She was sent by God to free the French people from the English invasion. Take a look at her story and why she's still praised 600 years later.
The story of the young woman sent by God to lead the French army to defeat the English and burnt at the stake for heresy has captivated millions, including her contemporaries. She was made a saint in 1920 and became one of the main patron saints of France. But as it happens with most of these characters, most of the story we know is a mix of historical facts and myths. So, was she really a holy martyr?
Jehane la Pucelle - Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882)
Joan of Arc - Paul Gauguin (1889)
Many historians throughout the years have devoted their lives to prove or debunk all these claims and many theories around the story of probably one of the most iconic female character in history. For instance, some believe she was never burnt and that she actually lived a relatively "long" life until she peacefully died when she was 57. Others claim that the story was real but that she wasn’t really a woman, but a young man with soft features.
Moreover, there have been some historians and psychologists claiming that all about the official story is absolutely true. However they think that based on the documentation and the transcripts of her statements during her trial, she suffered from certain type of epilepsy or even schizophrenia, which could prove how she had these visions. Probably more theories will arrive, but what we do know, leaving the divine apparitions aside, is that she was an iconic woman who went against the standards of how women should behave, and did what none would achieve for years to come.
Jeanne d’Arc écoutant les voix (Joan of Arc Listening to her Voices) - Eugène Romain Thirion (1876)
Joan of Arc - Jules Bastien-Lepage (1879)
Born in the small town of Domrémy in the region of Lorraine (Northeastern France), Joan of Arc was a peasant young girl with no formal education who made a whole army of men follow her. According to the story, she started experiencing these divine apparitions from a young age. But it wasn’t until 1429, when she was about 17, that the message became clearer. She had to find Charles VII, the rightful heir to the throne of France, and afterwards she led his army to battle and won him the so longed crown he had been fighting for during the famous Hundred Years’ War against the English. The purpose of this conflict was to decide who had the right over the territory that the King of England claimed to have inherited by his ancestors, but mainly this was a long dispute over the crown. When Charles IV, the last Capet King, died childless in 1328, there was already a law that denied women the right of succession, and for that reason the closest male relative, Edward III, King of England, would become the new heir. However, the French rejected his intention to the throne and chose Charles IV's cousin, Philip of Valois, as their new king, Philip VI of France. The English, of course, wouldn't accept that defeat so easily.
By 1420, Philip’s great-grandson, King Charles VI, couldn't face the English domination, so he was forced to sign a treaty through which he disinherited his son in favor of the King of England. When he died, his son Charles VII started a campaign supported by half of the people of France (the other half had allied with the English) to recover his throne. Enter Joan of Arc. Many have wondered how did a monarch and all his court would blindly believe in the claims of a young woman and give her all the power to lead their army in such a decisive war. The answer isn’t as illogical as it may appear. Charles was desperately looking for a solution to his succession problem, and this girl who claimed God was on his side offered him the perfect solution. Naturally, there was some mistrust, and the future King decided to make this girl examined by his professional team of doctors, counselors, and religious guides. Their verdict was that, although they could not prove her claims, there was no evil in her spirit, so he decided to have a leap of faith, which proved convenient for him.
Maude Adams as Joan of Arc - Alphonse Mucha (1909)
Jeanne d’Arc au sacre du roi Charles VII (Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII) - Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1854)
With all the king’s support, she was given full power over the French army. It’s said that since her first meeting with the King she had cut all her hair (some even claim she was the inventor of the bob haircut, since she was the main inspiration when it was invented in 1909) and started wearing men’s clothes, which became her signature outfit and doom. Now, besides the many images of her dressed with a silver shield and fighting with her army, it’s well known that she didn’t really engage in physical confrontations during the battles she participated in. In fact, as some of the records that allegedly contain her words and sayings state, her weapon was her divine banner and her unconventional yet useful military strategies. She won the French some important battles like Orleans, which had been under siege for a year, and she won some villages back from the English in the Loire region. Also the Patay was taken back by her army, which allowed Charles VII to march to Reims and be crowned in November of 1429.
Jeanne d’Arc at the Siege of Orléans - Jules Eugène Lenepveu (1886-90)
La capture de Jeanne d'Arc par les Bourguignons lors du siège de Compiègne - Anonymous (c.1484)
However this chain of victories wasn’t going to last any longer. By 1430, after following the King’s orders of attacking the English near the village of Compiègne, she was captured by Burgundian soldiers (allies of the English). To understand the magnitude or the importance of Joan of Arc, it’s necessary to imagine how this character got so famous at the time. France had been in open war with England for decades and she appeared in a moment when everything was almost lost. A woman claiming to be sent by God, because He was rooting for France was something worth spreading throughout the kingdom. If you add the fact that under her strategies they managed to win more victories in one year than what they had achieved in decades, you can imagine why she became an icon. However, Joan wasn’t only a hero for the French, but a war trophy for the enemy’s army, so when the Burgundian soldiers captured her, they immediately delivered her to the English authorities.
