Genealogy: Joan of Arc (January 6, 1412 - May 30, 1431)

Genealogy: Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

"One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying." – Joan of Arc

Patriotism matched by faith, youthful vigour with valour, courage with charisma, divine inspiration with judicial vindication were Joan of Arc's calling cards. And she rode her convictions all the way to Orléans' where she helped France claim back its national dignity, and then onto the stake at Rouen, where she was burned to death, aged 19, the victim of a political vendetta.

The daughter of peasants, Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle Romee, Jeanne d'Arc received a limited education but was said to be of robust character, dutiful conduct, rational intelligence and deep religious conviction, which showed itself in her kindness to the sick and poor and devotion to her church. "She was so good," her neighbours said after her death, "that all the village loved her."

She was trained in "sewing and spinning", but brandished a sword, once declaring, "I fear no woman", though several female aristocrats helped her cause. She never had the opportunity to learn to read or write, but would go on to prove her grasp on theology under ecclesiastical cross-examination; her divine inspiration receiving final, post-humous validation by way of sainthood.

Aged 14, while on her father's farm, she is said to have heard the voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret who told her to stay a virgin and live a Godly life. The voices were ever-present and, in time, commissioned her with a divine task: to deliver Charles VII, the 'Dauphin', to the French throne, thereby turning the tide on the long and arduous 100 Years' War.

No small task for a woman of just 17.

By the time Joan was born at Domrémy, on the border of Lorraine and Champagne, in 1412, the Hundred Years War had been waged for 75 years. A dynastic dispute over the French throne and territory, the dismal War had reached its final phase between 1415 and 1435. France was a dispirited country ravaged the century before by the Black Death, and in the throes of civil war.

Vast and significant provinces had been taken by the English and the Burgundinians, a political allegiance loyal to the dukes of Burgundy, who controlled territories including Franche-Comté (Burgundy), Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and northeastern France, making it one of the most wealthy realms in Europe.

The French king, Charles VI, had by 1392 started to show signs of mental illness. He was married to Isabeau of Bavaria, who was thrust to the centre of French politics, accused of marital infidelity with the Duke of Orléans' (the king's brother) and bore the king 12 children, most who did not survive childhood. The king's successor by natural lineage would be their fifth son, Charles VII.

Charles VI was an inept leader prone to bouts of psychosis. A feud over control of the government ensued and the nation became divided between supporters of the king's cousin, the Duke of Burgandy (John the Fearless) and the king's brother, Louis de Valios, the Duke of Orléans'. The opposing groups were respectively known as the "Burgundains" and "Orleanists".

The Duke of Orléans was assassinated in 1407 in the streets of Paris, at the order of the Duke of Burgandy, causing deep resentment and civil war. Burgundian partisans at the University of Paris published a treatise justifying the murder of the Duke of Orléans as "tyrannicide", believing the Duke – accused of being a tyrant who squandered money – had been plotting to kill the king and usurp the throne.

Leadership of the Duke of Orléans' party fell to his father-in-law, Bernard VII, the Count of Armagnac (thus, the Orleanists became known as "Armagnacs") and the Armagnac-Burgundian Civil War commenced. The royal anarchy distracted the French from the continued war against England.

The English seized on the turbulent political situation. In 1415, Henry V of England led his army to victory over a weakened, disillusioned French army at Agincourt. He took most of Normandy. The Burgundians remained neutral, neither loyal to the throne or the English, but the Duke of Burgandy sought to end the royal feud by negotiating with the Dauphin.

Isabeau's fifth son, Charles VII, had become official heir to the throne (the 'Dauphin') at age 16, and assumed leadership of the Armagnacs when the Count of Armagnac was murdered by a Burgundinian mob in Paris in 1417. He negotiated a truce with the Duke of Burgandy, but was undermined by Armagnac partisans who assassinated the Duke (John the Fearless) as they met on a bridge in September 1419 (some say the Dauphin knew of the plot).

Philip the Good became the new Duke of Burgundy and entered an alliance with the English. The French throne thus disgraced, and most of the northern part of the nation under English and Burgundian control, Queen Isabeau implored the king to sign the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, making way for Henry V to marry his daughter, Catherine of Valois. The French throne's succession was thereby handed over to the English.

To make matters worse, the Dauphin, Charles VII, was disinherited for committing treason: it was alleged that he had usurped the king's authority by taking on the regency of France, had covered up the murder of the Duke of Burgandy and had refused to return to Paris. It was the infant child of Henry V, Henry VI, who was declared successor to the King of France when both Charles VI and King Henry V died in 1422.

