Death of a saint

By Peter Richardson

30th May 1431 Rouen

Snowflakes fell thick and hard, showering the multitude of spectators in a white blanket. Some were wrapped in loose shawls, while others hugged large cloaks to keep out the biting cold. They filled the front of the market square, waiting for the burning to begin. All levels of society were present, from the richest noble to the poorest slave; all had come to see the end of an era. Amongst the varied spectators were even nobles and lords, draped in rich silk cloaks; this was no ordinary execution. A finely carved stake stood upright in the middle of the square, surrounded by piles of firewood. This was where heretics were burned for their beliefs, but everyone in the silent crowd knew that this had gone further than simply heresy. The time had come, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

A few people in the poor crowd began to weep as they stood in the freezing winter’s morning. However, the others stood motionless, silent, a blank, cold look on their faces. Many of those present did not care for the icy frost, the painful faces, or the sadness that seemed to carry on the wind; only the death of the girl that had caused them so much trouble. At the crowd’s front stood a man dressed in the bright regalia of a bishop, and he wore an almost sadistic smile on his face. He was the man that had overseen the trial and the execution of this girl, and was determined to see his handiwork.

The crowd gasped as the iron gates of the prison were slowly winched open. All faces, young and old, turned towards the gates, now encrusted with white flakes. A young man pushed and jostled his way through the crowd, knocking aside the frightened spectators. He reached the front, and gasped as he saw the young girl. She was bleeding severely, having been beaten many times, and her eyes were swollen from fatigue. The girl’s hands were tied with thick rope which had cut into her wrists. She was wearing a once-immaculate white dress, which was now specked with blood. She was held back by two guards, who dragged her along the cobbled path towards the middle of the square, where the stake waited. A few tired faces broke into tears as she passed. She looked openly at the onlookers, as if to still their sadness, then winced, and looked down at the ground. The young man rushed out from the silent multitude, and knelt beside the young girl.

"Stop!” he ordered the guards. They stood still. He reached into his pocket, and drew out a shining diamond necklace, shaped in the form of a Christian cross. Embedded with sapphires, it seemed to shimmer in the frosty street, sending curious onlookers glancing away. He held it in his hand, and fingered it for a moment, then held it out to the girl’s face. Her eyes slowly opened, and a glimmer of happiness spread across the tired girl’s face. “It is yours,” he whispered, his breath turning to vapour in the cold air. For a moment there was silence, and then the girl slowly reached out with her hands to take the necklace. She suddenly clutched it with a deathly grip, and silently, she tied it round her neck. “Now your beliefs will never be forgotten,” the young man said. The girl nodded, and curled her face into a painful smile. The snowflakes were now falling thick and hard, and her bedraggled hair was covered in a white blanket. She shivered, and nodded silently. Before he could say any more, she was roughly dragged away again by the guards along the stony path. He looked sadly, a glistening tear streaking down his face. Snowflakes covered him as he stood there, unblinking. The rest of the crowd too stayed motionless and silent, as if honouring the solemnity of the occasion.

The guards reached the stake, and began to cut the girl’s bonds free with a cruel razor. As the towering English soldiers closed in to start the spectacle, a few rich nobles started to jostle their way out, pushing aside those who remained. A burly armoured man with a lit torch stood ready to ignite the firewood below. However, now a chill wind blew, and the disgusted crowd clutched their cloaks closer to them. The girl’s hair blew up in the breeze as she was pushed towards the stake. A few people in the multitude cried shouts to the guards, but they made no response. She knelt down on the ground, and raised the cross to the air. Closing her eyes, she whispered something to the heavens, and hung her head silently. Then she was hoisted onto the wooden stake, and tied with thick ropes.

2

The man with the torch leant forward, and the first part of the kindling went up in flames. Now, the girl’s eyes were closed, and she looked up to the sky. She held up the cross, lifting it to the heavens. Illuminated in the flames were the tearful faces of the crowd, who watched in silent horror. No-one spoke, no-one moved in the snow; everyone, even the English guards who had earlier been watching with pleasure were looking away, too horrified to see their handiwork. She made no struggle, but looked up to the sky, as if pleading to the heavens for mercy. The fire licked her white dress, threatening to engulf the garment in flames. Through the red light the girl’s tears streaked down her face and into the scorched wood. Gradually, the flames rose up, and in her final moments, she looked up at the clouds, white faced and ashen.

It was not until the flames had finally died out, leaving behind the blackened and broken body, that the crowd dared to utter a word of shock or horror. The snowflakes still fell hard and thick, but no-one, noble or peasant cared. Through the smoke and dying flames, only one thing remained of the girl’s identity. The Christian cross fell from the lifeless hands of the girl, and fell through the air. It landed on the ground, broken and charred; a last memorial to the end of an era.