrian phase of the War of the Roses.
At nineteen years of age, she suffered the consequences.