Joan of Arc, otherwise known as the Maid of Orléans, Jeanne d'Arc or la Pucelle (the Maid) to the French-speaking world, was born in the village of Domrémy on the river Meuse on 6 January, 1412. At the beginning of the 15th Century, Domrémy was on the eastern border of France in the region of Champagne, which was then under the control of the Duke of Burgundy.
At the age of 13, Joan claims to have had a mystical experience, in which the Archangel Michael told her to take up arms and drive the English out of France. This was a pretty tall order as Burgundy and England were allies, the Dauphin1 was a weakling, and Joan was a mere child. The situation looked bleak, but Joan was a remarkable young girl, not to be underestimated by anyone. By virtue of her strength of character and her uncanny ability to know things she had no business knowing, she gradually won enough influential support to raise an army by the age of 17.
Riding at the head of her army, she relieved the English siege of Orléans, and, later, defeated the English army of Lord Talbot outright at the battle of Patay. Unfortunately for her, things started to go badly thereafter. On 24 May, 1430, Joan was captured by the Burgundians and later sold to the English. Charles VII of France, whose crown she had fought to save, turned his back on her and, in May 1431, after a show trial, Joan of Arc was burned alive at the stake at the age of 19.
She was canonised in 1920.
Joan was the daughter of Jacques and Isabelle (Zabillet) d'Arc. They were farmers who were prosperous by local standards and respected by their neighbours for being good, industrious Catholics. She was a dutiful daughter, much like any other, and although no contemporary portrait of Joan was ever produced, she has been described as stocky and dark-complexioned from working in the fields, with short black hair and brown eyes - a robust and healthy farm girl.
She was a sensitive girl, more pensive than many of her young friends. She spent a great deal of her time in church - she prayed and confessed while other girls played - and before long, the other girls began to resent her piety, which they may have considered an affectation. The spectre of the Hundred Years War cast a gloomy shadow over the French landscape, which troubled her deeply. She had an irresistible sense of personal responsibility for the state of her country which, it seemed, was on the verge of an apocalypse. Yet she was an intelligent girl, conscious of the limitations that her sex and social position placed on her ability to act. She was torn between what she knew she must do and what she knew she ought not to do. She turned to the church for help, attending mass daily and confessing as often as the village priest would permit. Though she was always reticent about her voices.
I was thirteen when I had a voice from God for my help and guidance. The first time that I heard this voice, I was very much frightened, it was midday, in the summer, in my father's garden... I heard this voice to my right, towards the Church, rarely do I hear it without its being accompanied also by a light. This light comes from the same side as the voice.
There was never any doubt in Joan's mind that the voices she heard bore a message addressed to her straight from Almighty God. Theological implications and the issue of whether or not it was right to hear voices were irrelevant; they were simply a fact of her young life.
The voices identified themselves to Joan as the Archangel Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret. They told her that God wanted to rid France of the English presence and unite the kingdom under Charles VII. In order to do this, she would have to dress like a man, demand an army from the Dauphin, and lead them into battle herself, under the banner of Jesus and Mary.
Her reaction was entirely rational and no more or less than one might expect; 'I am a poor girl; I do not know how to ride or fight.' But the voices insisted that 'It is God who commands it'; and so, in 1429, the brave 16 year old rode forth to the Dauphin's court at Chinon.
Dauphins being Dauphins and red tape being the same everywhere, Joan had to be examined by a learned panel of bishops and doctors. Before being entrusted with an army of her own, she would have to convince these gentlemen that she did speak with the authority of the Almighty and wasn't just a deranged country girl. The theologians ruled that she really was on a mission from God and that none of her claims constituted heresy. Joan later referred to the Bishops' approval in Rouen, when she was being tried for her life, but no record of the proceedings could be found.
Her voices had from the beginning given her a mystical insight into things that could not otherwise have been known. She carried an ancient sword into battle that her voices had told her was hidden behind the altar in the chapel of Ste Catherine-de-Fierbois. Nobody else knew it was there. Many believe that Joan was able to win the confidence of the Dauphin by allaying a secret doubt he held regarding the legitimacy of his birth; and protecting this 'secret of the king' played a significant part in her trial.
What the voices had to say to Joan was something, for the most part, that she chose to keep to herself. However, it would seem by 1428 they were becoming insistent that she go and fight.
The first stage of Joan's campaign began in the neighbouring town of Vaucouleurs. She had to convince local officialdom, in the person of Robert Baudricourt, to take her seriously. This was no mean accomplishment and it should be taken as a testament to her obvious sincerity and good character that she even had a chance of prevailing. Baudricourt was a crusty old veteran who had little patience for eccentrics. Yet prevail she did and the clincher came in February 1429, when she reported the disastrous French defeat at the Battle of the Herrings to Baudricourt days before official word had reached the town. She was given an escort of three men-at-arms and permission to present herself to the court of the Dauphin at Chinon.
When she arrived on 6 March, she had to establish her credibility all over again, first by recognising that the Dauphin she was presented to was an impostor, then by taking an excursion to Poitiers and convincing a learned panel of doctors and clerics of her authenticity, and finally by whispering the Dauphin's guilty secret in his ear. That his guilty secret was about his legitimacy is a subject for speculation.
