St Joan of Arc (c. 1412-1431), also known as the Maid of Orleans, was a French patriot and martyr who challenged the English military ascendancy in France during the Hundred Years’ War.
Born into a peasant family in Domremy, France, Joan at the age of 13 or 14 began to hear the voices of St Michael, St Catherine and St Margaret, telling her to rescue France from English domination in the Hundred Years’ War that was then raging and to free the French city of Orleans from the English who then besieging it.
She was taken to see the Dauphin (the eldest son of the King of France and the direct heir to the throne) Charles, who was to be the future King Charles VII of France, in the castle of Chinon in the Loire Valley. Charles was initially sceptical and had Joan examined by a group of theologians and clergy in Poitiers, who became convinced of Joan’s sincerity and orthodoxy.
Charles then sent Joan with a small force to Orleans, where she joined the French army that was opposing the English forces. Wearing a suit of white armor and flying her own standard, Joan led a number of successful assaults against the English. By May 8, 1429, she forced the English to raise their siege and depart.
Joan now called for Charles the Dauphin to be crowned in Reims Cathedral, a move that she believed would give Charles more authority and would return a sense of national unity to the downtrodden, war weary French people.
Joan accompanied Charles and an army of 12,000 through English-held territory, with the French army clearing the territory of the English to make way for Charles and his party. Charles was then crowned in Reims Cathedral on July 17, 1429 as King Charles VII of France.
In April 1430 Joan and a small group of soldiers went to Compiegne, which was then under siege by the Burgundians, but on May 25 was captured and sold to the English by John of Luxemburg for 10,000 crowns. The English were very pleased to have Joan in their hands as she was becoming an impediment to their military advances in France.
Unfortunately for Joan, after her capture Charles VII made no attempt to negotiate with her captors or to offer a ransom payment.
In January 1431 she was put on trial in an English-constituted court in Rouen. She was originally charged with witchcraft and heresy; however, the trial itself was just for heresy and, moreover, was conducted with various irregularities.
Joan was found guilty and was burnt at the stake in Rouen’s Old Market on May 30, 1431.
Twenty five years after her trial and execution, Pope Callistus III set a formal retrial (known as a Trial of Rehabilitation). The result was that Joan’s 1431 trial was declared irregular – that is, Joan was exonerated by the Church. (Some commentators have suggested that this development was simply to strength the validity of Charles VII’s coronation in the face of any challenges.)
Joan was canonized in 1920. She is now known as Saint Joan of Arc.
St Joan of Arc remains a French national heroine. Certainly, her actions did block the English advance south of the Loire in her time and her military victories and the coronation she promoted gave the French new strength in the Hundred Years’ War while demoralizing their English foes.
But the meaning of Joan’s life and death goes beyond this and are have been explored by many historians and writers of literature over the years, including by the dramatists Schiller, Shaw, Peguy and Brecht.