Saint Joan of Arc, 1412-1431

Feast day May 30

Saints Stories for All Ages

The church officially remembers Joan of Arc not as a martyr but as a virgin—the Maid of Orleans. Of course, Joan was a martyr, but not in the technical sense. Yes, she died because she did what she thought God wanted her to do. But she was killed for her politics, not for her faith. Pagans did not execute her for refusing to worship their gods. Infidels did not slay her for defying them. Political enemies burned her at the stake for defeating them at war.

Paradoxically, Christian people, good and bad alike, cheered at her demise. Other Christians wept. This incongruity may trouble us, but Joan would have expected it. The war she fought embroiled French Christians against English Christians. We too have waged wars like that, pitting Christian against Christian. Just as we may have felt that God was on our side, Joan believed that God was with the French. When the judges who condemned her asked if the heavenly voices she followed to war spoke in English, she replied tartly, “Why should they speak English when they were not on the English side?”

Joan of Arc was born into the violent times of the fifteenth century. During her childhood, King Henry V of England invaded France and seized Normandy. He laid claim to the crown of the French king, Charles VI, who was mentally ill. Paralyzed by civil war between the duke of Burgundy and the duke of Orleans, the French could not put up much of a defense. Things worsened when agents of the duke of Orleans murdered the duke of Burgundy. The Burgundians reacted by becoming England’s allies.

Eventually, Burgundian mercenaries brought the war home to Joan’s family. The raiders sacked the little village of Domrémy-la-Pucelle, forcing them to flee. Thus, the indiscriminate brutality of war disrupted Joan of Arc’s pleasant childhood to acquaint her with fear.

In 1424, when Joan was only twelve years old, the great miracle of her life unfolded. One summer day in her father’s garden, she heard a mysterious voice, which was accompanied by a bright light. “At first I was very much frightened,” she said later. “The voice came toward the hour of noon. I had fasted the preceding day. I heard the voice on my right hand, in the direction of the church. I seldom hear it without seeing a light. The light always appears on the side from which I hear the voice.”

She identified the speaker as Michael the Archangel. Subsequently, he spoke to her many times, gradually revealing a preposterous mission. “You have been chosen to restore the kingdom of France,” said the voice, “and to protect King Charles.” She was to accomplish these things as the head of the army! Imagine the terror and confusion the archangel’s messages must have caused young Joan.

Joan found the visions comforting, but they also put her under great stress. Fear of her strict father compelled her to keep them secret; she confided only in her parish priest. The messages must have both thrilled and troubled her. The revelations conflicted with reality. How would a simple peasant girl accomplish such imposing, if not impossible, tasks?

By May 1428, Joan’s voices had become relentless and specific. They directed her to go at once to a town nearby and to offer her services to Robert de Baudricourt, the commander of the royal forces. Reluctantly, she obeyed. De Baudricourt, however, greeted her with laughter, telling her that her father should give her a good spanking.

At that time, conditions were deteriorating for the French. The English had put Orleans under siege, and the stronghold was in grave danger. Joan's voices became more insistent. “But I am merely a girl! I cannot ride a horse or wield a weapon!” she protested.

“It is God who commands it!” came the reply.

Unable to resist any longer, Joan secretly made her way back to de Baudricourt. When she arrived she told the commander a fact she could have known only by revelation. She said the French army—on that very day—had suffered a defeat near Orleans. Joan urged him to send her to Orleans so that she might fulfill her mission. When official reports confirmed Joan’s word, de Baudricourt finally took her seriously and sent her to Charles VII.

She was outfitted with white armor and provided a special standard bearing the names Jesus and Mary. The banner depicted two kneeling angels offering a fleur-de-lis to God. On April 29, 1429, Joan led her army into Orleans. Miraculously, she rallied the town. By May 8, the French had captured the English forts and had lifted the siege. An arrow had penetrated the armor over Joan’s breast, but the injury was not serious enough to keep her out of the battle. Everything, including the wound, occurred exactly as Joan had prophesied before the campaign. A peasant maiden had defeated the army of a mighty kingdom, a humiliation that demanded revenge.

The way to Reims was now open. Joan urged the immediate coronation of the king, but the French leaders dragged their feet. Finally, however, at Reims on July 17, 1429, Charles VII was anointed king of France. The Maid of Orleans stood triumphantly at his side. Joan had accomplished her mission.

During the battles at Orleans, the voices had told Joan she had only a little time left. Her shameful end lurked ominously in the shadows. Later, she sustained a serious arrow wound in the thigh during an unsuccessful attack on Paris. In May 1430, after spending the winter in court, she led a force to relieve Compiègne, which the Burgundians had under siege. Her effort failed, and the Burgundians captured her.

Through the summer and fall, the duke of Burgundy held Joan captive. The French, apparently ungrateful, made no effort to rescue her or obtain her release. On November 21, 1430, the Burgundians sold Joan to the English for a large sum. The English were quite eager to punish the maiden who had bested them.

They could not execute Joan for winning, but they could impose capital punishment for sorcery or heresy. For several months she was chained in a cell in the castle at Rouen, where five coarse guards constantly taunted her. In February 1431, Joan appeared before a tribunal headed by Peter Cauchon, the avaricious and wicked bishop of Beauvais.

Joan had no chance for a fair trial. She stood alone before devious judges, an uneducated girl conducting her own defense. The panel interrogated her six times in public, nine times in private. They questioned her closely about her visions, voices, male dress, faith, and submissiveness to the church. Giving good, sometimes even unexpectedly clever answers, Joan handled herself courageously. However, the judges took advantage of her lack of education and tripped her up on a few slippery theological points. The panel packed its summary with her damaging replies and condemned her with that unfair report. They declared that demons inspired her revelations.

The tribunal decided that unless Joan recanted, she was to die as a heretic. At first she refused. But later, when she was taken before a huge throng, she seems to have made some sort of retraction.

Cauchon visited her, observed her dress, and determined that she had fallen back into error. Joan, her strength renewed, then repudiated her earlier retraction. She declared that God had truly commissioned her and that her voices had come from him. Having condemned Joan of Arc as a relapsed heretic, the judges remanded her to the state for execution. The next morning she was taken into Rouen’s public square and burned at the stake.

Like Jesus’ life, Joan of Arc’s life seemed to end in failure.

Twenty-three years later, however, Joan’s mother and brothers asked that her case be reopened. Pope Callistus III appointed a commission to review the matter. In 1456, the new panel repudiated the trial and verdict and completely restored Joan’s reputation. Once again her piety and exemplary conduct had triumphed.

Few Christians hear heaven-sent voices. I know I don’t. Joan was one of those rare exceptions who did. She obeyed what she perceived to be God’s directions, and against all odds she achieved the purpose she was given. Though I’ve never heard a heaven-sent voice, now and then I sense something God wants of me. Doesn’t that also happen to you? Perhaps Joan’s example will reach down through the centuries to encourage us to listen closely for and to obey God’s message to us.

from Mystics and Miracles, by Bert Ghezzi

Image credit: Joan of Arc by unknown artist, 1500. Public Domain via Wikimedia.