Peasant Girl to Battlefield Commander

St. Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years' War

Article from Catholicculture by Christopher Check, vice president of The Rockford Institute. He lectures on military and Church history.

Table of Contents


In the year 1412 a girl was born to peasant farmers Jacques and Isabellette d’Arc. They named her Jehanne. We know her as St. Joan of Arc.

Of St. Joan’s age and her divine role in it, Msgr. Hughes writes:

England was engaged in one of the greater wickednesses of its long history in that succession of pillaging raids on France that goes by the name of the Hundred Years’ War, and the losses to Catholicism that ensued from this Catholic power’s plundering of a neighboring Catholic country were such that in the end, Providence intervened directly, and to rid the country of the scourge, sent the inspired generalship of the Lorraine peasant girl, St. Joan of Arc. (Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Catholic Church, 141)

A Bloody Century

To appreciate the astonishing role Joan played in history, we must understand the world into which she was born. The Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) had been going on for three generations, fought over competing claims to the throne of France (and for the rights to the rich, wine-producing region of Acquitaine).

Although nationalism later played a large role in conflicts between France and England, at that time it was not much of a factor. The histories of the two countries had been inseparable since 1066 when the Normans conquered England. The rulers of England had been Normans, and French was the language of the English court. The kings of England, as dukes of the region of Aquitaine, were feudatories of the kings of France. At the same time, as sovereigns of their own kingdom, they were equals to the kings of France. This unusual relationship could only spell trouble as England grew in power.

Odds-makers at the start of the Hundred Years’ War would have favored the more politically stable French. Nonetheless, the English held the advantage for some time. In battle after battle, poorly led, overconfident French cavalry and men-at-arms collided into themselves in one confusing charge after another in which men and horses were torn to shreds by the arrows of the English longbow. In 1347 the Black Death brought a temporary halt to hostilities. With fewer knights as a consequence of the plague, armies were fleshed out by mercenaries from the working classes. When a truce came in 1360, these unemployed mercenaries made a living pillaging the French countryside.

In 1396, the Treaty of Paris was signed and was supposed to last for thirty years. In 1417, five years after Joan’s birth, King Henry V of England broke the treaty by invading France. He decimated the French army on the fields of Agincourt (see “Henry V: Not the Branagh Version,” page 9). The Dauphin, Charles, fled south. In 1428, Henry VI’s regent, the Duke of Bedford, laid seige to Orleans, the last major Valois stronghold in the North. During this period the French revival under St. Joan occurred.

“It is God Who Commands It”

The youngest of five, Joan was born in the town of Domremy. At the time of her birth, the English and their Burgundian allies controlled half of France, including Paris, and Joan’s little village sat on the frontier.

Joan knew the war as a child, and was forced to flee at least once when a band of Burgundian raiders sacked her village. The farm girl otherwise led a happy childhood, and if she was unusual among her friends it was only for the depth of her devotion, piety, and charity. She often gave up her bed to poor wayfarers and frequently received the sacraments. She was well loved by the people of Domremy.

At thirteen, Joan heard voices that over the next four years revealed themselves to be, among others, St. Michael the Archangel, St. Margaret of Antioch, and St. Catherine of Alexandria. In time they explained to the child that she was to lead the army that would liberate France from the English. The voices were insistent and explicit. Joan did not so much protest her task as ask, like the Mother of her Savior, how this was possible since she had, among other things, never ridden a horse or shot a bow. “It is God who commands it,” the saints told her, and that was enough.

Joan’s First Campaign

At seventeen, Joan traveled with her divine mandate to the neighboring town of Vaucouleurs, where the French army officers reacted to her story by telling her to go home. She persisted and — by prophesying the details of an upcoming battlefield defeat outside Orleans (the “Battle of the Herrings”) — captured the attention of Robert Baudricourt, the commander of the king’s forces in Vaucouleurs. He agreed to arrange an audience with Charles the Dauphin.

