This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Born to a relatively wealthy peasant family on 6 January c1412, Joan of Arc appears to have enjoyed a normal upbringing. It was far removed from the fighting that raged elsewhere in France, a series of conflicts now referred to as the Hundred Years’ War. Fought between England and France between 1337 and 1453, the war’s primary cause was the possession of the French throne. Following the deaths of Henry V and Charles VI in 1422, nine-month-old Henry VI was recognised as king of England and France by the English, a claim disputed by those who upheld the succession of the dauphin, Charles.
“A great deal of what we know about Joan’s early years comes from notes made during her trial, but it is estimated that she was about 17 years old when she began her year of military activity,” says Kelly DeVries, professor of history at Loyola University, Maryland. “We know she was from a relatively wealthy peasant family, lived in a two-storey stone house next to the village church with her family, and that she probably received her first vision at some point during her mid-teens.”
Joan’s visions took the form of voices that she claimed belonged to St Margaret and St Michael, and it was these voices that presented Joan with her first two missions: to relieve the siege of Orléans and to crown the dauphin, Charles, king of France.
“In order to succeed in her mission of ridding France of the English, Joan first needed the approval of the dauphin, who was residing at Chinon Castle with his court, but she required an escort to do so,” says DeVries. “That escort took the shape of Sir Robert de Baudricourt, the garrison commander of nearby Vaucouleurs, a town that had resisted attempts to bring it under the control of the Burgundians, who had at this time allied with the English and were seeking to bring the ‘dauphinist’ lands south of the Loire under Anglo-Burgundian control.”
Joan’s request was rejected but she returned to Vaucouleurs a few months later. This time, perhaps due to the fact that rumours of a woman rising up to defeat the English were rife in the area, or perhaps following a second opinion from the King of Anjou, de Baudricourt granted Joan a small band of soldiers. The party then set off on a journey through France to Chinon Castle on the Loire river.
Although swayed by Joan’s arguments, Charles wanted further proof of Joan’s divinity before committing men and arms to the cause. He sent her to meet Yolande of Aragon, his mother-in-law, and then on to the University of Poitiers where she was questioned, and subsequently approved, by the institution’s religious professors.
Joan’s first mission was to relieve the siege of Orléans, a town that had been under attack from English forces for some time. Buoyed up by their success in ending the siege, Joan and her military leaders agreed upon a strategy of clearing the Loire river valley of English troops, beginning with the nearby towns of Jargeau, Meung-sur-Loire and Beaugency.
“To her followers, it must have seemed that Joan could not fail,” says DeVries. “She was in command of a huge group of loyal soldiers and appeared to have God on her side; it was in this spirit that a huge ‘Coronation army’ marched from Chinon to Reims where Charles was crowned king. Joan’s divine mission seemed to be complete.
“But although grateful for Joan’s success, some nobles suggested Joan be removed from military action following Charles’s coronation,” continues DeVries. “The nobles wanted to make peace with Philip of Burgundy but some didn’t feel they could while Joan was still present, and even the new king wished her gone. Joan, however, had other ideas and added a new task to her divine mission: to take Paris from the English.”
Charles reluctantly allowed Joan and her army to set out for St Denis, a region just outside Paris. However, an unsuccessful attack on the French capital’s city walls resulted in serious injury for Joan and Charles took the defeat as a sign that his forces should leave the city. After recuperation in Chinon, however, Joan launched an attack on the castle fortress of La Charité, which was being held by a mercenary captain by the name of Perrinet Gressart. Another military failure ensued and a subsequent attempt to relieve the siege of Compiègne some months later led to Joan’s capture by Burgundian forces.
Despite the offer of a ransom by several of her companions, including Duc d’Alencon and Artur de Richemont, Joan was sold to the English and preparations began for her trial, during which she was held captive in Rouen. After a trial of some weeks, Joan was found guilty of heresy, a crime punishable by death, and so on 30 May 1431 she was burned at the stake.
