Joan was the daughter of tenant farmers, though not poor, they were far from being rich. She was a quiet and pious young woman who was happy working on her family’s farm. Joan’s early childhood saw the re-start of the Hundred Years War between England and France. In 1415 Henry V invaded France and shattered the French knights at the battle of Agincourt. England occupied most of northern France, including Paris and threatened to occupy the rest of the kingdom, after entering into an alliance with the rebellious Burgundians. France was a lawless place during Joan’s childhood and youth. Her family suffered greatly at this time, like many peasant families because of English raids and the demands of French soldiers. One of the greatest threats faced by the poor people of France was from bands of mercenaries who had left the service of France or England. There were often bands of several thousand ex-mercenaries who plundered and killed the peasants in the countryside.
Joan of Arc, around the age of sixteen, she claimed to be hearing voices of Christian Saints encouraging her to lead a pious life. One voice allegedly told her that she was the saviour of France. These events were common at the time. In the middle ages, it was widely believed that God or the Virgin Mary appeared to selected people who would command them to pass on messages to the believers. At first, the local priests did not believe her. Joan, immediately went to a local French garrison and offered her help. The garrison commander realized that the girl was popular with locals, dispatched her to the Court of the Dauphin, Charles, the French heir or Dauphin to the throne.
Joan asked the Dauphin to support her in expelling the English from his kingdom. She claimed that God had told her to lead the French resistance to the English. The Dauphin was a weak figure, who controlled little of his kingdom. Some believe that he may have been a little mad Many have speculated that he was mentally unstable. Charles, was impressed with the young girl. He came to believe that she had special powers after he had two priests from the University of Sorbonne test her piety and faith. Joan and the Dauphin had a private conversation, where it is said Joan revealed details of a solemn prayer Charles had to offer to God to save France. Another story is told that Joan was able to win the trust of the Dauphin after she able to identify him. The young prince dressed as one of his nobles and had another sit on the throne. When Joan entered she was asked to address the Prince on his throne. The young girl was able to discern that the real prince was actually in disguise. This is despite the fact that she had never seen him before.
Charles gave Joan armour and a horse and ordered his commanders to help the inspired girl. Joan accompanied the French army to Orléans, where an English force was besieging the city. The ordinary people rallied to the young girl and her popularity ensured that the French commanders treated her respectfully. However, many of the nobles looked down on the girl. They only tolerated her because their prince did. At the time the nobles of France held all the lower classes in contempt and they did not even see them as French! That is when despite all the sufferings experienced by the common people the elite did nothing to help them.
Joan rallied the French troops, outside Orléans and they went on the offensive. In a series of battles, the French attempted to break the English siege of the city. The English while besieging the city and had built a series of walls around their positions. This allowed them to besiege the French in Orléans and to defend themselves against the French relief force. The French army attacked these fortifications, many times during the summer of 1422. Joan participated in the fighting. This was unheard of as traditionally only men fought in medieval battles. Joan was only able to participate in the battle because she was widely seen as a prophetess or one selected by God. During the battle to relieve the siege of Orléans, Joan was wounded, at least once but returned to the battle. The English forces under constant French attacks retreated from Orléans. It was a turning point in the wars.
The lifting of the siege of Orléans was to change French fortunes in the war. They regained territory in the Loire after Joan had seized several key bridges. Joan advised the French commander, the to go on the offensive. The common soldiers were emboldened by the presence of the young woman. The commander inspired by Joan attacked the English and dealt them a significant defeat. The French army began to advance again and captured Troyes and Rheims. Joan’s encouragement and advice had changed the war in the favour of France. She was now loved by the people and respected by the French army. This Joan encouraged the prince to receive the crown of France in Rheims, where French monarchs were traditionally crowned. The Prince travelled to Rheims and was crowned Charles VII, King of France. This was an event of huge symbolic importance and the entire country began to rally to Charles VII.