After a 300-mile journey through enemy territory with an escort of only six, Joan arrived at the court in Chinon. Although she had never seen the king, Joan identified him. She also confided to him a secret that convinced the Dauphin to take notice. (To this day, no one knows what this secret was, though some Joan scholars think she may have put Charles at ease about doubts he harbored concerning his own legitimacy.)

She explained her mission to the Dauphin: She would lead an army to liberate the city of Orleans, then clear the way to Rheims, where the Dauphin would receive the French crown as his predecessors had. Charles requested an ecclesiastical inquiry that verified her virginity and found nothing but a bright and pious girl. Joan was given a suit of white armor and a made-to-order standard depicting two angels presenting a fleur-de-lis to God the Father and bearing the words “Jesu Maria.”

At this time, she obtained her famous sword. Her testimony from her trial tells the story of its discovery:

Whilst I was at Tours, or at Chinon, I sent to seek for a sword which was in the Church of Saint Catherine de Fierbois, behind the altar; it was found there at once; the sword was in the ground, and rusty; upon it were five crosses; I knew by my Voice where it was . . . It was under the earth, not very deeply buried, behind the altar, so it seemed to me: I do not know exactly if it were before or behind the altar, but I believe I wrote saying that it was at the back. As soon as it was found, the Priests of the Church rubbed it, and the rust fell off at once without effort. (Pernoud and Clin, Joan of Arc: Her Story, 225)

So armed, Joan, alongside the Duke of Alencon at the head of the French army, rode off to Orleans. Moving by boat up the Loire River, she quietly led her army past the English siege lines. She rallied the demoralized French army. She captured the English forts (ten in all) surrounding the city and raised the siege. During the capture of the most important of these forts, the Tourelles, she was wounded by an arrow to the breast (in accordance with her own prophecy). Nonetheless, she returned to the fight to see it to victory.

In June of 1429, she began her Loire Valley campaign with a victory at Jargeau, in which she was assisted by a battalion of Scots. “You Scots make good war!” she told them. Again with a swiftness bordering on abandon and a magnificent use of the element of surprise, Joan lead her army to a crushing victory at Patay, during which the French cavalry outflanked and overran the English archers. French casualties were said to be five; English were said to be more than 2000.

Demonstrating a keen tactical sense, Joan bypassed an English stronghold at Meung Sur Loire, knowing that her victories thus far had left the English there isolated from their supply trains.

The subsequent surrender of Troyes cleared the path to Rheims, holy site of the baptism of Clovis and traditional coronation site of the French kings. The sheepish Dauphin reluctantly followed and was crowned in the cathedral on July 16 as Joan, holding her banner, stood beside the king. (When, at her trial, Joan was asked why she stood with her banner next to the king at his coronation, she responded that her banner had shared in the work so that it was fitting that it should share in the glory.)

A Legend in Her Own Time

Having turned the tide of an all-but-lost war, Joan became immediately and immensely popular, especially among her own people, the peasants. They brought her sacred objects to touch. She became a national heroine, and her reputation reached beyond the borders of France, where Italian correspondents and poets embellished her already unusual tale. Legends spread throughout the land of a childhood marked by miracles: Word had it that the young maiden was born on the Epiphany and that all in her village felt inexplicable joy at the moment of her birth, while the roosters (usually quiet in winter) crowed and flapped their wings for two hours straight, although no one at the time knew why. As a girl, it was said, Joan was able to summon the birds from the sky and feed them bread crumbs as they rested on her breast. When she ran in the fields with her playmates, her feet did not touch the ground. Doves appeared over her head. Someone saw a priest present a consecrated and an unconsecrated host to her, and Joan identified the Real Presence. Others declared that she controlled the weather, causing it to hail on French not loyal to Charles.

Joan was sought throughout France and abroad not only for her martial counsel, but also for advice in areas about which she had no expertise at all. The Duchess of Milan, Bona Visconti, asked Joan to restore her duchy to her. The town council of Toulouse asked Joan to advise them in sorting out their financial troubles. The Duke of Armagnac asked Joan to declare which of the three claimants to the Chair of Peter at the time was the legitimate one (an unhappy state of affairs troubling the Church in the wake of the Avignon Papacy).

