TT: A King Insane, a Maiden’s Reign

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back one and learn why I don’t think authors are important.  Well…  There’s a bit more to it than that!  Then come back and join me and Alan as we continue our cheerful adventure through the realms of the Henries.

JANE: Last time you mentioned that King Henry VI was insane.  Is that based in fact or just bad press?

Lady Knights

Lady Knights

ALAN: Oh it’s definitely factual, and well documented. Henry suffered from bouts of depression and instability throughout his reign. In 1453, following the loss of Bordeaux to the French, Henry slipped into a depression so profound that he completely lost touch with his surroundings. He even failed to respond to the birth of his own son! During this period, the Duke of York was appointed Lord Protector of England, which was definitely an indirect cause of the Wars of the Roses, since it gave York much political influence.

Also, during the Battle of St Albans, which secured Henry’s release from captivity and marked the start of his second reign, he was recorded as singing and laughing and generally paying no attention whatsoever to what was going on all around him!

JANE: Ouch!  Sounds like Nero fiddling while Rome burned, but with a more factual basis.

One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about these Tangents on the Henries is figuring out where other historical events fit into the puzzle.  I was thrilled to realize that Henry VI is the “King Henry” whose depredations caused Joan of Arc to rise to glory.

ALAN: Ah, poor Joan. At the age of 12 she saw a vision of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret. They urged her to drive the English out of France. She later said that she cried when they left her, because they were so beautiful. Through a combination of family influence and a lucky guess (she predicted the defeat of a French army at Orléans), she managed to get an audience with the French king. She persuaded him to allow her to travel with the army and to wear the equipment of a knight. She had a huge effect on the morale of the French, inspiring them with her religious fervour and turning the tide of the war.

JANE: And also, incidentally, inspiring a lot of literature.  Perhaps the most famous piece is George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.

I think in some sense the popular fantasy motif of the lady knight – dealt with by writers as diverse as Tamora Pierce and Jo Walton – owes a lot to Joan of Arc.

ALAN: And, going perhaps from the sublime to the ridiculous, maybe she was also the inspiration behind Esther Friesner’s delightfully titled anthology, Chicks in Chainmail.

JANE: That’s a bizarrely wonderful suggestion…  But back to Joan.

ALAN: Joan was eventually captured by the English in 1430. Her enormous influence on the French forces was of great concern to the English and they quickly organised a show trial to get her out of the picture. Because of the religious inspiration of her campaign, they tried her for heresy. Rather to their surprise, she presented a subtle and cleverly argued defence, skilfully avoiding several theological traps that the prosecution laid for her. Some of the dialogue in George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan is actually taken verbatim from the transcript of her trial. Shaw felt that he was unable to improve on the perfection of her own words.

JANE: I didn’t know that about Shaw’s using the transcript.  That’s wonderful!

ALAN: But of course the verdict was never in doubt. Joan was found guilty and condemned to death. She was burned at the stake on 30th May 1431. After the fire died down, the English raked back the ashes to expose her charred corpse so that nobody could claim that she had escaped her fate. Then, so as to prevent the collection of holy relics, they burned her body twice more, reducing it to ashes which they scattered in the river Seine from a bridge with the rather odd name of Mathilda.

JANE: As in the English empress we discussed a few weeks ago?  What a peculiar coincidence!

Shakespeare did not treat Joan – referred to as Joan de Pucelle in my text – well.

ALAN: Oh, I don’t know. She has her moment in the sun… Joan La Pucelle (in my texts) is highly praised by the Dauphin, the French crown prince.

“La Pucelle” is French for “The Maid” (or more colloquially, “The Virgin”) and the Dauphin pours praise upon her, comparing her to figures from classical literature:

“Divinest creature, Astrea’s daughter…”

Astrea was the goddess of justice and innocence who eventually ascended to heaven where she lived among the stars in the constellation of Virgo.

