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Pierre Cauchon (1371 in Rheims – December 1442 in Rouen) was Bishop of Beauvais from 1420 to 1432. A strong partisan of English interests in France during the latter years of the Hundred Years' War, his role in arranging the execution of Joan of Arc led most subsequent observers to condemn his extension of secular politics into an ecclesiastical trial. The Catholic Church overturned his verdict in 1455.
Cauchon came from a middle-class family in Rheims. He entered the clergy as a teenager and went to Paris, where he studied at the University of Paris. Cauchon was a brilliant student in the liberal arts. He followed with studies in Canon law and theology and became a priest.
By 1404, Cauchon was curé of Égliselles and sought a post near Rheims. He defended the University of Paris in a quarrel against Toulouse. Cauchon sought advancement through noble patronage. He allied himself with Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy and later his successor Philip the Good.
In 1407, Cauchon was part of a mission from the crown of France to attempt to reconcile the Schism between the rival claimants to the papacy: Boniface IX and Gregory XII. Although the delegation failed to achieve its goal, it raised Pierre Cauchon's prestige as a negotiator.
Upon Cauchon's return, he found Paris in turmoil over the assassination of the Duke of Orléans under orders from John the Fearless. Many suspected that the unpopular duke had been having an affair with Queen Isabeau. University theologians sympathized with John the Fearless and even published a justification of the murder as tyrannicide under the theory that the Duke of Orléans had been planning to usurp the throne.
The choice of the Burgundian party
The French Estates-General opened in 1413 to raise funds for an expected war against the English. Cauchon formed part of a commission charged with proposing sanctions and reforms. During the riots of that year he was associated with the Burgundians and the Cabochiens (radical reformers) and was later banished from Paris on May 14, 1414. The next year, Cauchon became the official ambassador of the Duke of Burgundy. Bishop Cauchon supported the election of Pope Martin V. Shortly afterward, Cauchon became archdeacon of Chartres; canon of Rheims, Châlons, and Beauvais; and chaplain of the Duke of Burgundy. Cauchon took part in the royal marriage negotiations surrounding the Treaty of Troyes. He became Bishop of Beauvais in 1420.
Alliance with the English
Bishop Cauchon spent most of the next two years in service to the king. Cauchon returned to his diocese with the deaths of Charles VI and Henry V. He departed from a visit to Rheims in 1429 when Joan of Arc and the French army approached for the coronation of Charles VII. Cauchon had always allied with the opposition to Charles VII. Shortly after the coronation, the French army threatened Cauchon's diocese. Cauchon went to Rouen, seat of the English government in France.
The English regent, John, Duke of Bedford, was anxious to preserve his nephew Henry VI's claim to the throne of France. Cauchon escorted Henry VI from London to Rouen as part of a clerical delegation. Shortly after he returned, he learned that Joan of Arc had been taken captive near Compiègne. The Burgundians held her at the keep of Beaulieu near Saint-Quentin.
Cauchon played a leading role in negotiations to gain Joan of Arc from the Burgundians for the English. He was well paid for his efforts. Cauchon claimed jurisdiction to try her case because Compiègne was in his diocese of Beauvais.
The trial of Joan of Arc
The goal of Joan of Arc's trial was to discredit her, and by implication to discredit the king she had crowned. Cauchon organized events carefully with famous ecclesiastics, many of whom came from the pro-English University of Paris. A mission to Joan's native village of Domrémy tried in vain to uncover adverse rumors about her.
The trial opened on 21 February 1431. During the first week of legal proceedings, the duchess of Bedford confirmed Joan's virginity. This prevented the court from charging Joan with witchcraft. The principal weakness in Joan's defense was her decision to wear male clothes. The court exploited Joan's religious visions to impute accusations of sorcery.
Concerned for the regularity of the proceeding, Bishop Cauchon forwarded an inflammatory bill of indictment to Paris in order to obtain the opinion of university clerics. In the meantime, the trial continued. Joan was unwilling to testify on several subjects. The court considered torture and gave her a tour of the torture chamber. Shortly afterward, she fell ill, possibly from food poisoning. The court decided against torture because of her poor health. The political risks of her dying in prison before a conviction were too great. The university returned what Cauchon considered a favorable opinion. The court proceeded to official admonition so that the defendant could make repentance.
The Duke of Bedford summoned Bishop Cauchon on 13 May, irritated by the expense and slowness of the trial. Cauchon then had the idea of setting up a situation designed to crack Joan's will. Led to the field of the abbey of Saint-Ouen, he publicly summoned her to abjure her heresy. Threatened with immediate execution, she agreed. Shortly afterward she recanted. The English burned her at the stake on 30 May 1431.
Cauchon could not hope to go back to Beauvais, which had fallen under French control. He was interested in a vacancy at the archbishop's palace at Rouen. Facing heartfelt opposition, he gave up that project. In December, Cauchon accompanied the Cardinal of Winchester to crown young king Henry VI in Paris. Finally, he obtained an appointment at Lisieux.
When constable Arthur de Richemont returned to favor with Charles VII in 1436, Cauchon went as ambassador to the Council of Basel. He was active for the unsuccessful English side in the peace negotiations that ended in reconciliation between the French and the Burgundians.
Cauchon divided his later years between his new diocese and a residence in Rouen. His last action was to finance construction of a vault at the cathedral Saint-Pierre de Lisieux. Cauchon died abruptly of heart failure at the age of 71 on 15 December 1442 in Rouen. He was buried in the Saint-Pierre cathedral at the vault he patronized.
According to George Bernard Shaw in his 1923 play Saint Joan, Cauchon's body was later dug up and thrown into a sewer; in fact it was Jean d'Estivet, one of the promoters of the trial, who was found dead in a sewer.
Following a re-trial of Joan of Arc in 1455, Inquisitor-General Jean Brehal drew up his final summary in 1456 which describes Joan of Arc as a martyr and implicated the late Pierre Cauchon with heresy for convicting an innocent woman in pursuit of a secular vendetta.
- Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol.II (15th ed.). 1984. p. 650.