This story appears in the March/April 2017 issue of National Geographic History magazine.
By the end of 1430 the rulers of England and France, who had been locked in a war for decades, became increasingly preoccupied by the fate of an 18-year-old peasant girl. In December the faculty of the University of Paris wrote a letter to the king of England, who controlled Paris at that time: “We have recently heard that the woman called The Maid is now delivered into your power, (and)... must humbly beseech you, most feared and sovereign lord... to command that this woman shall be shortly delivered into the hands of the justice of the Church.”
The Maid was Joan of Arc, whose role in liberating the city of Orléans in 1429 had put courage back into the hearts of the embattled French. Even so, her capture soon after was a morale boost for the English, who immediately set out to vilify the woman who had done so much damage to their military campaigns. Shortly after the letter from the University of Paris was written, her trial took place. After the guilty verdict was handed down, Joan was executed in Rouen on May 30, 1431, by being burned alive.
Once her ashes had been scattered in the Seine River, Joan’s detractors hoped her name would be erased from history, but her name has burned more brightly in the hearts and minds of the French ever since then. The humble farm girl turned the tide for the French in the closing years of the Hundred Years’ War. Her claims that the divine voices she heard would lead France to victory made her one of the most celebrated figures of late medieval history.
Portrayed by her enemies as a heretic, a witch, and a madwoman, she was later pardoned and eventually recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church. Today, she is a national hero of the French. Although historians regard Joan’s role as one of many factors in the winning of a complex war, her presence both as a warrior and spiritual visionary sparked the beginnings of France’s rise as a great European power.
Joan’s story has deep roots in the medieval struggle over control of France. Since the invasion of England by the French-speaking William the Conqueror in 1066, the English kings who followed him had maintained a claim to certain French lands. In 1337 King Edward III went to war with French king Philip VI over these territories, the opening act of the Hundred Years’ War.
At first, the English armies won significant battles under the command of Edward III’s son Edward the Black Prince. But the English strength faltered, checked by the ravages of the Black Death in the 1350s, the decline of Edward and his heir, and the rallying of French forces under their king Charles V. By 1413 momentum had started to shift again—this time back in England’s favor with the accession of Henry V.
In 1415 Henry won the Battle of Agincourt over a much larger French force. The victory strengthened England’s standing in Europe. Henry continued to win battles, and after a run of successes, he forced the French to recognize his heirs as successors to the French throne as one of the terms of the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. Henry then married the French king’s daughter Catherine of Valois, and forged a military alliance with Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. By 1422, the year of King Henry V’s early death, the Anglo-Burgundian alliance controlled much of northern France, including Paris. His son, Henry VI, would continue the fight for these lands.
The Warrior Maid
Joan of Arc was born in 1412 in Domrémy, a small village in northeastern France near the border of the lands controlled by the English. From the age of 13, Joan claimed to have heard divine voices and seen visions of St. Michael, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret of Antioch. These divine messengers, she said, were urging her to go to the aid of the man who was the rightful king of France: Charles of Valois, son of Charles VI, whom the English had disinherited.
Because Paris lay deep in English-held territory, Charles had been forced to set up a makeshift court at Chinon on the Loire River. In 1428, Joan traveled there to explain her divine mission to Charles, but was turned away before she could meet with him. She returned to Chinon the following year and was able to convince a panel of theologians of her claim that she had been sent to “liberate France from its calamities.” They granted the teenager an audience with the exiled heir.
Joan informed Charles that divine voices wished her to fight the English and that her participation would lead to his coronation at Reims, the sacred site where France’s kings were crowned. After much examination, she won over Charles and his followers. They decided to put her to use at Orléans, a city under English siege.
Support for La Pucelle (the Maid) was galvanized later that year when Joan, dressed as a warrior, liberated the city of Orléans followed by more French victories. In June French troops crushed the English at Patay, and in July Charles VII was crowned in the cathedral of Reims in the presence of the young warrior prophet who had predicted the event.
But the tide soon turned against Joan of Arc. Instead of expelling the English from France, Joan and her army then suffered several military setbacks. On May 23, 1430, Joan was captured near Paris by the Duke of Burgundy’s men, who later turned her over to the English. Suddenly, her claims appeared weak. How could an envoy of God fall so easily into enemy hands? And if she hadn’t been sent by God, who or what was she?
The English and their allies among the French were in no doubt. Religious doubts about the sanctity of Joan of Arc blended seamlessly into high politics. If the voices she heard were diabolic, then her whole cause, and the coronation of Charles VII itself, had been the work of the devil.
The Journey to the Stake
The English brought their accusations against Joan, now imprisoned in Rouen, in January 1431. Among them were the charges that she had violated divine law by dressing as a man and bearing arms; that she had deceived simple people by making them believe that God had sent her; and finally that she had committed “divine offense,” namely heresy. Some days later, when the trial opened, the Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, added the charge of witchcraft and declared that Joan was now also under suspicion of having cast spells and invoked demons.
On February 21 Joan answered her charges for the first time before the tribunal. “They asked poor Joan very difficult, subtle, and misleading questions,” said one contemporary, “many clerics and educated men present there would have had problems answering.” But the young woman knew how to defend herself. Her concise replies often disarmed the judges and aroused admiration from the public.
Was Joan sure of being in God’s grace, she was asked? If she answered no, she knew she would be lying, while if she answered yes, she would be arrogantly placing herself beyond the authority of the church. So instead Joan answered: “If I am not [in a state of grace] may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.” Several weeks passed, no confession was forthcoming and Cauchon was forced to drop the charges of witchcraft and concentrate instead on a few key points that he thought would clinch the case of Joan’s heresy. At the beginning of April, a list of 12 accusations, reduced from 70, was approved and then submitted for examination by the University of Paris.
They found Joan to be a liar and an invoker of malign spirits. While she claimed to have had visions of archangels and saints, the panel judged that these figures were in fact Belial, Satan, and Behemoth. Her wearing of men’s clothes, which she argued was necessary to escape detection while in Burgundian-controlled territory, was portrayed as unnatural and wicked. Joan was found to be a heretic. If she would not repent, she would be punished as such.
On May 24 she was taken to a site on the outskirts of Rouen and placed beside the stake. The sight may have terrified her, leading to a declaration that she would hand herself over to the authority of the church and sign a retraction. Joan’s sentence was reduced to life in prison and she agreed to dress as a woman.
When the judges went to visit her four days later, however, they found her once again in men’s clothing. The voices had returned, she told them, and had reproached her for her weakness. This relapse was exactly what the accusers wanted; they could now justify the death penalty. Unable to conceal his delight, Cauchon proclaimed to his laughing fellow clerics: “You can have a great celebration, everything is prepared.” On the morning of May 30, Joan was taken to the stake. As the flames consumed her, she could be heard repeatedly proclaiming the name of Jesus.
The Hundred Years’ War would continue for 22 years after her death. English fortunes plummeted after the Duke of Burgundy switched sides to Charles VII. Distracted by the Wars of the Roses at home, England steadily lost all its possessions in France except the port of Calais. Charles VII stabilized his reign and transformed France into a great power.
More than 20 years after her death, an inquiry into Joan’s trial ordered by Charles VII resulted in her sentence being overturned. Joan of Arc’s importance to the French people was further solidified when she was made a saint, four centuries later, in 1920.
Julien Théry teaches medieval history at the Center for Medieval Studies, Paul-Valéry University, Montpellier, France.