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Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc
French Heroine

Joan of Arc, a French peasant girl, following divine “voices,” led an army to break the siege of Orleans, crown the dauphin Charles as the rightful king, and drive the English army out of her country. Although Joan’s military career lasted less than a year and she died before the age of twenty, she directly influenced the result of the Hundred Years’ War and still today serves as a symbol of French reconciliation and unity.

Born on January 6, 1412, in the northeastern French village of Domremy to religious peasant parents, Joan, at age thirteen, began to hear voices from saints she later identified as Michael, Margaret, and Catherine. Apparently, Joan made no mention of these divine directions to free her country until 1429, when she approached Robed de Baudricourt, the captain of a nearby town militia, and convinced him to provide her an escort to the Loire Valley castle of Charles, he only surviving son of King Charles VI.

Denied the crown of France by the Anglo-French Treaty of Troyes of 1420, Charles was unsuccessfully attempting to assume the throne by militarily expelling the English occupiers when Joan arrived. He directed church leaders to interview the young woman, and when they supported her claims, Charles provided Joan a small force to accompany her to Orleans.

Nowhere in the glamorized and often fictionalized history of Joan is there any rationale as to why the French army commanders allowed her to take command. Nevertheless, in early May 1429, Joan led a series of successful attacks against the siege of Orleans that resulted in the English withdrawal on May 8. The news of the victory at Orleans and a new leader who responded to “voices from God” swept across the country and renewed the French spirit to free their country from the English invaders.

Joan then turned from Orleans toward Rheims, clearing the route and city so that Charles VII could be crowned in the cathedral on July 17. After attending the ceremony, Joan encouraged Charles to press their advantage and to march against Paris, which the English had occupied for ten years. Charles delayed his decision on the advice of his councilors, who recommended negotiating a peace. Finally however, he agreed to Joan’s plan and accompanied his “coronation army” to Paris in September. Following a failed attack led by Joan, Charles directed a withdrawal back to the Loire Valley.

After six month of inactivity, Joan departed with a small force and returned to Paris. At Compiegne on May 23, she attacked an army of Burgundians who were allied with the English. Her attack failed, and she was taken prisoner. The Burgundians ransomed her to the English, who turned her over to the English-controlled University of Paris and the inquisitor of France.

Joan’s trial, which violated many of the legal procedures of the time, began in January 1431. Initial charges of witchcraft changed to heresy as the trial progressed. Eventually, the proceedings shifted and focused on Joan’s refusal to submit to the church’s investigation into her “voices” and the issue of her wearing men’s clothing. On May 24 court officials took Joan to a courtyard, where they told her they would execute her if she did not confess. Joan admitted to her “crimes and errors,” but several days later, dressed in men’s clothing, she recanted her confession.

On May 29, Joan’s judges declared her a “relapsed heretic,” and the next day, her jailers burned her at the stake in Rouen’s Old Market before a large crowd. Charles VII made no effort during the trial or afterward to save Joan.

Joan’s death did not end her influence on the French army. Guerrilla bands, formed in her memory, raided English lines, and the demoralized French military rallied in her name and renewed their struggle. Within five years, they forced the English out of Paris and eventually gained a truce.

Joan’s influence, both in life and legend, played a direct role in the Hundred Years’ War. There is no evidence that Joan had any comprehension whatsoever of tactics, strategy, or even the basic essentials of military operations. What she did understand and exhibit was leadership. In every battle in which she participated, she led at the front of the army. Although wounded twice, she remained in the most dangerous positions at the center of the battle. Interestingly, Joan herself recognized her worth as a symbol rather than a fighter and readily admitted during her trial that she never personally killed anyone in combat.

Joan, in a mere six months of warfare, earned the distinction of being the only woman included in this list of influential commanders. She, however, is no token. Regardless of one’s feelings about “divine voices” or women in combat, Joan left her mark at the time, one that continues today.

Charles VII, who did nothing to save Joan, ordered a formal retrial in 1456 that rehabilitated the reputation of the young woman. On May 16, 1920, Pope Benedict V canonized her. Today each second Sunday of May a national festival all across France honors Joan as an enduring symbol of that country’s unity and nationalism.