Joan of Arc occupies a central role in Rouen and in the hundred years war. Above is her signature (signed Johanne) taken from one of her three remaining letters. The story of Joan of Arc is not easy because it involves the hundred years war which is a book by itself. In a very simplified version, Joan of Arc is a French heroine against the British, and was executed by burning at the stake by the British in Rouen.
She was born in 1412 in Domreimy, a town in the Eastern French territory of what was to become Lorraine. She later testified that she experienced her first vision around 1424 at the age of 12 years, when she was out alone in a field and saw visions of figures she identified as Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, who told her to drive out the English and bring the Dauphin to Reims for his coronation. (seen above from the Pantheon) At the age of 16, she asked a kinsman, Durand Lassois, to bring her to nearby Vaucouleurs where she petitioned the garrison commander, Count Robert de Baudricourt, for permission to visit the royal French court at Chinon. She eventually made it to Chinon in 1429 at the age of 18 and upon arriving at the Royal Court she impressed Charles VII during a private conference (the white line on the map shows her long journey behind enemy lines).
The French king at the time of Joan’s birth, Charles VI, suffered bouts of insanity and was often unable to rule. The king’s brother Duke Louis of Orléans and the king’s cousin John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, quarreled over the regency of France and the guardianship of the royal children. The factions loyal to these two men became known as the Armagnacs and the Burgundians. Henry V of England took advantage of this turmoil to invade France, winning a dramatic victory at Agincourt in 1415 and capturing many northern French towns. The future French king, Charles VII, assumed the title of Dauphin – the heir to the throne – at the age of fourteen, after all four of his older brothers died in succession. Shortly after he assumed control, he tried to make peace with the Burgundians but at the conference the Armagnacs murdered the duke of Burgundy and they joined the British against him.
After years of one humiliating defeat after another, both the military and civil leadership of France were demoralized and discredited (a look at the map shows the control of the English in red, the French in blue and the control of the dukes of Burgundy in purple). When the Dauphin Charles VII granted Joan’s urgent request to be equipped for war and placed at the head of his army, his decision must have been based in large part on the knowledge that every orthodox, every rational, option had been tried and had failed. Only a regime in the final straits of desperation would pay any heed to an illiterate farm girl who claimed that the voice of God was instructing her to take charge of her country’s army and lead it to victory. There are no actual portraits of Joan but she is a favorite of French artists, the one above is by Delacroix.
She was sent to Orleans and in series of battles, broke the British siege of Orleans which had been going on for a long while and won the confidence of the army and the Dauphin. Upon her arrival, Joan effectively turned the longstanding Anglo-French conflict into a religious war. Joan of Arc rejected the cautious strategy that characterized French leadership during previous campaigns.
The sudden victory at Orléans led to many proposals for further offensive action. The English expected an attempt to recapture Paris or an attack on Normandy. In the aftermath of the unexpected victory, Joan persuaded Charles VII to grant her co-command of the army with Duke John II of Alençon and gained royal permission for her plan to recapture nearby bridges along the Loire as a prelude to an advance on Reims and the coronation of Charles VII (French kings were all crowned at Reims, and the coronation was the key to his legitimacy). This was a bold proposal because Reims was roughly twice as far away as Paris and deep within enemy territory. Amazingly, she did capture Reims and the Dauphin Charles VII was crowned king. On December 29, 1429, Joan and her family were granted nobility. The statue above is in Notre Dame Paris.
They did eventually move on Paris but the French councilors stopped the move and declared a short-lived truce which was broken by the English. A skirmish on 23 May 1430 led to her capture, when her force attempted to attack the Burgundian’s camp (allies of the English) at Margny. When she ordered a retreat into the nearby fortifications of Compiègne after the advance of an additional force of 6,000 Burgundians, she assumed the place of honor as the last to leave the field. Burgundians surrounded the rear guard, and she was unhorsed by an archer and initially refused to surrender. The mural above of her capture is at the Pantheon.
It was customary for a captive’s family to ransom a prisoner of war. Joan was in an unusual circumstance. Many historians condemn King Charles VII for failing to intervene. She attempted several escapes, on one occasion jumping from her 70 foot (21 m) tower in Vermandois to the soft earth of a dry moat, after which she was moved to the Burgundian town of Arras. The English government eventually purchased her from Duke Philip of Burgundy and took her to Rouen. She was held in the tower to the left, now known as the Joan of Arc tower. She was put on trial for heresy by the Catholic church while everyone knew it was politically motivated.
The trial record demonstrates her remarkable intellect. The transcript’s most famous exchange is an exercise in subtlety. “Asked if she knew she was in God’s grace, she answered: ‘If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.” The question is a scholarly trap. Church doctrine held that no one could be certain of being in God’s grace. If she had answered yes, then she would have convicted herself of heresy. If she had answered no, then she would have confessed her own guilt. Notary Boisguillaume later testified that at the moment the court heard this reply, “Those who were interrogating her were stupefied.”
Not surprisely, she was found guilty and burned at he stake on May 30, 1491. The English reportedly raked her bones out of the ashes and reburned the remains twice more to be sure there was nothing left. She was burned on the stones at the top left of the picture above.
Today there is a church of fairly modern origins at the site (seen in the photo below), with a small market as part of the complex. The statue at the right is near the front, commemorating her short but heroic life.
The Hundred Years’ War continued for twenty-two years after her death until France regained all the lost land. A posthumous retrial opened after the war ended and she was declared innocent on July 7, 1456.
Joan of Arc became a semi-legendary figure for the four centuries after her death. She became a symbol of the Catholic League during the 16th century. When Félix Dupanloup was made bishop of Orléans in 1849, he made a fervid public speech on behalf of Joan of Arc, which attracted attention in England as well as France and he led the efforts which culminated in Joan of Arc’s beatification in 1909. Pope Benedict XV canonized Joan on 16 May 1920. As Saint Joan of Arc, she has become one of the most popular saints of the Roman Catholic Church.