Joan of Arc was a peasant girl born on January 6, 1412, in the village of Domremy, on eastern France. Her parents were Jacques and Isabelle d’Arc (of Arc). She was born in strife-torn circumstances, amid one of the longest war in history, the Hundred Years’ War. She became a Catholic Saint and heroine of France, as she led the French Army to several victories that allowed Charles VII be crowned King of France. In 1412, there was an unstable truce between England and France, but a civil war would break out among the French. This would lead to another English invasion of France.
The French king at the time of Joan’s birth was Charles VI, who had gone insane and was unable to rule. The king’s brother Duke Louis of Orleans and the king’s cousin John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, quarreled over the regency of France and the guardianship of the royal children. This dispute escalated to accusations of an extramarital affair with Queen Isabeau of Bavaria and the kidnappings of the royal children. The matter climaxed when the Duke of Burgundy ordered the assassination of the Duke of Orleans in 1407. The factions loyal to these two men became known as the Armagnacs, loyal to the Duke of Orlean, and the Burgundians, who sided with John the Fearless of Burgundy.
The English king, Henry V, took advantage of this turmoil to invade France, winning a dramatic victory at Agincourt in 1415, and capturing northern French towns. The future French king, Charles VII, assumed the title of Dauphin as heir to the throne at the age of 14, after all four of his older brothers died. His first significant official act was to conclude a peace treaty with Burgundy in 1419. This ended in disaster when Armagnac partisans murdered John the Fearless during a meeting under Charles’s guarantee of protection. The new Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, blamed Charles and entered into an alliance with the English. As a result, huge chunks of French territory were conquered. Queen Isabeau of Bavaria concluded the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, which granted the French royal succession to the English king Henry V and his heirs in preference to her son Charles. This agreement revived rumors about her supposed affair with the late duke of Orléans and raised fresh suspicions that the Dauphin was a royal bastard rather than the son of the king. Henry V and Charles VI died within two months of each other in 1422, leaving an infant, Henry VI of England, the nominal monarch of both kingdoms. Henry V’s brother, John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, acted as regent.
Nearly all of northern France and some parts of the southwest were under English control by 1429, as the French pro-English, the Burgundians, controlled Paris and Reims. The latter city was important as the traditional site of French coronations and consecrations, especially since neither claimant to the throne of France had yet been crowned. The English had laid siege to Orleans, which was the only remaining loyal French city north of the Loire. Its strategic location along the river made it the last obstacle to an assault on the remainder of the French heartland. As a modern historian would put it, "On the fate of Orleans hung that of the entire kingdom." No one was optimistic that the city could long withstand the siege.
Joan of Arc was twelve years old when she was alone in a field and heard voices as she cried. She would assert that Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret told her to drive out the English and bring the Dauphin Charles VII to Reims for his coronation. At the age of 16, she asked a kinsman, Durand Lassois, to bring her to nearby Vaucouleurs where she petitioned the garrison commander, Count Robert de Baudricourt, for permission to visit the royal French court at Chinon. Baudricourt’s sarcastic response did not deter her. She returned the following January and gained support from two men of standing: Jean de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengy. Under their auspices, she gained a second interview where she made a remarkable prediction about a military reversal near Orleans.
Robert de Baudricourt granted her an escort to visit Chinon after news from the front confirmed her prediction. She made the journey through hostile Burgundian territory in male disguise. Upon arriving at the royal court she impressed Charles VII during a private conference. He then ordered background inquiries and a theological examination at Poitiers to verify her morality. During this time Charles’s mother-in-law Yolande of Aragon was financing a relief expedition to Orléans. Joan petitioned for permission to travel with the army and wear the equipment of a knight. She depended on donated items for her armour, horse, sword, banner, and entourage. Her armor was said to be white.
After years of one humiliating defeat after another, both the military and civil leadership of France were demoralized and discredited. When the Dauphin Charles granted Joan’s urgent request to be equipped for war and placed at the head of his army, his decision must have been based in large part on the knowledge that every orthodox, every rational, option had been tried and had failed. Only a regime in the final straits of desperation would pay any heed to an illiterate farm girl who claimed that the voice of God was instructing her to take charge of her country’s army and lead it to victory.
On April 29, 1429, Joan of Arc arrived at the siege of Orlean. Jean d’Orleans, the acting head of the Orleans ducal family, initially excluded her from war councils, but this did not prevent her from being present at most councils and battles. The extent of her actual military leadership is a subject of historical debate. Traditional historians such as Edouard Perroy conclude that she was a standard bearer whose primary effect was on morale. This type of analysis usually relies on the condemnation trial testimony, where she stated that she preferred her standard to her sword. Recent scholarship that focuses on the nullification trial testimony asserts that her fellow officers esteemed her as a skilled tactician and a successful strategist as she proceeded to lead the army in an astounding series of victories that reversed the tide of the war.
During the five months of siege before her arrival, the defenders of Orleans had attempted only one aggressive move which had ended in disaster. On May 4 the French attacked and captured the outlying fortress of Saint Loup, which she followed on May 5 with a march to a second fortress called Saint Jean le Blanc. Finding it deserted, this became a bloodless victory. The next day she opposed Jean d’Orleans at a war council where she demanded another assault on the enemy. D’Orleans ordered the city gates locked to prevent another battle, but she summoned the townsmen and common soldiers and forced the mayor to unlock a gate. With the aid of only one captain she rode out and captured the fortress of Saint Augustins. That evening she learned she had been excluded from a war council where the leaders had decided to wait for reinforcements before acting again. Disregarding this decision, she insisted on assaulting the main English stronghold called Les Tourelles on May 7. Contemporaries acknowledged her as the heroine of the engagement after she sustained an arrow wound to her neck but returned wounded to lead the final charge.
