In her lifetime Joan of Arc symbolized many things to many people. Some called her prophet or heroine. Others believed her a madwoman, witch, or heretic. To the English she represented a threat to their conquest of France. To the French she was most popularly known as La Pucelle d’Orléans, The Virgin of Orléans, a common farm girl who carried out the Will of God, turning the tide of war and winning her country’s freedom back from the English.
By 1424 the English had occupied France for nine years. The French were divided among themselves due to a longstanding blood feud, and the Dauphin Charles had been in hiding for the duration. That year, at twelve years of age, Joan had her first vision. The Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret appeared to her in a field and charged Joan to drive out the invaders and bring the Dauphin to be crowned at Rheims—the traditional coronation site of French Kings and a territory controlled by hostiles. Easier said than done, but these were saints and hers was a holy mission.
A few years later with the help of a kinsman, the simple country girl from Domrémy made her way to a French garrison where she petitioned for an audience with the Dauphin. She was denied, but her fearless performance gained support from Bertrand de Poulegny and Jean de Metz, two men of reliable reputation. They championed her on her second visit during which she divulged her holy mission to see Charles crowned at Rheims and oust the English from French soil. She was so convincing that she began to be regarded by many as a messenger of God and was given escort to court.
It was during this journey that she began dressing as a male. Her believers persuaded her that she would be safer if she cut her hair and wore a man’s clothing. This she did and made the trip safely. At court she was granted private audience with the Dauphin and so moved him that he agreed to her requests pending a moral inquiry, which she passed and was declared a good and virtuous Christian. She was provided with the typical equipment of a knight—armor, horse, sword, banner—and arrived at Orléans on April 29, 1429.
The city had been besieged for five months before her coming. The single attempt at launching an offensive had ended in disaster. Tired of delay, Joan demanded a new strategy of attack and on May 4 took Saint Loup, the next day marching on to a second fortress, which was found unoccupied. Her crowning achievement at Orléans was her capture of the English stronghold at Les Tourelles on May 7. This victory was especially compelling, because early in the battle she was wounded in the neck by an arrow yet came back to lead the decisive assault. Surely this was proof of divine favor.
From this point on she was taken more seriously, and her crowd of supporters grew with each triumph. There ensued further incidents that could be attributed to God’s aegis. In one battle she was knocked from a scaling ladder by a cannonball with no further injury. In another she continued to command troops after sustaining a wound from a crossbow. Soon enemy-held towns surrendered without conflict, and on July 16, 1429, Joan arrived with her army in Rheims. Charles VII was crowned the next morning. Afterward she returned to the field having many more successes … and failures … but none of them as stunning at those she had achieved before the coronation.
Eventually she was captured in a skirmish at Compiègne. She ordered a retreat and remained on the field after seeing everyone else safely away. She found herself in the custody of a vassal of the Duke of Burgundy who ransomed her to the English when King Charles declined to intervene. It is speculated that after his accession to the throne, in his eyes her holy mission had been accomplished and her usefulness outlived. Joan was put to trial and condemned of heresy, ironically for wearing men’s clothing, which had been her method of ensuring her purity in the eyes of God. She was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431, one of her last requests that a crucifix be held before her as her spirit ascended to heaven. Even the executioner admitted that he, “… greatly feared to be damned …” for his participation. She was approximately nineteen years old.
King Charles VII, emboldened and rallied by the death of this symbol of hope, eventually took charge of his armies and sent the English back to their own concerns, realizing the second part of Joan’s vision. Twenty-five years after her execution, Pope Callixtus III authorized a posthumous “nullification trial” to determine if Joan’s proceedings had complied with canon law. A panel examined testimony from 115 separate sources and rendered their final judgement describing Joan as a martyr and charging the deceased church official, Pierre Cauchon, of heresy for condemning her in the name of the Church for a secular dispute. On July 7, 1456, Joan was declared innocent, and on May 16, 1920, nearly five centuries after her death, she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as Saint Joan of Arc.