As much as these tales fired the hearts of the French, they fed English superstitions as well, and it is not difficult to understand why many English came to view Joan as a witch. Nor is it surprising that Englishmen who were convinced of Joan’s holiness lost their appetite for a war they saw as provoking God’s disfavor.

Treachery and Trial

Although Joan discouraged the cult that developed around her, Charles and his cronies grew jealous. She pressed him, and he reluctantly gave her an inadequate force with which to liberate Paris. The attack on Paris failed, and Joan was wounded with an arrow to the thigh. Her voices announced that her time was short.

Contrary to Joan’s advice, Charles agreed to a truce with the English, disbanded his army, and attempted in vain to negotiate. Joan languished at court over the winter, growing ever more impatient with the king’s dilatory style, declaring that if he did not mean to use her to rid France of the English, he should let her return to her home.

The following May, Joan raised a small force of mercenaries and engaged the Burgundians at Compiegne. She and a number of her soldiers were trapped outside the city when the drawbridge was prematurely raised, perhaps through some treachery. She was dragged from her horse and made a prisoner of the Duke of Burgundy for five months, during which time the ungrateful Charles made no effort to ransom her.

The English, however, bought Joan from Burgundy for what would be today over half a million dollars. Burgundy’s sale of the young maid created a rift between him and his wife and daughter, which he tried to repair by buying her back. The English refused. Eager to execute her and thereby discredit Charles, the English subjected her to a sham trial presided over by unscrupulous French bishops who were puppets of the English regime. Charges of witchcraft, sorcery, and heresy were leveled at the young maid who, denied counsel, and despite illness and ill treatment in prison — including attempts to poison her and rape her — deflected the charges with simple grace and confidence. She was nevertheless found guilty of heresy and the charge of wearing men’s clothes, a practice she assumed on the battlefield and kept in prison to protect her chastity. Burned at the stake, in Rouen, Joan died on May 30, 1431. Her ashes were thrown in the River Seine.

Twenty years later, at the request of her mother, her case was reopened by the Church and she was cleared of all charges. Not until May 16, 1920, however, was Joan of Arc canonized a saint.

Behind the Myths

Perhaps no medieval figure’s life is better documented than that of St. Joan of Arc. Mark Twain, who regarded his biography of Joan his best work, called the Maid of Orleans “easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced” (“Saint Joan of Arc” in Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays, vol. 2). Although the story of Joan’s life had survived as a French national myth for centuries, it was not until Twain’s adolescence that the French historian and archeologist Jules Etienne Quicherat collected the official documents from Joan’s trial and rehabilitation and published them in five volumes. Quicherat’s volumes provide layer upon layer of corroboration of the remarkable events of her short life, all given under oath. In the preface to his Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Twain insists that there is no other life “of that remote time” that is known “with either the certainty or the comprehensiveness that attaches to hers.” Either the details of Joan’s life are true, or her story is a centuries-long conspiracy to create a national heroine the likes of which we find nowhere else in history.

Joan has captured the imagination of novelists, playwrites, historians, and filmmakers, some coming closer to understanding her than others. In Joan some see a feminist, an interpretation that ignores, among other things, her desire to consecrate her virginity. Of her, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “It was exactly the sort of person, like Joan of Arc, who did know why women wore skirts, who was most justified in not wearing one” (“The Drift from Domesticity” in The Thing: Why I Am a Catholic).

Her motives were never to make it big in a man’s world. Once the king had been crowned, she sought to return to her life in Domremy. Her childhood was decidedly feminine — one given to training in the art of making a home: “In sewing and spinning I fear no woman,” she insisted at her trial.