The unexpected victory at Orleans led to many proposals for offensive action. The English expected an attempt to recapture Paris or an attack on Normandy. In the aftermath of the sudden victory, she persuaded Charles VII to grant her co-command of the army with Duke John II of Alencon. She also gained royal permission for her plan to recapture nearby bridges along the Loire as a prelude to an advance on Reims and a coronation. Hers was a bold proposal because Reims was roughly twice as far away as Paris and deep in enemy territory.
The army recovered Jargeau on June 12, Meung-sur-Loire on June 15, then Beaugency on June 17. The Duke of Alencon agreed to all of Joan’s decisions. Other commanders including Jean d’Orleans had been impressed with her performance at Orleans and became her supporters. Alençon credited her for saving his life at Jargeau, where she warned him of an imminent artillery attack. During the same battle she withstood a blow from a stone cannonball to her helmet as she climbed a scaling ladder. Then an English relief force arrived in the area on June 18 under the command of Sir John Fastolf. The battle at Patay might be compared to Agincourt in reverse. The French vanguard attacked before the English archers could finish defensive preparations. A rout ensued that devastated the main body of the English army and killed or captured most of its commanders. Fastolf escaped with a small band of soldiers and became the scapegoat for the English humiliation. The French suffered minimal losses.
Joan of Arc headed for Reims with the French army, leaving Gien-sur-Loire on June 29. She accepted the conditional surrender of the Burgundian-held city of Auxerre on July 3. Every other town in their path returned to French allegiance without resistance. Troyes, the site of the treaty that had tried to disinherit Charles VII, capitulated after a bloodless four-day siege. The army was in short supply of food by the time it reached Troyes. Finally on July 16, Reims opened its gates. Charles VII was crowned King of France on July 17.
Although Joan of Arc and the duke of Alencon urged a prompt march on Paris, the royal court pursued a negotiated truce with Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. But it was just a stalling tactic used by the duke to gain time to reinforce the defense of Paris. The French army marched through towns near Paris during the interim and accepted more peaceful surrenders. The Duke of Bedford headed an English force and confronted the French army in a standoff on August 15. The French assault on Paris ensued on September 8. Despite the fact that she had been wounded in the leg by a crossbow bolt, Joan of Arc continued directing the troops until the day’s fighting ended. But the following morning she received a royal order to withdraw.
On April, 1430, Joan went to Compiegne to defend it against an English and Burgundian siege. A skirmish on May 23, 1430 led to her capture. When she ordered a retreat, she assumed the place of honor as the last to leave the field. Burgundians surrounded the rear guard and took her prisoner. It was customary for a captive’s family to ransom a prisoner of war. Unfortunately, Joan and her family lacked the financial resources. Many historians condemn King Charles VII for failing to intervene. She attempted several escapes, on one occasion jumping from her 70 foot tower in Vermandois to the soft earth of a dry moat, but she was recaptured and taken to the Burgundian town of Arras. The English government eventually purchased her from Duke Philip of Burgundy. Bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais assumed a prominent role in these negotiations and her later trial.
As Joan of Arc had been responsible for the French king coronation, the trial for heresy was politically motivated, for the Duke of Bedford claimed the throne of France for his nephew Henry VI. So to condemn her was to undermine her king’s legitimacy. Legal proceedings commenced on January 9, 1431 at Rouen, the seat of the English occupation government. The procedure was irregular on a number of points. In 1456, Pope Callixtus III declared her innocent of the heresy charges brought against her. The trial record demonstrates her remarkable intellect. The transcript’s most famous exchange is an exercise in subtlety. "Asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she answered: ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me." The question is a scholarly trap. Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have convicted herself of heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt. Notary Boisguillaume would later testify that at the moment the court heard this reply, those who were interrogating her were stupefied.
Significant portions of the transcript were altered against her, as many clerics served under compulsion, including the inquisitor, Jean LeMaitre, and a few even received death threats from the English. Under Inquisitorial guidelines, Joan should have been confined to an ecclesiastical prison under the supervision of nuns. Instead, the English kept her in a secular prison guarded by their own soldiers. Bishop Cauchon denied Joan’s appeals to the Council of Basel and the pope, which should have stopped his proceeding. The illiterate defendant signed an abjuration document she did not understand under threat of immediate execution. The court substituted a different abjuration in the official record.
Joan agreed to wear women’s clothes when she had abjured, but a few days later she was sexually assaulted in prison and resumed to wear male attire either as a defense against molestation or just because her dress had been stolen and she was left with nothing else to wear. As heresy was a capital crime for a repeat offense, Joan of Arc was sentenced to be burned at the stake. The execution was carried out on May 30, 1431.
More than twenty years later, when the war had ended, Pope Callixtus III ordered a posthumous retrial be opened. A panel of theologians analyzed testimony from 115 witnesses. The Inquisitor-General Jean Brehal drew up his final summary in June, 1456, which described Joan as a martyr and implicates the late Pierre Cauchon with heresy for having convicted an innocent woman in pursuit of a secular vendetta. The court declared her innocence on July 7, 1456.