Joan d’Arc was born in 1412 to a family of peasants in Domremy. At this time, France was in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War – a long conflict for control over France between the House of Plantagenet, rulers of England, and the House of Valois, rulers of France.
Throughout Joan’s childhood and teens, the supporters of Valois were pitted against the supporters of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, who had formed an alliance with the English, claiming his right to the throne. Reims, the town where monarchs were traditionally crowned, had been under siege since the death of King Charles VI in 1422. Five years later, his heir had not been crowned.
Since the age of thirteen, Joan had claimed she spoke to God and His Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret, who had told her that Charles VI’s son was destined to become king of France. She felt compelled to help him achieve the throne.
Armed with a will of steel and complete trust in her vision, sixteen-year-old Joan sought to speak to the Dauphin, but was dismissed and turned away by his generals. She tried again a year later in 1429. This time, she was granted an audience. Attired in men’s clothes – which she preferred to women’s garments – she convinced the Dauphin that they needed to fight the English together, and head to Reims where he would be crowned.
After being interrogated by a cohort of theologians (to ensure she wasn’t a heretic), Joan was allowed to go to battle alongside the Dauphin. She was given a military household of several men, a battle standard which she had decorated with a portrait of Christ in Judgment, and a sword which she prophesised would eventually be found in the church of Saint Catherine-de-Fierbois.
In May 1429, she led a victorious attack against the English at Orleans, where she had prophesised that she would prove her worth. Battle after battle, she advanced towards Reims with the Dauphin, treating the people who had lived under oppression with compassion and piety. She quickly became an idol among them.
They finally reached Reims on 16th July 1429, and the Dauphin was crowned King Charles VII of France the following day.
But Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy refused to accept the new king. The war raged on, and so did Joan, whose fame as a mystic and valiant warrior quickly spread from town to town. However, after a failed attack against the English, she was forced give herself up to the Burgundian troupes, who held her captive in a castle. So strong was her pull to return to battle that she tried to escape her cell by jumping out of a tower. But her attempts to escape failed, and she was eventually brought to trial before a church court.
A highly politicised trial ensued, led by theologians handpicked by Philip the Good and his English allies. Joan maintained that all she had done was fulfil her mission, as dictated by God and His saints. She was found guilty of several charges including claiming to be a prophet, disobeying the church militant, and wearing men’s clothes.
It was this last offence that led the church court, which could not condemn people to being executed, to pass her case to the secular court. The secular court ordered that Joan be burned alive.
Her execution took place on 30 May 1431, when she was just nineteen. Records report that she asked two friars to hold a crucifix high enough for her to see while burning.
Twenty years later, an inquest into her trial found her innocent and her sentence revoked and annulled. Joan was canonised as a saint in 1920. The second Sunday of May is now her national day in France.
Several explanations for Joan’s voices have been attempted over the centuries. These include medical conditions ranging from schizophrenia to epilepsy, a genuine connection with the divine and, last but not least, an understanding that, as a woman, Joan’s only chance to be heard was to claim that her military and political strategies came from God.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, a number of women in Western Europe claimed to hear God, Jesus, Mary or a number of saints speak to them. More often than not they were believed, and occasionally canonised as saints by the church. Joan might have decided to use the rise of mysticism to have her voice heard. But whether she genuinely believed she conversed with God is of scarce importance; what made ripples through the centuries is her sheer courage and conviction in her beliefs.