Joan of Arc Festival, Rouen, Sunday 30th May 2010
- About an hour north of Alençon via the A28 lies the beautiful medieval city of Rouen on the River Seine.
Each year on the last Sunday of May, Rouen hosts ‘The Joan of Arc Festival’ to commemorate the trial and execution of Joan of Arc. When we visited it, the festival featured a medieval market with traditional crafts, a “Middle Ages” tavern (take that with a large pinch of salt!), street entertainers and dancers.
It was in Rouen on 30 May 1431 that Joan of Arc was tried by the English and executed by burning at the stake. One of her crimes was to have worn men’s clothing (trousers). The wearing of trousers by women is still technically an offence in Paris (though there are plans to repeal this arcane law)!
After she had been burned alive, Joan’s ashes were scattered in the River Seine.
On the Sunday of the festival a procession makes its way to Rouen’s Boieldieu Bridge where bouquets of flowers are tossed into the river Seine, at the exact point where Joan’s ashes were dispersed. In the afternoon, a mass is celebrated in St. Joan’s memory at Notre-Dame Cathedral in the town centre. Throughout May, up until June 6th 2010, there are further commemorative masses at churches across Rouen – known as the city of a hundred bell towers.
Sites in Rouen related to Joan of Arc
From the Pucelle’s Tower to the Boieldieu Bridge, a pathway retraces the final months of Joan of Arc’s life. This walk is also an opportunity to discover the places and works of art in Rouen that commemorate Joan’s story.
- Pucelle’s Tower – 102 Rue Jeanne d’arc – the remains of a 13th Century castle, built by Philippe Auguste and at the time occupied by the English, where Joan of Arc was imprisoned before her trial when she came to Rouen.
- Remains of the castle keep on Rue du Donjon (also known as the Tour Jeanne-d’Arc or Joan of Arc Tower) where she was imprisoned after her trail.
- The Place du Vieux-Marché – a flower garden behind the church and museum now marks the place where she was burned
- Boieldieu Bridge – where her ashes were scattered into the River Seine
- The Joan of Arc Museum, on the Place du Vieux-Marché.
There is also a Joan of Arc Room in Rouen’s art museum, which has works depicting Joan of Arc and her life.
The Story of Joan of Arc
The Hundred Years War (Guerre de Cent Ans) was waged sporadically from 1337 to 1453 between rivals for the French throne, which was vacant following the death of the last of the Capetian line of French kings in 1328. The two main contenders were the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet, also known as the House of Anjou. The House of Valois claimed the title of King of France, while the Plantagenets from England claimed to be Kings of France and England. The Plantagenet Kings, although based at this time in England, had their roots in the French regions of Anjou and Normandy. French soldiers fought on both sides, with Burgundy and Aquitaine providing support for the English Plantagenets.
Towards the end of this period, the French king Charles VI suffered from fits of madness and numerous plots and intrigues racked the kingdom. The French army was finally defeated by Henry V of England at Agincourt in 1415. In 1420 following the assassination of John the Fearless of Burgundy, his son Philip the Good and Henry V of England formed an alliance under the Treaty Of Troyes. Under this agreement, Charles VI’s son was excluded from succession to the French crown (Philip of Burgundy believing that Charles VI’s son had been behind his father’s assasination) and Henry V married Catherine of Valois, Charles VI’s daughter, to consolidate his claim to the crown after Charles VI’s death. However, in 1422, a few weeks before Charles VI’s death, Henry V himself died, leaving a son and heir who was barely 10 months old. Henry V’s brother acted as regent for the infant Henry VI. Talk about a mess!
By now most of northern France, including Paris, and the south-west region of Aquitaine were under English and Burgundian joint rule.
Joan of Arc at Orleans and Reims
It was at this time that Joan of Arc, born in 1412 to a family of farm labourers, came to revive rival French claims to the throne. In 1424 she claimed she heard God’s voice telling her to help the dauphin, Charles VI’s son, to regain the throne. Backed by the nobleman Robert de Baudricourt, she reached Chinon in 1429 and convinced the dauphin to allow her to lead an army to attempt to liberate Orleans, which was then under siege by the English. Following a series of daring raids on English strongholds she liberated the city in May 1429. She now joined forces with the army of Duke John II of Alençon and after a dramatically successful drive north to Reims, taking numerous towns from the English along the way, in July the dauphin was crowned Charles VII in Reims. During all of this time, Joan continued to have “visions” which guided her actions.
Joan of Arc’s Capture
Charles VII next allowed Joan to lead an army to try to retake Paris. This attempt ended in failure and Joan was forced to retreat, but continued to campaign elsewhere. However, in May 1430 Joan was taken prisoner near Compiegne by the Burgundians. Charles neglected to ransom her freedom and she was eventually sold to the English and brought to Rouen, where she was tried for witchcraft and heresy, based on her claims to have been guided by visions. The city of Rouen had been under English rule since 1419. She was imprisoned in the Pucelle’s Tower, also known nowadays as the Joan of Arc Tower.
The trial began on 9 February 1431. The prosecution was conducted by Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, and despite no real evidence or a properly obtained confession, she was found guilty of heresy. Whilst she was still imprisoned Cauchon opened a second trial for “relapsed heresy” on 28 May, double heresy being a crime punishable by death. In due course thecourt handed down a sentence of death by burning at the stake.
Burning at the Stake
On 30 May 1431, at the Place du Vieux-Marché, or Old Market Square, Joan was burned alive before a large crowd. Although supposedly a heretic, she was granted Holy Eucharist and, while tied to the stake, she asked for and was given a cross.
When all was over, Joan’s ashes were scattered in the River Seine at the foot of the Boieldieu Bridge at Rouen, so that no relics could be preserved.
In 1455 Joan’s mother obtained permission from the Pope to have the heresy verdict re-examined. A “rehabilitation” trial was held at Rouen and, on 7 July, 1456, the formal rehabilitation was pronounced in a ceremony at Saint-Ouen cemetery. In their revised verdict, the judges proclaimed that the city of Rouen should erect a cross on the site of Joan’s execution.