ON THIS DATE in 1429, seventeen-year-old Joan of Arc entered the occupied French city of Orléans to lead a victory over the English.
Known as Jeanne la Pucelle (Joan the Maid) during her lifetime, she was thirteen when she first heard “a Voice from God to help me govern my conduct.” The message, she said, was “sent to me by God and, after I thrice heard this Voice, I knew that it was the voice of an angel.” Joan believed the Voice belonged to the archangel Michael, who spoke to her several more times and gave her a mission at age seventeen: she was to drive the English from Orléans, a city in north-central France that had been occupied by the enemy for seven months, and to lead Charles VII to the city of Reims, where he could be officially crowned king of France.
Unable to read or write and unacquainted with the ways of warfare or diplomacy, Joan seemed a preposterous candidate to aid France in its Hundred Years’ War with England. She said she told the the Archangel Michael that she “was just a poor girl who knew nothing about riding or leading in war,” but received assurance that she would be assisted by other angels, and that her mission “was by God’s order.” The English and their allies, the Burgundians, controlled most of France, including Paris, when Joan attained an audience with Charles VII and talked him into giving her command of a small force of troops in which to fight the enemy at Orléans.
Meant to be a figurehead, Joan showed “herself to be an inspirational leader with a distinctive strategy for winning,” wrote Larissa Juliet Taylor in 2009’s The Virgin Warrior: the Life and Death of Joan of Arc. In just 10 days, the French thrust the English from Orléans, followed by other victories in other towns as Joan and the army marched toward Reims. The crowning of Charles VII at Reims, however, proved more divisive than unifying for the French. Joan wanted to keep fighting and was distressed when the king signed a treaty with the Duke of Burgundy, who had been an ally of the English. Many in the king’s circle, and perhaps the king himself, came to see Joan as a threat.
In 1430 the Burgundians captured Joan and sold her to the English, who put her on trial for heresy in 1431. Charles made no effort to rescue or ransom her. After a mockery of a trial, Joan’s captors burned her at the stake. Twenty-five years later, a rehabilitation trial decreed the earlier judgment in error and declared Joan an innocent martyr. She was declared a saint of the Catholic Church in 1920.