A young peasant girl who could neither read nor write, she followed the voices and visions from God and completely reversed the course of the 100 Year War (with England occupying most cities) and kept France from becoming a colony of England. Greatly celebrated by her own people she was hated by the English who ultimately captured her and rigged a trial under the auspices of the Church to justify burning her at the stake. She fought for freedom for her people, but would not deny her religious convictions in order to obtain her own freedom. Twenty-five years later the illegality of her trial was revealed in another trial held by the Church that completely exonerated her and declared her a martyr.
The extensive 15th century sources that have survived concerning the life and military campaigns of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc in modern French, Jehanne Darc in medieval French) include the transcript of her trial in 1431, the posthumous investigations of her case (1450 and 1452) and postwar appeal (1455-1456), as well as many letters, chronicles, and thousands of military records. These provide us with vivid eyewitness accounts from the people who knew her; correspondence from her commanders; the letters she herself dictated to scribes; and minuscule details such as the amount of oats bought for her horses and the names of many of the rank-and-file soldiers in her army.
Her life is therefore reasonably well documented.
This is a brief outline of that life; click here for a much longer version.
The Early Years
Joan of Arc was born on January 6th around the year 1412 to Jacques d’Arc and his wife Isabelle in the little village of Domremy, within the Barrois region (now part of “Lorraine”) on the border of eastern France.
The events in France during these years would set the stage for Joan’s later life and the circumstances surrounding her death.
Although at the time of her birth a truce was still in effect between France and England, an internal war had erupted between two factions of the French Royal family which would make it easier for the English to re-invade. One side, called the “Orleanist” or “Armagnac” faction, was led by Count Bernard VII of Armagnac and Duke Charles of Orleans, whom Joan would later say was greatly beloved by God. Their rivals, known as the “Burgundians”, were led by Duke John-the-Fearless of Burgundy. The forces of his son, Philip III, would later capture Joan and hand her over to the English. One of his supporters, a pro-Burgundian clergyman and English advisor named Pierre Cauchon, would later arrange her conviction on their behalf.
While the French remained divided into warring factions, diplomats failed to extend the truce with England. King Henry V, citing his family’s old claim to the French throne, promptly invaded France in August of 1415 and defeated an Armagnac-dominated French army at the battle of Agincourt on October 25th.
The English returned in 1417, gradually conquering much of northern France and gaining the support (in 1420) of the new Burgundian Duke, Philip III, who agreed to recognize Henry V as the legal heir to the French throne while rejecting the rival claim of the man whom Joan would consider the rightful successor, Charles of Ponthieu (later known as Charles VII), the last heir of the Valois dynasty which had ruled France since 1328.
Joan indicated that it was around 1424, when she was twelve, that she began to experience visions which she described as both verbal communication as well as visible figures of saints and angels which she could see and touch. Her own testimony as well as a Royal document say that on at least two occasions specific other persons could see the same figures.
She identified these visions as St. Catherine [of Alexandria], St. Margaret [of Antioch], the Archangel Michael, occasionally Gabriel, and large groups of angels on some occasions. Various authors have speculated on the significance of these personages. The only one with a definite relevance to the military situation would be the Archangel Michael, who had been chosen in 1422 as one of the patron saints of the French Royal army (with Saint Denis) and had long served as patron of the fortified island of Mont-Saint-Michel, which had withstood an ongoing siege or blockade since 1418 and would successfully resist continued English efforts until the truce of 1444 finally brought a respite.
The rest of northern France was less successful. Charles gradually lost the allegiance of all the towns north of the Loire River except for Tournai in Flanders and Vaucouleurs, near Domremy. Since Paris had been controlled by the opposite faction since 1418, his court was now located in the city of Bourges in central France, hemmed in by hostile forces on nearly every side: pro-English Brittany to the northwest, English-occupied Normandy to the north, the Burgundian hereditary domains of Flanders, Artois, Burgundy, Franche-Comte, and Charolais to the northeast and east; and the English hereditary domain of Aquitaine to the southwest.
