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Joan of Arc

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

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.

12 facts about Joan of Arc

1. When was Joan of Arc Born?

We don’t actually have an exact date of birth for Joan of Arc, but it’s believed that she was born around 6th January 1412. Joan was part of a poor family in rural France at a time when records of birth were only kept for nobility.

Born during the Hundred Years’ War, Joan was one of five children. Her early life was spent working on the farm and she didn’t receive a formal education which meant she grew up illiterate.

2. Was Joan of Arc her real name?

Joan’s name was written in various ways across different records, meaning that we don’t know what name she would have used herself. Pre-16th century records have her as everything from ‘Jeanne d'Ay de Domrémy’ (in a letter from King Charles II himself) to ‘Darc’, ‘Tarc’, ‘Tart’, and even ‘Day’.

3. What did Joan of Arc do?

Using information gleaned from what she believed to be visions from God, Joan led the French army in battle against the English during the Hundred Years’ War. Joan transcended gender roles to lead the French army to multiple victories, all while wearing armour and men’s clothing, an act that was considered heresy at the time.

Joan's contributions boosted morale and reinvigorated the French, laying the groundwork for their victory decades later. Without her involvement, the outcome of the war might have looked very different.

4. What did Joan of Arc look like?

Joan was described as a short, strong and muscular woman. Her hair was short and black and was most likely styled in the same way as men from the era. She was said to have brown eyes and a ruddy or sunburned complexion.

5. Was Joan of Arc schizophrenic?

Joan started hearing voices and receiving visions as a young teenager. Accompanied by a blinding light and the sound of bells, Joan attributed her visions to messages sent by God and angels. However, modern-day interpretations of Joan's ability have taken a more medical view.

Contemporary historians and medical professionals alike have attributed Joan’s visions to auditory and visual hallucinations that are synonymous with illnesses such as schizophrenia and epilepsy.

6. Did Joan of Arc die in battle?

After being shot through the neck by an arrow in battle, rumours spread that Joan had died. After all, who could take an injury like that and survive? However, despite the serious injury to her neck and shoulder, Joan didn’t only survive but she returned to the very same battlefield and led her men on to a great victory.

7. What was Joan of Arc charged with?

After her capture by the English, Joan was charged with over 70 crimes, including everything from horse theft to witchcraft. Eventually, the charges were brought down to 12 - most of which had to do with her wearing men’s clothes.

Despite holding her own throughout her trial and seemingly avoiding the traps designed to trip her up in court, Joan was found guilty of public heresy, which was a crime punishable by death.

8. How Did Joan of Arc die?

Joan was burned at the stake in Rouen, France, on 30th May 1431. Her body didn’t burn right away and she died from smoke inhalation. The Cardinal of Winchester had her burned a second time, but this still didn’t quite do the trick and her organs needed to be burned a third time.

9. How old was Joan of Arc when she died?

Joan was just 19 at the time she was burned at the stake. She was just 17 when she met King Charles II and was tasked with leading his army.

10. Was Joan of Arc found not guilty?

Despite being found guilty and sentenced to death by an English court, Joan’s mother, Isabelle, fought tirelessly to prove her daughter's innocence. After 25 years of constant campaigning for her daughter and her divine gift, she was victorious and a rehabilitation court examined the original trial.

Joan was posthumously declared innocent on 7th July 1456, with the rehabilitation court stating that her original trial had been unjust. Joan’s sentence was annulled, her innocence formally announced and she was martyred.

11. Is Joan of Arc a saint?

Joan was beatified by Pope Pius X in 1909 and was canonised as a saint by Pope Benedict XI in 1920. To this date, she is the only person to be both condemned and canonised by the Catholic Church.

12. What miracles did Joan of Arc perform?

In order to become a saint, one must first perform miracles. Although Joan was said to have received her visions from God, she performed no miracles in her lifetime. In fact, the miracles that led to her canonisation were performed posthumously.

It is said that multiple women who prayed to Joan were healed of their afflictions. Three nuns who had prayed to her found that their cancer was miraculously healed, while another woman was cured of her tuberculosis, and a fifth was cured of a hole in her foot.