Interesting Histories: Joan of Arc

Jan Matejko (1838–1893)

The story of Joan of Arc sounds more fictional than some fictional stories. It talks about prophecies, a divine guidance, sieges, battles, coronations, trials and an execution. Add a dragon or two and you got yourself a solid plot for a great fantasy epic. The hero is a young virgin, the villain is a power-hungry king. She sacrifices herself, throws herself into a hundred years war and saves her ravaged country. Then she is betrayed, trialed, falsely accused and silenced forever. Alexandre Duma would be proud of a story like that. Yet Joan of Arc is not fictional, her battles are not fantasies and her victories shaped the world we live in today.

France was not doing so well at the beginning of the 15th century. The English armies overran the northern part of the country and the Burgundians were pushing from southwest. Henry VI of England was trying to grab the French throne and unite two great kingdoms under his rule. Paris fell, Rouen was occupied and Reims was conquered. In 1428, the English laid siege to Orleans and only the French heartland was still untouched. Nobody had much hope left, soon the last bastion would fall. Charles VII, the true, by some accounts, heir to the French throne, was trying his best to hold the invaders back, but he would need a true miracle to turn his and his country’s fortunes around.

Eugène Romain Thirion (1839–1910)

In May 1428, a young girl appeared in the town of Vaucouleurs, claiming that she had a divine vision and need to see the King of France. Robert de Baudricourt, the garrison commander of that region, at first chased her away, as he simply could not take the young girl’s pleas seriously. Yet the girl persisted, she followed him around the town, shadowed his every move, made a miraculous prediction of an outcome of the Battle of Rouvray, and rallied the people around him to such extent that he could not ignore her any longer. De Baudricourt finally gave up, he instructed two of his men, Jean de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengy, to take the young girl to the French Royal Court at Chinon to see Charles VII. The girl’s name was Joan of Arc.

To make her travels safer, Joan cut her hair short and dressed in men’s clothes. The countryside of a war torn France was not safe for a young woman, even with an armed escort, and traveling as a man would deter any troublemakers. Charles VII, when he first heard that a peasant girl wants an audience with him, decided to give her a proper test. He disguised himself as one of his couriers and invited Joan to his chambers. It took her only a split second to recognize her king as she dropped to her knees and bowed to him. Joan managed to secure a private audience with Charles VII and win his trust. He requested further examination of her to verify that she was not a witch or a some kind of sorceress, and it was quickly proven that she was just a young girl and a good Christian. It seems like Charles VII really wanted to believe that Joan of Arc was the one who would save his country, as all the attempts to do so himself ended up as failures.

Joan of Arc was now ready to do her battles, and she got her first chance at the besieged city of Orleans. She arrived there on 29 April 1429 and joined Jean d’Orléans, the man who ran the town, at his war council. By that time many noblemen truly believed her to be a saint and trusted her divine guidance. They listened to her suggestion to go on the offensive and drive the English back. Joan went together with the advancing French army, carrying her white banner, rallying the troops and inspiring men all around her. She was wounded by an arrow, but it did not slow her down. She was soon back in the midst of the action and took part in the final assault. The English retreated and Joan had her first victory. Many historians still debate of her contribution to the engagement, but it is a fact that she was there and her white banner flew over the bloody battlefield.

Jean-Jacques Scherrer (1855–1916)

The great battle was won, and suddenly Joan of Arc had a great influence and many supporters. She insisted on continuing the offensive and asked Charles VII to join Duke John II of Alençon’s army. She wanted to go straight for Reims, where French kings were coronated. It was a risky affair, as the city lay deep in the enemy territory, but Joan was sure that it worth it, as Charles VII needed his crown to unite and stabilize France under his rule. Her wish was granted and she set off once again.

The next test of Joan’s divinity came on 18 June at the Battle of Patay. The English forces under the command of Sir John Fastolf, and the French army led by La Hire and Jean Poton de Xaintrailles, with the help from Joan of Arc, collided near a small village, not far from Orleans. The French knights rushed the English bowmen, decimating their ranks and slaughtering most of them. The victory came with ease as the English fled, their main army shattered and many of their seasoned commanders captured. The road to Reims was open.

The French forces, inspired by Joan of Arc and their sudden ability to destroy any English opposition, strolled through the countryside, making their way towards Reims. They bolstered their numbers at Gein, and many towns and cities surrendered to the triumphant army without any resistance. Only Troyes tried to put up a fight but quickly capitulated for fear of bloodshed and destruction of the city. On 16 July 1429, the French army entered Reims, and two days later Charles VII was crowned as a true king of France.

