Joan of Arc was probably born on 6th January 1412, on the morning of Epiphany (Twelfth Night) to relatively prosperous peasants Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle Romée from Domrémy, 20km south of Vaucouleurs in Lorraine. Whilst growing up she was unnoticed, being occupied learning to pray, spin and sew with her mother and helping her father in the field. She would have been expected at the age of 14 to 17 to marry an older man 10 years her senior, perhaps Jean Moen, a cart maker from a neighbouring village, who testified in the 1456 rehabilitation trial. She would have probably given birth to about fifteen children, and died between 50 and 70, like thousands of other women of that age. This however doesn't take into account what happened unexpectedly one very hot summer day as she had been fasting, when she was thirteen years old.
What did she really see? A light by the church as the bells were ringing, she would say later. As she was tried for heresy, the judges said they were St Michel, patron saint of the French, St Catherine and St Marguerite. However, in order to sentence Joan to be burnt at the stake, thus preventing her interfering in the war by saying God had sided with France, they said what she saw were the devils Satan, Belial and Behemoth.
In that year of 1425, young Joan might have fancied herself a defender of Mont-St-Michel, then under siege by the English troops. Four years later, the English were attacking Orléans and Joan of Arc left her home in order to put an end to the siege of the city and to help King Charles VII, to free the Duke of Orléans who had been held captive in England since the Battle of Agincourt, and to kick the English out of France once and for all.
She did not achieve all her goals, but when she left Vaucouleurs for Chinon to find the Dauphin, « around the first Sunday of Lent » (13th February 1429), she had no doubt she would be able to convince him. She did not know, however, what awaited her: battles, glory, the king's coronation, followed by imprisonment and death at the age of 19.
Joan of Arc arrived at Chinon around 23rd February 1429 and asked for an audience with the Dauphin, the future king Charles VII, to whom she was introduced as a prophetess. The Dauphin was only accompanied by the commanders of his army; his court was not present*. The atmosphere was gloomy: eleven days previously, the French army had been ridiculed through their defeat in the « Battle of the Herrings ». Joan introduced herself as « sent by God to help the King and kingdom ». She was first hosted at the « Tour du Coudray », then sent to Poitiers to be questioned by a church commission.
* The well-known and well-loved scene in which Joan miraculously recognises the king who is in disguise in order to test her, never took place; it was invented in the 17th century by the jesuit Fronton du Duc who wrote a play on Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc spent the 22nd of February 1429 there, just ahead of her arrival at Chinon. She visited a small chapel dedicated to St Catherine, patron saint of prisoners. Those who had escaped danger would bring votive offerings to the chapel to give thanks. Amongst these objects Joan noticed a sword.
Following her stay in Poitiers and with the agreement of the church commission, Joan of Arc was sent to Tours. She remained there between the 6th and 24th of April 1429 hosted by a man called Jean Dupuy. Following the Dauphin's orders, she was given a standard and armour. Joan's escorts since Vaucouleurs, Jean de Metz and Bertrand de Poulangy, were also equipped for war. Joan had the sword she had glimpsed at Ste Catherine de Fierbois brought to her. This sword would be with her until she reached Paris.
Joan of Arc stayed in Blois between the 25th and 27th of April 1429. The French army had retreated there since 1st March after the « Battle of the Herrings » in the Beauce. The city of Orléans was considered lost and talks were ongoing to surrender it to the Duke of Burgundy rather than to the Duke of Bedford, his English ally. Nevertheless, a supply convoy was dispatched to the besieged citizens of Orléans. Joan and her escorts were invited to join.
Coming from Blois along the left bank of the Loire (the right bank where Orléans is situated being occupied by the English), the supply convoy escorted by Joan of Arc could not be sent directly to Orléans which was under siege. The French therefore bypassed the English positions via the south (in particular the fortress Tourelles) and arrived in front of Chécy (8 km upstream, east of Orléans) on 29th April 1429. The supplies were supposed to be picked up there by ships sent from Orléans. But as the wind was blowing from the north-east the sailboats were unable to travel upstream to Chécy. On the day of Joan's arrival however, the wind suddenly turned and blew from the west, an event witnesses called « the miracle of the turning winds ». Thus the ships could sail upstream to pick up the supplies as well as Joan of Arc and her escort, then travel back downstream to disembark them at the foot of Orléans' city walls.
Joan of Arc entered Orléans on the evening of the 29th of April. The city had been under siege from the English army since 12th October 1428 and was negotiating its surrender. Joan galvanised the population, inciting the local commander, the Bastard of Orléans (Dunois), to travel to Blois and bring back the French army on 4th May. On the same day, the easternmost English position, the bastille St Loup, was recaptured. On 6th May, the bastille des Augustins to the south was taken. On 7th May, the city's bridge was freed and on 8th May 1429, the English army retreated, with the loss of possibly a third of its men.