In 1428 the situation became critical as the English gathered troops for a campaign into the Loire River Valley, the northern perimeter of Charles’ dwindling territory. The city of Orleans on the Loire now became the primary focus. It was at this moment that an unexpected turn of events began to unfold. Joan of Arc said that for some time prior to 1428 the saints in her visions had been urging her to “go to France” (in its original feudal sense – the direct Royal domain) and drive out the English and Burgundians, explaining that God supported Charles’ claim to the throne, supported Orleans’ captive overlord Duke Charles of Orleans, and had taken pity on the French population for the suffering they had endured during the war.
She said that during her childhood these visions had merely instructed her to “be good [or pious], to go to church regularly“; but over the next several years they had persistently called for her to go to the local commander at Vaucouleurs to obtain an escort to take her to the Royal Court.
She embarked on the latter course in May of 1428, not long before large English reinforcements landed in France for deployment in the Loire Valley. Joan arranged for a family relative, Durand Lassois, to take her to see Lord Robert de Baudricourt, who had remained loyal to the Armagnacs despite his status as a vassal of the pro-Burgundian Duke of Lorraine. Baudricourt refused to listen to her, and she returned home.
Shortly after her return, in July of 1428 Domremy found itself in the path of a Burgundian army led by Lord Antoine de Vergy, forcing the villagers to take refuge in the nearby city of Neufchateau until the troops had passed. Vergy’s army laid siege to Vaucouleurs and induced Baudricourt to pledge neutrality.
A few months later on October 12th, Orleans was placed under siege by an English army led by the Earl of Salisbury. The eyewitness accounts and other 15th century sources say that the situation for Charles was rather hopeless by that stage. His treasury at one point was down to less than “four ecus“; his armies were a motley collection of local contingents and foreign mercenaries; and he himself, according to the surviving accounts, was torn with doubt over the validity of his cause – since his own mother, cooperating with the English, had allegedly declared him illegitimate in order to deny his claim to the throne. Now Orleans, the last major city defending the heart of his territory, was in the grip of an English army.
This was the situation facing his government, by that point located in the city of Chinon on the Vienne River, when Joan was finally granted Baudricourt’s permission, after her third attempt, to go with an escort to speak with Charles. One account says that she convinced Baudricourt by accurately predicting an Armagnac defeat on 12 February 1429 near the village of Rouvray-Saint-Denis several miles north of Orleans. In this latest disaster, an army under the Count of Clermont took heavy losses while unsuccessfully attempting to stop an English supply convoy bringing food to their troops at the siege. When Baudricourt received confirmation of the predicted defeat he promptly arranged for an armed escort to bring Joan through enemy territory to Chinon. Following the standard procedure, her escorts dressed her in male clothing, partly as a disguise in case the group was captured (as a woman might be raped if her identity were discovered), and partly because such clothing had numerous cords with which the long boots and trousers could be tied to the tunic, which would offer an added measure of security. The eyewitnesses said she always kept this clothing on and securely tied together when encamped with soldiers, for safety and modesty’s sake. She would call herself “La Pucelle” (the maiden or virgin), explaining that she had promised her saints to keep her virginity “for as long as it pleases God“, and it is by this nickname that she is usually described in the 15th century documents.
After eleven days on the road, Joan of Arc arrived at Chinon around March 4th and was brought into Charles’ presence, after a delay of two days, by Count Louis de Vendome. Young King Charles VII of France had heard about Joan and decided to test her. He slipped into the ranks of the army and let one of his trusted associates occupy the throne. When Joan came into the room, she barely acknowledged the man on the throne, but promptly walked up to Charles and curtsied to him as her king. There are many eyewitness accounts of this event. Lord Raoul de Gaucourt, a Royal commander and bailiff of Orleans, recalled that “…she presented herself before his Royal majesty with great humility and simplicity, an impoverished little shepherd girl, and … said to the King: ‘Most illustrious Lord Dauphin [i.e., heir to the throne], I have come and am sent in the name of God to bring aid to yourself and to the kingdom.‘” The accounts indicate that she convinced Charles to take her seriously by telling him about a private prayer he had made the previous November 1st during which he had asked God to aid him in his cause if he was the rightful heir to the throne, and to punish himself alone rather than his people if his sins were responsible for their suffering. She is said to have related the details of this prayer and assured him that he was the legitimate claimant to the throne. “After hearing her“, remembered one eyewitness, “the King appeared radiant“.
