How Joan of Arc turned the tide in the Hundred Years’ War

Divine voices guided a young girl to lead the French against the English. Burned as a heretic in 1431, the Maid of Orléans was both shaped and destroyed by the religious fervor and politics.

Leading the French cavalry, Joan rides into a hail of arrows from the English longbowmen at Patay, shortly after liberating Orléans. Painting by Frank Craig, 1907. Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Photograph by Charles Bowman, Age Fotostock

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. (Read more about the history of the devil in the Middle Ages.)

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