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Detail of ‘The Maid of Orléans’ (1886) by Jan Matejko - Joan of Arc

Speaking of Angels and Saints: The Story of Joan of Arc


Joan of Arc was a young peasant woman who lived during the last phase of the Hundred Years’ War. This war was a series of military conflicts between France and England which began in 1337 due to an inheritance dispute over the French throne. It ended in 1453. The 116 years of the war saw the rise and fall of several kings and nobles, many of whom are noteworthy in their own right. Joan of Arc, however, may be one of the most extraordinary figures from this period.

Joan of Arc, The Pious Child that Heard Voices

Joan of Arc was born around 1412 in Domrémy, a village located in the north-east of France. This village was within the territory of the Duke of Burgundy. Although the Burgundians were allies of the English, the people of Domrémy remained loyal to France.

Joan’s father was a farmer by the name of Jacques D’Arc, and her mother was a woman named Isabelle Romée or Isabelle de Vouthon. According to popular belief, Joan spent her childhood in the pastures with sheep and cattle, though this perception is unfounded. She is said to have been a pious child, who often knelt in church absorbed in prayer.

It was at the age of 13 that Joan of Arc said she began hearing mystical voices, which she called her ‘counsels’. Later on she identified these voices with the saints and angels, including Saint Michael the Archangel, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine.

According to Joan, the voices told her that God had given her an extremely important mission which involved the fate of France. She was told to help expel its enemies, i.e. the English, who were occupying French territory, and install Charles VII as the rightful king of France.

The Appearance of Saints Catherine and Michael to Joan of Arc. (1843) By Hermann Anton Stilke.

The Appearance of Saints Catherine and Michael to Joan of Arc. (1843) By Hermann Anton Stilke. (Public Domain)

Joan Meets the King

In 1428, Joan of Arc was instructed by her visions to meet Robert de Baudricourt, a supporter of Charles, and the garrison commander of the neighboring town of Vancouleurs. Initially, de Baudricourt was skeptical, and dismissed Joan’s request. Joan decided to leave, but retuned in January of the following year.

This time, Joan stayed in Vancouleurs, and her persistence eventually caused de Baudricourt to relent. The garrison commander provided Joan an escort of three men-at-arms and a horse for her journey to Chinon, where Charles had his court. Joan cropped her hair and dressed in male clothing, as a protection to her modesty during the journey.

When Charles heard of Joan and her divine mission, he was not sure what to make of it. Two days after Joan arrived at Chinon, she was admitted into the presence of the king. To test her, Charles disguised himself among his courtiers, though Joan recognized him and saluted the king without hesitation.

Joan promised Charles that she would see him crowned at Reims, the traditional site of French royal investiture. As this site was under English control, Charles was not ‘officially’ the king of France, though he held that title since 1422.

Joan of Arc meeting Charles VII, the king of France.

Joan of Arc meeting Charles VII, the king of France. (Public Domain)

Inspiration and Strategy in Battle

Against the advice of most of his counsellors and generals, Charles decided to give Joan of Arc a chance. He provided her with a suit of armor and a horse, and gave her an army to lead to Orléans, which was under siege by the English.

Joan of Arc on horseback. (1505)

Joan of Arc on horseback. (1505) (Public Domain)

While the English seemed to have had the upper hand at Orléans for half a year, the siege collapsed just nine days after Joan’s arrival. Though Joan is often perceived as a fearless warrior, she did not participate in active combat. Instead of a weapon, Joan held a banner and served as an inspiration to her troops while on the battlefield. Joan was also responsible for formulating military strategies, directing her troops, and engaging in diplomacy with the English.

After the victory at Orléans, Joan of Arc led the French to victory at Patay and Troyes, as well as liberating numerous French towns from the English. Then the way to Reims was open, and on the 17th of July 1429, Charles was crowned as the king of France at Reims.

Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII. (1854) By Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.

Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII. (1854) By Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. (Public Domain)

What was Joan of Arc Accused of? Why was She Burned at the Stake?

Joan’s next target was the liberation of Paris, which also began in July, though it ended in failure in September of the same year. In May of 1430, Joan was captured by the Burgundians at Compiegne, and then sold to the English.

The Capture of Joan of Arc. (1880)

The Capture of Joan of Arc. (1880) (Public Domain)

Joan of Arc was tried in the English stronghold of Rouen by an ecclesiastical court. Initially, there were 70 charges against her, which ranged from sorcery to horse theft. Eventually, these charges were reduced to just 12, including the wearing of men’s clothes and the claim that God had spoken to her directly. In exchange for an admission of guilt, Joan was offered life imprisonment.

She signed a document admitting her sins, though it has been speculated that since Joan was illiterate, she was not aware of what she was signing. Nevertheless, a few days later, Joan of Arc put on her male attire once again, possibly due to threats of rape or violence from her guards.

Joan of Arc is interrogated by The Cardinal of Winchester in her prison. (1824) By Paul Delaroche.

Joan of Arc is interrogated by The Cardinal of Winchester in her prison. (1824) By Paul Delaroche. (Public Domain)

Additionally, she told the judges who visited her cell that the voices had reappeared. Thus, she was sentenced to burn at the stake as a ‘relapsed heretic’. During her burning, a Dominican friar consoled her by holding up a crucifix for her to gaze upon as she died. Even as she was burned, the young Joan did not recant.

Over time, the perception of Joan of Arc changed. In 1450, Charles VII went to Rouen and demanded an investigation into Joan's execution. Later, Pope Calixtus III annulled Cauchon's 1431 verdict declaring Joan a heretic, and on May 16, 1920, Pope Benedict XV made Joan of Arc a saint. In June of that year, the French Parliament also declared a national holiday in Joan's honor. Over the years, numerous works of art have been inspired by the now-legendary Joan of Arc.

Jeanne d'Arc. (1901) By François Chifflart.

Jeanne d'Arc. (1901) By François Chifflart. (Public Domain)

Top Image: Detail of ‘The Maid of Orléans’ (1886) by Jan Matejko. Source: Public Domain

By Ḏḥwty

Updated on July 10, 2020.


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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