Nineteen years old and burned at the stake. What an end.
Did Joan of Arc realise, when she set out to lead mighty armies to victory, that this would be the end of it? And was it indeed her end, or can we call a history after her death- one which ended in canonisation and patronage of Mother France herself – a happy ending?
It all began in a field when Joan was 12. Her father’s fields stretched for 50 acres around those parts of Dorémy, west of the Meuse River. Though his farming was his day job, he was also head of the local watch. Perhaps a penchant for justice ran in the family; or perhaps Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret really did trudge across the fields to see her, and instruct her to drive out the English.
Or perhaps, both.
The girl from the farm must have had a choice. Tradition has it that the Christian God is not in the habit of press-ganging his recruits. If we suspend our incredulity and think for just a moment about a 12-year-old girl, standing in the field, confronted by three high-ups from Eternity: did she know what she was letting herself in for? Did her God fill her with conviction, but not quite enough foresight to foretell how it would end?
She said yes, of course. And in an extraordinary turn of affairs, the girl managed to persuade some local powers that be to back her as she journeyed, dressed as a man, through enemy territory to reach the French king and persuade him to accord her the position as head of his army.
That alone, documented by historical accounts, is a major miracle. But not as miraculous as the fact that Joan led the armies in a series of tactical assaults which turned the tide of a weary old war.
She fell into the hands of the English eventually, of course. And found herself on trial for heresy in a wrangle over the throne of France. Her intellect was perceived as astounding at her trial, but logic has little place in these matters.
But it is that moment in the field that concerns us today. The moment which dictated the shape of not just Joan’s life, but whole peoples.
The Fifth Lesson in Nine Lessons and Carols concerns a moment when a young woman is approached in just such a fashion by just such an angel. She must have a child without consummation, without father, whilst she was betrothed. She must face almost certain ruin.
The songs talk about this serene rose, saying yes, submitting to what the almighty expected of her.
But be in no doubt: this was a battle cry. When this woman said Let It Happen, did she, could she, know not just the immediate consequences, but that she would have to watch her son embroiled in a messy political situation and die horribly in the hands of the Romans?
We’ll never know. Mary’s story is little documented, unlike that of Joan who came after her. But I eschew the sweet songs about Mary. Any woman in any set of stories like these: no matter how little they say about this character, no matter that she did not wear armour or wave a standard; this character must have signed up for battle.