Le Repos de Jeanne (Sleeping Joan of Arc) - George W. Joy (1895)
Joan of Arc - John Everett Millais (1865)
The only faithful documents of her life are those made by the courtiers of the English court during her trials (and even they might have some of the fantasy that nuanced her image). She was accused of heresy (although many historians also state it was witchcraft the crime that sent her to the stake) out of her claim of being God’s messenger, among many other charges, like dressing as a man. Some of the recounts say that during her trials she was absolutely sure that God would save her, making her more determined to stick to her story. So, what condemned her? Why couldn't she convince anyone of her divine connection? To start with, the fact that she was sure God was with the French. However, what really ended up killing her was her determination to describe the divine figures as being too human and realistic. English priests attending the trials said her visions had nothing to do with God and the saints, since they were superior entities and wouldn’t present themselves in a human figure. Instead, they were sure this was the devil’s work, who had sent this woman to end with them.
Joan of Arc is Interrogated by The Cardinal of Winchester in her Prison - Paul Delaroche (1824)
Jeanne d’Arc - Peter Paul Rubens (1620)
As I mentioned, the other thing that ended up sentencing her was her use of men’s clothes. It’s said that, in a moment of doubt of being rescued and fear of being burnt, she agreed to sign a confession accepting all the charges she was accused of in exchange of a life imprisonment and not wearing men’s clothes anymore. Now, the story claims that she was forced to sign those documents and not knowing how to read, she didn’t know what they said. However, when she saw she had to change clothes (which was a symbol of denying all her story), she changed her mind and stayed firm with the task God assigned her. The fact that she started dressing in men’s clothes was a sign that she didn’t repent. Now, some historians claim that, although she was ordered to wear women’s clothing, she wasn't given women's clothes. Others, however, say the only reason she started wearing men's clothes again was to protect herself from soldiers who tried to rape her. Call it protection, an evil trick, or determination, this fact made her die at the stake in 1431.
Joan of Arc’s Death at the Stake - Hermann Stilke (1843)
Joan of Arc Burning at the Stake - Jules Eugène Lenepveu (1986-90)
Her death was as extreme as her life. The order was to burn her to ashes, but her body didn’t burn as they had planned, so they had to burn her again, and then one more time just to make sure she was absolutely dead, which she was since the first time. Now, it’s said that they picked up all the ashes and threw them into the river Seine, so that none of the superstitious French would turn them into relics and honor her as a martyr, which, according to some of the stories, is exactly what happened. Centuries later, during the nineteenth century, there was a resurgence of her figure, and some people even claimed they had found her ashes and turned them into relics for people to honor her. There have been some recent analysis and studies to these alleged ashes, and it seems that they do belong to the region of Ruan where she was killed, but the study isn’t over, and they aren’t sure they do belong to France’s patron hero.
The story of Joan, as I said, was so famous even at her time that even after her death, her brothers took advantage of her fame and idolization by making women look like her and collect money to be near them. Her mother, on the other hand, devoted many years of her life to make her daughter be tried again by the Pope Callixtus III, who after many pleads, agreed to this. The trial took place in 1452, and in 1456 Joan was found innocent and became a martyr who had lost her life fighting for God’s will. Through centuries she was the unofficial patron of the French people, especially during war times, and after World War I the Vatican approved France’s plea to make her a saint.
Jeanne d’Arc - Albert Lynch (1903)
The Maid of Orléans - Jan Matejko (1886)
A divine messenger of God or not, what’s important and we should focus on regarding this famous character is the fact that she accomplished so much with all odds against her. We’ve seen stories of the time, or even previous ones, of trailblazing women who ruled their countries and became great monarchs, but that’s precisely the big difference between Joan and these queens. She was just a country girl with no education whatsoever, and yet she managed to lead an army of thousands. The religious part, in my opinion, is not relevant at all. Her value lies in her wits and genius to achieve all these things while being just a very young woman. She actually died at the age of 19, which makes me, and many people around the world, wonder what would she have achieved if she hadn’t been killed so soon.
For more iconic female characters, take a look at these:
Cover painting: Jeanne d'Arc à cheval - Anonymous (1504)