Joan of Arc lived from 1412 to 1431, at a time when modern France was just beginning to emerge from the Middle Ages. Joan started out as an uneducated shepherdess from the remote village of Domremy in Lorraine, on the German border of France. She rose to become the "savior of France" during the bloody Hundred Years War, and centuries after her death Joan of Arc was proclaimed the nation's patron saint. Her patriotic vocation began at the age of 13, when she thought she heard the voice of St. Michael urging her to "go to the aid of France." wishing to obey the call, but not knowing what "going to the aid of France" was supposed to mean, she continued on her family's farm as a shepherdess until the age of 17.
Joan's Task To appreciate what "aiding France" meant in the 15th century, it might help to recall the political situation at this critical moment in French history. France was in a dangerously weak position in Europe, having been defeated in battle several times by the English, especially in 1415 when English yeomen, using the longbow, routed the heavier-armed French cavalry. Internal problems were equally pressing: Henry V of England had married the French princess, and Charles VI of France had signed a treaty with the English denying his son Charles (the "Dauphin" or prince) the right to the throne. Charles VI was refused assistance by powerful French barons, who pursued only their private interests and were indifferent to the welfare of the nation.
In 1422, both Henry V and Charles VI died, and a major political change took place. The Duke of Burgundy — the most powerful noble in France — openly sided with Henry VI, the boy-king of England. The boy-king of France, Charles VII, was faced with civil war, at a time when he could count on precious little help from his own nobles. It was at this point that Joan of Arc managed to arrange a meeting with the young king at the chateau of Chinon on the Loire. Her very appearance — a sturdy 17 year old peasant girl in men's clothing, claiming that God had sent her to help the French — had a galvanizing effect on the common soldiers of the French army. She provided the essential element which the French forces had lacked: someone to believe in and rally around.
Lifting the Siege of Orleans At the time (1428), things were going badly for the French side. The walled city of Orleans, which held the strategic key to central France, was under siege by the English forces, led by the Earl of Salisbury. The English occupied the south side of the river as well as the only bridge leading across the Loire to Orleans on the north side. The besiegers had all but choked off the city from its sources of supply, and time was running out. Occasional skirmishes and cannonades produced no conclusive results, although in one exchange the Earl of Salisbury literally lost his head to a French cannonball. Joan was approaching the city with a relief force, but due to faulty reconnaissance she arrived on the south side of the river by mistake, and almost found herself in headlong battle with dug-in English forces. Her army retreated across the river some 20 miles from Orleans, and then she entered the town carrying the fleur-de-lys, which immediately aroused the townsfolk to new action. In one assault against the English, she was wounded by an arrow, but after returning to the town she managed to pull it out herself. The next day she led another sortie from the town, and this time the English, believing her to have been killed the day before and now come back to life, fled the battlefield in terror. Legends had begun to circulate among the English that she was a witch, possessed of the devil and using supernatural powers of evil to aid the French. More people than ever believed the tales when Joan finally lifted the siege of Orleans, a spectacular undertaking which can only be attributed to her unflagging zeal and personal sacrifice.
Trial and Death With Orleans secured, Joan decided to march on Paris, which would have symbolized the final victory of the French over the English. But the treacherous Duke of Burgundy captured her just outside the city, and the French King, Charles VII, who owed his very throne to her, made no effort to intercede. The English were determined to discredit her and thereby undercut her popular standing with the common people of France. A trial was set up to hear charges that she was guilty of heresy and witchcraft. Accused by a group of clerical lawyers, she broke down several times and even signed a confession of guilt. But when she heard that the sentence was to be life imprisonment, she withdrew her confession, preferring to be burnt at the stake as a witch rather than be denied the sight of her beloved French countryside. That was the fate she suffered at Rouen in 1431, holding up a rough wooden cross given to her by an English soldier, with a bag of gunpowder tied secretly around her neck to quicken her death. The English soldiers, witnessing Joan's last-minute expressions of faith, began to tremble in terror for having murdered a saint. Her ashes were scattered, but her heart was thrown into the River Seine.
The war continued for another twenty years. But the English had lost the initiative, and after surrendering dozens of their strongholds to the French, they eventually withdrew from French soil. In 1456, the Pope annulled the verdict of Joan's trial and in 1920 she was proclaimed a saint. A public holiday is held in Orleans every May 8th, the day Joan of Arc lifted the siege of this Loire city.
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