The Duke of Bedford, regent of the infant king Henry VI of England, ruled over much of France, including Paris, and the Burgundians continued to control the Reims, the city where French kings were crowned. Charles VII, then 19, was disgraced and his confidence broken, with doubt cast over his parentage by politically motivated rumour of his mother's affairs. He remained in exile in the south.

France was in need of a saviour, but it would not be the future king. For compromising the French throne and effectively paving the way for English dominion, Queen Isabeau would become one of the most reviled women in French history, while the peasant girl Joan de Arc would be its national heroine. It was said that France was lost by a woman and recovered by a girl.

Joan had seen first-hand the ravages of the civil unrest. Raids on her village were not uncommon, and on one occasion it was burned down by Burgandian invaders. The Burgandians, who would later capture her and sell her to the English for retribution against the Armagnacs, had seized whole provinces and used scorched-earth tactics on French land.

By October 1428 the English besieged the French city of Orléans. The Dauphin considered the French position helpless, offering little by way of support. But by May, 1428, Joan's voices had become explicit: she must go quickly to Robert de Baudricourt, who commanded the Dauphin's forces, and say that she had been appointed to lead the Dauphin to his rightful crowning as King of France in Rheims.

“When I reached Vaucouleurs, I easily recognized Robert de Baudricourt, although I had never seen him before; I knew him through my Voice, which told me that it was he. I told him that I must come into France,” she wrote.

Baudricourt laughed at the peasant girl and sent her home. Disheartened, she left, but the voices would not let up, "It is God who commands it!" they would say when she questioned them over her legitimacy (after all, the was just a poor girl who could not ride or fight). She was compelled to return in secret to Baudricourt, who had by this time heard of the desperate position in Orléans, the last remaining French stronghold on the Loire. "On the fate of Orléans hung that of the entire kingdom," noted one historian.

Baudricourt was now more sympathetic to Joan's cause. On March 6, 1429, Joan and her small party reached Chinon, where the Dauphin was staying. Two days later she was admitted into the royal presence. To test her divine commission, Charles had disguised himself as one of the courtiers. She identified him immediately, and her mission was authenticated to his satisfaction.

But there was opposition in the ranks. To settle the matter, she was sent to Poitiers to be questioned by a commission of theologians. After being examined for three weeks, she was pronounced honest, good and virtuous, and Charles was urged to make prudent use of her services. Vindicated, she returned to Chinon full of courage, and plans were made to send her into battle with a small force.

In conspicuous white armour, her hair cut short, Joan and the troops set out to join the army assembly at Blois for the relief of Orléans. They broke through the English line and entered Orléans on April 29. Her presence in the embattled city lifted the soldiers' spirits and by May 8 the English fort outside Orléans had been captured. He gallantry, intelligence and valour became legendary.

Military historian Stephen W. Richey notes that she quickly mastered the essentials of military leadership and rallied the demoralized troops and commanders by telling them God was on their side, winning the soldiers' respect and loyalty (they called her, ‘l’Ángélique’). Knight and prophet, she has been called a "shining example of what a brave spirit can accomplish in the world of men and events".

Though wounded in the shoulder by an arrow, Joan was keen to follow the victory at Orléans with other assaults. Along with the Duc d'Alencon, one of her supporters, the French took strong points along the Loire and defeated the English led by John Fastolf and John Talbot at Patay. Her benefactors also included Yolande of Aragon, King Charles VII's mother-in-law, who financed her departure to Orléans. In just two years Joan would help to unite France's military. 

Joan opened the way for the Dauphin to march to Rheims, through English-held territory, to be crowned on July 17, 1429. Though this victory was sweet, Joan found it difficult to convince the king of the necessity to pursue further military exploits, to seize the day and drive out the English. The Archbishop of Rheim was in favour of negotiating. For all Joan's vigour, Paris, which was under Burgundian rule, would fail to be reclaimed for a lack of support from Charles VII.

A period of truce followed in the winter. "It is true that the king has made a truce with the duke of Burgundy for fifteen days and that the duke is to turn over the city of Paris at the end of fifteen days. Yet you should not marvel if I do not enter that city so quickly," she said. Against her conscience, she did enter Paris and while there was wounded and saved by her friend the Duke d'Alencon. The mission failed for a lack of support from the king's court.

Come spring 1430 Joan was back in battle, this time defending Compiegne, which was besieged by the Burgundians. The mission failed and Joan was left marooned and at the behest of the Burgundians when, by miscalculation, she and her troops were left on the wrong side of a drawbridge. She was dragged from her horse, taken captive by John of Luxembourg, and became the prisoner of the Duke of Burgandy.

