St. Joan of Arc: The Virgin Who Saved France

St. Joan of Arc: The Virgin Who Saved France

How a saintly girl did more to restore chivalry than kings, nobles and knights.

A commonly voiced prophecy held that France would be lost by a woman but saved by a virgin from Lorraine. The woman was France's queen, Isabelle of Bavaria. The virgin savior, the voices affirmed, was Joan, whom France's true sovereign, Christ the King, would arm with His strength.

We need not speculate about Joan's voices, as did her judges in Rouen. History demonstrates that Joan's mission was supernatural, for there is no other plausible explanation for its triumph.

We need to simply recall that Joan's crusade lasted but a year, followed by another year of imprisonment. Yet, in that brief span, against all odds, she freed France from its English occupiers.

Having accepted her mission, Joan had no doubt it would succeed. Still, she told no one — not even her mother. Her father, however, had dreamt of his daughter departing with soldiers and threatened to drown her to prevent such dishonor.

Thus, to leave Domremy safely, she was obliged to disguise her mission. She said she was going to help her uncle's wife, who was with child. The uncle escorted Joan to Vaucouleurs, the last bastion in Lorraine under Charles' control.

When Joan insisted that Captain Robert de Baudricourt take her to Chinon to save the king, he burst out laughing. He advised Joan's uncle to spank her soundly and return her to her parents. Joan, however, stood her ground, gaining the sympathy of the people of Vaucouleurs, who began to believe in her mission. Among her new champions were two squires, John de Novelpont, and Bernard de Poulangy.

Church investigators record their dialogue thus:

"My friend, what dost thou here? Must then the king be chased from his kingdom and all of us become English?"

"I come here to talk to Robert de Baudricourt so that he either deigns take me, or have me taken, to the king," Joan replies. "There is no solution but through me. And even then I would much rather slip away to be with my poor mother, since this is not my state. But go I must, for such is the will of my Lord."

"But who is your lord?"

"The King of Heaven!"

Sign from God

At last, Baudricourt acceded to Joan's wishes, providing her with a sword and a small escort under Poulangy's command. They left Vaucouleurs on February 13, 1429. The odds were against them as they marched toward Chinon, for they had to cross more than 60 miles of enemy territory.

Nonetheless, Joan arrived at Chinon at noon, February 23. While she was welcomed by the people as an angel of salvation, Charles hesitated to receive her. His counselors advised the king that Joan was an ambitious adventuress, perhaps even a sorceress.Orleans was already regarded as lost, and its inhabitants were negotiating a surrender to the English.

On February 25, Charles received Joan at his château. Although the king disguised his rank, Joan, who had never seen him, found him among the lowliest members of his retinue and knelt before him.

"Gentle dauphin, my name is Joan the Virgin," she proclaimed, "The King of Heaven tells thee through me that thou shalt be crowned in the city of Reims and that thou shalt be the lieutenant of the King of Heaven, who is the true King of France."

Naturally, the earthly king required tangible proof. As Charles' mother had denied his legitimacy to appease the English, he was uncertain of his status. A few days earlier, he had begged God to grant him a sign of his legitimacy. It was this intimate prayer that Joan revealed to Charles when they spoke alone. The king had received the sign he sought.

The king then sent Joan to Poitiers to be examined by a commission of theologians. When they too demanded a sign, she replied, "In the name of God, I have not come to Poitiers to give signs. Take me to Orleans and I will show you the signs for which I have been sent."

Victory in Orleans

By scrounging his last cents and going even deeper into debt, Charles managed to put together an army. He entrusted its command to the Duke of Alencon, whose lieutenants were scarcely altar boys. Somehow the army seemed transformed by Joan's presence: the soldiers stopped blaspheming, confessed their sins, and received Holy Communion. This alone was no small miracle.

Charles outfitted Joan with a suit of armor and a war horse. He provided her with an armed herald to act as her courier. For her standard, Joan had God the Creator emblazoned between two adoring angels bearing lilies. The standard bore the holy names of Jesus and Mary. There must be no doubt Who was leading France into battle.

On April 11, 1429, Joan departed for Orleans with the vanguard. Dunois, with his captains, came to greet her with what they deemed indispensable advice. "In God's name," Joan protested, "the Lord's counsel is better than thine. I bring thee better succor than any soldier could provide, the succor of the King of Heaven."