However, Charles first wanted her to be examined by a group of theologians in order to test her orthodoxy, and for that purpose she was sent to the city of Poitiers about thirty miles to the south, where pro-Armagnac clergy from the University of Paris had fled after Paris and its university came under English control a decade earlier. They questioned her for three weeks before granting approval [click here to see the official text of their conclusions]. A letter written by a Venetian named Pancrazio Giustiniani comments that her ability to hold her own against the learned theologians earned her a reputation as “another Saint Catherine come down to earth“, and this reputation began to spread.
While still at Poitiers Joan told a clergyman named Jean Erault to record an ultimatum to the English commanders at Orleans around March 22 [click here to read the full text], the first of eleven surviving examples of the letters she dictated to scribes during the course of her military campaigns. This ultimatum begins with the “Jesus-Mary” slogan which would become her trademark, borrowed from the clergy known as “mendicants” – Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Augustinians – who made up a large portion of the priests in her army. She then goes on to inform the English that the “King of Heaven, Son of Saint Mary” [Jesus] supports Charles VII’s claim to the throne, and repeatedly advises the English to “go away [back] to England” (“allez-vous-en en Angleterre“) or she will “drive you out of France” (“bouter vous hors de France“). In place of a reply, the English would detain the two men who delivered the message. She would find that more forceful methods would be needed to convince the English to pull their troops out of the Loire Valley.
After providing her with a suit of armor “made exactly for her body” (in the words of one eyewitness), and a banner with a picture of “Our Savior” holding the world “with two angels at the sides”, on a white background covered with gold fleurs-de-lis, they brought her to the army at Blois, about 35 miles southwest of Orleans. It was here that she began to reform the troops by expelling the prostitutes from the camp (sometimes at sword point, according to several eyewitnesses) and requiring the soldiers to go to church and confession, give up swearing, and refrain from looting or harassing the civilian population. One astonished eyewitness reported that she succeeded in forcing a mercenary commander named Lord Etienne de Vignolles, known as “La Hire” (meaning “anger” or “ire”, a reflection of his inability to maintain an aristocratic calm) to confess his sins to a priest. Her arrival had another valuable effect on the army: men who would otherwise have refused to serve Charles’ defeated cause now began to volunteer for the campaign, as word that a saint was now at the head of the army began to change minds.
The army moved out from Blois around April 25th and arrived in stages at the besieged city between April 29th and May 4th. A small force had come out to meet them at Checy, five miles upriver from Orleans; but as there weren’t enough barges to transport the entire body of troops across the river, Joan of Arc herself and a small group of soldiers were escorted into the city by Lord Jean d’Orleans (better known by his later title, Count of Dunois), the man in charge of the city’s defense due to his status as the half-brother of the Duke of Orleans. The rest of the army would arrive later by a different route, its numbers greatly reduced by discouraged men who decided to leave without the Maiden there to encourage them.
On May 4th the rest of her troops made it into the city, and a few hours later an assault was launched against an English-held fortified church called Saint Loup, about a mile east of Orleans. The surviving accounts say that the position was carried after Joan rode up with her banner, encouraging the troops up and over the ramparts. The English casualties totaled 114 dead and 40 captured. Her role in this engagement would become typical: sources from both factions quote her as saying that she preferred to carry her banner into battle (rather than a weapon, as is sometimes supposed), since, as she explained, she didn’t want to harm anyone; and there are many eyewitness accounts which repeatedly describe her encouraging the troops to greater efforts by placing herself in the same danger that they themselves faced.
On the following day she sent her final ultimatum to the English commanders at Orleans, this time having an archer deliver the note with an arrow rather than risk losing another messenger.
