Some said she was mad and others that she was guided by Heaven. She was burned as a witch- yet she freed France and was sainted.
by Peg Miller
“From the forests Bois-chen…will come a maid…who after throwing down the citadels will slay the stag…and will trouble the isles of Britain with woeful sound.”—Prophecy of the Wizard Merlin.
Five centuries ago the world was not so different from today. Most of Europe was clouded by the smoke of destruction and threat of annihilation.
In France men lived in daily fear—humbled beneath the heel of the oppressors from England. Vast stretches of the country were laid waste. Weeds and thistles grew in the fields. Villages were abandoned and the people hid in caves. The uncrowned king, Charles of Valois, cowered in the south of France. Daily the French people consulted prophets and seers for a sign—a sign that 100 years of war would cease.
At dawn on April 25, 1429, in the city of Tours, excitement mounted along every street. A sign had appeared. The court of the Dauphin, the Marshall Generals of France and a simple maid called Joan of Arc had come to the city.
It was said that Joan was guided by Voices of Heaven to save France, that she brought a sign so compelling to the Dauphin that he could not ignore her cause. Now she commanded an army and this day was to set out to raise the siege of Orleans.
In the brightening dawn the people of Tours crowded the streets to glimpse the Maid. Priests and barefoot friars led a procession intoning the Veni Creator. Behind rode the Knights of France and Joan. She sat lightly on her warhorse. The early sunlight touched her armor and helmet with gold. Above floated her flag with its field of lilies and King of Heaven emblem. Joan was radiant with hope. To all who saw her she seemed indeed heaven sent—the Maid come from the wood to fulfill the prophecy.
Within a few weeks all France was filled with optimism. For, as she had prophesied, Joan miraculously raised the siege of Orleans and rescued its people from starvation. A miracle had occurred! Around the city of Orleans, one of the greatest and strongest cities of the kingdom, the English had built a circle of seemingly invincible forts to hold the city. Inside the walls the people of Orleans, faced with famine, had despaired.
Joan unfurled her banner and cried, “Boldly! Attack!” And the smaller French army swept over the English horde crushing them. In three days Orleans was delivered.
There followed a series of lightning-like clashes. Every attack was a victory—Jargeua, Meung, Beaugency. At Patay the English were beaten in pitched battle and their General Talbot taken prisoner. In two months Joan transformed the French troops from a dispirited, disorganized pack into a victorious army.
Then Joan and her army escorted the meek and still frightened Dauphin to Reims—the city where the kings of France, since Charlemagne, were crowned. It was the hour of Joan’s greatest triumph.
Inside the cathedral thousands of candles lighted the long aisles. Crowds of priests and lords, knights and ladies filled the great hall. Near the altar stood the twelve peers of the realm. And next to the King stood Joan, dressed in her white armor, her banner in her hand and the sword of Charles Martel hanging by her side.
The King was anointed by the Archbishop of Reims. The great golden crown was set upon his head; the royal mantle of blue was hung upon his shoulders. At this moment Joan threw herself at his feet. She wept and cried, “Gentle Sire, thus is accomplished the will of God, Who ordained that I should raise the siege of Orleans and lead you to this city of Reims to receive your worthy Consecration and so prove that you are the true king and heir to the Crown of France.”
The trumpets blew, a procession formed. The Maid and the King appeared to the crowd which shouted, “‘Noel! Noel!” It was a bright day for France.
Joan’s mission was accomplished.
For what she had done she was persecuted and praised, called witch and savior, burnt at the stake, and finally raised by the Roman Catholic Church to Sainthood. Historians, churchmen, lords, kings, English and French, mystics and philosophers have speculated on what manner of person Joan was, where she came from—a girl of 18 to lead a degenerate army to victory.
Even the skeptics believe that Joan was sincere, that she believed prophetic voices guided her and urged her to free France. In 1924 Leon Denis, in conjunction with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, advanced a new theory. Monsieur Denis writes, “Where shall we find the truth as to the part played by Joan in history? As we read it, it is to be found neither in the mystic reveries of the men of faith nor in the material arguments of the positivist critics. Neither one nor the other seems to hold the thread which would lead them through the facts which form the mystery of this extraordinary life. To penetrate it it is necessary to study and have practical knowledge of psychic science.” M. Denis goes on to state that Joan was “a messenger from the spirit world—a medium.”
This French historian arrived at his theories after long and careful study of Joan’s life (he claims that Joan’s spirit guided and helped him). He traveled to Domremy, the little village in Lorraine where Joan was born and saw her first vision. He put together the long reports of Joan’s trial, eye-witness accounts of her deeds, all the records of her life. Since then other students of psychic phenomena have added to his theory.