When a contrary wind kept supply barges from sailing forward, Joan dropped to her knees in prayer, and the wind shifted course, bringing badly needed food to the besieged city.

The English had surrounded Orleans with trenches and fortifications. Spurning the advice of her captains for the counsel of her voices, Joan decided to attack those redoubtable fortresses. In a few days she had conquered the most important strongholds and especially the Tourelles rampart, which guarded the sole bridge crossing the Loire.

On May 8, 1429, the English withdrew, and the siege of Orleans was lifted, just as Joan had foretold. On June 12, Joan retook Jargeau; on June 15, Meungsur-Loire; and on June 17, Beaugency. In Patay, the English under General Talbot suffered a devastating defeat, losing 6,000 men.

Joan never boasted of a single victory, for she attributed each of them to God. Above all, she remained true to herself — the simple and pious maid of Domremy, to which she longed to return.

Coronation of Charles

In the wake of the stunning victory at Patay the Duke of Alençon proposed to take advantage of the momentum to recapture Normandy, but Joan wanted to take Charles to Reims to fulfill her mission.

To reach Reims, they had to cross the territory of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.Charles' small army left Gien on June 25, 1429. Fulfilling Joan's prediction, the Burgundian towns mysteriously opened their doors. The same took place in cities such as Troyes, Chalons-sur-Marne and, at last, Reims.

Charles VII is crowned in Reims

Charles was anointed in the cathedral of Reims on July 17 with Joan and her standard not far from his side. When she knelt before her sovereign at the conclusion of his coronation, Joan rejoiced, "Gentle king, God's good pleasure, that I should lift the siege of Orleans, bring thee hither to this city of Reims to receive thy true and holy anointing, thus showing that thou art the true king to which the kingdom must belong, has now been fulfilled."

Joan now wished to liberate Paris as she had Orleans. The early signs were encouraging. Chateau-Thierry, Soissons, Creil, Pont-Saint-Maxence, Senlis, Beauvais, and Compiegne expelled the English garrisons and opened their doors to King Charles. The campaign was turning into a triumphal march, yet the king showed little interest in advancing on Paris. Unbeknownst to Joan, Charles was secretly negotiating a peace treaty with the treacherous Philip the Good.

Betrayed by the king

The king allowed Joan to advance as far as Saint Denis, where she was wounded in a failed attempt to take the St. Honore gate. Charles then ordered her to withdraw. To keep Joan busy and out of the way, the king next sent her to lay siege to some insignificant fortresses held by a rogue knight.

Finally, Charles ennobled Joan and presented her with a magnificent coat of arms, much as corporate executives give gold watches to employees whom they force to retire.Joan, however, was not to be bribed into betraying the trust that God — and countless countrymen — had placed in her. Charles now sought to hand over Compiegne to Burgundy, but the village desired to remain French and cried out to the virgin from Loraine in its hour of need.

Joan came at once with a small band of brave souls and was captured by the Burgundians during a sortie on May 12, 1430. The English were ecstatic as Joan was delivered into their hands.

Capture of the Maid at Compiegne

Christmas Eve found Joan in the hands of the Earl of Warwick, governor of Normandy. Joan, who once stood by her king in a magnificent cathedral, was now abandoned by him to a dank and dark cell. Her hands, once devoutly kissed by her countrymen, were bound in chains, as were her feet. At night, yet another chain fastened to a wooden beam kept her confined to bed.

The modest maiden was not afforded a moment's privacy. Vile men of the lowest sort watched her every movement. They assailed her virginal chastity with vulgar insults and might have violated her person save for the grace of God and the protection provided by her soldier's attire. By far the worse deprivation that Joan suffered, however, was the denial of the consolations of Mass and Holy Communion.

Bishop or pawn?

Bedford was a crafty politician. He wished to discredit Joan in the eyes of her countrymen — not to transform her into a martyr. Bedford's plan was to have Joan condemned by an ecclesiastical court and thus turn the saint into a sorceress. To this end, he resorted to Bishop Pierre Cauchon, a traitorous Frenchman and counselor of King Henry.

