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Joan of Arc


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virgin. Born at Domrémy (Champagne), the daughter of a peasant farmer, Joan was a pious girl brought up during the Hundred Years War: she was three years of age when the battle of Agincourt took place and only nine when Henry V of England and Charles VI of France died. After this the English armies under the duke of Bedford fought a successful campaign and took numerous fortified towns. Intelligent but illiterate, Joan first heard her famous voices when only fourteen; these she identified as belonging to Michael and the dubious Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch; they told her to save France. At this time the military situation looked almost hopeless, and she had no success in persuading the commander of the French forces, but her voices persisted and gave her no rest. Her credibility was increased when some predictions and prophecy of further defeat were fulfilled. Eventually she was sent to the Dauphin (later Charles VII), who was impressed by her recognizing him in disguise and to whom she is said to have given some secret sign (never divulged) which attested the supernatural origin of her message. Theologians then gave her a searching examination for three weeks at Poitiers, found there was no reason for disapproval, and advised the Dauphin to make good use of her abilities.

She asked for troops to relieve Orléans; in April 1429 they left Blois with Joan riding at their head wearing white armour. Orléans was saved; English forts around it were captured; there can be no doubt that her presence and belief in her mission had enormously strengthened the morale of the troops. Her wound in the breast by an arrow enhanced rather than diminished her reputation. With the duke of Alençon she took part in a short campaign on the Loire which led to the victory of Patay. In July the Dauphin was crowned at Reims with Joan standing at his side with her standard. This completed her mission; her voices had warned her that she would not live for very long. She found it impossible to withdraw at the moment of success, even though she was the object of suspicion, misunderstanding, and jealousy in the predominantly male world of the court, the army, and the Church.

An attack on Paris was a failure and an inactive winter was followed by her relief of Compiègne, then besieged by the Burgundians who were allies of the English. She led a sortie from the gates but was cut off from the main body of troops and captured. The duke of Burgundy imprisoned her; Charles made no attempt to save her; the Burgundians sold her to the English, who attributed her success to witchcraft and spells. She was imprisoned at Rouen and was tried for witchcraft and heresy by the court of the bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, who carefully chose her judges. She was examined repeatedly, but made a spirited and shrewd defence single-handed. Inevitably her simple upbringing and ignorance of theological terms led her into mistakes. The judges declared that her visions were false and diabolical, and the summary of her statements was also condemned by the University of Paris. If she refused to recant, she would be handed over to the secular arm for punishment as a recalcitrant heretic. She was brought into the cemetery of St Ouen and before a large crowd was intimidated into making some sort of recantation, the exact terms of which are a matter of dispute. Imprisoned once more, she resumed the male clothes which she had previously promised to abandon; after another visit from Cauchon she was declared a lapsed heretic, handed over to the secular arm, and burnt at the stake in the market-place at Rouen on 30 May. She died with fortitude, looking at a cross and calling on the name of Jesus. Her ashes were then thrown into the Seine.


Subjects: History

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