Here are the facts which support belief in Joan’s mysticism:
The first evidence of her vision and power came when Joan was 13. On a summer morning she had gone to the meadows to gather flowers with her playmates. A neighbor child joined the group and said to Joan, “Your mother needs you.” Joan was an obedient child and she went home. But her mother declared she had not called her. So Joan went out again into the little garden near her home. She stood a moment looking toward the hills which surround the valley of Bois-chen. It was noon.
Suddenly a dazzling light shone beside her and she was terrified. Then from the light a voice spoke, “Joan, daughter of God, be good and wise. Visit the church and pray diligently.” Joan looked up to see an angelic figure surrounded by other radiant forms. In a few moments the light faded and was gone.
Shaken by this vision, Joan grew silent and reflective. She told no one of the visitation. A few weeks later a spirit again appeared, this time in the form of St. Michael. He instructed her…“go to the help of the Dauphin so that he may recover his kingdom and end this strife.”
Months passed. Each week Joan was visited by the spirits. Repeatedly they spoke to her of a mission…“save France…crown the Dauphin.”
Joan protested, “I cannot even read or write. I am only a maid. How can I undertake such a task?
The voices reassured her, “Go and we will guide you.”
During this same time Joan’s father had a dream which frightened him so that he became depressed and morose. Jacques D’Arc dreamed that a company of knights rode out of the wood. Joan appeared in full armor, carrying a sword and banner and joined them. The band vanished on the road to Paris.
Joan’s father misinterpreted this prophetic dream. He thought it meant that she would follow a band of soldiers loosely, as whores do. And he said to her and her brothers, “If she did thus, I would drown her.”
Joan feared her father’s anger. She hesitated though the voices urged her to “Go! Go! We will help you.” Their instructions became more specific—they commanded her to raise the siege of Orleans, to crown the Dauphin at Reims.
The spirit forms Joan saw were always indistinct. There is no way to tell who they were. Monsieur Denis believes that spirits assume forms familiar to the persons with whom they wish to communicate. Joan was an ignorant child of the Middle Ages and saints were spirits she could accept.
On a winter morning Joan gathered together a few belongings and slipped out of the house. She left without saying goodbye to her parents. Her father’s dream still troubled him and she feared he would stop her. She went to the town of Vancouleurs to ask help of her cousins Lassois.
In the Lassois house she said, “Have you not heard how France, laid to waste by a woman, shall be restored by a maid?”
Indeed such a prophecy ran—older than Joan herself—during the time of the Dauphin’s mother, Isabeau. It was then that Henry V brought his English army and vanquished the French at Agincourt. Queen Isabeau saw an opportunity to seize a fragment of power from the disaster. She claimed that Charles was a bastard, not the son of the King, and that her daughter, Catherine, whom Henry wanted for a wife, was the only true heir. Charles was a mild, weak man who did not inspire great loyalty. This, coupled with his mother’s scheming, made it difficult for him to inspire or lead the armies of France against the English.
For the first time Joan told of her visitations. She convinced her cousins of her mission and they took her to the governor of the province. Robert Baudricourt was a tough soldier—the only kind of man who could govern a province in those days of wandering brigands and invading armies. When Joan was brought to him she said, “My Lord Captain, God has commanded me to go to the gracious Dauphin who is to furnish me with soldiers so that I may raise the siege of Orleans and lead him to Reims to be crowned. Give me escort to the court of the Dauphin.”
Baudricourt was stunned. Then one of his men laughed. Baudricourt laughed with him. Now full of coarse humor he threatened to turn her over to his soldiers to “skirmish with her in sin.” This would cure her of visions. Finally he said to her cousins, “take her back to her father for a sound spanking.”
Joan turned sadly away but she didn’t give up. She remained at the home of her cousins hoping Baudricourt would change his mind. Meantime, rumors of a girl who spoke of spirits and voices flew from cottage to cottage.
Months later she came again to Baudricourt. This time he listened, for she brought a sign—the first of 10 great signs and prophecies she was to make. She foretold the day and hour when the forces of the Dauphin would retreat from the battlefield at Orleans. In a week her prophecy was confirmed by a messenger who rode into Vancouleurs from the king bringing the news that the Dauphin’s forces had been routed in battle at Orleans.
Baudricourt was afraid to oppose Joan’s mystic forces further. He gave her a horse and an armed guard. On February 22, 1429, Joan set out for the court of the Dauphin, then at Chinon, 250 miles to the south.
Joan requested an audience with the Dauphin and it was granted. Early in March she entered the town of Chinon. Here the second of her prophecies was fulfilled. As she and her escort rode into town they passed a soldier who swore loudly at Joan. Joan turned to him, “In the name of God, do you swear? And you so near your death.” In an hour the body of the soldier was recovered from a stream where he had drowned.
