Yolande of Aragon (1384-1442): Farewell, Yolanda

The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc
by Nancy Goldstone, Viking Adult (2012)

Subtitling anything with “Secret History”  is a bit risky, given the number of alternative theories of Joan there are out there, some more wacko than others.*

The good news is that the secret here is not at all wacko, but rather an expansion on the shadowy role of Yolanda of Aragon, Duchess of Anjou,  in getting Joan into the company of the Dauphin.  This book is a three parter, a bio of Yolanda, a bio of Joan, and aftermath of the execution to the end of the Hundred Years War.

Joan you already know.  Yolanda – you may need an introduction.

Yolanda of Aragon, was the wife of Louis II, Duke of Anjou (1377 –1417), King of Sicily, Naples and Jerusalem. The Anjou title was what mattered; the others he inherited but was unable to exploit, though he spent a good deal of time away from his wife and children in the vain attempt to do so, time in which Yolanda she spent running the household, which extended over a good part of France. The chroniclers speak highly of her looks and wisdom and ability.

Besides her own children, she also raised Charles, a younger son of Mad King Charles VI of France, back when the boy was fourth in line to the throne and not really expected to get it. But elder brothers died and soon enough he was at the head of the line, the Dauphin. By this time he had married Yolanda’s daughter, giving Yolanda a vested interest in his success.  She would do what she could for him, but it was uphill and back room work, the details of which were presumably never written down – something of a handicap for an historian, though Ms Goldstone does what she can with the material and gives a good account of contemporary politicking at the time.

Charles, it has to be said, was pretty poor specimen. He was weak willed, easily lead by whoever was at hand, and with an unhealthy interest in the supernatural. So were many of his close advisers (known devil worshipers among them), a claque that Yolanda was at odds to counterbalance. As the seemingly interminable Hundred Years War against the English (and their Burgundian allies) was going against Charles, he was having serious doubts about his parentage (his mother got around), therefore of his right to the throne in particular and God’s blessings in general.

How then to snap him out of it?

Yolanda played to his mystical side. When by good fortune the peasant Joan appeared in the Duchy of Bar, a holding of Yolanda’s son Rene, it was simply a matter of getting her an audience with the Dauphin, a meeting the author (as have others) suggests was down to Yolanda.

This was a double-edged solution, however. Joan claimed to hear voices and Charles had been cautioned already by his clerics to ease off on his fascination with prophecy and the like. Joan needed serious vetting from the church. She got it, of course (Yolanda being one of those who confirmed the virginity which suggested her voices were not Devil inspired), and took to the field, turning the tide against the English and paving the way for Charles to get crowned King of France.

Joan’s leadership was good for about a year, after which everything fell apart. Joan was wounded, captured, and put on trial, a disgraceful affair that has fascinated novelists and playwrights and upright people for centuries ever after. In 1432, the English burned her as a witch.

There follows part three of the book, the aftermath, including Charles’ the posthumous second trial of Joan in which she is rehabilitated and set on the road to sainthood.

The book is strongly on Joan’s side; given the outrageous details of the trial, it is hard not to be.

History, however, is a muddy business. Consider the situation from the English point of view. A decades long string of stunning English victories was suddenly reversed by a nineteen year old peasant girl who claimed to hear voices and whose master was a pathetic creature, possibly illegitimate, and given to attempted intercourse with demons.

There are two possible explanations – Joan either was God’s instrument (which would have been a dramatic and completely inexplicable volte face on His part), or, reasonably enough – she was the devil’s.

The Duke of Bedford, English regent in occupied France (and husband to the sister of the Duke of Burgundy), seems to have believed the second interpretation sincerely, however disgraceful the actual trial was. (Like sausage and law making, the trial was not something for the squeamish. Bedford, like the feds getting Capone on tax evasion, was working with what he had.)

It’s not a popular view among partisans of Joan, who can only see evil in the English. The author tells us that when, prior to her trial, Joan’s virginity was again being established, “the Duke of Bedford conceal[ed] himself  ‘in a secret place’ and [was] peeping at her to satisfy his curiosity”.

Pretty bad. Suspiciously so. The charge comes from Régine Pernoud’s Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses (an excellent resource, by the way); Pernoud’s source is Boisguillaume (aka Maître Guillaume Colles), who wrote:

“I heard it said by one whom I know longer remember, that Joan was examined by some matrons and that she was found to be a virgin and that this examination had been made by order of the Duchess of Bedford and that the Duke of Bedford stood in a secret place from which he could see Joan examined.”**

And who was Boisguillaume? A notary in Rouen who took down official account of Joan’s first trial, and who was called to testify fourteen years later at the second inquest. Charles needed to rehabilitate Joan and prove that God was indeed on his side all along. Boisguillaume needed to prove he was loyal subject of the king now that the English were long gone.

