On 7 May 1429, Jeanne d’Arc led several charges on the besieged city of Orleans in France. She was struck by an arrow, dressed the wound and returned to the fray. The next day, the English army besieging Orleans retreated and the city was freed.
Having led the lifting the of the siege, Jeanne then led the French army as they routed the English armies and freed more cities. When Charles VII of France was crowned in Reims that summer, Jeanne d’Arc knelt at his feet.
The Hundred Years War was a series of wars between the English and French for control of the French throne. From 1337 to 1453, five generations of kings took their armies to battle over it and between 2 and 3 million people were killed. That’s one in seven of the populations of both countries. The wars had been triggered by a new law in 1316 denying women the throne of France. When French king Charles IV died without sons or brothers, his sister Isabella claimed the throne for her son Edward who was king of England and Charles’ closest male relative. The French rejected her claim and appointed a more distant – and male – cousin. Patriarchal law started this real game of thrones.
Jeanne d’Arc was born to a peasant family in around 1412. As a child she saw her village burned during a raid. She claimed she began to see visions, including of military operations. After making her case several times, she was taken – disguised as a boy for safety – to an audience with the future Charles VII. She promised she would provide a sign her visions were from God if she went to the besieged city of Orleans. He gave her permission to travel and people donated armour and other goods to help her. She arrived in Orleans with supplies for the besieged, and joined the military camp. Whilst noblemen continued to be the official commanders, they started to take Jeanne’s advice.
The lifting of the siege was seen as the sign she had predicted, and the military increasingly listened to her strategies. Recovering Reims, the seat of the French throne, on her advice, enabled Charles to be crowned.
Her success – tied to the fortunes of the French military – did not last. In 1430 she was pulled from her horse in a rearguard action and captured by the Burgundians. They sold her to the English, who tried her for heresy for her visions. She was held in a military prison guarded by soldiers, rather than an ecclesiastical prison under the supervision of female guards. To protect herself from rape, Jeanne wore her male military clothing in prison. This cross-dressing was used to create a second charge of heresy. And a repeat offence meant the death penalty.
Jeanne was burnt to death for heresy on 30 May 1431. She was canonised – made a Catholic saint – in 1920.
Note: Throughout we have used the modern French spelling Jeanne. The English version, Joan of Arc, was used from the fifteenth century onwards as that was closest to a feminine version of John the English had. Jeanne spelt her name Jehanne.