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Joan of Arc Is Burned at the Stake: May 30, 1430

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations, Part I.


Three years before the English victory at Agincourt, an obscure maiden was born in the small village of Domrémy, in Champagne. The daughter of the peasant farmer, Jacques d’Arc, this young girl was named Jehanne (Joan, in English). Like other peasant girls, Joan helped out on the family farm. She was skilled at sewing and spinning, but she could not read. Yet, Joan was unusual; years later, those who had known her testified that she was often at prayer in the village church and showed a tender love for the poor.


In 1425, when she was only 13, Joan began hearing “voices,” as she called them. Later she came to know these voices as those of St. Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine, St. Margaret, and other saints. Over time she said her voices told her that she was to help King Charles VII in his struggle against the English invader.


The cause of Charles VII in his war against the English and Burgundians had grown more desperate. In October 1428, when the English were laying siege to the city of Orléans, Joan’s voices told her to present herself to Robert Baudricourt, Charles VII’s commander in the neighboring town of Vaucouleurs. Joan had presented herself to Baudricourt once before; then he had told Joan’s cousin, who had brought her to Vaucouleurs, “Take her home to her father and give her a good whipping.” During her second visit to him, Baudricourt became more kindly disposed toward Joan. On February 17, 1429, after she told him of a defeat of the king’s army outside of Orléans (a fact Baudricourt learned a few days later and something that Joan could not possibly have known by herself), he allowed Joan to visit the king.


“Entry of Joan of Arc into Orleans,” by J. J. Scherrer
“Entry of Joan of Arc into Orleans,” by J. J. Scherrer

Traveling to the royal court at Chinon through dangerous lands, Joan wore male attire for disguise and safety. News of Joan had reached the king. To test her, Charles disguised himself to see if she could recognize him—and through a secret sign given her by her voices, Joan recognized Charles. But when she took the king aside and told him of a secret he had hidden in the depths of his own heart, he began to believe that, perhaps, God had indeed sent the maid to him. Before she would be allowed to lead the forces of France, she was examined in Poitiers by a committee of bishops and theologians. After questioning her for three weeks about her voices, the committee ruled that they found nothing heretical in what she said. The king, said the committee, could use Joan in his service, if he wished.


Joan told the king that she would force the English to abandon their siege of Orléans. She told him that, in the battle before the city, she would be wounded by an arrow. She also told Charles that, like the kings of France before him, he would be crowned king the following summer in Reims.


Led by Joan, the French army appeared before Orléans in April 1429. Joan was clad in white armor and bore a banner bearing the words “Jesus: Maria” and an image of two kneeling angels presenting the Eternal Father with a fleur-de-lis. After commanding the English to withdraw, she entered the city. Their hearts lifted by La Pucelle—the “Maid”—as they called her, the French forces in Orléans by May 8 had taken all the English forts surrounding the city and forced the English to withdraw. But as she had foretold, Joan was wounded by an arrow on May 7.


Though she herself never fought, Joan next led a short campaign along the Loire River, accompanied by one of her best friends and admirers, the duke of Alençon. The campaign was a stunning success, and the English suffered a crushing defeat at Patay.


After the battle at Patay, Joan urged Charles to go to Reims for his coronation, saying that was the mission she had originally been sent to accomplish. Charles and his nobles, reluctantly, consented to follow her to the city. On July 17, 1429, Charles VII was anointed king in Reims cathedral with the oils used by every French king, it was said, since Clovis. By Charles’s side stood Joan, holding her banner. “As it has shared in the toil,” she said, “it was just that it would share in the victory.”


Yet, this great victory was spoiled by the unwillingness of the king and his counselors to fight. On September 8, after an unsuccessful attempt to take Paris (during which Joan was injured by a crossbow bolt), Charles signed a temporary truce with the duke of Burgundy. For the next several months, Joan remained with the court, awaiting the end of the truce.


When the truce expired in the spring of 1430, Joan was in the city of Compiègne to defend it against a Burgundian attack. On the evening of May 24, she led a sortie out of the gates but was driven back. Before she could reenter the town, someone within the city lifted the drawbridge (whether by accident or intention is not known), trapping her and her men outside the city. The jubilant Burgundians dragged Joan from her horse and made her a prisoner. From then until late autumn, she was a prisoner of the duke of Burgundy. Though Charles VII could have tried to rescue or ransom the Maid, he did nothing in her behalf, nor did any of his subjects.


Execution of Joan of Arc
Execution of Joan of Arc

The English offered to buy Joan from the Burgundians, who sold her to them for a large sum of money. Though they could not condemn her to death simply for defeating them in battle, the English commanders could have her sentenced as a sorceress and heretic. During six public and nine private sessions, the judges—theologians led by Pierre Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais, an ally of the Burgundians—cross-examined Joan about her voices and visions, her male dress, her faith, and her willingness to submit to the Church. When the sessions ended, the judges declared her revelations to have been diabolical. Joan refused to deny that God had given her the mission to save France, and she was handed over to the secular authorities for execution as a heretic.


On Wednesday morning, May 30, 1431, Joan was burned at the stake in Rouen’s marketplace. She was not yet 20 years old. Her ashes were cast into the Seine River to prevent her followers from recovering them as relics.


In 1456, twenty-three years after the Maid’s death, Pope Callistus III appointed a commission that declared the trial of Joan and its verdict null and void. Then, 450 years later—on May 16, 1920—Pope Benedict XV canonized her as St. Joan of Arc. The French throne and land she had fought for and given her life to save remembered Joan with gratitude in later centuries, though they had scorned and abandoned her in this life.



Medieval Avante Garde


The French composer Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300–1377) provides a good example (for the time) of the avante garde experimentation going on in music. Here is a performance of just such a piece, his Messe de Notre Dame, completed sometime in the mid-14th century.




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