The Hundred Years’ War began as a succession dispute over the French throne, pitting an alliance of Burgundians and English on one side, against a coalition of Royalists led by the Armagnacs, on the other.
Europe was not far removed from the latest outbreak of the Black Death at this time, as the scorched earth tactics employed by the English army laid waste to the countryside and devastated the French economy.
Charles, Dauphin and heir apparent to the French throne was up against a wall, when a teenage peasant girl approached him in 1429.
For the 14-year-old boy-king, even listening to her was an act of desperation, borne of years of humiliating defeats at the hands of the English army. Yet, this illiterate peasant girl had made some uncanny predictions concerning battlefield achievements. Now she claimed to have had visions from God and the Saints, commanding her to help Charles gain the throne. Her name was Jeanne d’Arc.
The siege of Orléans was six months old at this time, when the Dauphin decided it couldn’t hurt to let her take part. She dressed herself in borrowed armor and set out, arriving on the 29th of April, 1429.
History has a way of demonstrating the truth of Taylor Owen’s adage on the subject of leadership: “An army of donkeys led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by a donkey.” So it was in the days after Jeanne’s arrival at Orléans.
Time after time, Jeanne found herself excluded from war councils. Yet she managed to insert herself anyway, putting the French back on the offensive and achieving one victory after another.
Nine days after her arrival, Orléans turned into an unexpected victory for the French. Jeanne herself was shot through the neck and left shoulder by an English longbow, while holding a ladder at the siege of Tourelles. The Dauphin granted her co-command of the army with Duke John II of Alençon. The French army enjoyed a string of successes, recovering Jargeau on June 12, Meung-sur-Loire on the 15th and Beaugency two days later, leading to a humiliating English defeat at the battle at Patay on the 18th.
Several more Armagnac victories followed. On July 17, 1429, Charles was consecrated King Charles VII of France, fifth King of the House of Valois, with Jeanne at his side.
Despite her loyalty, Charles’ support began to falter. Court favorite Georges de La Trémoille convinced the King that Jeanne was becoming too powerful. An archer pulled her from her horse during the siege of Compiègne in May, 1430, and her allies failed to come to her aid.
The town gates closed, leaving Jeanne on the outside. She was captured and taken to the castle of Bouvreuil.
Some 70 charges were made against her by the pro-English Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, including witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man.
The judge’s representatives were dispatched to Jeanne’s home village of Domremy, to ascertain the prisoner’s virginity, character, habits and associations. Nicolas Bailly, the man responsible for collecting testimony, reported he “had found nothing concerning Joan that he would not have liked to find about his own sister”.
This Bishop Cauchon must have been some piece of work. The report so angered the man, he called Bailly “a traitor and a bad man” and refused to pay him for his work.
Jean Le Maistre, whose presence as Vice-Inquisitor for Rouen was required by canon law, objected to the proceedings and refused to appear, until the English threatened his life.
Interrogation of the prisoner began on February 21, 1431. The outcome was never in doubt. Transcripts were falsified and witnesses intimidated. Even then, trial records reveal this illiterate peasant girl to be brighter than all her inquisitors, combined.
Here’s an example from Jeanne’s third interrogation: “Do you know whether or not you are in God’s grace?” The question was a trap. Church doctrine stated that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace, yet a “no” answer would have been held against her. “If I am not”, she said, “may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”
After fifteen such interrogations, Jeanne’s inquisitors still had nothing on her, save for the wearing of soldier’s garb, and her visions. Yet, the outcome of her “trial” was already determined. She was found guilty of heresy, and sentenced to be burned at the stake. On May 24, Jeanne was taken to a scaffold. Threatened that she would be immediately burned alive if she didn’t disavow her visions and abjure the wearing of soldier’s clothing, Jeanne agreed to sign such an abjuration, but recanted four days later.
The death sentence was carried out on May 30, 1431, in the old marketplace at Rouen. She was 19.
When the fire died, the coals were raked back to expose her charred body. No one would be able to claim she’d escaped alive. Her body was then burned twice more, so no one could collect the relics. Her ashes were then cast into a river.
Guillaume Manchon, one of the court scribes, later recalled: “And she was then dressed in male clothing, and was complaining that she could not give it up, fearing lest in the night her guards would inflict some act of [sexual] outrage upon her; and she had complained once or twice to the Bishop of Beauvais, the Vice-Inquisitor, and Master Nicholas Loiseleur that one of the aforesaid guards had tried to rape her.”
Her executioner, Geoffroy Therage, later said he “Greatly feared to be damned”.
An inquisitorial court authorized by Pope Calixtus III re-examined the evidence, 25 years later. The court exonerated her of all charges, pronouncing her innocent on July 7, 1456, later declaring her a Christian martyr.
A National Heroine to the French, Joan of Arc was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, in 1920. It was small consolation for this child who had been set up for a fall by her enemies, and abandoned to be incinerated alive, by her friends.