A ‘rehabilitation trial’ was brought by Charles between 1450–57 in an attempt to restore Joan’s reputation. This culminated in the official decision to nullify her condemnation, but she was not canonised until 1920, despite moves by the French to do so as early as the 15th century, when she was beatified. “Joan was certainly a remarkable woman,” comments DeVries, “but she was more of a ‘tide turner’ than a victor of the Hundred Years’ War, which continued for a further 23 years after Joan’s death.”
8 places linked to Joan of Arc
Domrémy-la-Pucelle, Vosges LorRaine
Where Joan first heard the voices of the saints
The small village of Domrémy (later named Domrémy-la-Pucelle) was home to Joan until she set out on her military mission, and it was in the yard adjacent to the family’s house that she is said to have received her first visions. Although not of noble stock, it is thought that the family held social rank in the village, a belief supported by the fact that Joan and her family lived in a stone-built house positioned next to the Church of Saint-Remy. Joan herself is said to have been extremely devout, even as a young child, and confessed her sins several times a day.
The house in which Joan was raised is now a national monument that is open to the public. Visitors can see the room in which Joan was born, along with other rooms once lived in by the family. The lintel above the front door shows three coats of arms: those of Joan’s family; those of René d’Anjou, in whose territory of Lorraine the house was built; and those of
Louis XI, son of Charles VII, who declared the house a religious and historical site following Joan’s ‘rehabilitation trial’ after 1450. Also open to the public is the Church of Saint-Remy where Joan prayed regularly – the font in which she was baptised is also on display. Some also believe that a recently uncovered fresco on the wall of the Notre-Dame de Bermont chapel, sited about 500 yards from the house, may depict Joan praying.
Chinon Castle, Chinon Indre-et-Loire
Where Joan met the future king of France
Chinon Castle has one of the longest histories of any castle in the Loire Valley and dates back around 1,000 years. Much of the original building was created by the English king Henry II in the 12th century, serving as an important regional control centre. Parts of the castle were enhanced by King Philippe Auguste in the 13th century when it came under French control. Other notable owners include Napoleon III and, of course, Charles VII.
On Joan’s arrival at Chinon Castle in early March 1429, Charles (then the dauphin) tried to trick her by having one of his courtiers dress up as him. Guided by her ‘voices’, Joan immediately identified Charles, proclaiming:
“I bring you news from God, that our Lord will give you back your kingdom, bringing you to be crowned at Reims, and driving out your enemies. In this I am God’s messenger.” Joan spent many months at Chinon, staying in one of the castle’s towers and praying at the castle’s church.
Much of the original castle remains, and the tower in which Joan stayed is still relatively intact and is open to the public. The tower was also used to imprison a number of Templars before their execution in 1308 and graffiti from that time is still visible on the tower’s interior walls.
Orléans, Loiret Loire Valley
Where Joan relieved the city of its year-long siege
The siege of Orléans, which took place from 1428–29, is seen by many as one of the turning points in the Hundred Years’ War and was the site of Joan’s first military victory against the English. Says DeVries: “Joan reached the city at the end of April 1429, by which point the English had cut off the city on three sides. It was clear that the enemy strongholds needed to be seized in order to break the siege.”
Joan, together with a small guard of men, was able to enter the city, but the bridge across the river and Les Tourelles, a fortified bridgehead, still lay in English hands.
Buoyed up by the sight of Joan on horseback, however, and convinced that God was on their side, French soldiers attacked the nearby fortress of St Loup while Joan was sleeping.
“Joan quickly realised that she could use this enthusiasm to her advantage,” says DeVries, “and on reaching her men, she ordered an attack on Les Tourelles, herself one of the first to put a ladder up against its walls and climb over into the fort itself.” Les Tourelles fell under the weight of the attack, and the English surrendered, some jumping into the nearby river to avoid capture.
The bridge that spans the river today is not that of Joan’s day, but the remains of the medieval bridge can be seen at low tide. The only remains of Les Tourelles are underground, uncovered during archaeological excavations.
Jargeau, Loiret Loire Valley
Where Joan captured her first English nobleman
Following a meeting between military leaders in the presence of the dauphin, a strategy of clearing the Loire river valley of English troops was decided upon and Joan rejoined her army at Orléans in early June. Jargeau, a small town about 10 miles east of Orléans, was the army’s first port of call and it was here that Joan captured the English nobleman William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, who was heading the English defence of the town. Heavy artillery bombardment using cannons and siege engines saw one of the town’s towers fall, and Joan subsequently claimed her second victory against the English forces.
