Jeanne d'ArcAt the age of 13, Joan began to hear voices, which she determined had been sent by God to give her a mission of overwhelming importance: to save France by expelling its enemies, and to install Charles as its rightful king.

585 years ago today in 1431 Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for heresy in Rouen, France. She was an ordinary peasant girl in medieval France, who believed God had chosen her to lead France to victory over England during the Hundred Years War. Jeanne d’Arc was born around 1412 in Domrémy, in northeastern France. She was not taught to read or write, but her mother instilled in her a deep love for the Catholic Church. France had been torn apart by a bitter conflict with England (later known as the Hundred Years’ War). England had gained control and a peace treaty in 1420 made King Henry V ruler of both England and France. His son, Henry VI, succeeded him in 1422.

When she was 13, Joan began to hear voices, which she determined had been sent by God to give her a mission of overwhelming importance: to save France by expelling its enemies, and to install crown prince Charles of Valois as its rightful king. She made her way to Chinon, site of the crown prince’s palace. and in a private audience she won the future Charles VII over by supposedly revealing information that only a messenger from God could have known; the details of this conversation are unknown. Even though she had no military training, Joan convinced the embattled crown prince Charles of Valois to allow her to lead a French army. In March of 1429 dressed in white armor and riding a white horse she led an army to the besieged city of Orléans, where they achieved a momentous victory.

Joan and her followers later escorted Charles across enemy territory to Reims, taking towns that resisted by force, enabling his coronation as King Charles VII in July 1429. In September 1429 Joan led an attempt to retake Paris, but the attack failed. In the spring of 1430, the Charles ordered Joan to confront a Burgundian assault on Compiégne. While fighting to defend the town she was thrown from her horse, and left outside the town’s gates as they closed. The Burgundians took her captive, on May 23, 1430. They turned her over to the church to be tried as a heretic, idolater and sorcerer.

In the trial that followed, In May 1431, after a year in captivity and under threat of death, Joan relented and signed a confession denying that she had ever received divine guidance. Several days later, however, she defied orders by again donning men’s clothes, and authorities pronounced her death sentence. On the morning of May 30, at the age of 19, Joan was taken to the old market place of Rouen and burned at the stake. Her fame only increased after her death, however, and 20 years later a new trial ordered by Charles VII cleared her name. Long before Pope Benedict XV canonized her in 1920, Joan of Arc had attained mythic stature, inspiring numerous works of art and literature over the centuries and becoming the patron saint of France.

Her trial lasted for months. Joan was ordered to answer to some 70 charges, including witchcraft, heresy and dressing like a man. Every day she was brought into the interrogation room, where she was the only woman among judges, priests, soldiers, and guards. The judges hoped to trick her into saying something that would incriminate her as a witch, so they asked endless questions about all aspects of her life, in no particular order. They were especially interested in her childhood, and because the transcripts of the trial were recorded, we now know more about her early life than any other common person of her time.

Meanwhile, in attempt to distance himself from an accused heretic and witch, the French king made no attempt to negotiate Joan’s release. After months of questioning, she was told that if she didn’t sign a confession, she would be put to death. She finally signed it, but a few days later she renounced the confession, and on this day in 1431, she was burned at the stake. She was nineteen years old. Her fame only increased after her death and 20 years later a new trial ordered by Charles VII cleared her name.

By the time she was officially canonized in 1920 by Pope Benedict the Fifteenth, the Maid of Orléans (as she was known) had attained mythic stature, inspiring numerous works of art and literature and had long been considered one of history’s greatest saints, an enduring symbol of French unity and nationalism and became the patron saint of France. She is the only person ever burned at the stake for heresy who later became a saint.

%d bloggers like this: