Less than two years after upending the English at Orleans and leading the French to a string of victories, the young warrior Joan of Arc — aged just 19, according to her testimony — was turned over to Bishop Pierre Cauchon on January 3, 1431. Days later, she would be put on trial for heresy.
As a child, Joan gained a reputation for deep Catholic faith. The last of five children born to a peasant farmer in Domremy, her life changed dramatically as the result of a vision during her early teens. Alone in a field, she later reported Saints Michael, Margaret and Catherine appeared to her with a command to roll back the English armies and lead Charles VII, the rightful heir to the throne of France, to his coronation. Though she had heard “voices” before, none of the instructions had been quite so profound — following orders would mean reversing the course of the Hundred Years’ War.
Since 1337, armies from France and England clashed over whose claim to the French crown was most legitimate. By the time Joan was born, presumably around 1422, the English and Burgundians had control of the northern third of French territory. Exiled in Chinon with Paris and Reims in the hands of Henry VI of England, it appeared as though Charles would never take his place as ruler.
Using a family connection, Joan gained a private audience with the heir to the throne. Having already predicted the English would take Orleans, Charles felt compelled to listen to her despite reservations he and his advisors had about her religious allegiance. (Suspicions persisted she might be a witch in disguise, leaving the displaced monarch vulnerable to political embarrassment, if proven true.) When she heard Charles’ mother-in-law would be sending reinforcements to the embattled city on the northern border of French territory, Joan begged to be sent along to Orleans armed as any other knight would.
Desperate for victory but unwilling to risk his reputation, Charles appointed a handful of theologians to question Joan. After an extensive look at her history and knowledge of Catholic principles, the holy men were satisfied and reported back to the would-be king the true test of her divine inspiration would happen on the battlefield. If she could manage a victory at Orleans, there could be no doubt God was on her side and that of the French.
Initially blocked from handling the “man’s business” of defending the city, the illiterate farm girl from Domremy managed to squeeze her way into leadership meetings. Always pushing for aggression, she led four straight assaults on the English in early May — the last two against the wishes of the Duke of Orleans. Emboldened by the results, calls for more attacks came from all over the French kingdom. With such stunning victories, surely recapturing Paris could not be far behind.
Joan surely believed offense was the best form of defense, but approached Charles with a radical proposal for her next move: a penetrating march to Reims instead of Paris. Knowing the prince would have to be crowned in the city in the northeastern corner of France for his reign to be considered legitimate, she set the target despite the greater distance the army would have to travel from Orleans.
Moving throughout the summer of 1429, French soldiers under Joan soon captured Auxerre and Troyes, forcing the surrender of Reims on July 16th. Charles received the French crown the next day. Flush with confidence, he sought a peace treaty with Philip of Burgundy. Joan and the Duke of Alencon, her co-commander, pushed for the opportunity to seize Paris, but Charles rebuffed them and fell into a trap laid by the Burgundian. Pretending to be interested in negotiation, Philip stalled the French advance to allow the English to bolster defenses in the capital.
When Joan and her soldiers finally arrived on the outskirts of Paris in September, she received an order from Charles to retreat after just one day of combat. As the army moved back to the safety of central France, it managed to secure a little more territory, but a short-lived truce with the English robbed Joan of her purpose during the bitter winter of 1430.
With the city of Compiegne under attack by Henry’s forces in May, she jumped at the chance to face her adversaries once again. This time, though, her ability to escape would abandon her: the Burgundians surrounded her as the rest of the French soldiers retreated into the city on May 23, 1430. Held by the Duke of Burgundy as a prisoner of war, the man who owed the most to her, Charles, was strangely silent as the opportunity to ransom the French heroine arose. Sensing the chance to end the scourge on their own armies, the English purchased the girl from her captors, ordering Philip of Burgundy to turn her over to Bishop Pierre Cauchon at Rouen.
After seven months in captivity, Joan was placed in the care of the English-leaning bishop on January 3, 1431. Determined to prove the former commander a heretic and discredit Charles, a trial with the intent of forcing a confession began six days later. Though Cauchon had no real authority in the region (he was well outside his archdiocese), he led an inquisition against Joan featuring a clerical commission composed of no “ecclesiastics of the French side,” as the accused requested — only one of many violations of Catholic rules for such proceedings.
By the spring, she delivered a brilliant defense of her beliefs, such that no evidence against her could be found. It did not matter, though, as the crooked court found a way to force her confession: Joan signed a document she was unable to read testifying to her guilt. On May 30, 1431, she would be burned at the stake in the center of Rouen. Charred and disfigured, the English revealed her body to bystanders to prevent the spread of rumors Joan had survived, then set it alight twice more in order to cremate her remains. (As a heretic, the ashes would not be permitted in a cemetery, so they were eventually spread over the River Seine in Paris.)
Some 25 years later, a nullification trial initiated by Pope Callixtus III would reverse Joan’s false conviction and accuse Cauchon of heresy for executing an innocent woman. Beatified by the Catholic Church in 1909 and canonized in 1920, she took took her place as Saint Joan among the four patron saints of her native France after capturing the world’s imagination for nearly five centuries.
Also On This Day:
1521 – Pope Leo X excommunicates Martin Luther for his Ninety-Five Theses
1870 – Construction of the Brooklyn Bridge begins
1925 – Benito Mussolini announces he will become dictator of Italy
1945 – Admiral Chester Nimitz takes command of the US Navy leading up to attacks on Iwo Jima and Okinawa
1977 – Apple Computer is incorporated