Jeanne d’Arc was a peasant girl who became a national heroine and the patron saint of France. At a crucial period of the Hundred Years’War, she led the French resistance to English invaders and turned the tide of the war. A mystic visionary, Jeanne was ultimately captured and imprisoned by the English and condemned by an ecclesiastical court to be burned at the stake in 1431.
She was 19 years old.
The France of Jeanne’s youth was torn by civil war. The Treaty of Troyes (1422) had recognized the claim of England’s Henry V to the French throne, and his heir, supported by the duke of Burgundy, was accepted as king in all parts of France controlled by England and Burgundy. The dauphin Charles, last heir of the Valois line, had no rights under the treaty but was supported by the Armagnac party, and controlled part of France south of the Loire River.
Jeanne was born into a peasant family in the village of Domrémy in Lorraine about 1412. By the age of 13 she began to hear what she described as her “voices,”whom she later identified as the Archangel Michael and Saints Catherine and Margaret. Over the next few years these voices urged Jeanne to find an escort to the dauphin, from whom she was to receive an army and drive the English out of France. She resisted the voices until 1428, when she first approached the Armagnac captain Robert de Baudricourt at nearby Vaucouleurs. Baudricourt refused her at first, but her persistence finally convinced him to give her an armed escort to the dauphin’s court at Chinon in February 1429. By then the English had laid siege to Orléans, the strategic gateway across the Loire into the dauphin’s territory.
When Jeanne met the dauphin, she was able to convince him of her divine mission (some say by relating to him a private prayer he had made to God). After having her examined by a group of clerics and advisers at Poitiers to ensure her orthodoxy, Charles gave her titular command of an army. She was given armor and her own banner (reading “Jesus, Mary”), and brought to the army at Blois, 35 miles southwest of Orléans. She is said to have expelled prostitutes and forced her men to go to confession, give up foul language, and swear to refrain from looting civilians. Her army lifted the siege of Orléans on May 8, 1429, and pushed on to victories in several other cities to arrive at Rheims, where, in accordance with tradition, the dauphin was crowned King Charles VII of France on July 17. After the coronation Jeanne begged the king to deliver Paris from the English, but Charles was uninterested, preoccupied with trying to negotiate peace with Burgundy.
While Jeanne was fighting on the outskirts of Paris, the king withdrew his forces, and Jeanne spent a restless winter at court. In May Burgundy renewed the war, laying siege to Compiègne. Determined to help, Jeanne led a small army of additional troops into the city on May 23. That afternoon she led a sortie outside the city and was ambushed by Burgundian troops. Staying in the rear guard, Jeanne was trapped outside when the gates of the city were prematurely closed, and was captured. Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, refused to ransom her and sold her to the English for 10,000 francs. Pierre Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais and a longtime supporter of the Anglo-Burgundian party, was charged with organizing an ecclesiastical court in Rouen (deep in English territory) to try Jeanne for witchcraft and heresy. Yet against inquisitorial custom, she was held in an English military prison with male guards, a situation that put her in constant danger of rape.