Michael Portillo has heard how Joan of Arc is “much more important than any king” to the people of France.
In the latest episode of his Great Continental Railway Journeys, shown on BBC Two, Portillo travelled from the chateaux of the Loire Valley to the heart of the Champagne region at Reims.
As part of the series, the journalist, broadcaster and former Conservative politician travels on the great train routes of Europe, as he retraces the journeys featured in George Bradshaw’s 1913 Continental Railway Guide.
During a visit to the Cathedral of Sainte-Croix, in Orleans, Portillo is told how the cathedral’s stained-glass windows tell the complete story of the heroine of France, Joan of Arc and how the image of the saintly teenage warrior endures as a symbol of resistance.
Guide Damien Schub tells Potillo that although Joan died at the age of 19, her life was a “very strong” one.
“She was born in a small village in the east of France and she was a shepherdess,” he informs Portillo. “When she was 13, she started hearing voices from heaven and these voices told her to save France against the English army in the north.”
Schub explains that Joan went to the Loire Valley to meet the king and tell him that the voices from heaven had told her that she will save France. She also said how the voices had told her to bring the king to the Cathedral of Reims to crown him. However, Shub adds, Reims was on the enemy territory, which is what led to the famous battle there.
Portillo tells viewers that Joan inspired her soldiers to victory and the French cleared the king’s route to Reims Cathedral, where he could at last be crowned.
“Joan triumphed against the English and delivered France her divine king but in the following year, aged 19, her life was brought to a dreadful end,” he says.
Schub notes that the final stained glass window in the cathedral shows how Joan was burned in the city of Rouen by French people.
“She got captured by French people from Burgundy because the Duke of Burgundy was the ally of the king of England. She got sold by these French to the English and a French bishop sentenced her to death,” he says.
Portillo says: “Joan’s story became so celebrated that 500 years later, during the First World War, her image was further revived as a symbol of resistance against occupying forces. Already a folk saint, she was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church in 1920.”
In response to Portillo’s question on the importance of Joan of Arc to the French, Schub says: “She is much more important than any king because we have had a lot of kings in the history of France but only one Joan so everybody knows about her much more than the kings.”
Portillo explains how Orleans has recalled Joan’s triumph with an annual parade for over 600 years, where a local teenager is chosen to represent Joan.
Later in the episode Portillo pays a visit to the aforementioned Reims Cathedral, which he describes as “the most important building for understanding French monarchy”.
He explains how Reims suffered more destruction than any other French city during the Great War but, at the heart of the city, it’s gothic cathedral – “a building that’s been so important to the history and identity of France” – was restored.
“Since 1027 all the kings of France, bar two, have been crowned here at Reims and so, when in 1914, it was hit by shells and a fire began and the lead in the roof melted and it tumbled in and the windows were destroyed, the French regarded it as a war crime,” he says. “The damage was much greater than that done to Notre Dame of Paris in 2019 but, by the time of my guidebook, the restoration was nearing completion and it was inaugurated in 1938, just in time for the arrival of the Germans again.”
However, Portillo notes that the cathedral and the city itself were spared a second onslaught and today it stands much as the Bradshaw traveller would have seen it.
“Except for the gorgeous windows, more austere inside, you have to imagine how this would have been decorated for coronations; this must be the most important building for understanding French monarchy,” he adds.
Picture: Michael Portillo stands in front of a statute of Joan of Arc in Orleans, France. (BBC screengrab).