At last the Dauphin agreed to raise an army and get her readied for fighting. She chose to carry an ancient sword that was shown to her by angels and a banner bearing the words Jesus, Maria, along with a picture of God being presented the fleur-de-lis by kneeling angels. Next stop, Orléans.
A letter written on 22 April, 1429, by Sire de Rotslaer, before Joan had reached the besieged city of Orléans, describes several predictions Joan made at the outset of the campaign;
... that she would save Orléans and would compel the English to raise the siege, that she herself in a battle before Orléans would be wounded by a shaft but would not die of it, and that the King, in the course of the coming summer, would be crowned at Rheims, together with other things which the King keeps secret.
Joan's army entered Orléans on 30 April, 1429, bringing with it much needed supplies for the town's inhabitants. She worked her troops to a frenzy that could only have been inspired by religious fervour and personal adoration of their mysterious young leader. They manoeuvred at a pace that confounded the English and the veteran officers of her own army alike. By 8 May, the surrounding forts had been retaken and the siege of Orléans effectively lifted.
The Dauphin and his sage advisors counselled a slow, cautious campaign and her own officers concurred, but the Maid would not be put off. She mopped up pockets of the English resistance in a blitzkrieg-like Loire campaign and finally routed Talbot's army together with reinforcements hastily sent from Paris under Sir John Fastolf, who was later stripped of the Order of the Garter for being beaten by a girl.
The route to Rheims lay open, but the old soldiers in her army, still eager to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the time-honoured manner, wanted very much to retire before the fortified town of Troyes. Undaunted, Joan pressed on, captured the town, and marched to Rheims, where Charles VII was installed as king on 17 July, 1429.
Having achieved a glorious victory, some historians suggest that Joan wished to return to the quiet life in Domrémy. Others, particularly the producers of epic films, maintain that she remained barking mad to drive the English into the sea. There is probably an element of truth in both of these points of view. No doubt she saw the good sense in pressing home her military advantage and ridding France once and for all of the hated English forces. On the other hand there is strong evidence to support the idea that she was sick to the teeth of the Dauphin's vacillations and the intrigues of his court. What is certain is that, despite whatever personal misgivings she may have had, she remained in the field with her troops.
On 8 September, 1429, Joan led an attack on Paris, which failed after early gains due to inadequate support. While trying to rally her men, she was shot through the thigh with a crossbow bolt, thus suffering her second serious wound and the Duc d'Alençon carried her from the field. The attack soon crumbled. Shortly afterwards, Charles signed a dubious truce with the Duke of Burgundy.
In the spring of the following year, Joan's voices told her that she would soon be captured and on 24 May they were again proved right. With the conclusion of the truce, Joan had ridden to the defence of the town of Compiègne, which was under Burgundian attack. After leading a desperate sortie against an overwhelming force, Joan became trapped outside the town when the drawbridge was ordered raised. She was pulled from her horse and made prisoner. Charles VII, King of France, who owed the crown he wore to the heroism of the Maid of Orléans, made no effort to recover her and so she was transferred to the custody of her English enemies.
Joan was taken to Rouen, where she was turned over to an ecclesiastical court sympathetic to the English and Burgundian cause. She was charged with heresy and witchcraft. Despite the fact that she was technically in the custody of the church, she was held in the fortress of Rouen, guarded by English soldiers, who molested and mistreated her to such an extent that even the assembly of tame bishops began to object. Indeed, she was so loathed by her captors that, for a time, she was kept in an iron cage, chained at the neck, wrists, and ankles.
She was probed about the nature of the heavenly voices she claimed to hear. Did she hold the heretical view that the church was not a necessary intercedent between humanity and God? Did she reject the authority of the Church of Rome?
She answered these questions with such frank honesty and open piety that she began to win grudging support from some of the witnesses of the trial. This was an embarrassment, so the trial was moved into the prison itself, away from sympathetic witnesses.
Much of what the voices told her she refused to divulge. Although frustrated in their attempts to prove their charges, the court concocted a long and scurrilous report, based on her refusal to testify, that pronounced her voices to be 'false and diabolical'. She was given the ultimatum that, unless she recanted her belief in the heavenly origin of the voices, she would be tortured or turned over to the secular court, who would simply sentence her to death. She refused. After more than a year of tricks and abuse, a stake and pyre was erected and she was again admonished to recant. This time her courage failed and she signed a retraction.
The actual terms of the document she signed will probably never be known. It is very clear that the diatribe inserted into the trial records is a fraud. This has been attested to by many witnesses, including Jean Massieu, the official who read the original to the illiterate prisoner. The Church had coerced and tricked Joan into confessing, in return for which they would sentence her to life in prison.
This outcome infuriated the English, who demanded nothing less than the girl's death, so a plan was hatched whereby Joan was tricked into once again donning men's clothes, either as a flimsy protection against groping jailers or perhaps because someone had removed every other means she had of covering her body. This feeble act of unconscionable treachery was enough to brand her as a relapsed heretic and condemn her, once and for all, to the flames.
She was burned the very next day, 30 May, 1431. She was 19 years old.