Not one person in this age of ours can contest that Joan of Arc is a legendary figure. She cuts a place in history not seen before her time or since. Just her name brings up connotations of victory, piety, and patriotism the likes rarely seen in human history. Joan of Arc is commonly depicted as a great military leader and religious figure, whose efforts tremendously helped the French take back their country. The truth, however, is much more mundane and politically driven. While she was an astonishing woman, her true achievements on the battlefield were average, the reason for her rise in power was politically driven by others, and her eventual death was politically driven by the church she loved so much.
It is good to note that at this time, France was in a state of chaos. The leadership was very much in question, as the royal family was in quite a state of confusion. The English and French royal bloodlines had been crossed, leading to questions about the legitimacy of an English king, where none had been before. The two contenders for the throne were Edward, an Englishman and grandson of previous French king Phillip IV, and Count Phillip of Valois, son of the brother of king Phillip IV. Ordinarily, the French crown would have gone to Edward, but the boy had been born through the female line, apparently muddying the claim. As both were seen to have equal claims and both believed that they were the rightful kings, things became very unclear. In 1337, Phillip of Valois attempted to use his believed authority to take the duchy of Gascony from Edward and the English. They went to war and around ten years later, the current king, King John II of France, (Jean II in France) was captured and eventually died in 1364. From 1364 to 1380, his son Charles V led France through a very successful period. It was in the reign of his son Charles VI, however, where things began to go wrong and incite confusion. In 1415, English King Henry V defeated Charles VI and claimed the crown of France. Henry V claimed the daughter of Charles VI as his wife to strengthen his line’s ties to the monarchy. Finally, in some freak happening, both Henry V and Charles VI died in the same year, leaving their children, Henry VI and Charles VII, both with claim to the French kingship.1
While all of this political maneuvering was happening, the land was being raided by English and English-loyal French alike, leading to a country full of brigandish behavior and warfare. Joan’s hometown of Domremy had especially felt this by the Burgundians, an English-siding French faction, who had plundered and raided her town. Things weren’t much better in the rest of the country, where almost a century of political confusion led to a land without a real recognized authority. It was in this physically and politically devastated France in which Joan of Arc begins her story.2
Joan of Arc was born in January of 1412, in the village of Domremy in France. She grew up in a time and land that was ravaged by the Hundred Years’ War, which was being waged at this time. She grew up as a traditional woman of the time until her twelfth birthday, when she was recorded to have heard her first religious voices, telling her to preserve her virginity and live as a good Christian. As she grew older, these voices began to tell her to do much greater things, including crowning a new king and expelling the English menace. It was at the age of sixteen that Joan learned how to ride a horse. One year from then, Joan would first begin her career.3
In 1429, at the age of seventeen, Joan approached the lord of her locality under the guise of equality rarely worn by one of lower status, wishing him to bid the king victory and to send her to make the dauphin king. Robert de Baudricourt, lord of Vaucoulers, kept Joan around, thinking she would be good for laughs. Joan’s attitude and hard work won over Baudricourt’s men in a display most uncommon for a woman of the time. Through a strange series of happenings, Joan ended up with four francs, a horse, and an escort of men by a spiritually lost duke. Alongside these men, Joan made record speed, crossing 350 miles of open land with many rivers, enemy forces, and the king’s scouts, making it to the king’s castle at Chinon in around eleven days.4
Astonishingly, Joan made it into the king’s castle without meeting any resistance and was allowed to see the king. The council was very skeptical of Joan and decided to force a test onto her. They disguised the true king and presented a false king to Joan, hiding the true king in a massive mob of courtiers. Immediately on seeing the fake king, Joan denounced him and knelt before the true king, inspiring him and proving her own worth.5
After convincing the king to allow her into battle, Joan went off to Orleans, hoping to end the fighting in Orleans once and for all. Joan entered the city alongside Dunois, the Bastard of Orleans, and immediately captured Fort St. Loup. She advanced further and, although she was injured by a caltrop, captured Fort St. Augustine. The morning after capturing Fort St. Augustine, Joan immediately rushed back into battle, being injured once again after being shot above the left breast with an arrow. Soon after being treated, she rushed back into battle, seizing her standard from the random soldier who had taken it from her exhausted standard-bearer and bringing morale back to the French army. Soon, they took the castle wall, the boulevard, and the north and south banks of the nearby river. On May 8, 1429, the English lifted the siege of Orleans and retreated from the city, ending the conflict in Orleans completely. In joy of the French conquest and victory, the French people of Orleans came together in celebration inside the church of Orleans. Joan would lead the entirety of Orleans in prayer as they thanked the woman who had saved their city. It was this interaction that led her to be called the “Maid of Orleans.” This would be her first and final great victory before her eventual death.6