She attempted escape, throwing herself out of a high tower in the Castle of Luxembourg, landing on soft turf, but no effort was made on behalf of the king she had helped to install in securing her release. On November 21, the Burgundians sold Joan to the English for a significant price. A political scapegoat for the English's embarrassing defeats, Joan would be surely condemned to death. If she were proved a heretic, it would undermine the legitimacy of the Dauphin's right to the throne.

On February 21, 1431, after being held captive in a cell and chained to a plank bed, she appeared before a court of the Inquisition presided over by Pierre Cauchon, the ambitious Bishop of Beauvais, who had his sights set on becoming the Archbishop of Roven through English loyalty. He carefully selected a panel of lawyers and theologians, thereby stacking the court against Joan.

Over a period of 10 weeks, Joan was questioned about her visions, the voices, the assumption male attire and her willingness to submit to the church. She proved a capable, shrewd and amusing defendant, her answers honest, pious and accurate, her memory flawless, her accounts genuine.

Asked if she knew she was in God's grace on February 24, she carefully circumnavigated a theological trap (to say 'no' would have confessed her guilt; to say 'yes' would convict her of heresy, as no one can know if they are in God's grace). She answered:

"If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I know I were not in His grace." She added that if she were in a state of sin, she did not think that the voice would come to her, and that she wished everyone could hear the voice as well as she did.

Questioned about the church, she said that she thought that the Lord and the church were all one, and therein they ought not to make difficulties for her. "Why do you make difficulties when it is all one?" she asked. Those who interrogated her were reportedly stupefied. But her illiteracy and ignorance of certain theological terms proved a stumbling block, as she was led into making declarations that would incriminate her.

At the end of the long and arduous hearing, a set of articles were drawn up condemning the 19-year-old for heresy; her revelations the work of the Devil. The tribunal decided that it would hand her over to the secular arm for burning if she would not confess that she had lied about hearing the voices. She steadfastly refused, but, after being led out into the churchyard of Saint Ouen, and hearing the sentence committing her to the flames, she knelt down and admitted she had testified falsely.

In a moment, the mounting pressure and an imminent and painful death had been too much for young Joan to cope with, and she was led back to prison. This, she felt, was an act of treason against God too much to bear. She felt that she had damned her soul to save her life for fear of fire.

Her senses recovered, when Bishop Couchon visited her in her cell for further questioning, she boldly claimed that, yes, God had sent her and that the voices had come from him. Couchon was pleased with this turn of events, which he reported to the authorities. She was condemned as a relapsed heretic and delivered to the English.

On the morning of May 30, she was led out into the marketplace of Rouen to be burned at the stake. At her request, a Dominican friar held up a cross before her eyes and she was heard to call on the name of Jesus. "We are lost! We have burned a saint!", exclaimed John Tressart, one of King Henry's secretaries at the scene.

The Hundred Years' War continued for 22 years after Joan's death, but the turn of events ushered in by the battle at Orléans led to the signing of the Treaty of Arras with Philip III, Duke of Burgundy, which returned Paris to the King of France. Charles VII retained his legitimacy on the throne, though a coronation was held for King Henry VI in 1431.

Within 25 years, the English had been driven out, and the Pope at Avignon ordered a rehearsal of Joan's case, known as the "nullification trial", was set up at the request of her mother and the Inquisitor-General Jean Brehal. The trial reversed her conviction and she was declared innocent on July 7, 1456.

Stephen Richey notes, "She turned what had been a dry dynastic squabble that left the common people unmoved except for their own suffering into a passionately popular war of national liberation." Since 1920, May 8 has been observed as a national feast day for the Roman Catholic saint and martyr.

For the most part, she is viewed as a national treasure, not simply a religious, political, cultural or even feminist icon to be appropriated for the respective causes, but Joan, the humble peasant girl with a direct line to God who has inspired many others to follow their convictions.

"Even if the committee carried the message in the exact words with no words missing, but left out the persuasion of gesture, the supplicating tone, and the beseeching looks which inform the words and give them life, where then were the power of the arguments and whom would it convince?" she said.

The injustice of her death at the stake would be all the more sour if it were not for her saviour, who himself was led to death by men too blind to see his divine purpose. She is reported to have called out, "Jesus! Jesus!", as the flames consumed her body. And yet, like he, she lives on victoriously until this day, in soul and spirit, as France celebrates the 600th anniversary of its national heroine. 

Joan of Arc, c.1412-1431, The History Guide: Lectures on Ancient and Medieval European History
Saint Joan of Arc, Virgin, 1412-1431, EWT News, taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.
France celebrates Joan of Arc's birthday,, 3 May, 2012
Joan of Arc, Wikipedia entry
Hundred Years' War, Wikipedia entry

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