The French national heroine Joan of Arc (c. 1412-1431) led a troop of French soldiers and served as a temporary focus of French resistance to English occupation in the last phase of the Hundred Years War.

The life of Joan of Arc must be considered against the background of the later stages of the Hundred Years War (1339-1453). The war, which had begun in 1339 and continued intermittently till the 1380s, had caused severe hardship in France. In 1392 the insanity of the French king, Charles VI, had provided the opportunity for two aristocratic factions to struggle for control of the King and kingdom. The leader of one of these, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, finally assumed control, and both factions appealed for help to England. Henry V of England invaded France on the Burgundian side in 1415 and inflicted a shattering defeat upon the French at Agincourt in the same year. The English and Burgundians entered Paris in 1418, and the murder of John the Fearless in 1419 strengthened Burgundian hatred for the Armagnac faction.

In 1420 Charles VI, Henry V, and Philip the Good of Burgundy agreed to the Treaty of Troyes, according to which Henry was to act as regent for the mad Charles VI, marry Charles's daughter, and inherit the throne of France on Charles's death. The treaty thus disinherited Charles VI's son, the Dauphin Charles (later Charles VII). Charles VI also implied that the Dauphin was illegitimate. In 1422 both Henry V and Charles VI died, leaving Henry VI, the infant son of Henry, as king of both kingdoms. Henry VI, through his regent, the Duke of Bedford, ruled uncontested in Normandy and the Île-deFrance. The Duke of Burgundy followed an independent policy in the territories he was assembling to the north and east of France. The Dauphin was reduced to holding the south of France, threatened with Anglo-Burgundian invasion, and taunted with the title "King of Bourges," from which city he ineffectively ruled what was left of his kingdom. He was in perpetual fear that the key city of Orléans, the gateway to his lands, might be captured by the English. In the autumn of 1428 the English laid siege to Orléans. Charles, dominated by the infamous favorite Georges de la Tremoille, naturally apathetic, and lacking in men and money, could do nothing. By the spring of 1429 the city appeared about to fall and with it the hopes of Charles VII.

Early Life

Joan was born to a peasant family in Domrémy, a small town near Vaucouleurs, the last town in the east still loyal to Charles VII. "As long as I lived at home," she said at her trial in 1431, "I worked at common tasks about the house, going but seldom afield with our sheep and other cattle. I learned to sew and spin: I fear no woman in Rouen at sewing and spinning."

Some time in 1425 Joan began to have visions— "When I was thirteen, I had a voice from God to help me govern myself." The voice was that of St. Michael, who, with St. Catherine and St. Margaret, "told me of the pitiful state of France, and told me that I must go to succor the King of France." Joan twice went to Robert de Baudricourt, the captain of Vaucouleurs, asking for an escort to Charles VII at Chinon. The third time she was granted an escort, and she set out in February 1429, arriving 11 days later at Chinon. She was immediately examined for orthodoxy and 2 days later was allowed to see the King.

A contemporary described her: "This Maid … has a virile bearing, speaks little, shows an admirable prudence in all her words. She has a pretty, woman's voice, eats little, drinks very little wine; she enjoys riding a horse and takes pleasure in fine arms, greatly likes the company of noble fighting men, detests numerous assemblies and meetings, readily sheds copious tears, has a cheerful face…" Joan appears to have been robust, with darkbrown hair, and, as one historian succinctly remarked, "in the excitement which raised her up from earth to heaven, she retained her solid common sense and a clear sense of reality." She was also persuasive. In April 1429 Charles VII sent her to Orléans as captain of a troop of men—not as leader of all his forces. With the Duke d'Alençon and Jean, the Bastard of Orléans (later Count of Dunois), Joan relieved the city, thus removing the greatest immediate threat to Charles and for the first time in his reign allowing him a military triumph.

