During a war that lasted over 100 years, a French teenager rose from humble beginnings to become a famous warrior. She led an army into battle against the English, changing the course of the war and history. This warrior mystic who believed she received visions from God met a tragic end at the hands of her enemies.
That trailblazer was Joan of Arc.
She is iconic for a reason as we’ll discover in this blog post.
Joan was born in the village of Domrémy in approximately 1412. Born to a peasant family, no one was to know the significant role Joan was to play in a war that had been dragging out since 1337.
Getting into the full details of the 100 years war is beyond the scope of this blog post, however, in a nutshell it was an ongoing conflict between France and England. It began when King Edward III of England claimed he was the rightful ruler of France, through his mother the French princess Isabella. Naturally the King of France Philip VI wasn’t too happy about this and hostilities broke out. The war was an on/off again affair ending in 1453. During Joan’s lifetime, things had been going very badly for the French. Their King Charles VI had serious mental health issues which meant he was not able to rule France effectively. With only brief periods of lucidity, the nobles of France vied for control and broke down into factions: the Burgundians and Armagnacs. In 1419 when Joan was around 7 years old the Burgundians allied with England and in the following year disinherited the Dauphin Charles.
As these events played out in Joan’s youth, she began to experience visions. The truth of these visions we’ll never know and this post doesn’t aim to get into a debate about their cause. For Joan they were real, and later during her trial said she saw St Michael, St Gabriel, St Catherine and St Margaret. They gave her a mission, to help the Dauphin Charles reclaim his throne. If he gave her an army she would go into battle against the English and have him crowned at Reims. Joan was only around 17 when she travelled the 270 miles with a small entourage from Domrémy to Charles’ court at Chinon, a heft feat in itself. On arrival she delivered her message.
The Armagnac’s wanted a sign that all Joan said was true and were not the machinations of the devil, because if it was true it meant things were finally looking up for them. The opportunity for a sign came in the shape of the besieged Orléans, it wouldn’t require much resource from the Armagnac’s to get Joan there and it would prove once and for all if she was what she said she was.
This was her test.
Before proceeding to Orléans Joan dictated a letter for the English…
“King of England, and you, Duke of Bedford, who call yourself Regent of the Kingdom of France: you, William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk; John, Lord of Talbot; and you, Thomas, Lord Scales, who call yourselves Bedford’s lieutenants do right by the King of Heaven. Hand over to the Maiden*, who is sent her by God the King of Heaven, the keys to all the town which you have taken and violated in France. She has come in the name of God to support the Royal family. She is quite prepared to make peace, if you are willing to do right, so long as you give up France and make amends for occupying it. And you, archers, soldiers both noble and otherwise, who are around the town of Orléans, in God’s name go back to your own lands. And if you will not do so, await word of the Maiden, who will go to see you soon to your very great misfortune”
This letter is amazing in its boldness. A young peasant girl telling the King of England and his nobles to essentially get the hell out of France or be sorry for it. Although Joan did not write this in her own hand, it clearly incorporates her feelings and the strength of her conviction in her visions and her purpose.
Joan didn’t plan on sitting on the sidelines, donning armour made for her by the king’s armourer she participated in the military strategy discussions and in the fighting itself. It took just over a week to life the siege, which had been going on for just over 6 months. This was a huge triumph, not only for Joan on a personal level but also for the Armagnacs and is largely considered a turning point in the Hundred Years War. As military historian Kelly DeVries says in his book on Joan “Joan’s renown is attached to her military ability, to the skill she had in leading men into battle against great odds and possible death. This made the greatest influence on her time. For, not long after her death, French military leaders, some she had fought with, and some not recorded ever participating in her engagements, began to adopt similar tactics to those she had employed”. She wasn’t just a mystic; she was a warrior.
From here Joan had more military success and succeeded in having Charles crowned at Reims. This was all short-lived though as she was captured by the Burgundians only a year or so after she first delivered her message at Chinon. The Burgundians gave her to the English and from there she was doomed. The English would never let her walk free and her trial was designed to condemn her, the Maid of Orléanswas executed on the 30th May 1431.
I consider Joan a trailblazer as she didn’t accept her station in life, choosing her path and actively working towards it as best she could. In a time when it was highly unusual for women to fight, she was involved in military campaigns and had success. She remains a huge source of inspiration to many and her legacy has endured across the centuries.
What do you think of Joan’s achievements? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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* When this letter was discussed at her later trial, she did say the line “Hand over to the Maiden” was not accurate, and should be “Hand over to the King”.
Joan of Arc: A History by Helen Castor
Joan of Arc: A Military Leader By Kelly DeVries
The Family Trees of the Kings of France by Jean-Charles Volkmann (English edition: Jean-Paul Gisserot)
Kings & Queens: The Story of Britain’s Monarchs from Pre-Roman Times to Today by Richard Cavendish and Pip Leahy