Jeanne d’Arc – anglicized as Joan of Arc – is a famous French military leader born in 1412 and canonized by the Roman Catholic church in 1920.
She is best known for rallying French troops and helping to turn the tide of the Hundred Years War. In doing so, she saved France from English rule. Even though she lived less than twenty years, she left an enduring legacy and is still venerated as a patron saint of France.
Jehanne la Pucelle
Joan signed her letters Jehanne la Pucelle, or Joan the Maiden. Still today in France she is often referred to as la Pucelle, emphasizing her status as a free unmarried woman and a virgin.
The exact date of her birth was unknown, but she was probably born in the year 1412. Her parents, Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romée, both outlived her.
Her owned and farmed about fifty acres of land. He also worked as a tax collector and the head of the local watch.
Joan grew up with three brothers and a sister in the French countryside. She was responsible for everyday chores such as spinning wool and looking after the family’s animals.
When Joan was thirteen, the English raided the area in which she lived. Local opinion held that there would only be peace once the English invaders were driven out. It was after this raid that Joan had her first vision: Saint Michael appeared to her in the garden surrounded by angels.
After this, she experienced frequent visions. She often saw the virgin saints familiar to her region, Saint Margaret of Antioch and Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Both women were tortured and martyred for their beliefs.
The Hundred Years’ War
During Joan of Arc’s lifetime, much of France was controlled by England, Burgundy, and the Holy Roman Empire.
She was born during the Hundred Years War, which began in 1337. Nearly all of the fighting between England and France had occurred on Joan’s home soil, and she grew up in a country devastated by decades of war.
Throughout Joan’s childhood, France was divided internally. King Charles IV was too ill to rule, and his closest relatives fought over the regency, further dividing their war-torn country.
Taking advantage of France’s internal squabbles, King Henry V of England invaded in 1415. This was the beginning of the Lancastrian war, the third and final phase of the Hundred Years’ War. English forces took control of great swaths of French land.
The Treaty of Troyes in 1420 marked a pause, secured by the marriage of a French princess to the English king. Much of France refused to accept the treaty, and the conflict continued. French troops began to lose hope.
And then came Joan.
A Virgin Carrying a Banner
Throughout Joan’s youth, a dual prophecy circulated throughout france.
One was a revelation by Marie Robine of Avignon, who died before Joan of Arc was born. Robine had a vision of an armed woman who would come to save the kingdom.
Another prophecy foretold that a virgin carrying a banner would end the country’s suffering.
Joan sometimes referred to these prophecies herself, declaring that it was foretold a virgin would restore France to its former glory. These long-standing prophecies are a major reason that the French king and the country as a whole were willing to accept Joan during a time when women had so little power over their own lives, never mind the fate of nations.
King Charles VII
Joan first petitioned a garrison leader to take her to the king’s court when she was just sixteen years old, but she was refused. Just two months later, her village was invaded. Burgundian soldiers set fire to the town and its crops, and Joan fled alongside her family.
Again Joan demanded to see the king, and again she was refused. By this point, she was beginning to draw attention from the ruling class. A duke summoned her, believing that this girl might have supernatural powers that could heal his illness. Joan pretended to no such powers. Instead, she scolded him for living in sin with a woman who was not his wife.
Joan was finally allowed an escort of soldiers to take her to see the king in 1429, when she was seventeen years old. She cut her hair short and donned men’s clothes for the journey.
When Joan met Charles, she reassured him that he was the legitimate king and urged him to defend Orléans, one of the most heavily fortified cities in Europe. The English had laid siege to the city the previous year and built several forts around the city walls.
The king and his council tasked a group of theologians with questioning Joan of Arc, who reassured him that she was a good Catholic. She was then subjected to an examination meant to provide proof of her virginity.
Reassured by these promising indications that she might be the virgin of prophecy, Charles commissioned plate armor for Joan. She designed a banner for herself and claimed a sword from the altar of Saint Catherine.
After many decades of war, the troops were demoralized. The appearance of Joan, heralded by prophecy, lifted their spirits and encouraged them to continue the fight.
Before setting out to Orléans, Joan dictated a letter to the leader of the occupying forces. She warned him that God had sent her to drive him out of France.
Thousands of English soldiers surrounded the city of Orléans. Despite these enemy encampments, French military leader Jean de Dunois managed to smuggle Joan into the city.
Dressed in armor and flying her own banner, the teenage girl was greeted with enthusiasm. First treated as a figurehead, Joan quickly won the respect of soldiers and commanders alike by throwing herself into the front ranks of armed conflicts. Before long, she was advising the military leaders on points of strategy.
French soldiers rallied around Joan, and with her help they captured several of the English fortresses that surrounded the city.
English forces retreated just nine days after Joan arrived in Orléans. This was taken as proof that Joan was indeed sent by God, and several prominent theologians wrote treatises saying as much.
The English, on the other hand, saw Joan’s bravery and quick victory as a sure sign that she was an instrument of the devil – a belief that would soon lead to her death at the hands of Englishmen.
Crowning King Charles VII
Immediately following the victory at Orléans, Joan made it her mission to reach Reims and facilitate Charles’ official coronation.
The French military retook bridges and towns that were occupied by English forces, and Joan continued to throw herself into the most dangerous parts of the battles. She was injured many times – an arrow to the shoulder, blows to the head, a crossbow bolt to the leg – but her courage never faltered.
Devastated by these attacks, enemy soldiers retreated towards Paris. Reims surrendered under the mere threat of an assault, and Charles was crowned with Joan by his side.
An Assault on Paris
Joan urged the king to continue onward to retake Paris, but his advisors were divided in their opinions. They did eventually approach, but slowly. Along the way, many towns surrendered without a fight.
When the army finally launched an assault on the heavily fortified city of Paris, Joan was gravely wounded and 1,500 Frenchmen were killed. Charles ordered an end to the assault, though Joan urged him to keep fighting. The king refused her and ordered a retreat.
After this, the court was disillusioned with the girl soldier. Many favored a truce with Burgundy and a diplomatic solution, whereas Joan was more hotheaded, driven by religious conviction and a certainty of purpose.
The Conviction of Joan of Arc
Lack of support from the king she had helped to crown did not deter Joan from her mission. She and her men continued to attack heavily fortified towns with some success, but eventually they were forced to retreat. Following this defeat, Joan fell further from favor among the king and his court.
Joan gathered a volunteer army to defend the town of Compiègne, which was under siege. Other commanders joined her. Joan was a particularly unforgiving commander, executing captured mercenaries who might otherwise have been ransomed.
Joan was captured in an attack against a Burgandian camp near Compiègne. She tried twice to escape captivity, going so far as to jump from the window of a tower into a dry moat.
Charles did nothing to recover Joan from the English.
Joan was put on trial for heresy. One of the main crimes laid against her was the blasphemy of wearing men’s clothes; she refused to repent or change into a dress. She said that she would not return to wearing women’s clothes until she had fulfilled her calling.
The trial was subsidized by the English, who hid behind church law to disguise their political motivations. Joan threatened the English claim to French lands, and her execution was a foregone conclusion from the start.
Throughout the questioning, Joan remained calm and rational. She never wavered, even when threatened with torture. When she refused to deny her visions, she was sentenced to death.
Joan of Arc was burned to death at the age of nineteen.
Following Joan’s death, her mother Isabelle Romée spent the rest of her long life working to clear her daughter’s name. She petitioned Pope Nicholas V to overturn the heresy conviction that killed Joan of Arc. She eventually succeeded.
Joan of Arc’s conviction was overturned in July of 1456. She was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic church centuries later, in 1920.