The Astonishing True Story of St Joan of Arc

For France and the Faith, She Was Burned As A Witch

by Meghan Ferrara

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It’s strange, but true. Amid the turmoil and upheaval of the Hundred Years War and the general malaise permeating the French countryside, a singular young girl rose to lead France to a new Golden Age.

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THE HOUSE OF ST JOAN:  She was born on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1412, in this house in Domremy, to Jacques d’Arc and Isabelle Rommey. She was the youngest of their five children.

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JOAN’S FIELD: Joan and her sisters tended the sheep in this field. Though they were illiterate, they received thorough instruction in all domestic tasks.

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FAMILY HEARTH: Joan frequently sat by this hearth, where she was particularly skilled in sewing and spinning.

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JOAN’S CELESTIAL VOICES: As a girl, Joan was known for her love of prayer and her faithful church attendance, her frequent use of the Sacraments, and her kindness to the sick and poor. She was around fourteen when she first heard her celestial voices, accompanied by a blaze of light, bringing her divine messages. She continued to receive these visions over the next few years. Joan eventually identified her visitors as St. Michael, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret, and they gradually revealed that her mission was to crown Charles as King of France and to defeat the English.

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MASSIVE PAINTING BY BASTIEN LE PAGE captures the moment in May 1428, when Joan’s voices became insistent and urgent. Joan traveled to the Dauphin’s residence at Chinon and on March 8, 1429, she was granted an audience. To test her, Charles disguised himself as one of his courtiers, but Joan quickly recognized him and, by a sign known only to them, she convinced Charles of her purpose.

Her Brilliant Military Career

Before his ministers were willing to trust her, they sent Joan to Poitiers to be questioned. After an extensive examination, the panel of theologians affirmed Joan’s integrity and that of her mission. Upon her return to court, Joan and her soldiers rode to the relief of Orléans under a new standard depicting a figure of God the Father, to whom two kneeling angels presented a fleur-de-lis, along with the words, “Jesus Maria.” The French broke through the English line and entered the city on April 29. By May 8, the English fort outside Orléans had been captured, and the siege raised. After several more victories, Joan urged the immediate coronation of the Dauphin. At Rheims, on July 17, 1429, Charles VII was duly crowned, Joan standing proudly behind him with her banner.

After a failed attempt on Paris by the French, both sides signed a truce that lasted the winter. This prevented Joan from taking advantage of the momentum she’d gained at Orléans and her subsequent victories. Throughout the winter, Joan was keen to return to battle and continue her mission.

When hostilities renewed in the spring, she hurried to the relief of Compiègne, besieged by the Burgundians. Her attack on May 23, 1430 failed, and Joan was captured by one of John of Luxembourg’s soldiers and remained in Burgundian custody until autumn.

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Betrayed by the King

During Joan’s entire captivity, Charles and his ministers made no effort to secure her release. But the English were keen to exact their revenge on the Maid. So on November 21 the Burgundians accepted a handsome reward and released her to her enemies.

The English charged Joan with being a witch and heretic. On February 21, 1431, she appeared for the first time before an Inquisitional court presided over by Pierre Cauchon, bishop of Beauvais. He was an ambitious man who hoped through English influence to become archbishop of Rouen. The other judges were lawyers and theologians carefully selected by the bishop. Joan was cross-examined as to her revelations, her decision to dress in military attire, her faith, and her willingness to submit to the Church. Though she was alone and without counsel, Joan acquitted herself bravely. Her responses to questions and her conduct throughout the proceedings underscored the veracity of her claims.

Joan was sentenced to burning if she did not confess to being a witch and to lying about hearing voices. She refused to recant, despite being physically exhausted and threatened with torture. She waivered only once, when she was led out into the churchyard of St. Ouen to hear the sentence pronounced. She then returned to prison, but not for long. Either by her own choice or as the result of a trick played by her enemies, Joan resumed dressing in her military clothing. This provided the Court the pretext they needed to condemn Joan as a relapsed heretic and deliver her to the English on Tuesday, May 29, 1431.

The next morning she was led out into the market place of Rouen to be burned at the stake. At the end, Joan requested to see a crucifix and she was heard to call on the name of Jesus.

Twenty-five years later, Pope Callixtus IX ordered a rehearing of the case. Because of new testimony, the trial was pronounced irregular, and Joan was formally rehabilitated as a true and faithful daughter of the Church. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1919.

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