To the Bitter End

By Veronica Schwarz

 

In the marketplace, three platforms had been built, one for the judges, one for the priests and one for a stake piled high with wood. The stake was inserted into a high plaster base, high enough so that no one would miss the victim’s agony. It was 9 a.m. and already some ten thousand people were waiting to watch her die. The judges and priests sat on their platforms.

 

A priest stood on one of the platforms, and she was forced to mount the platform beside him so everyone could see her. He began his sermon which went on for a very long time. Joan stood and listened without a word. I stood below the platform and hoped the sermon would never end. What lay ahead was too awful to think about.

 

But the sermon finally finished and Cauchon stood and read the Church’s sentence.

 

The prisoner knelt down and began to pray. She asked pardon of her judges, the English, the King of France and all the princes of the kingdom. She asked that they would pray for her, saying that she forgave them all the harm they had done her. By the end of it the judges and even some of the English were in tears.

 

Several officials, knowing what was going to happen next, left the market place, some with tears streaming down their faces.

 

Overly eager, the English soldiers grabbed her from the platform and hoisted her up on the scaffold. A mitre was placed on her head with the words: ‘Heretic, relapsed, apostate, idolator,’ written on it.

 

Ladvenu and I climbed up on the scaffold with her. ‘Please, get me a crucifix,’ she begged.

 

An English soldier made her a little cross from two pieces of wood and handed it up to me.

 

She took the makeshift cross, kissed it and placed it inside her gown on her breast. Two of the priests ran to the nearest church to get the crucifix. Returning with it, one of them climbed up on the scaffold and held the crucifix in front of her. She told him: ‘When the fire is lit, get down but hold the cross up so I can still see it.’

 

Then she was chained to the stake and her hands were tied. She called out the names of the saints she had trusted and some of the English began to laugh at her.

 

I stayed beside her, still trying to comfort her. The English became impatient and began to call out to me: ‘Well, priest, are you going to keep us here till dinner time?’

 

Finally, they forced me to climb down. Then they lit the fire.

 

As the flames rose up around her, I heard her calling ‘Jesus. Jesus.’ They were her last words.

 

The executioner later reported that her death had been exceptionally cruel. The English had built the scaffold so high that he couldn’t climb up to strangle her quickly as was the custom. He had been forced to let her die in the fire.

 

When she was dead, the English commander called out to the executioner, ‘Push back the fire. Let everyone have a look at the witch and let no rumours start that she has escaped.’

 

The executioner did as he was told and I forced myself to look at her poor naked burnt body hanging from the stake. A strange sigh went up from the crowd. A man standing beside me expressed the thought of many there. ‘Look at her. She really was a woman. I never believed a woman could do the things she did.’

 

The fire was then stirred up again and her body burnt to ashes.

 

Later that day, Ladvenu and I were sitting together in silence. I could still hear her last words. ‘Jesus. Jesus.’ Tears streamed down my face and, although Ladvenu sat with his back to me, I suspected that he was also in tears.

 

Suddenly the door burst open pulling us both back to the present. It was the executioner. He fell on his knees in front of Ladvenu

 

‘I have burned a saint,’ he cried. ‘God will never forgive me.’

 

Ladvenu comforted him and assured him of God’s mercy.

 

Her voice still rang in my head. ‘Jesus. Jesus.’

 

She was only nineteen.

 

© Veronica Schwarz 2012

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