Jehanne La Pucelle or, Joan of Arc, as she is known, claimed a mandate from God to liberate France from decades of English domination. Since the time of William the Conqueror in 1066, successive English kings, through intermarriage and inheritance, claimed sovereignty over large areas of France.
The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) was an attempt by the English to bring all of France under the English crown. At a crucial time, Joan of Arc was able to unite France and turn the tide of war decisively in its favor.
A 17-year-old farm girl
Joan burst onto the scene quite suddenly, a simple illiterate farm girl of seventeen with no training except in the domestic arts of spinning and sewing. She vowed to succeed in driving out the English even though other experienced military leaders had repeatedly failed to do so.
Some viewed her as a foolish upstart, hopelessly naïve, or possibly insane—not a person to be taken seriously. Others, from signs and miracles, thought that perhaps she was an instrument of the Divine and should be given a chance to prove herself.
A voice from God
In her own words she said:
When I was thirteen, I heard a voice from God to help me to govern myself. The first time, I was terrified. I heard it many times before I knew that it was St. Michael. He told me that Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret would come to me, and that I must follow their counsel for it was at our Lord’s command.
They told me that my king would be restored to his kingdom, despite his enemies… and that I must depart and go into France and that I would raise the siege before Orleans… And I answered the voice that I was a poor girl who knew nothing of riding and warfare.
Joan kept silent about the voices for four years, until she felt certain of God’s will. The voices then told her to go to Vaucouleurs where Robert de Baudricourt, captain of the town, would give her men to go with her. Though skeptical at first, Robert de Baudricourt supplied her with men and arms.
By then, the military situation was desperate and France was all but defeated. In his desperation, Charles, the Dauphine, was willing to listen to the Maid. Upon their first meeting Joan said to him, “I bring you news from God, that our Lord will give you back your kingdom… In this I am God’s messenger. Set me bravely to work and I will raise the siege of Orleans.”
After three weeks of hearings, the Church at Poitiers approved Joan’s claims and declared that she was neither a witch nor a heretic. Charles gave her troops and the rank of captain.
Victory at Orleans
With God’s guidance, Joan led the French troops to a decisive victory over the English at the battle of Orleans in May 1429. This was followed by other victories, opening the road to Reims where the French kings had been crowned for over a thousand years. Joan was hailed as the savior of France, and given a place of honor next to the king during his coronation at Reims, July 17, 1429.
After five months of inactivity, Joan’s impatience to recapture Paris from the English brought her into conflict with Charles’s hesitant nature and his treacherous advisors. Joan’s voices assured her that Paris would eventually fall, but they never gave her any guidance as to when or what her role, if any, would be. Charles finally approved an ill-timed, half-hearted attempt on Paris and, goaded by his advisers, blamed Joan for the predictable defeat.
Capture and betrayal
When Joan took the field again, her voices told her that she would be taken prisoner by the English. Though she pleaded with them they said, “It must be Jehanne. It is God’s will and nothing can prevent it. Do not be downcast but hold onto your faith knowing that He will help you.”
At the battle of Compiegne, Joan was captured by the Burgundians, French collaborators with the English. The Burgundians later sold her to the English for a substantial sum.
No words can adequately describe Charles’s ingratitude in refusing to ransom Joan from the Burgundians. Had his treacherous advisors finally succeeded in turning the king against her? Was he jealous of her popularity with his subjects? We may never know. What we do know is that the English were determined, at all costs, to take her life.
A mockery of a trial
The infamous trial in Rouen was presided over by the unscrupulous Pierre Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais, a puppet of the Burgundian party. Joan stood accused of witchcraft and heresy.
She was not allowed an advocate and, though accused in an ecclesiastical court, she was illegally confined in a secular prison and kept chained by the neck, hands, and feet. Cauchon and his cohorts tried to browbeat her into submission by denying her food and sleep, but she remained fearless and forthright, and refused to deny the reality of her revelations.
Joan’s insistence on the reality of her revelations placed her in the gravest danger. In the view of her judges, she was guilty of heresy because she allowed her private judgment to override obedience to the church. In rejecting the demand that she submit to the church, Joan said:
I believe that our holy father the Pope of Rome, the bishops, and the other churchmen are there to guard the Christian faith and to punish those who are faulty. But as for me I will not submit myself in respect to my deeds, save to the church in heaven alone—that is, to God, the Virgin Mary, and the saints in paradise. I firmly believe that I have not been faulty in our Christian faith. Nor would I wish to be. I do no wrong to serve God.
Conviction and martyrdom
After three months, Joan’s judges declared her visions to be “false and diabolical.” Joan was publicly admonished and threatened with torture, if she did not sign a statement renouncing her visions. From fear of the stake, on May 23, 1431 she recanted saying, “I would rather sign it than burn. Now take me to your prison, and let me no longer be in the hands of the English.”
Five days later, admonished by her voices, Joan repudiated her statement. She said:
What I said, I said for fear of the fire. My voices have told me that I did a very wicked thing. They…gave me to know the great pity of the treason that I consented to by making that abjuration to save my own life, and that I was damning myself to save myself.
On May 30, 1431, at the age of nineteen, Joan was burned at the stake. Her demeanor was such as to move even her bitterest enemies to tears. She asked for a cross, which she embraced. She then asked that the cross be held up before her while she called continuously upon the name of Jesus. “Until the last,” wrote Manchon, the recorder at the trial, “she declared that her voices came from God and had not deceived her.”