Despite having no formal education, she led several successful military attacks that changed the course of the conflict in the 15th century.
The war devastated Europe between 1337 and 1453, when five generations of kings from rival dynasties battled for supremacy. Combined armies from the House of Plantagenet and the House of Lancaster battled for the French throne against troops from the House of Valois.
Why did the war start?
Historians later adopted the name, Hundred Years’ War, to describe the conflict – which began after Charles IV of France died in 1328, without leaving a son and heir. His closest male relative was his nephew, Edward III of England, who was 16 at the time.
As the youth’s mother, Isabella of France, was married to the regent of England, Edward II, the French nobility rejected Edward III’s claim to the throne of France, due to his English father. An assembly of French barons decreed a native Frenchman should become their ruler, which led to Charles’ cousin, Philip, Count of Valois, becoming the king of France.
While young Edward and his mother had little choice other than to agree to this, tensions were running high. An uneasy truce continued, until 1337, when Edward renewed his claim to the French throne. On this occasion, there were no negotiations and Edward made a bid to take the sovereignty from Philip by force, backed by his army. This was the start of the grave conflict that continued for more than a century.
Who was Joan of Arc?
When Joan d’Arc was born in 1412, France and England had been at war continually for 75 years over the sovereignty issue. The daughter of a tenant farmer, Jacques d’Arc, Joan was born in the village of Domrémy at a time of great political unrest.
England had gained the upper hand in the conflict and a peace treaty, drawn up in 1420, had made King Henry V ruler of England and France. England had French allies, led by Philip, Duke of Burgundy, occupied much of northern France and many residents of Domrémy were forced to flee their homes in fear, under threat of an English invasion.
In 1425, at the age of 13, Joan said she could hear voices and believed she had been chosen by God to save France from the ongoing conflict by installing Charles VII as king. She took a vow of chastity and pledged her allegiance to the cause of expelling the enemies of France.
Determined and headstrong, the young woman wouldn’t be swayed. She disobeyed her father’s wishes that she should marry at 16 and instead gathered a small band of followers who were loyal to Charles to begin her mission to put him on the French throne.
Who was Charles VII?
Born in 1403, Charles VII of France had been disinherited in 1420, when Henry V took over the French sovereignty. His father, Charles VI, accepted Henry V as the legitimate successor to the throne.
However, despite the supposed peace treaty, the civil war raged on between those loyal to the French and their opponents who backed the English. Charles VII was dubbed the “King of Bourges”, a derogatory title, when he moved his court to the city of Bourges, south of the River Loire – one of his few remaining strongholds.
He had fled from Paris on 29th May 1418, after the army of the Duke of Burgundy entered the city. Charles had to establish his own Parliament in Poitiers. Following the death of his father, he assumed the title of the King of France on 21st October 1422, although without a coronation.
The civil war rumbled on regardless, while he experienced problems not only in terms of the English challenge to his sovereignty but also of a financial nature. He lived by borrowing money from noblemen and financiers and even had to mortgage his lands.
How did Joan of Arc get to meet Charles VII?
In this highly unstable political climate, Joan, who was still only 16 years old, made it her mission to meet Charles VII and help him to banish the English from his kingdom.
In 1428, she travelled with a relative, Durand Lassois, to Vaucouleurs, a stronghold for Charles’ supporters, where she begged an audience with the local magistrate and garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt. Her efforts to meet Charles VII were initially rejected and he refused to provide her with an armed escort to the French Royal Court.
At the time, a popular prophecy claimed that a virgin was destined to save France. Despite Joan claiming she was the virgin in the prophecy, the magistrate remained sceptical. However, Joan persisted in her claim, attracting a growing band of followers who started to believe her assertion that she was France’s saviour on a mission from God.
She won the support of two of Baudricourt’s soldiers, Bertrand de Poulengy and Jean de Metz, who later wrote how Joan said she “must be at the King’s side”, claiming there would be “no help” for the kingdom if it didn’t come from her. She told the soldiers she “must do this thing” because it was the will of the Lord.
With their support, she won a second audience with Robert de Baudricourt. She had a vision about the Battle of Rouvray that raged near Orléans – and several days later, messengers arrived to report the conflict. The Journal du Siége d’Orléans claimed Joan must have known of the battle through “divine grace”. This convinced de Baudricourt she was genuine and he arranged for her to ride with an escort through hostile territories to meet Charles. She cropped her hair short and dressed in disguise in men’s clothing to make the 11-day journey on horseback.
When did Charles and Joan first meet?
Joan arrived at the Royal Court, in the town of Chinon, in 1429, when she was still only 17 years old and Charles was 26. Thanks to having de Baudricourt’s support, she was permitted a private meeting with Charles.
Neither of them ever revealed exactly what was said, although legend has it Charles believed in her authenticity when she appeared to know some of his innermost thoughts – including things he had said only to God.
She promised to see him crowned King of France at Reims and asked for an army to lead to Orléans, which was being attacked by the English army. Charles agreed to this, although his generals and counsellors remained sceptical. Dressed in white armour, she set off for the Siege of Orléans in March 1429, riding a white horse.
She led several French assaults against the enemy, driving the English from the region and forcing them to retreat across the Loire. Joan’s miraculous victory against all the odds elevated her to legendary status.
Escorting Charles through France to Reims and capturing hostile towns by force en route, this enabled the coronation of King Charles VII to take place on 17th July 1429.
How did Joan’s life end?
Unfortunately, after setting off to combat an attack on Compiégne by enemy troops early in 1430, she was thrown from her horse and captured by Burgundy’s soldiers. She was taken to Bouvreuil castle, which was occupied by the English.
After appearing in court to answer some 70 charges, including witchcraft and heresy, the Anglo-Burgundy forces wanted to get rid of her once and for all. They also tried to discredit Charles. Sadly, in May 1431, after around one year in captivity, she was threatened with a death sentence.
Under duress, she signed a confession and denied having received divine guidance. However, several days later, she was seen dressed in men’s clothing to avoid being harassed by male prisoners. The court had forbidden her to don such a disguise and as a result, she was sentenced to death.
She was taken to the marketplace in Rouen and burned at the stake on 30th May 1431, at the age of 19. However, 20 years after her death, Charles VII ordered a posthumous retrial and cleared her of all charges.
Joan attained legendary stature and became the patron saint of France. Canonised by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, a statue in the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was erected by Pope Pius X to pay tribute to her legacy.
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