On 6 January 1412, Joan of Arc was born in the village of Domrémy in northeast France to a poor but deeply pious peasant family, and through her immense bravery and strong belief in divine guidance rose to become the saviour of France.
Since her execution in 1431, she has come to serve as a figurehead for a litany of ideals – from French nationalism to feminism, to the simple belief that anyone, no matter how humble, can achieve great things if accompanied by belief.
From lowly origins
At the time of Joan of Arc’s birth, France had been wracked by 90 years of conflict and was almost at a point of desperation in the aptly-named Hundred Years War. Crushingly defeated at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, ascendancy was gained by the English over France in the coming years.
So complete was their victory that in 1420 the French heir Charles of Valois was disinherited and replaced by the English warrior-king Henry V, and for a time it seemed that France was finished. The fortunes of the war began to turn however when Henry died just a year later.
As Henry’s son, the future Henry VI, was still an infant, suddenly the beleaguered French were given an opportunity to take back power – if given the inspiration to do so. Sensationally, this would come in the form of an illiterate peasant girl.
Joan’s family, particularly her mother, were deeply pious and this strong foundational belief in Catholicism was imparted to their daughter. Joan had also seen her fair share of conflict during the war, including on one occasion when her village was burnt in a raid, and though she lived in an area controlled by England’s Burgundian allies, her family were firmly in support of the French crown.
At the age of 13, whilst standing in her father’s garden, she suddenly began experiencing visions of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret. They informed her that it was her destiny to help the Dauphin reclaim his throne and expel the English from France.
On God’s mission
Deciding that she had been sent a mission of overwhelming importance by God, Joan persuaded the local court to annul her arranged marriage in 1428, and made her way to Vaucouleurs – a local stronghold that housed supporters loyal to Charles of Valois, the uncrowned King of France.
She attempted to petition the garrison commander Robert de Baudricourt to provide her an armed escort to the royal court at Chinon, yet was sarcastically turned away. Returning months later, she convinced two of Baudricourt’s soldiers to permit her a second audience, and whilst there correctly predicted a military reversal at the Battle of Rouvray – before news had even reached Vaucouleurs.
Now convinced of her divine gift, Baudricourt allowed her passage to Chinon, the site of Charles’ palace. The journey would be all but safe however, and as a precaution she cropped her hair and dressed in boys clothes, disguising herself as a male soldier.
Saviour of France
Unsurprisingly, Charles was sceptical of the 17-year old girl that arrived unannounced at his court. Joan is supposed to have said something to him that only a messenger from God could have known however, and won him over as she had Baudricourt.
She later refused to confess what she told him, yet Charles was impressed enough to admit the teenage girl into his war councils, where she stood alongside the most powerful and venerable men in the kingdom.
Joan promised Charles that she would see him crowned in the city of Reims like his forebears, though first the English siege of Orléans would have to be lifted. Despite the vociferous protests of his other councillors, Charles gave Joan command of an army in March 1429, and dressed in white armour and on a white horse, she led them to relieve the city.
A number of assaults on the besiegers followed, driving them away from the city and across the Loire river. After months under siege, Orléans was freed in just 9 days, and when Joan entered the city she was met with jubilation. This miraculous result proved to many Joan’s divine gifts, and she joined Charles on campaign as town after town were liberated from the English.
Whether or not she was truly led by divine visions, Joan’s devout faith in her calling often pushed her to take risks in battle no professional soldier would, and her presence in the war effort had a vital impact on the morale of the French. To the English however, she appeared to be an agent of the Devil.
A change in fortune
In July 1429, Charles was crowned as Charles VII in Reims Cathedral. At this moment of triumph however, Joan’s fortunes began to turn as a number of military blunders soon followed, largely supposed to be the fault of French Grand Chamberlain Georges de La Trémoille.
At the end of a brief truce between France and England in 1430, Joan was ordered to defend the town of Compiégne in northern France, under siege by English and Burgundian forces. On 23 May, whilst moving to attack a camp of Burgundians, Joan’s party was ambushed and she was pulled from her horse by an archer. Soon imprisoned at Beaurevoir Castle, she made a number of escape attempts including on one occasion jumping 70ft from her prison tower, less she be turned over to her sworn enemies – the English.
These attempts were in vain however, and soon she was moved to Rouen Castle and indeed placed into the custody of the English, who had purchased her capture for 10,000 livres. A number of rescue missions by the French Armagnac faction failed, and despite Charles VII’s vow to ‘exact vengeance’ on Burgundian troops and both ‘the English and women of England’, Joan would not escape her captors.
Trial and execution
In 1431, Joan was put on trial for a host of crimes from heresy to cross-dressing, the latter being a supposed sign of devil-worship. Throughout many days of questioning she presented herself with seemingly God-given calm and confidence, stating:
“Everything I have done I have done at the instruction of my voices”
On 24 May she was taken to the scaffold and told she would die immediately unless she denied her claims of divine guidance and gave up wearing men’s attire. She signed the warrant, yet 4 days later recanted and again adopted men’s clothing.
A number of reports give reason for this, chief of which stated that her adoption of men’s attire (which she tied firmly to herself with rope) prevented her from being raped by her guards, while another capitulated that the guards forced her to wear them by taking away the women’s clothing she had been provided.
Whether of her own accord or through conspiracy, it was this simple act that branded Joan of Arc a witch and had her sentenced to death for ‘relapsing into heresy’.
An enduring legacy
On 3 May 1431 she was burnt at the stake at the Old Marketplace in Rouen at the age of just 19. In death and martyrdom however, Joan would prove to be just as powerful. A Christ-like symbol of sacrifice and purity, she continued to inspire Frenchmen over the following decades as they finally expelled the English and ended the war in 1453.
Following his victory Charles had Joan’s name cleared of heresy, and centuries later Napoleon would call on her to become the national symbol of France. She was officially canonised in 1920 as a patron saint, and remains a source of inspiration worldwide for her courage, perseverance, and unquenchable vision.