Today, the town’s medieval walls, which were subjected to the French assault in June 1429, can still be seen. The town’s Collegiate Church of St Etienne, originally built in the ninth century, is also open to visitors.
Beaugency Loire Valley
Where Joan and her army continued the Loire Valley campaign
Encouraged by their success at Orléans and Jargeau, as well as another battle at nearby Meung-sur-Loire, Joan moved the campaign to Beaugency, knowing that the recapture of the town would be a significant achievement for the French forces.
As the French forces began to bombard Beaugency’s walls, the English defenders inside retreated to the town’s castle before eventually surrendering. An agreement subsequently reached by both sides stated that the English would be allowed to leave the town in safety the following morning.
However, on finding out that English forces from Meung-sur-Loire had slipped away under cover of darkness, Joan sent a vanguard of her best soldiers to stop them in their tracks. The fleeing English were eventually caught at Patay and there ensued another battle in which the French once more emerged victorious, capturing two more English leaders, Thomas Scales and John Talbot.
The 12th-century castle at Beaugency is one of the town’s key attractions, and a statue of Joan of Arc, located near the castle’s main tower, commemorates the French victory in June 1429.
Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Reims Marne
Where Joan fulfilled her divine mission
Following the lifting of the siege at Orléans and the ensuing victories at Beaugency, Meung-sur-Loire and Patay, Joan and her army led Charles through English-occupied territory to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. “The ’Coronation Army’ was, by this time, of a vastly increased size,” comments DeVries, “and it faced little opposition on its long march to Reims.”
Upon their arrival in Reims on 16 July 1429, preparations began immediately for the coronation, which, according to French custom, was held at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. On 17 July, Charles was anointed with holy oil and crowned king of France. Joan was present at the ceremony, standing next to the king in full armour and holding her personal banner.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims hosted 25 French royal coronations between Louis VIII in 1223 and Charles X in 1825. The building itself was begun in 1211, modelled on Chartres Cathedral, and boasts an interior length of some 455 feet. The cathedral was damaged during the First World War, but much of its original facade is still intact. A statue of Joan on horseback leading the march to Reims stands outside the cathedral.
Where Joan was captured by the Burgundians
Having recovered from a serious injury, probably to her torso, which she received during her attack on the city of Paris in September 1429, Joan escaped her enforced captivity at the hands of the king in Chinon and made her way to the town of Compiègne, which had been under attack by the Burgundians for several months.
It was during a skirmish with the Burgundian forces outside the walls of Compiègne that Joan was knocked from her horse by an enemy archer and captured. Says DeVries: “Some historians say that Joan was locked out of the town by its governor, Guillaume de Flavy, but this was not the case and the Burgundians never succeeded in recapturing Compiègne. In fact, many believe that the Anglo-Burgundian failure to seize the town was one of the factors that five years later led to the split of the English and Burgundian forces.”
Today, visitors to Compiègne can see the walls outside which Joan was captured in May 1430. A statue in the town also marks the event.
Where Joan was tried and burned at the stake
Following her capture, Joan was sold to the English for 10,000 livres and proudly paraded around the towns and cities of occupied France as an English prisoner. She was eventually taken to Rouen whereupon she was put on trial for heresy and subjected to a series of hearings between February and March 1431. “Stories of Joan’s torture while held prisoner in Rouen have most likely been exaggerated, but she was probably subjected to less formal forms of torture such as sleep deprivation and hunger,” says DeVries.
Joan was found guilty of heresy and on 30 May 1431 she was publicly burned alive in Rouen’s market square.
Although the 12th-century tower in which Joan was held prisoner during her trial no longer stands, there are a number of other relevant sites in the town. Visitors can still see the tower in which Joan was interrogated by her captors, as well as the site of her burning, outside the modern-day church dedicated to Joan of Arc.
Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Kelly DeVries, professor of history at Loyola University, Maryland and author of Joan of Arc: A Military Leader (Sutton, 2011)