On 6 January 1412 Joan of Arc, the legendary saviour of France, was born in Domrémy in the north east of the country to a poor but pious peasant family. Since her death 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
Joan came into a land riven by ninety years of fighting, at a point in the aptly-named Hundred Years War where the English were about to seize the upper hand. In 1415 France was crushingly defeated at the Battle of Agincourt, and years of English ascendancy followed.
So complete was their victory that in 1420 the French heir Charles of Valois was disinherited and replaced with the English warrior-king Henry V. It seemed for a time that France was finished. Then, the fortunes of the war began to turn when Henry died just a year later.
Henry’s son was still an infant and suddenly there was an opportunity for the beleaguered French to exploit if they were given the inspiration to do so. Astonishingly, this would come in the form of a teenage peasant girl.
Joan’s family, particularly her mother, were deeply pious, and this strong foundational belief in Catholicism was imparted to their daughter. She is said to have been looking after her father’s flocks in 1425 when a voice called to her, telling her that it was up to her to 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 which housed supporters loyal to Charles of Valois, the uncrowned King of France.
She was initially rejected by the magistrate of the town and therefore focused her attention on its demoralised people instead.
There was a popular prophecy circulating beleaguered France at the time that a virgin would prove their saviour, and Joan – who had taken a vow of celibacy after first hearing voices – seemed to fit the bill perfectly with her seemingly God-given confidence and calm.
She quickly attracted a small following, which grew steadily until she could be ignored to longer, and was admitted to the fortress to join the Charles’s cause.
Joan was not content to rest on her laurels, however. She cropped her hair and dressed in boys clothes before setting off on a journey to Chinon, the site of Charles’s palace.
Saviour of France
Unsurprisingly, Charles was initial sceptical of a sixteen-year old girl arriving unannounced, but Joan is supposed to have said something to him that only a messenger from God could know and won him round.
Whatever exactly took place, Charles was impressed enough to admit the teenage peasant into his war councils, where she would have 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 on a white horse, she led them to relieve the city.
Joan lead a number of assaults on the besiegers, driving them away from the city and across the Loire river. She entered the city to a jubilant reception, and then joined Charles on campaign as town after town was liberated from the English.
A change in fortune
In July of 1429, Charles was crowned as Charles XII in Reims Cathedral. At this moment of triumph, however, Joan’s fortunes began to turn. Now that he was king, Charles came to resent his young ally, and when Joan argued for a lightning attack to retake Paris she was ignored.
Eventually, in September she attempted to take the city, but by this time it had been heavily fortified and she was repulsed.
Displeased by the failure, the Charles was increasingly cold towards her, before ordering her in 1430 to defend the town of Compiégne, which was being attacked by England’s Burgundian allies.
Whilst moving to face the Burgundians, Joan was thrown off her horse and captured. Her joyous captors put her on trial for a host of crimes, from witchcraft to cross-dressing, which was supposedly a sign of devil-worship.
Eager to distance themselves from Joan, Charles and his advisers did nothing to arrange her release as she languished in captivity for a year while her fate was being decided.
Under threat of death, Joan signed a warrant denying that her claims of divine guidance were true, but when she defiantly wore men’s clothes once again it was decided that she would be burned at the stake as a witch.
An enduring legacy
In May 1431 she was gruesomely executed in Rouen at the age of just nineteen. 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 symbol and patron saint of France. She was officially canonized in 1920, and remains a source of inspiration worldwide for her courage, perseverance, and unquenchable vision.