Joan of Arc’s Lessons in Ill-Advised Fiscal Austerity
Most historians naturally tend to focus on the more dramatic aspects of Joan of Arc’s life -- her inexplicable prowess in battle, her mesmerizing testimony at her Trial of Condemnation, her horrific death by fire in Rouen.
But her most profound contribution to her kingdom’s ultimate victory may well have been her impact on English fiscal policy.
It worked like this: Until Joan showed up at the dauphin’s court in 1429, the Hundred Years’ War (basically a prolonged conflict between England and France over inheritance rights) had been going very well for the English. Henry V had invaded western France with a small regiment and, at Agincourt in 1415, in a battle immortalized by William Shakespeare, he trounced the whole of the French army, a fighting force at least 10 times the size of its English adversaries.
England followed this unexpected success two years later with a second assault that yielded, among other French territories, the rich province of Normandy. Paris capitulated soon after, and in 1424 the English again decimated their French opponents and won most of the duchy of Maine at the Battle of Verneuil.
By 1428, the English commanders were sufficiently confident of victory to raise a new army to besiege Orleans, one of the principal cities in France still loyal to the dauphin, the aim being to break through the natural barrier of the Loire and take over the rest of the kingdom.
A Girl Warrior
Then, a 17-year-old girl dressed in armor, carrying a banner and leading a large French army suddenly appeared. And the English regency watched, stupefied, as what had been billed by the military as another easy triumph disintegrated into a rout. Not only was the siege of Orleans lifted in a single week, the French army, with Joan in the lead, had the temerity to chase after the retreating English soldiers and force their surrender.
England was obliged to put a new army hurriedly into the field, and to bribe its ally, the duke of Burgundy, to remain loyal in order to have enough troops to hold Paris.
Taken together, these unexpected expenses gave rise to yet another highly regrettable development. For the first time since the invasion had begun 14 years before, the royal budget showed a deficit in the amount of 10,000 pounds.
(To add insult to injury, after the duke of Burgundy’s forces captured Joan at Compiegne in 1430, the English found themselves called on to pay her ransom and foot the bill for her extended trial by the French Inquisition.)
The outcry by the English baronage over this shortfall would have warmed the heart of today’s most avid fiscal conservative. There being no liberal social programs available to cut -- the peasantry was pretty much expected to suffer and die in unalleviated poverty in the Middle Ages -- the exchequer focused instead on reducing foreign aid, which in this case meant discontinuing the policy of bribing the duke of Burgundy.
The duke of Burgundy was naturally distressed with his ally’s unforeseen commitment to austerity. He made his displeasure known by refusing to attend the coronation of 10-year-old Henry VI in Paris, a signal that was picked up immediately by the French court, headed by the former dauphin, now (thanks to Joan’s intervention and his coronation at Reims) legitimately known as Charles VII, king of France.
What a Deal
Charles was a fiscal disaster. He was in so much debt that he had to hock the tapestries off his wall to finance his wedding. He couldn’t pay his soldiers. He couldn’t ransom his brother-in-law. He’d been running deficits for so many years he wouldn’t have known a balanced budget if it got down on one knee and paid homage.
But he understood the value of the friendship of the duke of Burgundy, and so did his creditors. Through back channels, Charles offered the duke an enormous bribe to change sides, which the duke graciously accepted. Although it would take another 15 years to push the English out of France completely, in that instant England lost the war. So, to save 10,000 pounds, the English gave up Normandy, Maine, Gascony, Bordeaux and Paris. What a deal.
Just a short lesson in political economy from Joan of Arc as election season moves into high gear.
(Nancy Goldstone’s most recent book is “The Maid and the Queen: The Secret History of Joan of Arc” published this week by Viking. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Read more online from Echoes, Bloomberg View’s economic history blog.
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