On the other hand, Shakespeare also has the Dauphin say:

“A statlier pyramid to her I’ll rear / Than Rhodope’s…”

This is somewhat ironic given that in Greek legend, Rhodopis was an Egyptian prostitute who used her immoral earnings to build the Pyramid of Menkure. She must have been enormously talented between the sheets to have funded such a project! This is hardly a tactful reference to make about the virginal Joan, so maybe Shakespeare was indeed deliberately praising her with faint (or perhaps not so faint) damns by putting these words in the Dauphin’s mouth.

JANE: I really don’t think the mention of Rhodopis is “ironic.”  I think it’s meant to show that the Dauphin’s admiration is as much for her beauty and sexuality as for her saintly qualities.

I agree that, in Shakespeare’s play, in the scenes wherein Joan is introduced, her miraculous powers are proven beyond a doubt.  She knows that another man is standing in for the “Dolphin” (an early rendering of the French “dauphin”).  Then she defeats the Dolphin in single combat.  However, her saintly influence is put in doubt when the Dolphin immediately begins to lust after her.  (To her credit, she does refuse him.)

After the victory at Orleance, the Dolphin proclaims Joan France’s saint.  However, England’s Talbot – the character with whom Shakespeare’s audience would have sympathized – refers to her as “that witch, that damned sorceress,” also as “Foul fiend of France, and hag of all despite,/ Encompass’d with thy lustful paramours!”  The insults just keep piling up, each more elaborate than the last.

Later in the play, Joan calls upon supernatural forces that are far from saintly, including the “Monarch of the North” – a title for the Devil.  In other words, far from the subtle and intelligent heroine of history, Shakespeare leaves no doubt at all the France’s champion is a witch of the blackest order.  Trying to forestall her execution, Joan first claims saintly powers.  When this doesn’t work, she switches tactics, claiming to be pregnant.  (A pregnant woman was often freed from execution.)  It’s one of Shakespeare’s ugliest bits of character assassination.

ALAN: Ugly, yes. But also quite understandable from the English point of view. Every side in every war vilifies the opposing army – and the English are particularly prone to doing it. Shakespeare himself seemed really to enjoy piling insult upon insult to all and sundry. He makes villains out of the nicest people.

JANE:  Amusingly, Shakespeare wasn’t done with Henry VI once he’d killed him off in the plays.  Henry’s dead body and his ghost appear in the play Richard III

ALAN: That’s not as farfetched as it might seem at first glance. Henry had a very busy post mortem career. Did you know that he was almost canonized as a saint?

JANE: I had no idea…  Do tell!

ALAN: A lot of posthumous miracles were attributed to the king. He raised a plague victim from the dead as she was being sewn into her shroud, and he intervened in the execution by hanging of a man unjustly accused of sheep stealing. Apparently, he placed his hand between the rope and the man’s neck, thus keeping him alive. He was long regarded informally as a saint, and eventually formal canonisation proceedings were initiated, but unfortunately Henry VIII’s break with the Roman church put a stop to the process.

JANE: So an insane king almost became a saint, and historians have spent centuries trying to argue that the saint was insane.  (I’ve read arguments of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.)

You know, I can’t resist a tangent off our tangent.  How do you feel about discussing a king whose role in Shakespeare’s drama was at the heart of a superlative mystery novel and was featured in a “filk” song?

ALAN: Oh yes! I think I know who you mean. He’s the king whose death made an enormous contribution to physics.

JANE: I’m going to wait to next time to ask you just how that one works!

3 Responses to “TT: A King Insane, a Maiden’s Reign”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Willy was a good man for a rousing vilification, wasn’t he?

    This reminds me of a rather amusing view from the other side, though: when Billy Bishop met some of his opposite numbers after WWI, part of the conversation is reported to have been the following [IIRC]

    BB: “We called you chaps Huns, because that was the worst thing we could think of. I’ve always wondered what you called us?”

    German pilot: “Oh, we just called you English. That was quite bad enough!”

  2. Paul Says:

    Writerly influences never cease to amaze. We remember Shakespeare’s versions of historic characters better than the real ones — although Joan does seem to have survived his treatment of her better than most. These Henries ought to be collected somewhere; I’d have loved reading them as supplements to my high school history studies.

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