Chasing a Legend

It seems fitting that the last cathedral John and I will visit together on this trip to France is the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Rouen — the town where Jeanne d’Arc was imprisoned and ultimately burned at the stake as a heretic. Our trip was further enriched by Tiana, Shannon and Grey who joined us as we retraced the young girl’s final days.

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We boarded the train in Paris and journeyed slightly northwest, traveling through Monet country. Normandy is a beautiful area with rolling hills and quaint villages. John and I had driven through Normandy in 2010 on our way to Omaha Beach, but today we sat in the comfort of the train as it followed the Seine and stopped at four small towns along the way — including Vernon, a stop that lead to Giverny, Monet’s home.

We arrived in Rouen around 11 a.m. and headed out toward the Tourist Center which we understood to be located in front of the cathedral. On our way, we entered the old city gate topped with a clock dating back to the 15th century. The clock, which was originally on a wooden gate during Jeanne d’Arc’s day, doesn’t have  a minute hand because minutes weren’t very important in the agricultural society of the 1400s.

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Rouen is a picturesque town with winding streets bordered by houses dating to the Middle Ages.

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Jeanne d’Arc died here in 1431 when Rouen was held by the English. She was captured by Jean de Luxembourg who hoped to ransom her to the man she helped become king, Charles VII. When Charles VII failed to pay the ransom, Luxembourg sold her to the English. With some help from a bishop who favored the English, the young girl was brought to Rouen where she was held prisoner for several months then tried and falsely convicted as a heretic.

The donjon where Jeanne was brought to be tortured still stands.

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While the English didn’t end up torturing the Maid of Orleans, they did convict her and sentenced her to be burned. The site of her execution is marked with this monument — a simple pole topped by a cross.

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About two decades after her execution, the Pope revisited the case and found that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to have convicted Jeanne d’Arc. Her name was cleared and the young virgin who heard voices and whooped the English was canonized in the 20th century.

The cathedral in Rouen existed when Jeanne was imprisoned in the town, but she was not allowed to attend mass or pray there. The cathedral was made famous by Monet’s multiple takes on the front face of the giant structure to capture the effects of light upon it at different times during the day. I found an unusual feature inside which I haven’t seen in any of the other cathedrals we’ve visited — this beautiful staircase. The stair cases in the other cathedrals are hidden from view, but not this beauty.

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And so, my trip to the past via French cathedrals comes to an end in the 15th century. Perhaps I’ll pick it up again in the not too distant future should John and I return to this marvelous country with its rich, complex history.

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