FALSTAFF HAS THE LAST LAUGH

This is a purely fictional story about engagements between an English Knight named Sir John Falstaff and the French heroine Jeanne d’Arc in the fifteenth century.

The events to which I refer actually took place and inspired Englishman William Shakespeare to write a number of dramatic historical plays centred around the Kings of England during the Plantagenet period of reign and the knight called Falstaff.

This is my story about that and why I think William Shakespeare may have killed Falstaff off in the play of Henry V without a single line spoken by him.

Jeanne d’Arc was just three years old in 1415 when the battle of Agincourt was fought and won by the English against the French.

The English under King Henry V spent the next five years achieving dominion over much of northern France and asserting Henry’s sovereign right to rule over both England and France.

The French King Charles VI, weak both in terms of health and political effectiveness, conceded the French crown to Henry, virtue of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420 and proposed his youngest daughter, Princess Catherine of Valois, in marriage to Henry for a substantial dowry.

Jeanne was no more than an uneducated tenant farmer’s daughter from the small town of Domremy in north eastern France but she was nonetheless canny and astute.

And she was unavoidably aware of the English presence in her home town.

None more so than a larger than life knight named Sir John Falstaff who kept company with the officers of the Burgundian allies, boasted of his glorious success under Henry V at Agincourt, stole money, gambled heavily and drank alcohol to excess.

Two years later in 1422, events took a dramatic turn when both the English King, Henry V and the French King, Charles VI, died within a few months of each other.

It was probably at this time that the young girl started hearing voices and experiencing visions with bright lights about the future of France.

Now ten, she decided that it was her personal mission from God to drive the English out of France and to have the rightful King, Charles VII, son of Charles VI, delivered to the throne.

Many folk in high places would mock and show contempt to the young shepherdess who, without any military training, wished to lead a French army into battle.

When she was seventeen, she made the  two hundred mile journey across English held territory in France in just eleven days to meet Charles VII himself at Chinon castle and persuade him to allow her to lead the army.

Orleans was certainly an important strategically positioned city in the Loire valley.

She was quick to turn the French militia into a formidable fighting force and although not engaging in battle herself, she was an inspirational mascot and brandished her banner as a weapon.

It is here where she would meet the dastardly knight Falstaff once again and this time in conflict.

Jeanne was instrumental in inflicting a humiliating defeat on Falstaff and the English in the battle of Orleans and she was proclaimed by the French people for her heroism.

It was she who had dragged the disgraced and cowardly Falstaff from his horse in the finality of the battle, placed him into captivity and then released him back to the English for no small ransom.

This was no mean match of a giant of a man to a small petite young girl.

The military victory at Orleans paved the way for Charles VII to be crowned King of France in a coronation conducted at the cathredal of Rheims, the traditional place for French royal investiture.

This was the point when Jeanne could or should have said that enough was enough and gone home to her family in Domremy and to milk the cows on the pastures but she did not.

Just like a prize fighter who could not refuse one more bout, she went into combat at Compiegne with plans to re-take Paris to what she envisoned was the completion of her mission.

But the plan was foolhardy and things quickly went  wrong.

She got trapped outside the city gates, was thrown from her horse in the melee and was captured by Burgundian forces allied to the English who soon ransomed her to the English for ten thousand crowns.

This would prove to be Falstaff’s redemption for his abject failure at Orleans.

He had been on hand to bring about Jeanne’s mishap as an act of revenge and he vowed there and then with a raucous laugh that she would never again see the light of day.

The manner in which Jeanne looked Falstaff in the eye in that lingering moment was penetratable to the very core of the heart and would not be forgotten.

Jeanne faced seventy charges and was unfairly trialled in a lawless inquisition in Rouen, the northern French city adopted by the English as their provinciial capital.

She was accused, amongst other things,  of wearing mens clothes, of cutting her hair like a pageboy, of horse theft and being a heretic and a witch.

The charges were, of course, trumped up to have her removed from the fray and discredit France as a nation.

You can bet your bottom dollar that Falstaff was there as the indictment was read out to her.

We can only imagine that attempts were made to abuse her in custody but she remained until her last breath a young woman, just nineteen at deaths door, of unbreakable piety, chastity and humility whose courage and conviction could not be broken.

She was to be burnt at the stake in the old market square of Rouen at first light on the morning of 30th May 1431.

Falstaff’s remorseless face was the last Jeanne saw before she died and her echoing screech that they her accusers could take her life but not her heart could be heard for miles around.

Jeanne d’Arc.  La Purcell, as she preferred to be called.  The Maid of Orleans.  Call her what you will.  Heroine of the French people to this day.

The Hundred Years War came to an end in 1453 when the English realized that the French could not be defeated for  territory in their own backyard.

With some lamentable degree of irony, her face and voice was the last echo of humanity in Falstaff’s world when he finally kicked the bucket a few years after the end of the war in 1459.

William Shakespeare did not write history per se but he certainly interpreted it.

Falstaff may have had the last laugh in battle but Jeanne won the war for France.

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