Jeanne d’Arc

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Her name is recognizable across the globe: Joan of Arc. Known to the French as Jeanne d’Arc, she helped lead France to victory in the country’s long-running war against England in the 15th century. She’s forever a heroic figure in French history, but there was more to her in her brief 19 years than you might know.

Growing up in political battles

Joan of Arc’s early life wasn’t as pleasant as her legacy presents. Born around 1412, as Jeanne d’Arc, she grew up as the daughter of a tenant farmer, Jacques d’Arc. She lived in the village of Domrémy in northeastern France, and Jeanne was never taught how to read or write. Instead, her mother instilled in her a deep love for the Catholic Church and its teachings. According to her mother, that’s all the knowledge she needed to know.

But during Joan of Arc’s childhood, France was in constant conflict with England, in a war now known as the Hundred Years’ War. England always had the upper hand of the conflict, but a peace treaty in 1420 dethroned the French crown prince, Charles of Valois, amid accusations of his illegitimacy, and King Henry V was made the ruler of both England and France. When his son, Henry VI, succeeded him in 1422, England began to occupy much of the property in northern France, including Joan of Arc’s village. Families were forced to abandon their homes and when Joan was just 10 years old, she quickly realized her home would never be the same.

Recognizing her calling

When Joan of Arc turned 13 years old, she recognized her calling to help others. She began to hear voices, feeling they were from God who wanted her to go on a mission to save France by combatting its enemies. She knew the future King Charles VII would be the rightful king of France. In front of a private audience at his castle in Chinon, she delivered a message she said came to her from God. She would be loyal to God’s words, but also to Charles VII, telling him she would do whatever it took to help him succeed the throne.

By the time she was 16 years old, Joan of Arc took a vow of chastity, claiming her purpose was not to marry [denying her father’s attempt to arrange a marriage for her], but instead, her purpose was to serve God. She convinced a local court that she would not be forced into any matches arranged by her father. If she had married at her young age, she probably wouldn’t have accomplished her many feats.

Dressing like a man

By 1428, Joan of Arc gained a small group of followers who believed she was the virgin who was destined to save France. She stayed at a local commune, Vaucouleurs, but she was rejected multiple times by the local magistrate, Robert de Baudricourt. Even though Joan had followers, he didn’t believe she was strong enough to help France. After all, she was a woman, so how could she possibly defeat an entire country?

To prove him wrong, Joan of Arc cut her hair and dressed in men’s clothes to disguise her appearance. She sneaked past him to make the 11-day journey across the enemy territory to Chinon, Charles VII’s castle. Once there, Joan promised Charles that she would make sure he was crowned king at Reims, the traditional site of French royal investiture. She asked Charles to grant her permission to travel to Orléans, a site currently owned by the English. She then asked for him to give her an army to offer support on her journey. Even though Charles was discouraged by his counselors and generals, who believed Joan couldn’t lead an army, Charles granted her request and she set off with her army to Orléans in 1429, dressed in her classic white armor and riding a white horse. While on the journey, Joan sent a letter to her enemy, warning them of her plans to lead several French assaults against them. The English probably thought Joan was just “bluffing,” but she kept her promise. Her army assaulted the English, driving the Anglo-Burgundians from their mainstay and across the Loire River.

Becoming too powerful

After her army’s victory, Joan of Arc’s reputation spread across France. Keeping her promise, she enabled the coronation of King Charles VII in July 1429. But she didn’t want to stop after her victories. She wanted to keep fighting, pressing Charles to retake Paris from the English. Ultimately, Charles rejected her offer, thinking Joan was becoming too powerful of a leader. Instead, he had another task for her: confronting a Burgundian assault on Compiégne, a commune in northern France. Little did Joan know this would be her last journey as a leader.

Once a witch, now a saint

Joan of Arc knew her mission was to confront the Burgundian assault, but in her attempt to defend the town of Compiégne, she was thrown from her horse and left outside the town’s gates. The Burgundians captured her, and she was then put on trial, where she had to answer to 70 charges against her, including claims of witchcraft and that she was dressing like a man. Joan knew she wouldn’t be freed unless she confessed to her charges, so she signed a legal confession. She received a death sentence and on the morning of May 30, 1431, at the age of 19 years old, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.

But to many historians and fans, even though she died on that day, she was still a heroine. Twenty years after her death, King Charles VII cleared her name and she became a patron saint of France. If it wasn’t for her heroic efforts, who knows what would have happened to France in the constant battle against England? She protected France, her beloved country, and now the people of France love her.