France has an enduring love for Jean La Pucelle – better known as Saint Joan of Arc, one of the patron Saints of France. There are statues and paintings, memorials to her and plaques commemorating her presence all over France and for the day and age she certainly travelled a lot. It’s a fascinating and remarkable story of a woman’s faith and courage and a time when people believed in signs and visions far more than they do today.
Most women born in 15th Century France into the station of life that was Jean’s would have worked from an early age supporting their mother to keep the house clean, married, had children, cooked and cleaned their own house and eventually died at a not very old age. She was not born into abject poverty and would mostly likely have had a comfortable life by the standards of the day.
This Jean, born to a fairly well-off farmer in 1412 in Domrémy in Lorraine (now known as Domrémy La Pucelle) went down a very different path in life. At 12 years old she claimed to have a vision whilst working in a field. In the vision she saw a procession of saints telling her to deliver France from the English and help the Dauphin to take his throne. It is said that her father often spoke to her of history and politics and she was well aware from him that the English were in control of much of France and the Dauphin Charles was too afraid to have himself crowned and proclaimed King of France.
Joan’s visions persisted and aged 16 she made up her mind to do something about it – she wanted an introduction to the Dauphin and after much pestering of a local nobleman and military captain – Robert de Baudricourt – she got her wish.
The Dauphin became utterly convinced of her visions, and at 17 years old made her head of the French army, gave her a suit of armour and charged her with the job of taking back Orléans from the English who had laid siege to the place. The young girl abandoned wearing the clothes of women and henceforth dressed as a man, she also cut her hair short like a man – unheard of in her day. Even today in France a short hair cut is sometimes called a coupe à la Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc’s haircut). Joan led her army of 5000 men to victory and was given the salutation the Maid of Orléans in honour of her great achievement – it must have been a strange sight, this young girl dressed as a man leading hardened soldiers to battle.
Joan’s victory in Orléans won her the trust of the army of men she was charged with and she turned to Paris which was in the control of the English. It was not a triumph, she was shot in the leg with an arrow during the battle and despite insisting on carrying on she received an order from the Dauphin to withdraw with her army. She did though win many other battles all over France and her reputation grew with both the French and the English believing that she was indeed guided by powers that were not human which made her very dangerous to the English. Under her guidance and utter conviction the English were pushed to the north of France and the Dauphin was crowned King of France at Reims. Joan stood near him at the coronation holding a white banner, her 12,000 strong army nearby. It is said that she told the new King that she believed the job that God had given her was complete and she wished to go home. Charles VII as he now was refused her the chance to leave as the English were still present and begged her to get rid of them once and for all and sadly for Joan this was to be her downfall.
Joan of Arc had become public enemy No. 1 as far as the English were concerned and they were so determined to stop her that they joined forces with the Duke of Burgundy (for which he received a very large sum of money) and in 1430 with the help of his men Joan of Arc was captured at Compiègne in Picardy after her army was defeated by the Burgundians. She was handed over to the English and taken to Rouen in Normandy. The rest of course is well known – she was accused of heresy and sorcery. Early on in the trial she is said to have confessed her sins and as a result the death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Once in prison Joan began wearing men’s clothes which prompted a return to court where she was charged with being a relapsed heretic and sentenced to be burned at the stake on May 30 1431 – she was 19 years old.
The poor girl was given a cross to hold as the English soldiers lit the fire at her feet and was heard to say “Jesus” as she stood burning to death in the market place in Rouen.
25 years after her death her conviction was overturned and she was declared a martyr.
She was canonized in 1920 and Pope Benedict XV proclaimed at the ceremony: “May the whole world hear, and just as it has come to admire her brave deeds in defence of her country, may it now and henceforward venerate her as a most brilliantly shining light of the Church Triumphant.
The story of Joan of Arc’s bravery and self sacrifice has provided inspiration to people through the ages, Sir Winston Churchill, once wrote of her that: “Joan was a being so uplifted from the ordinary run of mankind that she finds no equal in a thousand years” and Mark Twain described her as “perhaps the only entirely unselfish person whose name has a place in profane history.”
To this day there are festivals and ceremonies held all over France in her memory and May 30 is the Feast Day of Saint Joan.