So we get a nasty story that is basically third hand hearsay from a forgotten source who is not even claimed to be an eyewitness, and which appears nowhere else in the record. Not enough to hang a dog.

Does this really matter? The historian owes justice to the dead, has to be scrupulous in sifting the evidence, in keeping an eye on who said what, and when, and how reliable their word is, and what pressures might induce a witness to fudge things a bit. When a squalid story is attributed to some guy I can’t remember and who may not even have been present at the event, and that story is nowhere else mentioned– you don’t put it forward as fact. This is not a Hollywood epic, cheap entertainment (cf the disgraceful The Messenger) after which you have to go to the library to see where the screenplay went wrong- this is a work of history and may be used for future scholars. It may interpret, but it must not fiddle the fact.

(That alleged Peeping Tom the Duke of Bedford, by the way, was generally noted as a good and just man, and among the English, notable for his sympathy to his French subjects. He was buried in the cathedral at Rouen and Charles VII son Louis XI, asked if it should be removed said no, “let his body rest…I account it an honor to have him remain in my domains.” He lies there still. )

There are other difficulties with the book. On discussing Agincourt she writes: “What nobody ever mentions is that Henry’s noble assault on France took place at a time when the English king was perfectly aware that his enemies had spent the last eight years in a highly destructive civil war and were in complete disarray, and that this counterpart, the French king, was a man who spent the majority of his time locked up in a castle ranting that he was being pursued by phantom enemies and insisting that he was actually somebody named George.”

Nobody? Juliet Barker, whose Agincourt: Henry V and the Battle That Made England
is listed in the bibliography, certainly mentions it, as does Desmond Seward in his Henry V as Warlord (Classic Military History). There’s really not much in the way of a cover up here.

There is also outrage in the book about historians’ ignoring Yolanda’s role in history in general and Joan’s story in particular.  Again, historians are trained to get facts as hard as possible. Not a lot on offer here. Charles in later life is quoted as saying that she gave him “much advice, support and many services using her goods, people, and fortresses”.

Sounds a little boilerplate, the kind of thing you say at a funeral. Absent a list of particulars, an historian should be careful not to read too much into it.

The author finishes:

“So accomplished a statesman was Yolande, and so cleverly did she hide her tracks, that the myth that Joan of Arc appeared at Charles’s court and convinced the king of his birthright unaided by any mortal being has stood unchallenged for nearly six hundred years.” (Italics mine.)

Hidden tracks do not make for good history. Nor have writers studiously ignored Yolanda. Mark Twain in his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, cites Yolande as a crucial early supporter.

Then there’s this, from 1920: “Thousands of people do not know [Yolanda’s] name yet, if it had not been for her, Joan of Arc might never have ridden to the Siege of Orleans.” These are the opening line of an article from ‘St Nicholas, An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks.’

More recently, the authors of the whimsical Holy Blood, Holy Grail Illustrated Edition: The Secret History of Jesus, the Shocking Legacy of the Grail  (the basis for The DaVinci Code) refer to her role as Joan’s “patroness and sponsor”.

If more serious historians are reticent, again, it is their aversion to undocumented speculation – but the suggestion is by no means new.

Good news is that Yolanda is getting more attention. In just the past six years there have been two biographies of Yolanda in French (Arnaud des Roches de Chassay,  Yolande d’Aragon and Gérard de Senneville Yolande d’Aragon : La reine qui a gagné la guerre de Cent Ans), and a novel.

To the extent that this book helps the Yolanda boomlet along, it can be counted a good thing.  For that reason and some speculative discussion of the minstral Jean d’ArrasLe Roman de Melusine,  the  alone, it deserves to be read, albeit with caution, and by preference along side other works:

Juliet Barker’s Conquest: The English Kingdom of France, 1417-1450

Margaret L.Kekewich, The Good King: René of Anjou and 15th Century Europe (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2008)

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*Marcel Gay‘s l’affaire Jeanne d’Arc contends that she survived and was spirited off by English and married a French knight and lived happily ever after,  as befitted a royal  daughter of the House of Orleans hidden since babyhood.

** (It was a technical thing. Had the second test proved her not a virgin, the trial would have been superfluous.

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