Biography of Joan of Arc, Visionary, Saint, and Military Leader

Jeanne D'Arc was 16 when she led France to victory

Statue of Joan of Arc at the Place Des Pyramides
Statue of Joan of Arc at the Place Des Pyramides.

 Thierry PRAT / Getty Images

Jeanne D'Arc (c. 1412–May 30, 1431), known in English as Joan of Arc, was a French peasant girl whose visions of angels led her to become a military leader. Joan of Arc's intervention changed the outcome of the Hundred Years War and helped ensure that Charles VII of France would become king. Joan was, finally, executed by the English forces whom she defeated.

Throughout her young life, from age 13, Joan believed that she was visited by various angels and given clear direction to take action for France; various theories have been suggested that may explain the origins of her visions. In May 1920, Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.

Fast Facts: Joan of Arc

  • Also Known As: Jeanne D'Arc, The Maid of Orléans, Saint Joan
  • Known For: A visionary whose actions turned the tide of the Hundred Years War
  • Born: 1412 in Domremy, Kingdom of France 
  • Died: May 30, 1431 in Rouen, Normandy
  • Parents: Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle Romée
  • Notable Quote: "One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. But to sacrifice what you are and to live without belief, that is a fate more terrible than dying."

Early Life

Joan was born in the village of Domremy, which at the time was part of the Duchy of Bar within the Holy Roman Empire. Her parents, Isabelle Romee and Jacques d’Arc, were peasants with a small farm; her father also worked as a village official. Joan had two older brothers as well as a younger brother and sister. As a peasant girl during the Middle Ages, Joan was not taught to read or write, but she was brought up in the Catholic Church.

Joan of Arc was born during the middle of the Hundred Years War, a battle over who should inherit the French throne. At the time of her birth, the English were in the ascendancy; France had declined as a result of the Black Plague and other challenges. While Domremy, where Joan lived, was not a major focus of the war, it was located in a portion of France that had remained loyal to the French crown. Joan was well aware of the fighting. In fact, Domremy had actually been burnt more than once by English loyalists.

Archangel Michael appears to Joan of Arc
Archangel Michael appears to Joan of Arc in her fathers garden. Aged 13 years old. Illustration by Boutet de Monvel, c. 1896. Culture Club / Getty Images

Joan's Visions

At the age of 13, Joan began to claim that she heard the voices of angels and saw visions of St. Michael, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret of Antioch. While some modern researchers suggest that these visions may have been the result of epilepsy or some other medical issue, many still believe these visions were genuine.

Joan described her visions very clearly; in a transcript from her trial, she says: “I was thirteen when I had a Voice from God for my help and guidance. The first time that I heard this Voice, I was very much frightened; it was mid-day, in the summer, in my father’s garden."

Over time, Joan's visions became increasingly specific. According to records, she was told by St. Michael and St. Catherine that she was the savior of France. Her destiny, they told her, was to seek an audience with Charles, the Dauphin (heir) to the French crown. Joan, the visions told her, would be the one to defeat the English, drive them from France, and install Charles as the rightful king.

In 1428, when Joan was about 16 years old, her visions gave her direct instructions. She was to contact Robert de Baudricourt, the garrison commander at Vaucouleurs, who would help her achieve her divinely appointed goal. While Baudricourt turned down the teenager at her first attempts, he later relented; his decision may have related to Joan's apparently clairvoyant ability to describe a French defeat at Orleans. Baudricourt provided Joan with a horse and escort; she cut her hair and dressed in men's clothing to undertake the journey.

Joan of Arc and the Dauphin

Like Baudricourt, the Dauphin was skeptical of Joan's visions. To test her claims, he had a courtier dress up as the dauphin; Joan was immediately able to detect the deception and, without hesitation, went directly to the Dauphin himself. To be sure she was not a witch or under the influence of dark forces, the Dauphin had a group of clergy examine Joan; they found her to be pure and orthodox.

Charles, like many of his countrymen, knew of a prophecy that stated that a maid in armor would come from Lorraine to save France. Joan fulfilled that prophecy, and so, with the Dauphin's blessing, Joan donned armor and led the French troops to Orleans to free the city from an English siege.

Joan In Armour
Saint Joan of Arc (1412 - 1431), known as 'the Maid of Orleans', at Reims Cathedral for the coronation of the dauphin as King Charles VII, circa 1429. Painting by J D Ingres in the Louvre. Hulton Archive / Getty Images 

The Siege of Orleans

Not surprisingly, Joan was initially excluded from councils of war, but her presence had a significant impact on the morale of the French Army who began to see the conflict with the English as a religious war. Historic records are not clear on Joan's physical contribution to the battle, but she certainly rode with the soldiers and carried a flag.

Prior to Joan's arrival, the siege had gone poorly for the French. Now, however, the Armagnacs (Joan's forces) were able to capture the fortress of Saint-Loup, and then the fortress of Saint-Jean-le-Blanc. Soon after, the French forces consolidated their gains and attacked the English at Les Tourelles. Joan, acknowledged as the heroine of the day, was wounded but nevertheless led the final successful assault against the English.

The impressive victory at Orleans was seen as a sign that Joan of Arc was, indeed, sent by God to support the French. The English, by contrast, believed that she was sent by the Devil.

The Dauphin Is Crowned

Following the liberation of Orleans, Joan wanted to move forward with military plans that would lead to the crowning of the Dauphin. Word of her victory had spread, and new recruits were daily joining her forces. Several military engagements led to victory at Rheims, where Charles VII was crowned King of France in 1429. Joan of Arc stood by him at the coronation.

Capture and Trial

In 1430, Joan was captured in battle and sold to the English. Held illegally in an ecclesiastical prison, she was threatened by male guards and therefore refused to give up her male clothing. The English were determined to prove that Joan's visions were false, as they suggested that God was on the side of the French.

Capture of Joan of Arc'
Capture of Joan of Arc', 1847-1852. Dillens, Adolphe-Alexander (1821-1877). Found in the collection of the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Heritage Images / Getty Images

The English court did their best to trick Joan into heresy but was unsuccessful. When asked whether she was in a state of grace, for example, Joan responded: “If I am not, may God put me there and, if I am, may God keep me there.”

At one point, Joan did recant her visions in order to escape death by burning. Her visions returned, however, and she withdrew her recantation. The result: she was sentenced to death as a heretic.

Death

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake on May 30, 1431; she is said to have called on Jesus to her dying breath. Following her execution, her body was burned again and yet again; her ashes were disposed of in the Seine.

Legacy

Following Joan's death—and largely as a result of her actions and inspiration—France won the Hundred Year's War. A "nullification trial," held in 1456, reversed the heresy charge against Joan, and she was declared innocent. Joan of Arc was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church and canonized a saint in 1920.

Joan has been the subject of countless books, dramas, songs, and movies. She is also the namesake for several French naval vessels.

Sources:

  • Mark, Joshua J. "Joan of Arc." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Mar 2019. Web. 27 Aug 2019.
  • Rieger, Bertrand, et al. “How Joan of Arc Turned the Tide in the Hundred Years' War.” How Joan of Arc Turned the Tide in the Hundred Years' War, 13 Apr. 2017, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2017/03-04/joan-of-arc-warrior-heretic-saint-martyr/.
  • “Visions: Joan of Arc.” Joan of Arc - Jeanne D'Arc (1412 – 1431), 6 Aug. 2019, https://www.jeanne-darc.info/biography/visions/.
  • “What Really Caused the Voices in Joan of Arc's Head?” LiveScience, Purch, https://www.livescience.com/55597-joan-of-arc-voices-epilepsy.html.