Joan continued on from this victory, winning many minor victories in the surrounding towns of Jargeau, Meung, Beauregency, Patay, and eventually the city of Troyes.7 Sadly, Joan’s next decision would lead to her eventual downfall. Joan stopped her military advance to crown Charles VII as king.8 The newly crowned king of France did not want to continue this war of Joan’s. He believed, contrary to her belief, that a diplomatic solution was required. This is where the first of many schisms between Charles VII and Joan began. Charles VII was tricked into allowing the Burgundians two more crucial weeks to prepare for their defense as they pretended to mull over negotiations with the king. After these two weeks, the English, recanting their fake peace talk, challenged the French to take Paris, challenged Charles VII’s legitimacy, and insulted Joan of Arc.9 After all her previous victories, this is the point where Joan of Arc began to lose the magic of victory that had colored her career beforehand. Henceforth, Joan would go on to lose many battles, mostly due to her new inability to rally her soldiers, a reversal of why she had won her first battles. After Joan became injured by yet another arrow, Charles VII used this injury as an excuse to pull her and the rest of the army from the field. He had her army disbanded by the end of that October. Her inability to perform in non-military situations led her to rejoice when finally, Charles let her take part in the battle at La Charité. Joan would later come back in failure, for the same reason she had lost in her last battle. After realizing that Joan was right and the Burgundians were not willing to speak of peace, Charles VII finally sent her off to an important battle, the battle that was underway in Melun, in hopes that her presence would swing the tides of victory in their favor. It was not to be, however, as in this battle there would be disastrous failings and misfortunes, leading to her capture at the hands of the enemy. She would not survive the imprisonment.10
The Burgundians had hoped to see some ransom for the life of Joan of Arc, who in their eyes had been instrumental in many of the French victories. Sadly, things were not to be. King Charles cruelly turned his back on the remarkable woman who had helped crown him king, and no offer for the ransom was sent. Joan was sold off to the English for ten thousand pounds. Joan was held in prison for eight months before the English finally decided that she would be given a trial. The English church would come calling and take precedence over this trial. The trial of Joan of Arc was quite unfortunate, consisting of a judge that was set against her in almost every possible way, and given in a religious light. Although politically driven, this trial would be given on entirely religious grounds, in an attempt to discredit Joan in the most cruel and damning way possible, through the religion that she cherished so much.11 The prosecution assembled against her was legendary, consisting of over a hundred men of many professions, both of medical practice and religious. Her defense consisted of nothing and no one but herself.12 Joan did not appear to be a willing victim in this charlatan trial, refusing to divulge secrets of her king and answer some questions that they would ask of her. She believed that she had no obligation to tell the truth in a trial framed by her enemies. She refused to take an oath of truth in an attempt to confound these people. They accused Joan of seventy counts of separate crimes, all religious in nature. These were later whittled down to twelve. Joan was tried publicly, in an attempt to discredit her entirely. She would go on to confound her captors and discredit them instead. From this point on she would be questioned privately, where they left her in terrible conditions, without counsel, and without rest. They questioned her in a relentless and accusatory manner, almost verbally beating her into submission. Joan grew very tired of life. After a long trial process, Joan finally signed an admission of guilt, fast-tracking her death and ending this façade. It is known historically, however, that this might have been through coercion, as friends of Joan testified that Joan had signed it in a way that she had signed statements before that she believed to be untrue.13 On May 30, at the age of nineteen, Joan of Arc was brutally executed via pyre, marking an end to a beautiful life and casting her name into heresy.14
In 1452, an official inquiry was made as to the truth of the trial of Joan of Arc and its legitimacy. The hearing officially began three years later, in 1455. In July of 1456, Joan’s trial papers and the papers finding her guilty of heresy were burned publicly in the spot that had held her execution, formally removing the slandering of her name. She was officially canonized as the Patron saint of France on May 16, 1920 for her great service and belief.15
Joan of Arc was an amazing woman, rising in status to become a soldier in a time when women were seen as homebodies at an age where she should have been enjoying the beginning of her life. She held piety and religious fervor almost completely unseen in others. What she was not, however, was a military leader. She was used almost as a mascot until she was seen to be of no more use, and she was cast away like a broken toy. She was unfairly executed by the church of the religion she loved so much, for what was very much speculated to be reasons entirely political. In the end, however, Joan of Arc ended up becoming much more in death than she was in life. She became a symbol for victory and a figure not unlike those of Alexander the Great and King David, as a brilliant spark of fiery truth and belief.