by Sarah Shuckburgh
Joan of Arc is not forgotten
in Rouen, says Sarah Shuckburgh.
Joan of Arc is big business in Rouen. Although the Maid
spent only five months here - 573 years ago - her name
graces streets and squares, cafés and restaurants, cakes and
cocktails, market stalls and museums, a bridge, a church and
a car park. "You English murdered her," grins my friend,
Guillaume, as he stirs sugar into his grand crème.
Jeanne d'Arc died a martyr's death at the age of 19, burnt
alive in 1431 in the Place du Vieux Marché, a few yards from
where we are sipping our coffee. A 65ft cross marks the
spot. Her heart, which survived the flames, was flung into
Next to the cross, the startling new Jeanne d'Arc church,
built 25 years ago, looms like the upturned keel of a ship,
with a low-slung canopy covering a vegetable market as well
as the church. Inside, an unadorned pillar supports the
wooden, tent-like roof, and curved pews face 15 panels of
Renaissance stained glass set into huge blank windows.
By a shiny bronze statue of St Joan, a sign explains that
the sculpture portrays the Maid's fulfilment as a woman, her
innocence and her gentleness. I am intrigued by the
conflicting images - gentle, feminine warrior; sainted
heretic; and boyish rebel turned virginal national heroine.
Rouen is a sprawling industrial city, and is one of France's
busiest river ports, but the medieval centre has been
beautifully preserved and restored, with many buildings
surviving from Joan of Arc's day - the café where we are
sitting claims to have been in business since 1345.
We spend our first morning wandering through narrow streets
lined with timber-fronted houses, some six storeys tall,
some barely six feet wide, some with upper floors jutting
out on intricately carved corbels, some leaning alarmingly
to one side, many 600 years old. The cobbled rue du
Gros-Horloge is thronged with tourists.
The famous clock strikes as we approach, and everyone
stares up at the face that tells not only the hour, but the
week and the phase of the moon. We pass the Archevêché, the
archbishop's palace that contained the chapel where Joan of
Arc's three-month trial was held.
The ecclesiastical tribunal was astounded at her outspoken,
fearless responses, and scandalous appearance. "I blame you
men, for declaring that God didn't want women to wear
trousers or cut their hair," I begin, but Guillaume isn't
listening. The beautiful St-Maclou church is surrounded by a
jumble of ancient houses.
A beggar directs us to the Aître St-Maclou, and we find
ourselves in a medieval plague cemetery, the wooden portals
and friezes of once-cloistered sides roughly carved with
skulls, gravediggers' tools and other macabre emblems.
Later, we gaze up at the Gothic perfection of St-Ouen
The leafy cemetery behind this church was where Joan of Arc
heard her death sentence, and also where her rehabilitation
was pronounced, 25 years later. Plaques commemorate both
Many of the medieval houses near the cathedral are now
shops, selling the colourful earthenware that has earned
Rouen the title of the Delft of Normandy. After a long lunch
in a shady square, we head for the Musée de la Céramique, an
elegant mansion housing a wonderful collection of 16th- to
18th-century pottery, with some contemporary pieces. The
explanations are in French, and I learn a new meaning for
the word email, or rather émail - it's an enamel glaze.
At intervals, we come upon the magnificent façades, towers,
buttresses and carved doorways of Notre-Dame cathedral, and
finally we go in. The scale and grandeur is mesmerising.
Late-afternoon sun filters through medieval stained glass,
and canned organ music plays discreetly from speakers.
We wander towards the recumbent figure of Rollo, the Viking
chief who became the first Duke of Normandy, in 911, and
made Rouen his capital. His great-great-great-grandson was
William the Conqueror.
That evening, as we dine on creamy cuisine Normande,
Guillaume is eager to talk about Corneille, Flaubert,
Maupassant and other Rouen men of letters, but I am still
spellbound by the extraordinary power of la Pucelle.
Uneducated and illiterate, but claiming to hear the word of
God, she cut her hair and wore men's clothes, led armies
fearlessly, challenged the power of the Church and of feudal
dynasties, and became one of the key figures of the medieval
world, with revolutionary notions of nationalism,
protestantism and feminism.
I am still thinking about her the next morning, when we
visit the Musée des Beaux Arts. We linger by the works of
famous local artists - one of Monet's luminous studies of
Rouen cathedral, foggy sunsets over the city by Pissarro and
Poussin, and paintings by Sisley, Dufy and Corot. Four
19th-century oils of Jeanne d'Arc by Thirion, Bénouville, GW
Joy and Delaroche present romantic images of beauty and
Next we make for the Tour Jeanne d'Arc, the only remaining
part of the huge castle that was built in 1204 by Philippe
Auguste, ruler of the tiny kingdom of France. Joan was kept
prisoner here until her execution.
Accounts of her trial have survived, and a framed facsimile
declares her to be a "witch, soothsayer, false prophet,
sacrilegist, idolator, apostate, scandalmonger, rebel and
We climb the stone spiral staircase, pausing frequently to
catch our breath. On the upper floors, models depict the
castle and town in the early 15th century, and fascinating
maps show the narrow boundaries of medieval France.
Jeanne d'Arc was born in a village on the edge of the
kingdom - residents of one bank of the stream supported the
English, and those on the other supported the French.
"The Burgundians were to blame," I tell Guillaume. "They
sold her to the English for 10,000 gold ducats." But
Guillaume has had enough of my historical musings, so I
venture through a crowded souvenir shop into the small
Jeanne d'Arc museum. I am the only visitor.
In a dank cellar, photocopies of Latin manuscripts are
pinned next to fading posters of Hollywood St Joans.
Upstairs, waxwork tableaux of Joan of Arc's life make me
wish that I had children with me.
The mannequins are wearing 20-denier tights, lipstick and
false eyelashes. The Dauphin, for whose coronation Joan of
Arc was fighting, looks very weedy, and when I emerge into
the sunshine, I have a new theory.
"I blame Charles VII," I say. "He did nothing to prevent her
execution. And I bet he only rehabilitated her to secure his
claim to the throne."
"In Jeanne d'Arc's day, you English were known as Goddams,"
On our way home, we drive up to the chalk spur between the
Seine and Robec valleys. The view is spectacular. Below us,
in a bend of the river surrounded by hills, the old town
bristles with spires and belfries. The Seine, wide and
brown, has been guardian - for nearly 600 years - of Joan of
There are no direct flights from the UK to Rouen. For
details of train services, contact Eurostar (0870 518 6186;
www.eurostar.com); returns via Paris cost from £79 and
through ticketing is possible. Or contact Eurotunnel (08705
353535; www.eurotunnel.com). If you prefer to travel by
ferry, Transmanche (0800 917 1201;
www.transmancheferries.com) has year-round services between
Newhaven and Dieppe, the most convenient port for Rouen.
Hôtel Dandy, 93 rue Cauchoise (0033 235 073200;
www.hotels-rouen.net). This is a friendly three-star hotel
near the place du Vieux Marché; doubles cost from £49. Hôtel
de la Cathédral, 12 rue Saint-Romain (235 715795;
www.hotel-de-la-cathedrale.fr). A good central choice, this
17th-century building has rooms overlooking the pretty
courtyard or the cathedral; doubles from £38 to £55.
What it cost for two
Three-day return on Eurotunnel £183
Autoroute tolls £8
Two nights' accommodation £145
Meals, drinks and snacks £120
Museum entries £20
First published by the Telegraph