Faithful Heroes: Joan of Ark, from Warrior to Martyr
In school, we at least heard of Joan of Arc, but did we really know what she was martyred for?
Joan was born to Jacques and Isabelle Romee d’Arc in the French village of Domremy around January 6, 1412. She was born at a time of great uncertainty in the French empire. The Hundred Years’ War had begun in 1337 and was only complicated with the madness of Charles VI and the battle for control of the throne and kingdom by his brother, cousin and minor heirs. The English took advantage of this chaos and invaded only complicating things further.
Her father worked his fifty acres of land and supplemented the work by working as a village official. As a child, Joan witnessed her village being burned and experienced several raids.
Joan was a peasant girl who could not read or write and cared for the farm animals and enjoyed sewing.
She claimed to have her first visions at the age of thirteen in which she identified Saint Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret, whom she described as “so beautiful”. She claimed they told her to drive the English out and restore the crown to the Dauphin to Reims.
At the age of sixteen, she petitioned an escort to the French Royal Court. She told one of the soldiers who escorted her, “I must be at the King’s side … there will be no help (for the kingdom) if not from me. Although I would rather have remained spinning [wool] at my mother’s side … yet must I go and must I do this thing, for my Lord wills that I do so.”
Upon a second meeting, she predicted a military reversal at the Battle of Rouvray near Orelans. This prediction was made several days before the messengers arrived with the report of it.
After the news of her vision was confirmed, she journeyed to Chinon through hostile territory disguised as a male soldier.
She met with Charles at the Royal Court in Chinon and asked permission to travel with the army and wear protective armor.
Historian Stephen W. Richey explains the king’s willingness to go along with this plan, “After years of one humiliating defeat after another, both the military and civil leadership of France were demoralized and discredited. When the Dauphin Charles 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”.
To prevent Joan being accused of being a heretic or sorceress, Charles ordered background inquiries and theological examinations on her morality. In April 1429, the commission”declared her to be of irreproachable life, a good Christian, possessed of the virtues of humility, honesty and simplicity.”
Upon arriving, Joan made a risky move and turned the conflict into a religious war.
Joan arrived at the besieged city of Orleans on April 29, 1429. There is debate over how much leadership and military participation she had. Joan claimed she carried her banner in battle and never killed anyone preferring her banner “forty times” better than a sword.
Regardless of her role, the army enjoyed “remarkable success” while she was there.
The siege lifted on May 7, and many interpreted this as a sign, which was soon supported by prominent clergy in the area.
Charles VII granted royal permission for her to recapture nearby bridges in preparation for his coronation. Leading military commanders of the time became impressed with her, how she provided visions to save their lives and began to take her advice concerning strategy.
On the march towards Reims, they experienced victory and towns turned back to them. Only at Troyes, where they tried to disinherit Charles VII, was their any opposition. The resulted in a four day bloodless siege before they surrendered.
Charles VII was crowned on July 17, 1429. “During the ceremony Joan of Arc stood near Charles, holding her banner. The memorable words of one 15th century source describes the scene: after Charles was crowned, Joan “wept many tears and said, ‘Noble king, now is accomplished the pleasure of God, who wished me to lift the siege of Orleans, and to bring you to this city of Reims to receive your holy anointing, to show that you are the true king, and the one to whom the kingdom of France should belong.'” It adds: “All those who saw her were moved to great compassion.”
A failed attempt to take Paris occurred and Joan was returned to the royal family. She recovered from a wound to the leg from a crossbow bolt and she and her family were ennobled by Charles VII as a reward for her actions.
Joan was an ardent Catholic and hated all forms of heresy. She felt the Hussites, a dissident group who broke from the church, were in the wrong. She dictated a threatening letter to them with promises to “remove your madness and foul superstition, taking away either your heresy or your lives.” She even wrote to the English encouraging them to go fight the Hussites with her, but it went unanswered.
In May 1430, she traveled to Compiègne to help defend the city. She stayed with the rear guard, which was soon surrounded, and she was pulled off of her horse.
She was imprisoned by the Burgundians at Beaurevoir Castle. She made several futile attempts to escape.
The British paid for her and took her into their custody, moving her to the city of Rouen. Several military campaigns were made to rescue her, but were beaten back.
One historian “also quotes 15th-century sources that say Charles VII threatened to “exact vengeance” upon Burgundian troops whom his forces had captured and upon “the English and women of England” in retaliation for their treatment of Joan.”
Joan was put on trial and had 70 charged brought against her such as for heresy, witchcraft and charged with cross dressing. The tribunal was composed of pro-English and Burgundian clerics and overseen by English commanders.
The trial began on January 9, 1431 in Rouen, the seat of the English occupation government. The procedure was suspect at best. The cleric who had been assigned to collect adverse evidence was unable to find any, but a trial was initiated anyway.
Joan was refused her request for a partisan trial and a legal adviser. Her appeal to the Council of Basel and the Pope were also intercepted.
It is interesting to note that while Charles VII owed so much to her, he did nothing to negotiate her release.
Members of the tribune later testified that portions of the transcript were falsified in her disfavor. Traps were set to entrap her, but she continued to stupefy her interrogators. She was also kep guarded in the English secular prison by male soldiers, instead of being sent to a a nearby church to be guarded by the nuns.
In May 1431, she signed a confession denying she had ever received divine guidance. Many historians believe she may not have known what she was signing or it may have been altered later.
Joan was condemned on the trumped up charged and sentenced to die. On May 30, 1431, she was tied to a pillar in Rouen and asked two clergy to allow her to hold a crucifix before her.
“The scene of her execution is vividly described by a number of those who were present that day. She listened calmly to the sermon read to her, but then broke down weeping during her own address, in which she forgave her accusers for what they were doing and asked them to pray for her. The accounts say that most of the judges and assessors themselves, and a few of the English soldiers and officials, were openly sobbing by the end of it.”
” Several eyewitnesses recalled that she repeatedly screamed “…in a loud voice the holy name of Jesus, and implored and invoked without ceasing the aid of the saints of Paradise”.
She was burned at the stake and her remains burned two more times before her remains were cast into the Seine River. “One legend surrounding the event tells of how her heart survived the fire unaffected.”
“The executioner, Geoffroy Thérage, later stated that he “greatly feared to be damned.” The English prosecuted those who spoke out in favor of Joan following her execution.
In 1452, following the end of the Hundred Years War, a posthumous investigation was made into her execution. During this time a religious play in her honor at Orléans was presented.
The investigation found that “an innocent woman was convicted in pursuit of a secular vendetta”. A nullification trial to reverse the conviction was began and she was declared innocent on July 7, 1456. During this time she was declared a martyr.
In the 16th Century, she became a symbol of the Catholic League. In 1803, she was declared a national symbol of France by Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Roman Catholic church beatified her in 1909 and canonized her in 1920. She is one of nine secondary patron saints of France. One historian noted her trial was so “unfair that the trial transcripts were later used as evidence for canonizing her in the 20th Century”. By this time she had long been considered one of history’s greatest saints and was known as the Maid of Orléans.
Joan of Arc has remained a popular figure through literature, sculpture, paintings and other cultural works.
Because of her faith, visions and dying as a religious martyr, she is a faithful hero.
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