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From our archive: In Honour of Saint Joan

16 May 2020

A century ago, on 16 May 1920, Joan of Arc was canonised. There was a celebration in London, described in a “Round-about Paper” by Urbanus (C. B. Mortlock)


WE ENGLISH folk are not good at outdoor processions. It needs all our moral courage to enable us to take a place in one, and even then we are in deadly fear of meeting the cold eye of casual acquaintance among the unmoved spectators. In nothing so much as in this dislike of processions do we differ from our French allies. For them any excuse is good enough for holding a procession; with them the difficulty is not to persuade sober citizens to participate, but to keep them out.

My thoughts were running thus as I made my way to Westminster on the top of a motor bus last Sunday to witness the Joan of Arc pageant. But they were interrupted by sheer inability to disregard the observations of a lady seated behind me. She also was on her way to look at the procession, and for some reason unknown to me was engaging two persons in front of me in conversation. In Whitehall we came in sight of the Victoria Tower, and she instantly acclaimed it as St Edward’s leaning campanile. It was a bad break, but she was no whit abashed; she excused herself by remarking how strikingly similar the Palace of Westminster is to the Roman cathedral, and, with a hint of defiance, bade her hearers take note and compare.

They would have had some difficulty in taking in the lineaments of the great Byzantine church, for Carlisle-place, Ash-ley-gardens, Vincent-square, and the other streets in the precincts were crowded in a manner unparalleled probably in all their bourgeois existence. As I began my struggle through the crowd I was shoulder to shoulder with an excited lady who, living in Ashley-gardens, was returning home with a bag of cream buns. Happily, I foresaw the boracic spout that soon leapt from the bag.

For a time I took my stand with the crowd, looking towards the west front of the Cathedral. Though a foreign element was naturally present, I was perplexed by the apparent absence of English papists in the throng around me. It was the usual genial London crowd, with a keen sense of the ridiculous and very little native reverence. (We Londoners always write so of ourselves. I am sorry I must in honesty withhold the customary tribute to the good temper of the police.) My perplexity was resolved later when I saw the procession to its end. The answer plainly was that the papists were all in it and none was left to play spectator. No, I must not say none, for there was one poor old Irishwoman who came hurrying along the street eager to reach the Cathedral. Many policemen held her back, and so, resigned, she stood in front of the crowd and told her beads.

Of the procession itself I have heard many and diverse opinions. Those who found fault probably do not realize what an extremely difficult matter it is to organize some thousands of men, women and children into an organic unity on the move. My own feeling was one of admiration for the steadiness with which the long trail wound itself round the innumerable corners of its queer itinerary. The weakness was with the singing. Against this failure must be set the admirable plan of regulating the singing by means of cards on poles. Towards the end of a verse there would shoot up in front of this or that section the legend, “Stop singing,” and such like. A procession composed mainly of women needs stout support if it is to sing effectively out of doors. On Sunday it lacked such support, and so sounded rather thin and hesitant. A few cornets in the procession would have made a world of difference. A notable omission was the entire absence amid the many banners of any Sinn Fein emblem. But that was made good in the crowd. Miss Laing, clad in antique armour, made a thrilling Joan. Carrying a faithful reproduction of the banner which the Maid embroidered with the lilies of France and a picture of God Enthroned, she was mounted on a charger so docile, indeed lethargic, as to seem the only being of all the actors and spectators whose imagination had not been fired. She was justly the focus of admiring thousands. Her attendant pages, for all that they were compelled to wear crimson and canary tights in the May sunshine of a London afternoon, bore themselves with surprising grace; and as for the French peasant children in national dress, they were, we all agreed, perfect little darlings.

So much for the play-acting part. The bulk of the great procession was made up of guild members who, walking four abreast, were an imposing spectacle. Most of the women and girls wore long blue veils. But none looked so well as the elderly ladies of the Catholic Women’s League, who in black silk dresses had for relief only the yellow and white sash of the League. A note of comedy was introduced by the presence of some young women in academic costume. The crowd clearly held short skirts, light-coloured stockings, and shoes with immense bows to be incompatible with the sombre character of a B.A. gown. But for me the best moment was when the “Catholic policemen” came by four abreast. They were the only persons who looked thoroughly sheepish. And so it went on for — so I am told — over an hour. I could not stay so long. Instead, boldly stepping into the processional road, I walked briskly forward in the opposite direction to the procession. Thus inspecting them, I was enabled to fight my way back again to the motor-bus before the crowd had begun to melt.

Next morning I read of the wonderful scenes in Rome and, reflecting on the manner in which Holy Church has exalted the little maiden she so wickedly persecuted and burnt, I grew uneasy. How many of our present judgments will, in the years that are to come, stand reversed? And if Courts Christian can so grievously err, where is the common man to find assurance?


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