Her Mission

Although Charles VII appears to have accepted Joan's mission—after having had her examined several times at Chinon and at the University of Poitiers—his attitude toward her, on the whole, is ambiguous. He followed her pressing advice to use the respite provided by the relief of Orléans to proceed to his coronation at Reims, thereby becoming king in the eyes of all men. After a series of victorious battles and sieges on the way, Charles VII was crowned at Reims on July 18, 1429. Joan was at his side and occupied a prominent place in the ceremonies following the coronation. From the spring of 1429 to the spring of 1430, Charles and his advisers wavered on the course of the war. The choices were those of negotiation, particularly with the Duke of Burgundy, or taking the military offensive against English positions, particularly Paris. Joan favored the second course, but an attack upon Paris in September 1429 failed, and Charles VII entered into a treaty with Burgundy that committed him to virtual inaction. From September 1429 to the early months of 1430, Joan appears to have been kept inactive by the royal court, finally moving to the defense of the town of Compiègne in May 1430. During a skirmish outside the town's walls against the Burgundians, Joan was cut off and captured. She was a rich prize. The Burgundians turned Joan over to the English, who prepared to try her for heresy. Charles VII could do nothing.

The Trial

Joan's trial was held in three parts. Technically it was an ecclesiastical trial for heresy, and Joan's judges were Pierre Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais, and Jean Lemaitre, vicar of the inquisitor of France; both were aided by a large number of theologians and lawyers who sat as a kind of consulting and advising jury. From January to the end of March, the court investigated Joan's "case" and interrogated witnesses. The trial itself lasted from April to nearly the end of May and ended with Joan's abjuration. The trial was both an ecclesiastical one and a political one (because Joan was kept in an English prison rather than in that of the archbishop of Rouen and because the English continually intervened in the trial). Joan was charged with witchcraft and fraud, tested by being asked complicated theological questions, and finally condemned on the grounds of persisting in wearing male clothing, a technical offense against the authority of the Church. Joan's answers throughout the trial reveal her presence of mind, humility, wit, and good sense. Apparently Joan and her accusers differed about the nature of her abjuration, and 2 days after she signed it, she recanted. The third phase of her trial began on May 28. This time she was tried as a relapsed heretic, conviction of which meant "release" to the "secular arm" that is, she would be turned over to the English to be burned. Joan was convicted of being a relapsed heretic, and she was burned at the stake in the marketplace of Rouen on May 30, 1431.

Rehabilitation and Later Legend

From 1450 to 1456, first under the impetus of Charles VII, then under that of Joan's mother, and finally under that of the Inquisition, a reinvestigation of Joan's trial and condemnation was undertaken by ecclesiastical lawyers. On July 7, 1456, the commission declared Joan's trial null and void, thereby freeing Joan from the taint of heresy. The Joan of Arc legend, however, did not gather momentum, and then only intermittently, until the 17th century. The 19th and 20th centuries were really, as a historian has called them, "the centuries of the Maid." In spite of her legend, Joan was not canonized until May 16, 1920.

Further Reading on Joan of Arc

There is an immense literature about Joan of Arc, most of it fanciful and inaccurate. Some of it, however, is great literature in its own right: for example, George Bernard Shaw's play, Saint Joan, or Jules Michelet's Joan of Arc, translated by Albert Guerard (1957). There is no standard English or French biography which is entirely reliable. Therefore, the best source concerning Joan's career is the text of her trial and rehabilitation proceedings. Full texts were published by J. Quicherat in French. The choice English works have been built around extracts from these texts; the best of these is Regine Pernoud, Joan of Arc (1959; trans. 1964). A shorter work, consisting only of extracts from the trial materials, is Willard R. Trask, Joan of Arc: Self Portrait (1936). Joan's place in 15th-century France is described by Edouard Perroy, The Hundred Years War (1945; trans. 1951), and Alice Buchan, Joan of Arc and the Recovery of France (1948). A careful analysis of the sources concerning Joan and a brief description of her later reputation are in Charles W. Lightbody, The Judgements of Joan (1960).