French national heroine
The English were eager to prove that Joan could have defeated them only by using witchcraft.
Joan of Arc is the most famous fighting woman in European history. On the battlefield, she motivated her troops to drive the enemies from her homeland. Although she knew nothing about warfare, she claimed to be guided by visions of saints. Few people believed her; many thought she used sorcery. When Joan's enemies captured her, they declared her a witch and burned her at the stake. Yet her inspiration lived on after her death. She had fought for her king and her country as a whole. This was a new idea to the people at that time, and it helped unite them in victory. Afterward, many came to believe that, indeed, she was divinely led.
Joan was born about 1412 in the village of Domremy, in the Champagne district of northeastern France. As the daughter of a farmer, she grew up herding cattle and sheep, and helping in the fields during the harvest. She did not go to school and never learned to read or to write. Like most peasants in her time, Joan was religious and spent much time praying to the statues of saints that stood around the church in her village.
At the time of Joan's birth, France and England were engaged in a long period of conflict known as the Hundred Years' War. Although this conflict was not really a war, it lasted for more than 100 years. From 1337 to 1453, the two sides fought a series of separate battles over the territory of Aquitaine, a rich land in southwestern France. England had gained control of this area in the twelfth century and was determined not to lose it. France was equally determined to drive the English away from it.
In 1420, after England had won some important battles and gained control of territory in northwestern France, the English and French signed the Treaty of Troyes. This treaty allowed King Henry V of England to become king of France when Charles VI, the current French king, died. Two years later, though, both Henry and Charles died. Charles VII, son of the French king, proclaimed himself heir to the throne. But the French people would not recognize him as king until he was crowned in the cathedral in the English-controlled city of Reims (the traditional site where French kings were crowned).
Trying to capture territory that rightfully belonged to Charles, the English soon broke the Treaty of Troyes by invading central France. In 1428 they attacked the city of Orleans, about eighty miles south of Paris. A victory here would have allowed the English a chance to control all of southern France. But they were stopped by the French, who were led by a seventeen-year-old peasant girl Joan.
From about age 13, Joan would later claim, she began having visions of St. Michael (captain-general of the armies of Heaven), St. Catherine, and St. Margaret (both early Christian martyrs). Joan believed the saints told her to drive the English away from Orleans and out of the country, and to take Charles VII to Reims to be crowned. In 1429, after repeated visions, Joan went to the commander of the French army at Vancoulers to explain her mission. He was doubtful at first, but finally sent her dressed in soldier's clothes to Charles. Joan soon convinced Charles that God had sent her to save France. She reportedly did this by revealing to him secrets that he believed were known only to himself and to God.
Charles gave Joan a suit of white armor. Legend states that her sword came from the church of Saint Catherine of Fierbois. Even though she had never been there, she told her attendants the sword could be found behind the alter, and it was. Joan then led a group of French soldiers against the English at Orleans. She was wounded, but fought on. Her courage inspired her soldiers to drive the English from the city. Because of this victory, Joan became known as the Maid of Orleans. After a few more battles in which her army cleared the English from the surrounding Loire valley, Joan brought Charles to Reims for his coronation on July 17, 1429.
Charles later decided that he wanted to negotiate with the English and the Burgundians, people of an independent state within France who were allies of the English. Joan, on the other hand, wanted France for the French, and she fought on. But she soon lost a few battles. In May of 1430, during the battle of Compiègne, Joan was captured by the Burgundians. She was then sold to the English for 10,000 pounds, taken to the city of Rouen, and shackled to a dungeon wall.
The English were eager to prove that Joan could have defeated them only by using witchcraft. They brought her to trial for sorcery and heresy (the act of challenging the authority of the Church). The representatives of the Church who tried her believed that God would speak only to priests. They wanted her to deny that she had heard the voices of the saints and to remove the soldier's, or men's, clothes that she wore, since this was a violation of Church rules. But Joan refused to do what they wanted.
Charles, whom Joan had helped crown, sent no one to rescue her. After months in prison, sick and weak, she finally signed a general statement of faults and put on women's clothes. The authorities had promised Joan that she could attend church and confession after she had signed this statement. But afterward, they would not let her leave the dungeon; they had lied to her. In response, Joan put on her soldier's clothes once more. For this disobedience, she was quickly sentenced to death, and on May 30, 1431, she was burned at the stake in the marketplace of Rouen.
The shameful story of her death led everyone involved to try not to take the blame. Even Charles tried twice to have the verdict against her overturned. In 1456, a mere 25 years later, Pope Calixtus III declared that Joan had been not guilty, and condemned the verdict against her. In 1920, almost 500 years after her death, the Catholic Church canonized Joan, or declared her to be a saint.
Brooks, Polly Schoyer, Beyond the Myth: The Story of Joan of Arc, Lippincott,
Christopher, Tracy, Joan of Arc, Chelsea Juniors, 1993.
The End of Chivalry: Henry V, Joan of Arc, Richard III, library edition, Miles Cavendish, 1989.
Gies, Frances, Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality, Harper & Row, 1981.
Nottridge, Harold, Joan of Arc, Bookwright Press, 1988.
Shaw, George Bernard, Saint Joan, Penguin, 1963.