Having been expelled from his own diocese held by the French, the bishop coveted the vacant see of Rouen, controlled by the English. Joan had braved enemy soldiers at the risk of her life, but now she faced a perfidious bishop with risks to her immortal soul. Her victories in Orleans and Patay were glorious indeed, but in Rouen, she would attain true grandeur.

Joan's trial began on January 9, 1431. Bishop Cauchon sought above all to provide his English patrons with a confession — however fraudulent and coerced — that Joan's voices were not real and that the angel who guided her was not God's champion, the archangel Michael, but His enemy, the fallen angel Lucifer.

Bedford and Bishop Cauchon had planned everything — except Joan's heroic resistance. They tried to trap her with duplicitous questions, to weary her spirits through unending examinations, but she parried every thrust, preceding each defense of truth with an assault on lies.

Thus Joan challenged Bishop Cauchon from the start: "You say that you are my judge. Be very mindful of what you shall do, for I truly am an envoy of God and you are placing yourself in great danger. I warn you of this so that, if Our Lord punishes you, I will have done my duty of having cautioned you."

It was a warning the renegade bishop disregarded at grave peril to his own soul, as he desperately tried every possible trick, even sending a fake confessor into her cell.

The preliminary proceedings ended on March 17, 1431, with an act of 72 articles accusing Joan of bad faith. The trial resumed on March 27 with Joan affirming from the onset:

"I want to maintain the position I've always held during these proceedings. If I were judged and saw the executioner ready to light the fire, I would say and hold, even unto death, nothing different than I have so far."

"Let God be served first!"

Unable to force a confession, Bishop Cauchon now sought to catch Joan in a doctrinally damning error. She was, after all, a simple Christian who knew nothing about theology. She must stop claiming she was sent by God and submit the matter to the judgment of theologians who alone could discern the nature of her supposed voices.Three times, Joan was warned about the difference between the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant, but when her tormentors demanded she submit, Joan replied, "Let God be served first!"

Cast as unwillingness to submit to the Church, Joan's resistance was the pretext needed to condemn her as a "heretic," and she was sentenced to death.

On May 24, 1431, she was brought to St. Ouen's cemetery. When Bishop Cauchon began to read her death sentence, Joan was overcome with the fear of dying, and she cried out that she would bow to the Church and recant.

The English were outraged at the thought that their prey might escape the stake, but their lackey Bishop Cauchon would not fail them. He had planned for this contingency and, while he modified Joan's sentence to life imprisonment, as the law demanded, he made certain the revised sentence could never be carried out.

Although the law also required that Joan be confined to an ecclesiastical prison, Bishop Cauchon returned her to the tower in Bouvreuil. Far worse, knowing the threats to her chastity that Joan had suffered there and the dangers to her person and virginity, the bishop decreed that Joan must no longer wear "man's clothing," thus denying her the protection of a military uniform.

Joan resumed feminine dress as Bishop Cauchon had ordered, but when guards threatened her with sexual assault, she was compelled to return to her soldierly garb — conveniently left in her cell. The trap was sprung. As Bishop Cauchon chortled to Warwick, "All is well, we caught her!"

Joan was condemned to death as a "relapsed heretic." On May 30, 1431, she was taken to Old Market Square, the place of her execution. Enveloped in flames, Joan cried out the name of Jesus six times before dying.

Out of the ashes

Warwick had Joan's noble heart, which had remained intact, dumped into the Seine along with her ashes lest they be venerated as relics, but her captors' dreams of victory disappeared as did Joan's ashes under the waters.

King Charles returned to the battlefield, capturing Normandy, Paris, Guyenne, and finally Bordeaux. Joan's sacrifice had instilled renewed courage.

When Charles entered Rouen, his first act was to convene an inquiry under papal writ to review Joan's trial. More than 100 surviving witnesses were questioned during the proceedings, which ended with her unjust condemnation being declared null and void.In pages yellowed with age, the truth about this simple maid from Domremy, Joan's simple truth, shines forth. Like a beacon on the horizon in the darkest night, it reminds us that what we believed was lost can yet be found.

And I know that, deep in our countryside, where the real soul of France lies dormant, there remain those who believe with Joan that the King of Heaven is the true king of France.

This article is adapted from a lecture given in Paris on May 10, 2001, by Georges Bordonove, a distinguished historian and member of the Academie Française.