Not only was Joan decidedly domestic, she was not what we would call sexually liberated. Testimony from the soldiers and officers with whom she shared close quarters describes her modesty and its influence. Upon joining the French Army, one of her first acts was to chase the prostitutes from the camp with her sword. In the preface to his play, Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw characterizes this act as prudery. But Joan’s soldiers understood, and her heroic virtue inspired them to love and follow her.

The idea of Joan as proto-Protestant, also from Shaw, does not correspond with the testimony. Among her first acts as commander was to establish the practice of Mass attendance and frequent reception of the sacraments by her soldiers. Nothing in her testimony contradicts Church teaching, and all throughout her trial she defends the authority of the pope, requesting more than once to be referred to his judgment. Moreover, Joan dictated a letter to the Hussites in Bohemia condemning their heresy, utraquism, and telling them that she would come after them next.

There are other erroneous ideas about Joan: that she was a nationalist, a heroine of the working classes, an early revolutionary toppling the old feudal order. But if these were her motives, why did she practically drag the Dauphin to his coronation? Why did she desire to leave behind the political world of Charles’s court and return to peasant life?

Not a Martyr

It is commonly believed that the Church reveres Joan as a martyr. She is not. Her sainthood derives from her piety, her devotion, her charity, and above all her willingness to imitate the Blessed Virgin in accepting the will of God and letting nothing get in the way of that.

The most improbable idea, of course, is that a teenage farm girl with no military training led an army. But Joan’s battlefield successes and her central role in a military campaign that changed the course of the Hundred Years’ War are incontrovertible facts. These feats she accomplished at the age of nineteen, the youngest person ever to command a nation’s army — not as a mere figurehead or cheerleader but as an actual battlefield commander who took charge of the strategic and tactical employment of her force. She restored morale to the French army, largely by insisting that her soldiers conduct themselves like Christians — but also by taking her place at the vanguard of the assault.

According to the testimony of the captains who served alongside her, Joan was a skilled tactician. “Except in matters of war” spoke one captain from Chartres at her rehabilitation, “she was simple and innocent. But in the leading and drawing up of armies and in the conduct of war, in disposing an army for battle and haranguing the soldiers, she behaved like the most experienced captain in the world, like one with a whole lifetime of experience” (Regine Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc, 108).

The Duke of Alencon corroborates this testimony:

In the conduct of war she was most skillful, both in carrying the lance herself, in drawing up the army in battle order and in placing the artillery. And everyone was astonished that she acted with such prudence and clear-sightedness in military matters as cleverly as some great captain with twenty or thirty years’ experience; and especially in the placing of artillery, for in that she acquitted herself magnificently. (Pernoud, The Retrial, 142)

Joan’s extraordinary skill as a commander was not limited to her tactical ability. She also understood political strategy. After Joan’s victory at Orleans, the Dauphin and his advisors favored an invasion of Normandy. Joan convinced them that clearing the way to Rheims and having Charles anointed king would demoralize the English and rally the will of the French people to stay in the fight. Her plan led to the eventual French victory.

Her bearing was that of a commander. She made great speeches that inspired her men. The letter she sent to the English before opening her campaign to liberate Orleans shows that she did not mince words:

King of England, and you — Duke of Bedford — who call yourself Regent of the Kingdom of France, you sir John Talbot and you Sir Thomas of Scales, who call yourself lieutenant of the aforesaid Duke of Bedford, render your account to the King of Heaven and surrender to the Maid . . . She is entirely willing to make peace, provided you are willing to settle accounts with her and provided that you give up France and pay for having occupied her . . . and go back to your own countries for God’s sake. And if you do not do so, wait for the word of the Maid, who will come visit you briefly to your great sorrow. I am the war commander and in whatever place I shall meet your French allies I shall make them leave it. And if they will not obey, I shall have them all killed. (Pernoud and Clin, Joan of Arc: Her Story, 33-34)

Did She Make a Difference?

