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Why the British and French are feuding over a medieval ring

An actress in the role of Joan of Arc performs during a ceremony as part of a presentation of a 15th-century ring believed to have been owned by the French heroine on March 20 at the Puy du Fou historical theme park in Les Epesses, France. (Jean-Sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images)

At a medieval theme park in western France, there now sits an old bauble of great value. It's a 15th-century ring, gold-plated, with three engraved crosses and an inscription that translates to "Jesus Maria." Its supposed owner was none other than that great French heroine, Joan of Arc, who stirringly took part in battles against the occupying armies of the English almost six centuries ago.

The ring was purchased by the group running Puy du Fou, the historical theme park, earlier this year at an auction for close to $425,000 — money acquired through an extensive local fundraising campaign and private donations. And it was unveiled with grand pomp and circumstance at a ceremony in the park earlier this week. Multiple actresses were dressed up as Joan, playing her at different stages of a brief life that ended with her execution in 1431 in the hands of pro-English forces.

"It's a little bit of France that has returned. The ring has come back to France and will stay here," said Philippe de Villiers, the Puy de Fou’s founder and a prominent conservative politician, according to Agence France-Presse. "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem, blared out to a crowd of thousands.

In the minds of those in attendance, the ring had been in the wrong side of the English Channel for far too long.

It was reputed to have been a gift to a very young Joan at her first communion. The story of the warrior maiden is well-known: From humble beginnings, she was guided by the supposed voices of saints to help lead French armies, counsel the king in Paris and — most famously — lift the Siege of Orléans in 1429, a turning point in the bitter Hundred Years' War fought between France and England. Her death, at the age of 19, came after she was captured by Burgundians allied to the English, eventually put on trial, and then burned at the stake.

The ring is believed to have come to England soon thereafter amid other war booty plundered from France and into the possession of Henry de Beaufort, the archbishop of Winchester. Its authenticity is still being investigated — there have been various claims related to Joan of Arc that have proven to be fraudulent in the past, including an attempt to tout a fragment of an Egyptian mummy as a piece of her rib, rescued from the ashes of her gruesome execution.

What's clear though is that the ring's ownership is still in dispute: It appears the French buyers did not acquire the full documentation to obtain it. The lack of a British export license — which would have cost thousands more — has not been acquired, and British authorities are now apparently considering putting the item back on sale until the paperwork is sorted out, according to the Telegraph.

"It is inconceivable that the ring leaves France or is put back on the market for a British buyer to put in another bid," Nicholas de Villiers, Philippe's son, told the Telegraph. He described Joan of Arc as "one of the last bones of contention between France and England" and said the ring's return would be tantamount to "appeasement."

Joan of Arc, who was canonized by the Vatican in 1920, remains a potent symbol of French nationalism, particularly for conservatives and those on the far-right of the political spectrum. The elder de Villiers balked at any plan to confiscate his prize.

“Ladies and gentlemen from Britain, if you want to see the ring, then come to the Puy de Fou. For the rest, it’s too late," he declared.

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