The Burning of a Saint

In this day in history, May the 30th, in the year 1431, during the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in Rouen, France under English rule. Though believed to be only nineteen at the time of her death, Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d’Arc in French, had accomplished what none before her could: a French king on the French throne. And though she would die a heretic she would, years later, be found innocent of all charges and finally canonized as a saint in 1920.

Joan of Arc was born to Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Romee in the small town of Domremy in North-Eastern France in the year 1412. Though her town was poor, as was most of France at this time, her father owned a decent amount of land and commanded a certain measure of respect. Her mother was a pious woman and is seen by many to be Joan’s inspiration for her devotion to God.

The year 1412 saw France in dire straits, and certainly on the losing end of the Hundred Years War. At this time England, aided by their Burgundian allies, held most of Northern France, including Paris and the city of Reims, where all coronations of the French crown occured. The contestants for the crown were the infant king of England, Henry VI, and Charles VII of France, who had assumed the title of Dauphin, or “heir to the throne.” Things weren’t currently going well for Charles, however, as he had almost no army to speak of and his economy was in ruins. The French were in need of a miracle.

That miracle would come in the form of an illiterate farm girl from Northern France who had started having visions at the age of thirteen of Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, telling her it was her destiny to crown Charles king. At the age of sixteen, after her town was burned down by burgundian forces, she rode to the town of Vaucouleurs and petitioned the garrison commander to send her to Chinon, where Charles resided.

Unmoved by her assertion that she was on a holy mission the commander, Robert de Baudricourt, refused her and sent her home. Not so easily deterred, however, Joan returned some time later and, gaining the support of two of his soldiers, Jean de Metz and Bertrand de Poulengy, approached Baudricourt again with the same demand.

By this time the situation for France had changed somewhat and the last French bastion standing between Charles and and an utter French defeat, the city of Orleans, was under siege by Burgundian forces. Joan somehow predicted the outcome of the Battle of Rouvray- a small battle outside of Orleans where the French had attempted to disrupt English supply lines and failed, before word of the defeat even reached Baudricourt.

Whether he was moved by this, the entreaties of his men on her behalf, or perhaps the general direness of the situation of the French, Baudricourt granted her her escort and Joan was on her way to Chinon.

It was on this journey that Joan cut her hair and began dressing and acting as a man. While this would later be used against her at her trial it was no doubt a necessary precaution at the time to protect her from the dangers a woman faced on the roadways, and was no doubt even advised of her by her escorts. However it began it was a trend Joan would continue throughout her campaigns against the English.

Upon reaching Chinon, Charles, who had learned of her approach, sought to test her by hiding among his courtiers while placing a decoy on the throne. Immediately upon entering the room Joan dismissed the imposter and strode straight for Charles, kneeling before him and declaring her desire to put him on the throne of France. After this they had a private meeting in which, though no others knew what was discussed, she impressed him greatly. His spiritual advisors were, however, not so easily convinced. They were concerned that if she were to be revealed as a heretic then his claim to the throne would be seen as being supported by the devil. As such they put her to the test, a battery of questions and inquiries into her past in which all of her actions were scrutinized. The verdict came that she was indeed a pious and devout woman and that her desire to see Charles crowned was an earnest one.

With all suspicions so satisfied Joan was armed and armored by the royal armory, given a banner representing her cause, and sent at the head of a relief force to Orleans.

Upon reaching the besieged city the relief force was met with nothing more than contempt by the head of its defense: Jean d’Orleans, who had been preparing to surrender the city, and he barred Joan from all official meetings. The common folk of the city, as well as the soldiers, felt far differently for her and saw her as their salvation, something Joan was all too eager to prove. When the defenders rode out to assault an English fortification, the fortress of Saint Loup, she was informed and rode forth as well, encouraging the French and leading to the capture of the fort. Soon after the two other fortifications, the fort of Saint-Jean-le-Blanc and that of Les Augustins, held by the English succumbed as well with Joan and her banner always in the thick of the fighting, even though she was wounded during one assault by an arrow to the shoulder.

The French saw this as proof of her divine purpose, the English saw her as one possessed by the devil. How else could she, a mere peasant girl, defeat their forces?

The saving of Orleans was a great boost in moral for the French but Joan had sworn to see Charles crowned and so urged a push on the city of Reims. This, however, was no small feat as Reims was deep within the English-held Northern France. The English did not expect Reims to be their goal though, and so had reinforced their garrisons in Paris, leaving a much smaller force to defend the road to their actual objective.

Joining the main French army commanded by Duke John II of Alencon, Joan aided in the taking of multiple bridges spanning the Loire River, as well as multiple key towns. The English withdrew from the Loire River Valley with the French, urged on by Joan, in close pursuit. At the village of Patay their forces met and the French won a great victory, one they hailed as their own Agincourt. Reims surrendered shortly after.

After the coronation of Charles in Reims Joan, as well as many others, pushed for a swift attack on Paris. The nobility, however, sought to sue for peace, a desire the burgundians took full advantage of to strengthen Paris’ defences. When the order finally came to take the city the army proved incapable of doing so. The French succeeded in taking several smaller towns surrounding Paris but the city itself remained in English hands.

After this, Joan was sent to the city of Compiegne to aid in its defense against the Burgundians. During the siege Joan was part of a force that rode out to attack the Burgundian camp, an attack that was driven back. While fighting in the rear guard Joan was surrounded and captured.

Initially held in the Burgundian fortress of Beaurevoir Castle, Joan was later given over to the English after multiple escape attempts. She was moved to the English capital of Northern France, the city of Rouen.

It was here that she was put on trial for heresy, a farce meant to humiliate the French and break their morale. Despite her being illiterate Joan proved more than a match for the tribunal, countering their points and avoiding their traps. This, however proved fruitless in the end and she was sentenced to death, burning at the stake on May 30th, 1431. Before she was burned she asked for a crucifix to be held before her eyes. After she died the tribunal ordered her to be burned again twice so that no artifacts could be recovered from her body and her ashes were thrown into the Seine River.

The Hundred Years War continued after her death, ending in 1453 with the Battle of Castillon. Though the English and French would not formally declare peace for a further twenty years, the English never managed to reclaim the land they had lost in France.

In 1452 a retrial was held for Joan of Arc at the behest of the Inquisitor-General Jean Brehal and Joan’s mother, and at the allowance of Pope Callixtus III. In June 1456 Joan was declared a martyr and those who had headed the tribunal heretical. In may 16th, 1920 she was formally canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XV.

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