Joan and her companions continued to the castle. By this time everyone at court had heard some story concerning her. A brilliant assemblage of knights, princes and bishops awaited her. They were astonished when she entered the courtroom in man’s clothes—grey tunic and hose—her hair cut round at the neck like a young page. The women of the court wondered at her calm dignity; the men marvelled at her rounded figure. Joan advanced, unabashed by their stares and whispers.
The King’s courtiers had advised him to test her—and amuse the court—by putting a more richly dressed courtier on the throne in his place. Joan scarcely paused. She walked past the courtier seated on the throne, ignored others who pointed out as the King now one figure, now another, and went straight to the Dauphin (whom she had never seen) where he stood concealed in the rear of the hall. She knelt before him and said, “God give you long life, noble King.” (Later Joan said at her trial that a voice had guided her recognition of the Dauphin.)
The King was moved by her simple manner. He took her to an antechamber. When they were alone she told him of her voices and her mission. The Dauphin listened but he doubted. How could an ignorant country girl do what the best military brains in France could not do? Then the strongest evidence of Joan’s psychic power was revealed in the sign she gave the King.
She spoke to him of a time when he had withdrawn to his chambers, uncertain and afraid. There he had prayed. He had prayed that if he were not of Royal Blood, but a bastard as his mother claimed, that God would remove from his heart the desire to be King. And that if he were of Royal Blood, the true Dauphin, that God would give him a sign.
Charles had told no one of his doubts though he well remembered his prayer. Joan repeated the prayer to him nearly word for word. The Dauphin paled. Then his dull face lighted. Joan had brought a sign and it was a sign of power.
Charles was convinced but the court peers and churchmen insisted upon a series of tests. Joan was questioned and examined but they could find no fault in her. At length she emerged triumphant. During this time she chafed constantly at the delay and she gave the fourth prophecy.
“We must not delay,” Joan said, “for I have but 12 months.” Twelve months later Joan’s power was ended and she lay in a dungeon at Rouen.
Joan’s confidence blew like an exhilarating wave over the army. Joan was escorted to Tours where her armor and a banner were made to her instructions. In Tours she gave directions for uncovering the sword she was to carry in battle. She described this sword as of fine metal marked by five mystic crosses. It lay buried beneath the altar of the church of St. Catherine at Fierbois. Joan prophesied, the fifth sign, that when it was brought to her the rust and grime would fall away and the sword would gleam untarnished in her hand. The blade was found as she directed and the wondering priests saw the rust melt away as Joan took the sword in her hand.
Whose sword was it? Had it belonged, as some said, to Charles Martel, earlier savior of France? Joan didn’t care. Her voices had told her the sword was to be hers and she was satisfied. God himself had armed her through the messages of her protective spirits.
Joan rode on to Orleans.
She was now at the height of her mystic powers. At Orleans she clearly foresaw each turn of battle, each change of strategy. There she made the sixth prophecy. She told her generals, Alecenon and Dunois, that she would, that day, be wounded in the shoulder by an arrow but that she would recover swiftly and return to battle. A few hours later as she was scaling a wall, an arrow struck her in the shoulder. But true to her pronouncement the wound healed miraculously and the next day she again took the field.
After Orleans was won Joan again urged the king not to delay. “I have but a year,” she said, “and the road to Reims is filled with hostile armies.” The King roused himself and went to Reims to be crowned.
From this time on Joan’s star waned. At Reims her glory surpassed all others. But such glory incites hatred. Lords, whose plans she thwarted, courtiers whose favor she usurped, plotted against her. The weak, unprincipled Charles vacillated and before a month had passed he succumbed to the influence of Joan’s enemies. Generals, humbled before the Maid’s knowledge of military tactics, plotted mutiny. They disregarded orders, gave countercommands.
Joan endured eight months of trouble. In battle she was sometimes successful and alternately beaten. Finally at the Moat of Melun her mystic voices told her, “Joan, before the Feast of Midsummer you will be captured.” This was the seventh sign.
The English vowed that if ever they seized the “sorceress” they would burn her at the stake. But what the English desired most was not her death but her discredit—which would lower the morale of France and her fighting men,
Joan knew of the English threats. Yet she remained at the head of the French armies, constantly risking capture. A few days short of Midsummer, at Compiégne, Joan and a small force were cut off from the main army. She was captured by the Burgundians, allies of the English, She was sold by the Burgundians to the English for 20,000 pounds.
