Tomorrow (May 30) is the memorial of a teenage war hero who saved a nation: the young Gallic shepherdess St. Joan of Arc.
Let that sink in a moment.
- war hero
Somehow, those things don’t seem to go together. Yet, St. Joan of Arc is all of those things at the same time.
It has been said that more verified contemporary historical information has been collected about the life of St. Joan of Arc than any other person in the history of the world. This is because of the two — NOT 1, but 2 — trials for heresy she was put through. She was burned at the stake after the first one; her life story was rehabilitated at the second.
Those who refuse to see the hand of God in the life of a poor French peasant girl are being willfully obstinate.
Here’s the story of La pucelle d’Orleans, the Maid of Orleans.
In 1412, St. Joan was born to a poor family in Domremy, a village in the northeastern corner of France. Even as a young girl, Joan was known for her piety. She lived behind the village church, and, in addition to her duties watching the sheep with the other village children, whe would often hear Mass and receive the sacraments.
FRANCE AT WAR
At the time, France and England were engaged in the epic struggle, The Hundred Years’ War, over control of France. The region were Joan was born was located was under the control of the Duke of Burgundy. Burgundy had allied itself with the English — it had turned “traitor”. However, Domremy remained loyal to the French monarch, King Charles VI.
Charles VI, called Charles le Fou (the Mad), was mentally unstable. France was in disarray. The English King Henry V used the situation to win victory after victory in northern France, notably the Battle at Agincourt, where the British longbow decimated the French.
In 1422, Charles le Fou died. His son, Le Dauphin (or Prince), was expected by French supporters to become King Charles VII. However, Henry arranged it so that his son, the 1-year-old Henry VI was granted the throne.
So, in 1422, France — torn in two by war — had two claimants to the throne. However, the French claimant, the Dauphin, was the weaker of the two. And, in order for him to be considered the legitimate king, he needed the symbolic value of being crowned at a ceremony at the Cathedral of Rheims — the ancestral site of the coronation ceremony.
However, Reims was under the control of the Burgundians, who were allied with the British against Charles VII.
GOD’S MESSAGE TO JOAN
During the summer of 1425 — when she was only about 13-years-old — Joan began hearing voices, telling her that she was a good girl, and to continue to pray and receive the Sacraments. It was revealed that these voices came from St. Michael the Archangel; St. Catherine of Alexandria; and St. Margaret (the Virgin) of Antioch. Joan not only heard them; but she saw them, too.
By 1428 — around the age of 16 — the messengers from God told Joan of His special mission for her: Joan was to lead the French forces in triumph over the English so that the Dauphin could be crowned at Reims.
At this time, the important French city of Orleans on the Loire River was under attack by the English.
MEETING THE DAUPHIN
Joan presented herself to a nearby captain, Robert Baudricout, to ask for assistance in reaching the Dauphin in Chinon, almost 400 miles away — and the English controlled the land between them.
Imagine youself being Baudricout: an illiterate, teenaged, peasant girl is telling you she needs to ride through enemy territory to meet the Prince of France to help make him king. Baudricout told her brother to take her back home and have her father whip her.
But, Joan persisted. At a second meeting with Baudricourt, Joan told him that Orleans was going to be lost in battle. As it just so happened, that very day, the French forces lost the Battle of the Herrings, and the city was invested.
With this prophecy fulfilled, Baudricourt gave Joan an escort to Chinon. Joan wore men’s clothes to protect herself and her purity. Rape was not an uncommon crime.
When she arrived at Chinon, Charles VII decided to play a trick on her. Instead of meeting with her, he disguised himself and had an attendant pretend to be him. This was before the days of television and the internet, so Joan had never seen him before. Nevertheless, Joan immediately told the attendant she wanted to talk to the Dauphin. She spotted him in the crowd and boldly approached him.
The two went off in private conversation, and when they returned, the Dauphin announced that he believed in her mission. Joan had given him some secret, which we still do not know to this day.
Others, however, did not believe her. So, the bishops and doctors of theology — all learned men — subjected her to a test of her “visions”. She passed with flying colors.
