Joan of Arc: The French heroine who saved her nation but became a martyr

Joan of Arc
Joan of Arc depicted on horseback by Jean Pichore in an illustration from a 1504 manuscript | Wikimedia | Public Domain

Born a peasant girl in 1412 in medieval France, Jeanne d’Arc (or Joan of Arc in English) would die just 19 years later heralded as a martyr, warrior and saviour of her nation. She packed a lifetime worth of achievements into a short brief spell on this Earth, leaving a legacy that has not only inspired generations of French but countless poets, artists and writers from around the world.

Brought up in the village of Domrémy in northeast France, Joan came from very humble beginnings. Her father, Jacques d’Arc, was a poor farmer and her mother, Isabelle Romée, was an incredibly pious lady who instilled in her daughter a love of religion and the Catholic Church.

At that time, the Hundred Years’ War was still raging. Various factions from England and France were fighting over the right to rule the Kingdom of France. After a devastating defeat at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French king Charles VI agreed to a treaty that saw the crown pass to the English upon his death, which occurred in 1422.

However the English king, Henry V, also died that year leaving his infant son Henry VI as the monarch of both kingdoms. The supporters of Charles of Valois, the son and Dauphin (heir) of Charles VI, saw an opportunity to place the throne back into French hands. It was at this point in history that Joan of Arc entered the fray.

Although the area in which Joan lived was loyal to the French crown it was surrounded by Burgundians, those loyal to the Duke of Burgundy; a Frenchman aligned with the English. Many times during Joan’s childhood she witnessed raids on her village and on one occasion it was even burned.

When Joan was 13, her life changed forever. Standing in her father’s garden she had her very first spiritual vision, supposedly seeing Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret standing before her. They told her it was her destiny to save France by driving the English out and helping the Dauphin reclaim the throne.

As Joan grew older, the voices in her head grew louder, providing her with instructions she believed were from God. After taking a vow of chastity and successfully avoiding an arranged marriage her father had made, Joan embarked on her holy mission.

At the tender age of 16, she made her way to the nearby town of Vaucouleurs, a stronghold for those who were loyal to Charles of Valois. She asked the garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt, if he would supply her with an armed escort to take her to Chinon so that she might speak with Charles at his Royal Court. Baudricourt mocked the young girl and rejected her request.

Returning a few months later, Joan managed to gain the support of two of Baudricourt’s soldier’s who helped her achieve a second meeting with the commander. This time she predicted the outcome of the Battle of Rouvray many days before any messengers had arrived to report it.

Now believing her mission was of divine importance, Baudricourt granted Joan her wish. The journey to Chinon would be far from easy though and so Joan cropped her hair and wore men’s clothing for added protection during the 11-day journey across hostile territory.

Understandably, Charles was somewhat unsure what to make of the peasant girl claiming to be the saviour of France and promising to see him crowned at Reims, the traditional place of royal investiture. However, during a private conversation with Charles, she won him over by revealing information that only a messenger from God could have possibly known. Exactly what she said to the future king is still a mystery.

After a ‘theological examination’, which Joan passed with flying colours, she requested an army to march on the besieged city of Orléans. Although Charles’ advisors were divided in their opinions, Joan was granted her wish and provided the opportunity to prove her mission from God was real.

Although illiterate, Joan dictated a defiant letter to the English. ‘King of England, if you do not do so, I am a commander, and wherever I come across your troops in France, I shall make them go, whether willingly or unwillingly; and if they will not obey, I will have them wiped out. I am sent here by God the King of Heaven - an eye for an eye - to drive you entirely out of France.’

Dressed in white armour atop a white horse, Joan’s forces descended on the beleaguered Orléans. Waving her banner in battle she inspired those around her and her tactical decisions had a profound effect on its outcome. During the fighting, she was wounded by an arrow to the shoulder but she recovered quickly. Although the siege had been dragging on for months, it was lifted just nine days after Joan arrived, removing any doubt about the validity of her divine mission.

Further victories followed and the French were now enjoying a remarkable turnaround in their military fortunes, which many believed was down to the influence and presence of Joan whose fame was spreading fast. As she had predicted, Charles was crowned at Reims in July 1429. The 17-year-old heroine who had made it all happen stood by his side.

Although Joan wished to press home the advantage the French were now enjoying and retake Paris, Charles instead decided to make a truce with the English, proving he was still somewhat sceptical of Joan’s capabilities. The truce ended in the spring of 1430 and Joan was sent to defend the city of Compiègne against English and Burgundian forces.

Whilst leading an attack on a nearby Burgundian camp, Joan was ambushed, pulled from her horse and taken captive. Imprisoned at Beaurevoir Castle, Joan attempted to escape on many occasions. One time, she jumped 70-feet from her tower into the moat below. However, all were in vain and she was eventually sold to the English for 10,000 livres. Her brief spell on the battlefield had come to an end.

Although Charles declared vengeance upon his enemy for their capture of Joan, he did not attempt to rescue her. She was transferred to the city of Rouen, where she stood trial for a multitude of crimes from heresy, witchcraft and cross-dressing. Although her heroism and courageous spirit had already been shown on the battlefield, the trial put Joan’s true internal fortitude on display for all to see.

The politically motivated English court did its best to denounce Joan, who wilfully but calmly reasserted her innocence. Smart, brilliant and undeniably devoted to her religious beliefs, Joan didn’t waiver from her cause. ‘Everything I have done I have done at the instruction of my voices’, she would declare.

Modern historians and doctors have attempted to answer the question of exactly where Joan’s voices came from and have theorised they could have been due to a medical condition, such as schizophrenia or a form of epilepsy.

A year of captivity clearly took its toll on Joan who eventually signed a confession denying her divine guidance. The confession saw her sentence reduced from death to life in prison. It came on the condition that she should no longer dress as a man. A few days later she was seen defiantly wearing men’s clothing again, an apparent sign that she was a ‘relapsed heretic’ and was sentenced to death.

On 30 May 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at just 19-years-old. Dead but never forgotten, Joan had laid the groundwork for the French to win the Hundred Years’ War, becoming a national symbol of defiance and inspiring her countrymen to victory. After the French won in 1453, Charles had Joan’s trial overturned, clearing her name and designating her an innocent martyr.

During the 19th century, Napoleon had her declared a national symbol of France, whilst in 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonised her as a patron saint.