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Jeanne d’Arc – taking the myth out of France’s heroine

Jeanne’s visions convinced her she was on a mission from God, and – as Samantha David discovers – the 15th-century Maid of Orléans guided the French king from the edge of defeat to the brink of victory

Jeanne d’Arc was born into a farming family around January 6, 1412, in the remote agricultural village of Domrémy in what is now Vosges, in eastern France.

The Hundred Years’ War had been rumbling since 1337. Although she was born during a period of relative peace, conflict resumed in 1415, when the English King Henry V invaded France. Young Jeanne must have grown up amid regular talk of who was fighting who and how the War was going.

“Context is important,” said Olivier Bouzy, an expert on Jeanne d’Arc. “At that time, people believed in God, but also in elves, monsters, demons, and prophets.

“Things that are fairytales to us were reality to people then.

“It was an irrational world, without scientific explanation. People thought that everything, even the death of a bird, was God’s will because God was all powerful.

“Jeanne was functionally illiterate; she was taught her prayers by her mother and went to church services conducted by a provincial priest, but probably picked up a very hazy, albeit committed, version of the Catholic faith.”

To many peasants, Europe seemed to have been at war forever. The royal families of England and France were so intertwined that The Hundred Years’ war was essentially a family squabble over the French throne, and by Jeanne d’Arc’s time, the French side had split in two.

The king, Charles VI, suffered crippling bouts of insanity, resulting in a ferocious rivalry between his brother, Louis, Duke of Orléans, and his cousin, the Duke of Burgundy, for the throne.

In 1407, the Duke of Orléans was assassinated on the orders of the Duke of Burgundy.

The former’s son Charles then stepped up and the faction supporting him assassinated the Duke of Burgundy. He was succeeded by Philip the Good, who made an alliance with the English.

Then Henry V and Charles VI of France both died in quick succession, leaving Charles VII vying with the infant Henry VI of England for the throne of France.

By this time, an Anglo-Burgundian alliance controlled nearly all of northern France as well as parts of the southwest. Reims, where French kings were traditionally crowned, was controlled by the Burgundians.

According to legend, Jeanne, aged 13, saw a glowing light in the garden one afternoon. She was convinced it was God or an angel telling her to defeat the English and take Charles VII to Reims for his coronation.

In 1428 the English laid siege to Orléans, one of the few cities still loyal to the French king. The city was expected to fall, giving the English the run of the Loire Valley and effectively the whole French kingdom.

Jeanne went to the garrison with her tale but was dismissed. She persisted and, eventually persuaded two soldiers to believe her. They, in turn, persuaded the garrison commander to meet her, and she convinced him she was a prophet by correctly predicting the French defeat at the Battle of Rouvray. The commander agreed to escort her to the king.

In 1429 she travelled to the court disguised as a soldier, a normal precaution at the time. “It was a warring society, but women did command, some even ruled seigneuries and passed them down from mother to daughter, with husbands taking the names of their wives,” Mr Bouzy said. “It had to be that way, as life was so uncertain and no-one could guarantee a male heir. In that context, her story and her actions weren’t that extraordinary.”

Jeanne was 17 when she met the 26-year-old Charles VII, but he was so impressed and convinced that he allowed her to join an expedition to relieve the siege of Orléans.

Understandably nervous in case his enemies turned the tables and accused Jeanne of being in league with the devil, Charles VII ordered background checks and a theological examination at Poitiers to verify her ‘morality’ in April 1429.

She passed with flying colours, and later that month arrived at Orléans.

The French were losing the war badly. They were short of soldiers, money, military hardware and motivation. Perhaps they were ready to try anything?

How much she participated in the decision-making as the French sought to break the siege will remain a mystery. But whether she was heavily involved or if history and legend have painted her into a greater role, the fact is the previously beleaguered French forces were reinvigorated.

Leaving the city, they took the outlying fortresses and on May 7, 1429, attacked the English stronghold of Les Tourelles.

Jeanne was the heroine of the day, holding her banner aloft in the trenches until wounded by an arrow. She returned to the fray after receiving treatment to cheer on the troops making their final assault.

The English retreated and the siege of Orléans was over.

The French took that victory as proof that Jeanne had been sent by God to help them. The English declared she had been sent by the devil.

Despite the still very present danger, Jeanne, dubbed the ‘Maid of Orléans’ (‘La Pucelle d’Orléans’) was set on her ambition; she would travel with the army and liberate Reims so that Charles VII could be officially crowned.

It was the start of a glorious summer for Jeanne. Suddenly instead of being nobody from nowhere, she was riding with kings, in the vanguard of the army, taking part in victorious battles. Overnight she had become a major player in the destiny and history of France. She was even awarded her own coat of arms.

French forces entered Reims on July 16, and the coronation of Charles VII took place the next morning. Then the army went off again, via a succession of other victories, to Paris, which they attacked on September 8.

Jeanne was wounded in the leg by a crossbow bolt. The French army was finally forced to retreat but in October they enjoyed another string of victories. By year’s end Joan and her family had been ennobled and a truce had been called with England.

Jeanne was left dictating aggressive letters to so-called heretics until the following May, when the Anglo-Burgundians besieged Compiègne. But her luck ran out and she was captured by the Burgundians. After she had made several unsuccessful escape attempts, they sold her to the English, who incarcerated her in Rouen.

Fruitless attempts were made to rescue her throughout that year and into the next, while the English enacted a bizarre series of inquiries and interrogations, and finally tried her for heresy.

During interrogations, she was coerced into abjuring her visions of angels and confessed that they had not come from God, and that she realised that saying so was heresy.

Later, she retracted that admission and said that her visions were real, giving the prosecution a pretext on which to find her guilty of being a relapsed heretic. Having repeatedly, even in prison, worn male clothing was also produced as evidence of repeated heresy. At just 19 years old, she was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431.

“She was burned for political reasons,” says Olivier Bouzy. “Witches weren’t thought to have any power, and it wasn’t unusual for a woman to be a prophet, or to fight with an army. So she wasn’t burned for being a witch or for being a woman. She was burned as a heretic because she was a political threat to the English and they wanted rid of her.”

According to witness accounts, once she was dead the coals were raked back to display her body, which was then incinerated twice more until it was reduced to ashes, which were then scattered in the river Seine.

The Hundred Years’ War dragged on for another 22 years until 1453, but the English never regained the upper hand.

Charles VII remained the legitimate king of France despite Henry VI of England (aged 10) being crowned king of France in Paris, in December 1431.

The Anglo-Burgundian alliance broke up in 1435 and after that, the action fizzled out, by which time Jeanne d’Arc had already become mythologised.

In 1452 there was a posthumous investigation into her execution, and then a retrial declared her innocent in 1456. She was beautified in 1909 and canonised as a Saint in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV.

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