A Brief Biography of Joan of Arc

By Tim Lambert

Her early Life

Joan of Arc was a woman who inspired the French army to win victories in the 15th century. Joan was born about 1412 in the village of Domremy. Her parents were fairly well-off peasants and as a girl, Joan helped her mother around the house. She would have learned feminine skills from her. Joan was proud of her skills. ‘I fear no woman in Rouen at sewing and spinning’ she once said. Joan also learned her religious faith from her mother. She was very devout. However, Joan never learned to read and write.

Joan claimed that from about the age of 13, she heard ‘voices’. We are not sure what caused her to hear ‘voices’. Today doctors could probably treat her but in the Middle Ages, medicine was very primitive.

When Joan of Arc was born France and England were engaged in a very long war. French king Charles the Fair, died in 1328 and his cousin became Philip VI. However, Edward III of England claimed the throne of France because his mother was King Charles the Fair’s sister. (French law did not allow him to inherit the throne through a woman). So in 1337 war began.

In 1346 the English won a famous victory at Crecy with the longbow. The English went on to win the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. A peace treaty of Bretigny was signed in 1360 and France was forced to surrender much of its territory. However, peace was only temporary. War began again in 1369. This time France was successful and by 1375 the English were driven back until they held no more than a few ports.

However, in 1415 the English invaded France again. They won a decisive victory at Agincourt in 1415. The Burgundians then allied with the English. They recognized Henry V of England as heir to the French throne.

The French king’s son, the Dauphin fled to the south leaving northern France in the hands of the English and the Burgundians. In 1422 he claimed the throne of France but he ruled only southern France. However, the French were by no means defeated. In 1428 the war had developed into a stalemate between the French and the English and their Burgundian allies.

At that time the ‘voices’ told Joan she would raise the siege of Orleans. They told her to go to the town of Vaucouleurs. They told her to see a man named Robert de Baudricourt. At first, de Baudricourt did not believe her and sent her home. However, in January 1429 Joan went to see de Baudricourt again. This time she gained the support of two powerful men in the town. That might seem surprising. Today if somebody claimed to hear voices we would be very skeptical. However, the Middle Ages was a superstitious age. It was not uncommon at that time for ‘holy women’ to have revelations. Her two male supporters persuaded de Baudricourt to see Joan a second time. This time she won him over.

He gave Joan of Arc an escort to the town of Chinon some 300 miles away to see the king. Oddly, from that time on Joan insisted on wearing only male clothes.

Joan of Arc managed to persuade the king that her voices were genuine. Or did she? Perhaps the king thought that if Joan could persuade the soldiers that God was on their side and God had sent her to lead them it would be a huge boost to their morale.

The king gave Joan armor and weapons and a small number of troops. In April 1429 he sent her to Orleans. The French commander, Dunois allowed Joan and her men to accompany him against the English. (Joan of Arc never took part in the actual fighting herself. Instead, she held up a banner to rally the troops. Nevertheless, she was wounded twice by crossbow bolts). Joan managed to inspire the troops and after several days of fighting the French drove back the English and relieved Orleans although Joan herself was wounded in the throat by a crossbow bolt.

The victory at Orleans was a great boost to French morale. They were now convinced that God was on their side. As a result, they won further victories and so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. n Next the king sent Joan of Arc with the Duke d’Alencon to take command of French forces besieging the town of Jargeau, which was held by the English. Jargeau was captured by the French on 11 June 1429. The French then went on to capture Meung and Beaugency.

The French had further successes. They captured Troyes, Chalons, and Reims. However, things began to go wrong for Joan of Arc when she led an attack on Paris in September 1429. Joan herself was wounded in the thigh by a crossbow bolt. The French attempt to capture Paris ended in failure and retreat. It was a huge blow to Joan’s prestige and the French began to lose faith in her.

Finally, in March 1430 Joan of Arc was captured after making a military blunder. The town of Compiegne was being besieged by the English and the Burgundians. On 24 May 1430, Joan led an army into the town. That evening she led an attack on the Burgundian camp. However, the Burgundians counterattacked and the French soldiers were forced to retreat into Compiegne. Joan of Arc herself was captured.

The trial and execution of Joan of Arc

Joan was held prisoner by the Duke of Luxembourg (an ally of the English). At first, he offered to release her if the French king paid a ransom. In the Middle Ages, it was customary to pay a ransom for an important prisoner. However, the French king refused to pay the ransom for Joan of Arc. She had outlived her usefulness.

Since the French were not willing to pay for Joan the Duke of Luxembourg then offered her to the English for the same amount of money. They willingly paid.

Joan of Arc was then put on trial for heresy. It was, of course purely a show trial for political reasons. Joan claimed that God sent her to save France from the English. The English had to show that she was a fraud. Joan was questioned about her voices but she insisted they were real. Her captors were also horrified by her habit of wearing male clothes.

The verdict was never in doubt. Joan of Arc was found guilty of heresy. The unfortunate woman was sentenced to death. On 30 May 1431, poor Joan of Arc was burned to death in Rouen.

After the execution of Joan of Arc, the war between France and England went on for another 22 years. It finally ended in 1453 when the French regained all their territory except for Calais.

Joan of Arc

Meanwhile, after her execution, Joan became a legendary figure. Once she became a legend the king of France decided to try and have her rehabilitated. After all, Joan was associated with his rise to power and he did not want her remembered as a heretic. So an investigation was held and in 1456 the conviction of Joan of Arc for heresy was duly overturned. Joan of Arc lives on as a legend.