The remaining English positions fell swiftly: on May 6th an attack was made against a fortified monastery called the “Bastille des Augustins”, which controlled the southern approach to a pair of towers called Les Tourelles, at the southern end of Orleans’ bridge. Flanking these to the east was a fortified church called St-Jean-le-Blanc, near which the English had been bombarding the city with one of their largest cannons, called “le Passe-volant”.
The French troops were sent over a pontoon bridge around the hour of Tierce (9 a.m.), and induced the English to abandon St-Jean-le-Blanc without a fight; the more substantial fortress of Les Augustins was then assaulted, with the saint leading the initial charge alongside La Hire. The fortress was then stormed and overrun with few losses. This placed Les Tourelles within striking range: during the course of the next morning’s assault, Joan herself was wounded by an arrow while helping the soldiers set up a scaling ladder. It seems she stayed behind the area of fighting for most of the day, but returned to the field near dusk in order to encourage the demoralized troops to one final effort which met with success. This proved to be decisive: the English abandoned the siege the next day, and moved their remaining troops off to Meung-sur-Loire and other positions along the river.
Orleans was the English high-water mark: never again would they come so close to achieving a final victory against Charles, who would soon be anointed as King Charles VII.
The Loire Valley and Reims
The unexpected lifting of the siege led to the support of a number of prominent figures. Duke Jean V of Brittany rejected his previous alliance with the English and promised to send troops to Charles’ aid. The Archbishop of Embrun wrote a treatise [June 1429] declaring Joan to be divinely inspired, and advised Charles to consult with her on matters concerning the war.
The joy felt by Charles himself when he and Joan met again at Loches on the 11th was neatly summed up in an account by Eberhardt von Windecken: “… Then the young girl bowed her head before the King as much as she could, and the King immediately had her raise it again; and one would have thought that he would have kissed her from the joy that he experienced.”
On the other side, the Duke of Bedford (the chief English commander in France) reacted by calling up as many troops as possible from English-occupied territory; the Duke of Burgundy made plans to take a more active role in helping his allies in the field, although as usual he demanded a modest sum (250,000 livres) to help offset his costs.
After the Dauphin’s joyful reunion with the saint, she convinced him to take an army north to Reims to be crowned, as custom required. This was no simple task, since Reims at that time lay deep within enemy-held territory; in order to open a way for a northward campaign, the Royal army first set about the job of clearing out the remaining English positions in the Loire Valley, with the Duke of Alencon being given command of the venture.
The army’s first target was Jargeau, ten miles to the southeast of Orleans. At least 3,600 armored troops, plus an unknown number of lightly-armed ‘commons’, were present for duty. The town was reached on June 11th; the main assault came the next day after an artillery bombardment in which Jargeau’s largest tower was felled by a large cannon from Orleans nicknamed “La Bergere” (“the Shepherdess”), presumably named after the saint herself. The latter’s role was also crucial: carrying her banner up front with the troops, she was hit in the helmet with a stone but immediately got back on her feet and encouraged the soldiers to storm the ramparts by shouting: “Friends, friends, up! Up! Our Lord has condemned the English”. [In the archaic French of the 15th century: “Amys, amys, sus! Sus! Nostre Sire a condempne les Angloys”] The fortifications were taken, and the English were driven back across Jargeau’s bridge. The survivors surrendered.
Beaugency was taken on the 17th after the English garrison negotiated an agreement allowing them to withdraw. That evening the English troops at Meung, reinforced by an army under Sir John Fastolf, offered battle to the French but subsequently decided to fall back the next day, riding northward in an effort to make it back to more secure territory. The French pursued (goaded on by Joan, saying in effect that they should use their “good spurs” to chase the enemy). The two armies clashed south of Patay, where a rapid cavalry charge led by La Hire and other nobles of the vanguard overran a unit of 500 English archers who had been set up to delay the French as long as they could. Confusion among the main contingents of the English army completed the rout, and the French cavalry swept their opponents from the field. The English heralds announced their losses as 2,200 men, compared to only three casualties for the French – the reverse of so many other battles during that war.
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