Finally, there is the seemingly reasonable question of whether or not Joan’s actions were decisive in bringing about the end of the war. After all, it was more than thirty years after Joan’s execution that the French achieved victory. Nonetheless, for the Christian, the question seems almost impertinent. Joan was sent by God with the express mission of ridding France of the English. Providence’s schedule is not man’s. That God chose to take another three decades to bring Joan’s work to fruition is his business.

Skeptics, cynics, debunkers, and other nonbelievers look for other causes for the conclusion of the war. To be fair to their arguments, it should be noted that England under the Duke of Bedford did recapture many of the losses suffered under Joan. Moreover, England’s loss of revenue due to agricultural depression and a decline in overseas trade reduced its capacity to wage war.

Eduoard Perroy, whose history of the Hundred Years’ War is widely regarded as authoritative, seems conflicted on the question. At one point he suggests that Joan’s influence on the outcome of the war was remote, though elsewhere in his work he writes,

All that the heroine left behind her were actions. But they were actions whose imprint no condemnation could efface. There was the military fact that for the first time the Lancastrian arms were halted on the road to victory There was the political fact that the King . . . was given the prestige of coronation. In this way Joan of Arc’s intervention was decisive, and the page she wrote, contrary to all expectation, in the history of France deserves to be remembered as one of the finest. (The Hundred Years War, 281)

Historian General J.F.C. Fuller, himself a nonbeliever, sees Joan as clearly decisive, noting the effects of her actions on French confidence. The unstoppable English had been stopped.

Contemporary historical revisionists like to fuss over whether the battle at the Alamo was decisive, or whether Washington’s crossing at Trenton was decisive. Such questions are ultimately of little interest. The myths of the Alamo and Trenton, like those of Lepanto or Thermopylae, fire the soul of a nation. “The inspired generalship of the Lorraine Peasant girl” was decisive and in many ways that cannot necessarily be measured with a casualty count. St. Joan is France’s greatest myth, indeed one of Christendom’s. And her myth also happens to be true.

A Saint for Our Times

What is in Joan’s story for us? To be sure, her story drives home the merits of obedience, of trust in God, of fortitude, of perseverance, and the like.

There is also a truth easily missed in a modern nation where mobility is celebrated, where rootlessness is the norm, and where land means little more than a mortgage: God loves particular places and peoples such as France, but he also loves places like Lorraine, and Domremy and Nazareth, and Rockton, Illinois. He wants us to be attached to our unique part of the world, wherever it may be. This kind of attachment is true patriotism, and it stands in contrast to the universalism that so much informs modern political discourse.

It says something to us that a great saint accomplished so much in defense of a unique people, of their land, and of their blood. Perhaps the modern revolutionary aspirations of universal empire are not part of the divine plan. Rather, the little spot of land upon which we happen to live is the place designed for us to work out our salvation. When images of planet Earth from outer space and the intensity of modern electronic communications make our own little villages seem small to the point of insignificance, we can reflect on what Joan fought and died for and thank God for our own blood and soil.

Henry V: Not the Branagh Version

By invading France, King Henry V of England violated the 1396 Truce of Paris and revived the Hundred Years’ War. His pretense to make war was a flimsy claim to the throne of France. Indeed, as the grandson of a usurper, Henry’s claim to the throne of England was itself slender.

On October 15, 1415, Henry led his army to victory against the French on the muddy fields at Agincourt. The much-celebrated victory was a dramatic upset: Henry’s underfed, dysentery-ridden, and exhausted army brought down the full might of French heavy cavalry who outnumbered the English more than three to one. The battle was a triumph for the English longbow. Though difficult to master, this weapon was superior to the short Norman bow in every way. Its rate of fire was faster, its range was greater, and its power to penetrate stronger.