Now, she needed to be armed. Joan received a suit of armor, and was offered a sword by Charles VII; but she turned him down. A vision from God told her where to find the sword she would carry. It was buried in the sanctuary, beneath the altar, at the Church of St. Catherine de Fierbois. A page was sent to retrieve it; and it was found, covered with rust, exactly where Joan said it would be. However, as soon as it was wiped, the rust fell off, and the sword shone like new.
Joan turned her attention to Orleans. She predicted that she would lift the siege on the city; and that she would be injured in the battle. It happened exactly as she said. And, today, she is known as the Maid of Orleans.
The victory at Orleans complete, Joan was given the command of a force to win back the Loire Valley, which she accomplished. By July 16, 1429, Reims was no longer in enemy hands. And on July 17, the Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII at the Cathedral.
Along the way, she became a rallying point for the French; and a new-found patriotism began to flow across France. Joan of Arc became a symbol for all of the French to unite behind.
Meanwhile, the English were getting beaten by the leadership of a teenage girl. They desperately desired to end her military career.
CAPTURE, TRIAL and EXECUTION
There is some strong evidence at this point that indicates that Joan wanted to go home, now that her mission was finished. However, King Charles VII wanted her to continue leading his army. She obeyed her king.
Joan’s final military action came at Compiegne on May 24, 1430. She was taken captive by the Burgundian forces and held hostage. However, Charles VII –– who owed his very crown to Joan’s actions and the grace of God — did not pay the ransom. He did not even make a prisoner exchange for her. (Dispicable worm!)
The Burgundians sold Joan to the English, who were very anxious to put Joan to death.
In order to solve their problem, Joan was put on trial in Rouen for heresy and for being a witch (for wearing men’s clothes). The trial was a complete sham; and Joan was denied her very basic rights.
- the Bishop overseeing the trial, Pierre Cauchon, did not have the jurisdiction to hear the trial
- all of the assessors were partisans, who either owed their positions to the English, or who favored the English
- Joan was denied a legal advocate
- she was held in a secular prison, rather than in a church cell; this meant that she could not have female attendants; so she was forced to continue to wear male clothes
- she asked to have her case heard in Rome before the Pope; this was illicitly denied
- and she was tricked into signing a confession
The trial record shows that this illiterate peasant girl not only held firm before these learned men of the Church; but her answered shocked them for their truth, clarity, and good sense. Nevertheless, it was (pre)determined that Joan was a heretic.
On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc, French national hero, was burned at the stake at Rouen.
One account that I read says that after her body was burned, guards raked the coals. They found her heart completely unburned, which in fear they threw into the Seine.
RETRIAL, REHABILITATION, and SAINTHOOD
Joan’s family petitioned the Pope over the next two decades to re-open the unfair trial. Although Joan could never be brought back to life, at least her memory and and her name could be exhonerated and rehabilitated. In 1455, Pope Callistus III re-opened the case.
At that time, there were hundreds of people who personally knew Joan, including family, childhood friends, and soldiers whom she led. In the end, the original declaration of heresy was nullified; Joan was proclaimed a martyr; and Couchon was implicated with heresy for organizing the execution of an innocent person for personal motives.
This retrial is all the more remarkable when one considers that it necessarily cast both the Church and the King of France in a bad light. This is something to consider when investigating the claims of the Catholic Church to be divinely inspired and held in being by the will of God.
We still have the original transcripts of both trials. This documentary evidence, testified to by eyewitnesses, constitutes remarkable historical validity. There can be no doubt as to Joan’s existence; nor to her story, which was corroborated not only by her own testimony, but also by that of hundreds of others.
In 1920, Pope Benedict XV canonized St. Joan of Arc.
Some people don’t believe in Divine intervention; in saints. I don’t know how the case of St. Joan of Arc could be explained without Divine assistance.
- Catholic Encyclopedia’s article (which I used extensively for this post)
- Wikipedia’s article (which I also used)
- This Rock magazine’s article by Christopher Check (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED)
- Maid of Heaven website — especially the Quick Facts sections, which has images
- Scholarly stuff from the Joan of Arc Archive (with a book-length biography)
I’m currently in the process of reading Mark Twain’s biography of Joan of Arc. It is NOT humorous, like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. Twain considered this his greatest book. You can preview it at Google Books. (It is published by Ignatius Press — I want every title in Ignatius’ catalogue!)