However, the French advance was checked when they failed to capture Paris. Once again Joan was involved in the fighting and again received a minor wound. The French army seemed to be on the verge of taking Paris when it was ordered to withdraw by its commander. This has surprised many commentators and some have attributed it to a lack of supplies, the approach of winter and even treachery. Whatever really happened Joan was blamed. The nobles who had never liked the young peasant girl and her influence at court may have used the set back outside Paris to blacken her name. It appears that after the failure to retake Paris that she was no longer as influential at the French Court.
In 1430, King Charles VII ordered Joan of Arc to Compiegne, where the English and their Burgundians allies were besieging the town. During the fighting to break the siege, she was thrown off her horse and was taken captive by the Burgundians. The English entered into negotiations with the Burgundians for Joan. They had recognized that she had inspired the French army and they saw her as a clear threat to their position in France. The Burgundians did not know what to do with the young girl- who was considered divinely inspired by the common people in France. They wanted to get rid of the girl they did not want to imprison her as this could have meant that they would have angered the peasants. Negotiations between the Burgundians and the English began. The leader of the English in France was particularly keen to have the young woman who had done so much damage to their cause in their dungeons. After a period of negotiations, the Burgundians gave Joan to the English for the sum of 10,000 francs. This was a really big sum of money at the time.
She was abandoned by the Dauphin and the French Court
Despite all she had done for the Crown of France, they did nothing to save her. They could have entered into negotiations to ransom her from the Burgundians. They could have exchanged her for some Burgundian prisoners. The new King had quickly forgotten how much he had owed the young girl from the country. Ultimately, Joan despite her undoubted gifts was only a peasant girl and was, therefore disposable. It is highly unlikely that the English would have returned her to the French but the king could have tried. After Joan had been captured she was soon forgotten by the Frenc Court and she was by all accounts never mentions. Her role in the wars and her contributions to the revival of French power was also forgotten and downplayed.
The English put Joan on trial on the capital charge of heresy and witchcraft. During the trial, the ordinary country girl amazed the court with her articulate defence of her actions and her great knowledge of theology. During her imprisonment, she was ill-treated and threatened with torture. Many times she was threatened with rape. In May 1431, the tribunal announced that Joan of Arc was guilty of heresy. It claimed that the voices that she heard were demonic and that she was in reality, a witch. On the morning of May 30, she was taken to Rouen public square and burned at the stake. She was placed on a huge pile of wood and died to a stake. She was offered the chance of an easy death, by strangling, if she admitted that she was a witch. Joan refused she genuinely believed that she has received visions from God to save France.
The English set fire to the wood and Joan was burned alive. It was a horrible death. However, the young girl still only a teenager did not cry out or beg for her life.
Joan was only nineteen years old. She died bravely, protesting her innocence.
“My Voices did come from God and everything that I have done was by God’s order”.
It was only after her death that the French King showed any interest in Joan. The new French King, who had done nothing to save declared Joan innocent. He also designated her a martyr. Some twenty years after her death the Pope declared her innocent of all charges.
Joan was never forgotten. The French Church was somewhat suspicious of her claims to be having visions sent from God. However, by the nineteenth century, the French Church saw her as an exemplary Catholic and a true Catholic. She was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1920. Today Catholics all over the world pray to St Joan.
The One Hundred Years War was decisive in the history of France. Joan changed the history of France when she went to the French prince with her visions. She helped to turn the tide for France and helped to save her country from annexation by the English. St Joan helped the French to win the Hundred Years War and end any English claims to the throne of French. also led to major changes in France. The kingdom had been a loose network of semi-independent territories was now a nation, with a bureaucracy and a central government. The powers of the nobility were limited and came increasingly under the control of the king. The King was now the main figure in political life and he ruled a formidable state. The French established a standing army and moved away from employing mercenaries and knights in battle. This were profound changes and they were widely emulated by kingdoms elsewhere in Europe, in the late medieval period.