On March 17, 1431, the interrogators returned to Joan of Arc’s dank prison cell. The ecclesiastical court had repeatedly grilled the teenaged peasant girl who had led the French army against the English invaders about everything from her virginity to her attire. Now, as the trial continued, they wanted to know about her silver ring, which had been seized by the English-allied Burgundians following her capture in the spring of 1430 during an assault on Compiegne.
Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc in French) told her questioners that the devotional ring had been a gift from her parents, who had presented it to her back in her hometown of Domrémy. The French heroine, who said she had experienced visions of saints who told her to drive out the English invaders and install France’s crown prince as King Charles VII, told the court that the ring bore three crosses along with inscriptions—“IHS” and “MAR”—for the names of Mary and Jesus. When asked why she looked fondly at the ring when she entered battle, the teenager said “it was out of pleasure, and in honor of her father and mother.”
The court ultimately found Joan of Arc guilty of heresy, and they burned her at the stake in Rouen’s marketplace on May 30, 1431. It is believed that the martyr’s ring was given to Cardinal Henry Beaufort—uncle to the ruler of England and France, King Henry VI—who was present during the trial and execution. The clergyman took the patriotic relic with him back across the English Channel, and outside of a handful of exhibitions in France during the 1950s, the ring remained on British soil for nearly 600 years. It is believed that the ring passed down through Beaufort’s family for nearly five centuries until one of his descendants, British aristocrat Lady Ottoline Morrell, publicly announced she possessed the coveted piece of silver jewelry, a revelation that occurred as interest in Joan of Arc surged around the time of her 1909 beatification. Morrell bestowed the artifact upon artist Augustus John, who sold it in 1914.
James Hasson, a doctor who came to the United Kingdom with General Charles de Gaulle and other leaders of the Free French Forces in World War II, purchased the ring from Sotheby’s in 1947 for 175 British pounds. “My earliest memory of it was when I was about four years old when my sister was wearing the ring and her and I reenacted the battle when the British defeated Joan of Arc and captured her,” said Robert Hasson, who inherited the ring from his father, in a video produced by Timeline Auctions.
That a symbol of French nationalism remained in English hands continued to gall many in France, so when Robert Hasson decided to place the ring up for bid on February 26, it generated considerable interest. Nearly 600 years after her death, Joan of Arc was again at the center of a clash between France and England, only this time the battleground was London’s Swedenborg Hall where Timeline Auctions conducted the bidding.
The fierce fight for Lot 1220 was ultimately won by the Puy du Fou foundation, which operates an historical theme park in Nantes, some 200 miles southwest of Paris. The victory came at a steep price—$425,000, nearly 30 times the initial estimate and a world auction record for a medieval European ring. After the relic was flown back to France on March 4, Puy du Fou president Nicolas de Villiers told French television network TF1 that it was a “glorious return” for a “French treasure.”
Although the auctioneers assert there is sufficient documentation to assert the ring’s provenance and point out that it matches the precise descriptions given by Joan of Arc at her trial, not all experts are sure, according to the Economist magazine. “I have yet to talk to a museum curator, an art dealer or an independent scholar who believes that the association with Jeanne d’Arc dates back to her lifetime,” Northwestern University professor emerita Sandra Hindman told the magazine. “I personally believe that the attribution of the auctioned ring was part of the Jeanne d’Arc mania that begins in the 19th century and continues until about the mid-20th century.”
While skepticism in some circles remains, plans are for the ring to be officially unveiled on March 20 before it goes on public display in mid-April. The Economist reports that discussions are being held about raising money to build a chapel at the theme park to house the medieval ring.