Joan of Arc had probably passed through Loches on her way to Ste Catherine de Fierbois. She returned there on the 22nd of May 1429 for a few days during which the decision was taken to anoint the king at Reims rather than to attack the English army in Normandy. In the meantime, Joan of Arc was placed under the care of the Duke of Alençon: he was to seek her advice on how to reconquer the cities around Orléans that were still held by the English.
The French army regrouped between Saint-Aignan-sur-Cher and Selles-sur-Cher. This event was recorded by a recently arrived fighter, the Lord of Laval, who in a letter to his mother recounted in detail the few days he spent there and his meeting with Joan of Arc. Once everybody had arrived, the army returned to Orléans and prepared to recapture the neighbouring cities.
Whilst under English occupation since 2nd October 1420, the city of Jargeau was under the command of the Earl of Suffolk. On 11th June 1429 the French troops surrounded the city. A cannon ball tore a hole into the fortifications and, urged by Joan of Arc and the army captains, the Duke of Alençon ordered to attack. The fighting was ferocious. On the following day, the 12th of June, Jargeau was freed from occupation. The Earl of Suffolk was taken prisoner by a mere equerry, so that to avoid shame he was obliged to knight the man who had captured him.
Following the success in Jargeau, the French army turned their attention towards Meung-sur-Loire. To begin with, they only took the fortified bridge before turning to besiege the nearby city of Beaugency. In the meantime, an English supply convoy from Paris attempted to win back the bridge. However, their fellow countrymen fleeing from Beaugency urgently enjoined them to return to Janville where they had left part of their belongings and supplies. The French returned victorious from Beaugency and drove the English out of Meung-sur-Loire. The city was freed for good.
The French army began the siege on the 16th of June. They were joined at Beaugency by the Constable of Richemont who had rebelled against the Dauphin. After some hesitation, the Duke of Alençon and Joan of Arc welcomed him. The sudden increase in number on the French side discouraged the English captains, Matthew Gough and Richard Guetin, who were allowed to retreat, one towards Le Mans, the other towards Paris. On 17th June, the English retreated towards Paris. As they passed Meung-sur-Loire, they warned their countrymen of the French army's arrival, causing them to flee in turn (see Meung-sur-Loire).
On the 18th of June, the French army followed the English troops who had tried to recapture Meung-sur-Loire. They caught up with them at Patay where the English army had set up an ambush, when a stag rushed towards their ranks, causing outcries that warned the French of their presence. The French launched their attack, destroying the English army and capturing all its commanders. This opened the door to Reims and to the anointing of Charles VII, giving a definitive advantage to the French against the English and their allies from Burgundy.
Following the Battle of Patay, the royal army left for Montargis, the meeting point for the various companies due to take part in an expedition towards Reims. Charles VII was anointed there on 17th July 1429. Within two months, the royal army won back large parts of Champagne and of the Paris Basin. As winter was approaching however, most of the troops had to relocate to the Loire Valley without having succeeded in recapturing Paris, in spite of Joan´s presence. With several companies, Joan of Arc continued to fight, operating against Perrinet Gressard, captain of a band of looters based near Bourges. However, at La Charité sur Loire she suffered another defeat. The following spring she was put in charge of defending Compiègne against a counter-attack by the English and Burgundian forces. In the meantime, captain Raoul de Gaucourt was protecting Lyon (he would win the battle of Anthon on 11th June 1430) and the Duke of Alençon was preparing a doomed offensive against Normandy. Joan of Arc was taken prisoner by the Burgundians at Compiègne during a sortie on 23rd May 1430. She was bought by the English and sent to Rouen where her trial for heresy began in January 1431. The Duke of Bedford, regent of the English kingdom of France, had to prove that Joan, who claimed to be acting in the name of God, was in fact a liar. On 24th May she submitted to her judges and renounced her claims, but then retracted her abjuration on the 28th. She was consequently burnt at the stake as a relapsed heretic on 30th May 1431, in the marketplace of Rouen. The Franco-English war would only end in 1453, after Charles VII's armies conquered the Duchy of Guyenne (today Aquitaine), legitimate possession of the English king. Following a new trial ordered by Charles VII, Joan of Arc would be rehabilitated in 1456. Peace would only be officially signed in 1475, finally ending the Hundred Years´ War.
© Olivier Bouzy
Traduction anglaise : Alice Courvoisier, Françoise Coutrey, Georges Le Brusque, Peter Sims.