Born to a peasant family in Domrémy, France during the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc (1412-1431) was a girl who flew in the face of all conventions. During her tragically short life, she led kings into battle, bested lifelong theologians, and turned the tide in a war that decided the fate of France.
The Hundred Years War between England and France was a series of conflicts over various issues including the crucial question of who had the right to the French throne. When Joan was a young child, King Henry V of England crushed French forces at the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and pushed into much of northern France. But the conflict wasn’t just about England and France, it was also part of a French civil war between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs over who could influence the mentally deficient French King Charles VI. When Charles’ son, the Dauphin Prince Charles VII – head of the Armagnacs – had the leader of the Burgundians killed, the new Duke of Burgundy allied himself to England with the Treaty of Troyes (May 21, 1420). This treaty recognized King Henry V of England as the heir to the crown of France and Charles VI’s daughter was married off to Henry so that their heirs would inherit the crowns of both England and France. This disinherited Prince Charles VII and placed most of northern France officially under English control.
Then, in one of those insane historical coincidences in 1422, both Henry V and Charles VI died. Crucially, Henry died before Charles, thus raising the question of who was the rightful heir to the French throne once again.
Battle after battle in the conflict was won by the English and their Burgundian allies, leaving little hope for France and Charles VII, until the Maid of Orléans entered the scene.
Joan of Arc was a peasant girl who heard the voice of God and had saintly visions starting at a very young age:
“When I was in my thirteenth year, I heard a voice from God to help me govern my conduct. And the first time I was very much afraid. The voice was sent to me by God and after I had thrice heard the voice, I knew that it was the voice of an angel. The ﬁrst time I was only a child and was afraid, but afterwards St Michael taught me and showed me and proved to me that I must believe firmly that it was him.” (Joan of Arc)
The voices eventually told Joan to go to Charles VII to help him get the English out of France. Whatever you may personally think of her claims of hearing voices, in 1429, she convinced a nobleman to provide her with men to accompany her hundreds of miles away, through enemy territory, to meet with Charles VII.
When they miraculously arrived unharmed, Charles put her through a series of tests, including invasive procedures to verify her virginity by an assembly of clergymen. This was to make sure she wasn’t a witch trying to put him under a spell; as one always has to be careful of. After she was declared a virgin and an orthodox Christian in good standing, Charles decided to bring her with his forces to try to lift the English siege on the French city of Orléans.
Orléans was a pivotal city of immense tactical importance to both sides in the war because of it’s location. If the city fell to the English, the French would almost certainly have lost the entire war.
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Joan’s arrival in full battle gear inspired a great resistance by the people of Orléans; for it appeared to fulfill a prophecy that had been circulating for years by this time. The prophecy was that a maiden in armor would arise from the countryside to save France, and Joan embraced the role enthusiastically. She met with the people of the city daily, helped bring supplies and food to the hungry, and even pushed her way into the battle planning.
Joan advocated for direct action, but the men in charge of the defense of the city were hesitant to listen to a teenage girl with zero military experience. However, she managed to rally troops and led two successful assaults on English positions. She was wounded in the chest in the process, but carried on nonetheless, inspiring others to fight on. In just nine days after her arrival, the Siege of Orléans was lifted and the city was once again safe in French hands. Word of Joan’s devine, miraculous intervention swept across the nation.
Joan wasted no time and went to work trying to convince Charles to take the city of Rheims back from the Burgundians so he could be properly crowned as the king of France. (Dating all the way back to the first king of France – Clovis – no king was considered legitimate until they were coronated in the city of Rheims.) Joan’s plan was to simply march to the city – deep in the heart of English-held territory – and take it back. She believed God was protecting them after all, why wait around?
This was an absurd plan to the commanding officers of the army; not only because it seemed beyond naive, but because it was proposed by a women. However, regardless of the commanders opinion’s, Joan’s victory at Orléans inspired recruits from all over France to join her campaign and the men eventually had to go along with her.
The French forces marched right through English and Burgundian held territories, picking up victory after victory. Whether or not God was behind them, the warriors fought with the confidence and belief that he was. They were so forceful and successful that the Burgundians surrendered Rheims without a fight. Charles VII was officially crowned king of France in the Rheims Cathedral with Joan of Arc by his side on July 17, 1429.
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Just four months before his coronation, Charles was planning to abandon France to the English and escape the country. Now spirits were high and it looked like the tables had finally turned in the war that had been going on for almost a century at that point. Joan had single handedly changed the course of history.
Then, in 1430, French hopes dimmed when Joan was captured by the Burgundians and sold to her English enemies.
The English put her on trial for heresy; but from the very start, the trial was a farce. They had to find her guilty, because if she wasn’t guilty, it would look like the English were wrong for continuing their war with the French in the eye’s of God. The problem for the English was that the evidence of God’s intervention on her behalf was strong. An illiterate teenage peasant girl with no military or leadership experience had somehow, against any reasonable odds, won every engagement she took part in against them. The judges also knew she was examined and found to be a virgin and a Christian in good standing. In order to convict her, they had to trick her into confessing she had lied about her visions.
She defended herself admirably against the top legal and theological mind’s of England. But she was eventually worn down after much abuse and torment. In an attempt to save her own life, she recanted her claims of having visions. She quickly withdrew her recantation, but it was enough in the eye’s of some of the English to consider her a heretic. She was then sentenced burn at the stake.
A huge crowd gathered in her support on the fateful day of May 30, 1431. A local priest held up a wooden crucifix for her to see and many shouted out prayers loud enough for her to hear over the roar of the flames. She cried out the name of Jesus as the fire overtook her body. She was nineteen years old.
Charles VII could have potential saved Joan, but he never even made an attempt. His unwillingness to help was an example of his selfishness and cowardice; and he proved an awful king in almost every respect. But Joan’s sacrifice wasn’t a waste; it was her involvement in the Hundred Years War that was the single greatest reason the French won the war.
In 1456, Joan’s conviction was ruled invalid and she was proclaimed a martyr for France. Many scholars have since tried to explain her visions away as a mental illness or as some other natural occurrence, but none have succeeded. Regardless of your personal beliefs about such things, we simply can’t state with scientific authority what the young Joan experienced.
“The life of Joan is such a ﬂagrant beating of the odds that no facts sufﬁciently explain the course of it. She was born during one of the most corrupt, demoralized periods of French history; she is considered a religious and military hero, but she had neither religious nor military training. Her family was undistinguished; it was, if anything, an obstacle she had to overcome. She existed in time and space; she was a product of history and culture and was formed by them. But the Joan who transcended all the norms of where and when she was born must, if we honor her properly, remain, in her essential shape, mysterious.” (Gordon)
She continues to be an inspiration today and has been used as a symbol for political and social movements of the right wing, left wing, and everyone in-between since her death. She was canonized as a Catholic saint on May 16, 1920 at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by Pope Benedict XV.
If the peasant girl can make such impression on history, an illiterate peasant girl, saving a country as mighty as France from great England, moving such followers and devotees, anyone can attain greatness
Joan of Arc: A Life” by Mary Gordon
Joan of Arc: A History” by Helen Castor