Wed 2 December 2020

Mike Stuchbery on another stirring story from our European past that shows how small actions can have big consequences.

Never doubt your ability to change the world. You may not be able to topple governments, or lead some kind of revolution, but in small ways, we can all alter the course of lives, and be remembered for it.

Take the rather spectacular tale of ‘Jeanne Hatchette’. Jeanne Foquet, to give her real name, wasn’t a noble. Her people were simple peasant folk, and that’s all she really had to look forward to. She lived near the northern French town of Beauvais, during the second half of the 15th century – a turbulent time.

Rivals for the Throne

In many ways, this period was one of massive transition, in terms of both warfare and politics. Warfare was shifting from clashes between smaller rivals, to supporting formation of larger fiefdoms, even kingdoms, by key players.

Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, was one such player. As the head of one of the last great Duchies in Europe, he was determined to expand his borders at the expense of his rival (and brother-in-law) Louis XI.

The Seige of Beauvais

In the summer of 1472, the conflict between Charles and Louis that had flared on and off for years burst again into life. In response to Louis sending his troops to capture some contested towns, Charles’ soldiers marched on Beauvais – a key strategic base. It was also one, thanks to shifting troop movements, that was lightly defended – only 300 soldiers to defend the entire walled town.

Beauvais Under Siege

Photograph: Marc ROUSSEL. Beauvais (Oise, France) – Maisons anciennes dans la rue d’Alsace.

While the inhabitants had the advantage of high walls, such a small force was no match for the troops massed against it. The Burgundians quickly had ladders up against the wall and were scaling them.

Jeanne wasn’t a noble. Her people were simple peasant folk, and that’s all she really had to look forward to.

Were the Burgundians to enter the town, there would be pillaging and rape. Buildings would be burned and cattle slaughtered. No quarter would be given – Charles was known for his grim determination. It would be the end of the world for many.

That’s when Jeanne stepped in.

As the first of the Burgundian soldiers climbed over the battlements, the sixteen year old hurled herself at him, wielding two hatchets – of the kind used to split small bits of kindling. . Planting one axehead in the neck of the stunned Burgundian, she kicked him in the stomach, sending him flying off the battlements to an ignomious end.

“As the first of the Burgundian soldiers climbed over the battlements, the sixteen year old hurled herself at him, wielding two hatchets.”

More climbed over the battlements, and like a woman possessed, she laid into them, her two hatchets flying in deadly arcs.

After a moment or two of stunned silence, the defenders of Beauvais, including not a few townfolk, launched themselves at the attackers. They fought not only with weapons, but with farm implements and anything that came to hand. It was grim, bloody, a battle for survival, but slowly, the tide began to turn.

Jeanne’s sudden act not only rallied the townsfolk, but kept them fighting until forces of Louis XI could relieve the town.

Live Forever

Louis XI was amazed of the story of the teenager who had stepped forward to save the town. She not only gifted her gold, but she was permitted to marry her lover, a young man named Colin. Believe it or not, for a woman of Jeanne’s station, this was a rare and significant honour.

Yet this was not the only honour bestowed on Jeanne. Almost every year since, with only a few exceptions, a procession has taken place through the town of Beauvais, honouring Jeanne’s moment of bravery.

Bronze statue of Jeanne Hachette in Beauvais, by Gabriel-Vital Dubray

Additionally, a statue of Jeanne, arms in the process of swinging her axes, can be found in the square that boasts her name  Fair enough, I might say! After all, she had saved the entire town from destruction.

Our world is moulded and shaped by such moments. Moments of bravery, of sudden and swift action have the possibility to save hundreds, perhaps even thousands of lives.

Jeanne Hachette defending the town of Beauvais against the army of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, 1472. French educational card, early 20th century.

We can all shape our world. We can all intervene to change the course of events. Even a sixteen year old girl with a couple of humble handaxes.

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