French knights fell from their horses only to become mired in and suffocate in the mud. Thousands of French prisoners were captured, and Henry ordered many of them slaughtered. The English herded prisoners into houses and barns and set them ablaze. English soldiers combed the battlefield for booty, slitting the throats of the French wounded. Of the atrocity, historian Desmond Seward writes:

English writers attempt to whitewash this piece of Schrechlichkeit [horror] by Henry with reference to the “standards of the day,” but in fact by medieval criteria, it was a particularly nasty atrocity to murder unarmed noblemen who had surrendered in the confident expectation of being ransomed. (The Hundred Years War, 168-69)

Henry returned to London a conquering hero. He had little difficulty raising the funds needed for his next raid into Northern France. Sheriffs throughout England enforced his order to have six feathers plucked from every goose in the realm to supply flights for his archers’ arrows.

Insisting on his birthright, Henry invaded France again two years later. He faced little opposition as France was ravaged by civil war. Henry’s army swept across Normandy, failing only to take the seaside monastery fortress of Mont Saint Michel.

The cities of Caen and Rouen were taken after lengthy sieges during which the citizens were starved. At Caen, Henry’s heavy artillery blew holes in the city walls. His soldiers poured through the breach, corralled the citizens into the marketplace, and hacked them to death: children, elderly, nursing mothers. Those who were spared this first terror suffered plunder and rape at Henry’s order, “Havoc!”

Rouen was better armed and better defended, with a garrison of 4000 and abundant artillery. There the citizens held out against siege as long as they could. In time, they too faced starvation. They ate horseflesh, cats, dogs, rats, mice, and rotted vegetable peelings. The starving poor attempted to flee the city, but Henry refused to let them pass. He confined them to the ditch outside the city walls to starve in the winter mud. A contemporary chronicler described the scene: three-year-old children whose parents had died, begging for bread among the starving throng.

Brutality Replaces Chivalry as Church’s Influence Wanes

The Hundred Years’ War witnessed the passing of the age of chivalry and feudalism. One of the great qualities of feudalism was the restriction that it placed on war fighting. Feudal lords could require of their knights no more than forty days of service at a stretch, a code that limited their capacity to make war. The Hundred Years’ War ushered in the age of paid soldiers who did not live by any feudal code and who could remain in the field as long as kings could afford to pay them. Moreover, these soldiers were drawn from all classes, making warfare a more democratic than aristocratic enterprise, thus more violent and unrestricted. Such soldiers made their living by terrorizing civilian populations when real fighting was unavailable. Compounding this unrestricted quality was the development of gunpowder artillery, even a few breechloading pieces by the end of the war. Artillery became mobile and fire more accurate. Since this time, artillery has been responsible for more casualties than any other battlefield arm. Artillery made walled cities increasingly obsolete and shifted the advantage from the defense to the offense in siege warfare. Heavy cavalry, and with it, heavy armor, also began to fade as gunpowder weapons became more refined and body armor useless against them.

The war also marked the passing of kingdoms and the early stages of the nation-state. To be sure, the Joan of Arc story takes on the role of myth in creating the French nation. But more significant is the eclipse of Church authority. The years during which the papacy languished in Avignon contributed mightily to this, as did the subsequent Western Schism, so that the Church, though it repeatedly tried, lacked the power and force to broker any peace between England and France.

But the passing of Church authority meant not only a loss of a voice that could temper international political quarrels, but also the loss of a voice that could dictate how they were resolved.

The Church had, for example, in 1139, at the Second Lateran Council forbidden Christians from using the bow and arrow in warfare against other Christians: “We prohibit under anathema that murderous art of crossbowman and archers, which is hateful to God, to be employed against Christians and Catholics from now on.”

The Church that had forbidden fighting on Sundays, holy days, and during Lent and Advent watched warfare grow more brutal and noncombatants suffer more and more. Like clerics today who condemn naval embargoes and nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, the Church of the mid-fifteenth century went unheard. It is not mere coincidence that warfare became more unrestricted as the Protestant Reformation took shape. Chivalry was, ultimately, a religious code that fell when the Church in whose bosom it was nurtured suffered the blows of dissent.

Article from Catholicculture by Christopher Check, vice president of The Rockford Institute. He lectures on military and Church history.