The English took Joan to Rouen and imprisoned her in the castle tower. So great was the English fear of Joan’s power that she was locked in a narrow dungeon, chained by the neck and feet, guarded day and night by five ruffians. Her guards, little more than brigands pressed into service by the English, mocked and jeered her. At her trial Joan wept. She told of being brutally insulted and beaten by these guards. The priest who attended her later said that the guards raped her.
Meanwhile the King, frolicking with his court in the south of France, oblivious to what was going on in his kingdom, ignored Joan. At first, when told of her capture, he raged and threatened revenge. But pliable as milkweed seed, he soon accepted the idea that nothing could be done for her. Charles, who owed his throne to Joan, forgot her.
The long trial began. It was such a trial as we associate with the Soviets today. Joan had no defense lawyer, no witnesses of her own. She was allowed to tell her story but every attempt was made to weaken her claim that her voices came from God. Theologians, under the power of the English military, spent days thinking of clever traps. Added to this was the daily torture of the dungeon.
Joan courageously and clearly answered her tormentors. She told the story of her voices, of her visit to the King and of raising the siege of Orleans. But she refused to tell of the mysterious sign she brought the King which had convinced him she came from God. This was the King’s secret and Joan would not reveal it. Knowledge of the sign was gained later from priests to whom the King confessed. Joan’s one vulnerable spot was her refusal to discard man’s dress. The judges harped on this point. Joan steadfastly refused, claiming that man’s dress was necessary to her mission and she could not lay it aside. (Part of Joan’s refusal has been attributed to the degrading conditions of her prison.)
During the examinations at the trial Joan’s mystic powers shone again. In the last month of the trial she gave the eighth sign, saying, “Seven years from this day the English will lose a greater prize than Orleans and then all France.”
Seven years later the English were driven out of Paris and within a few months the last battle of the Hundred Years War was fought at Formigny.
The ninth prophecy Joan made was one she did not fully comprehend herself. She said her voices bid her withstand suffering for within three months she would be free. Joan understood this to mean worldly freedom—but three months after this prophecy she was freed by death.
The last and tenth sign she gave the world was: That soon all the kingdom of France would act together. This also came true for a contract was signed by the King and the Duke of Burgundy whereby France was once more united.
After Joan had lain in the foul dungeon four months, a priest visited her begging her to abjure her crimes. Joan was ill. She dreamed only of the freedom of the fields of Domremy.
The next morning she stood public trial in a cemetery outside Rouen. The long list of her supposed crimes was read to her—witchcraft, heresy, sorcery, etc. Joan could make nothing of the long list couched in legalistic terms. So a short paper which stated only that she confessed to wrongdoing was read. She was promised that if she signed this and donned woman’s dress as a sign of penitence she would be removed to the bishop’s palace, tended by women and freed from the heavy chains. Joan put her sign on the paper.
Her judges broke their word. Joan was not unchained, she was not taken to the bishop’s palace. She was returned to the dungeon. In her women’s clothes she was at the mercy of her guards.
A few days later when she called to the ruffians, “Unloose my chains for I need to rise,” the guards instead took away her woman’s gown and brought back her man’s tunic. Joan would not get up seeing that she had only the tunic to wear. “It is forbidden me,” she said. She pleaded with the guards throughout the morning to return her women’s clothes. Finally at midday when she could hold out no longer she got up, putting on the tunic.
This was relapse. Under the laws of the church at that time a penitent who relapsed had sinned unforgivably. The punishment was death.
On May 30, 1431, Joan heard her sentence. She was a confessed witch who had relapsed. She was to be burned at the stake. Joan cried, “I would rather die seven times over by the axe than be burned.”
A guard of 200 men in full armor escorted Joan’s small cart through the streets of Rouen to the marketplace. Joan in her white robe was frightened but calm. She reasserted her faith in her voices and maintained that her mission was from Heaven.
Stones were heaped into a mound in the marketplace. In the center was a tall stake. Around the stake faggots were laid. Joan climbed up without faltering. She was chained to the stake. A torch set fire to the faggots. The square was noisy with the taunts and jeers of the crowd. Joan begged for a crucifix but the priests ignored her pleas. An English soldier ran forward and handed her a crude cross made of twigs.
The smoke swirled upward hiding the figure of the girl. Those standing near heard Joan call upon her saints. From amidst the flame came a loud JESUS. Then nothing more was heard but the crackling of the fire.
Hours later when the fire had died the embers were pulled apart. So great was the English fear of Joan’s power that they commanded all the ashes dumped into the Seine. Soldiers scattered Joan’s ashes into the river and threw after them her heart, which the fire had not consumed.
Four centuries after her ordeal the Catholic Church completely lifted the stigma of sorcery from Joan of Arc. In Rome Pope Benedict XV formally canonized her. She has joined the ranks of her beloved saints.