Miniature from Vigiles du roi Charles VII. Joan of Arc and Charles VII, king of France.

Joan’s mission was done, at least that how Charles VII and his advisers saw it. France had its king, the English army was defeated, and it was only a matter of time before the whole country was reunited again, but Joan wanted more, she wanted to go and take back the capital, Paris. Charles hesitated, he did not want to be overshadowed by a peasant girl. If she gained enough support from his lords, she could become a very dangerous thorn in his side. At the end he gave up, and once again Joan of Arc was on the move.

On 8 September, the French army assaulted Paris but failed to take it, because, while Charles VII was hesitating about the whole affair, Duke Philip of Burgundy managed to reinforce the city defences. Joan was wounded during the battle, but was rescued and carried to safety by one of the commanders. In the following morning, ignoring Joan’s objections and pleas, the French withdrew without taking the prize. Some may view it as defeat, but Charles VII and his advisers saw it as diplomacy.

For the rest of 1429 Joan accompanied the French army and did her best to cleanse her country from the English and Burgundian invaders. She fought bravely at the siege of Saint-Pierre-le-Moûtier and at the failed attempt to take La-Charité-sur-Loire. Soon she was rewarded for her troubles and was ennobled by Charles VII. Then came a truce with England, and all Joan could do was to write threatening letters to heretics and wait until the war would flare up once again, and everybody knew that it would happen sooner rather than later.

Jules Eugène Lenepveu (1819–1898)

Barely a year later, Joan of Arc travelled to Compiègne to help with the defence of the city from the renewed English and Burgundian attacks. As always she was in the midst of the fighting, and when she accompanied a small group of warriors to attack the Burgundian camp, she was ambushed and captured. She stayed back with the rear guards to allow others to retreat when the Burgundians counter-attacked, she was quickly surrounded and yanked off her horse. At that moment her divine luck had run out.

Joan was taken to the Beaurevoir Castle and, after a couple of failed attempts to escape, she was moved to the town of Arras. The Burgundians had her, but the English wanted her the most. She was their kryptonite, and they needed to prove to the whole wide world that she was just a crazy heretic and not a messenger of God sent to punish them. After a short negotiation, the English paid 10,000 of livres tournois and had Joan of Arc in their possession. They took her to the city of Rouen and threw her into a dungeon.

Joan of Arc is interrogated by The Cardinal of Winchester in her prison. — Paul Delaroche (1797–1856)

On 9 January 1431, the Trial of Joan of Arc had begun. She was judged by a purely English court, ran by the English bishop Pierre Cauchon of Beauvais, who had the English interests in France lodged deeply in his corrupted and zealous heart. Joan was charged with two major offences, heresy — an offence that could stick to any wall, and cross-dressing — she wore men’s clothing, including armour in combat. To be executed for heresy, the court needed to prove that she did it repeatedly, so they mainly went with the cross-dressing charge, as there were eyewitnesses of multiple accounts of her wearing pants. The trial was more of a charade then a legal proceeding, and the court used every trick in the book to get Joan convicted.

Joan’s undoing was her own safety. She continued to wear male attire to protect herself from rape and abuse, as she was placed in a secular jail, guarded by male guards, rather than in an ecclesiastical prison, where she would be looked after by nuns. She did great during the trial, defending herself and making many clerics uncomfortable with her extensive theological knowledge. However, she was not supposed to win, the English could not allow that. On May 24, she was threatened with an execution unless she gives up her male clothing and renounces her divine vision. She did so promptly, but then quickly relapsed into cross-dressing, once again to protect herself from physical abuse. Many bishops and clerics agreed that she was innocent, that she had permissible reasons for her actions, but the court found her guilty and she was sentenced to death.

By François Chifflart (1825–1901)

On 30 May 1431, Joan of Arc was tied to a tall pillar at an old market in Rouen. The crowd was vast, everybody from lowly peasant to high lords wanted to see the divine heroine. Soldiers lighted a fire under her feet and in mere minutes it engulfed her. Joan of Arc was reduced to a pile of ashes and then scattered into Seine River. She was 19 years old.

Joan of Arc was no more but her story lived on. Charles VII retained his crown and kept his country together. He later ordered a retrial of Joan and she was cleared of all offences. Slowly she became a legend, and then a symbol, and finally a saint. People built statutes dedicated to her, named streets after her and painted beautiful paintings depicting her life. She will be forever immortalized in history books and the name of Joan of Arc will be remembered for ages.

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