The real Joan of Arc

Helen Castor endeavours to isolate the fact from the fiction in the tumultuous, tragic story of a French national icon...

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

The statue of Joan of Arc in Washington DC. (© Julie Flyfare)

Joan of Arc is a historical name to conjure with, her image instantly, vividly recognisable across a distance of half a millennium. Her tale is both profoundly familiar and endlessly startling: the peasant girl sent by God to save France, dressed in armour as though she were a man; the maid who rescued Orléans and led her king to be crowned at Reims; the martyr who became a legend – and later a saint – when she was burned at the stake by the English enemy.

We know her story so well because of the survival of two remarkable caches of documents. Her case was heard in court twice over: one trial, in 1431, condemned her to death as a heretic, and the other, completed 25 years later, cleared her name. In the transcripts we hear first-hand testimony from Joan, her family and her friends. What could be more revealing?

But all is not as simple as it seems. The memories recounted by Joan and those who knew her were deeply infused with the awareness of who she had become and what she had achieved. In many ways, then, her story is a life told backwards. Not only that, but at almost every point there are discrepancies between the accounts of different witnesses, and sometimes within the testimony of a single witness, including that of Joan herself.

Glossing over these contradictions has helped to create the legend of Joan of Arc, an icon who, in the modern world, has developed the protean capacity to be all things to all people. But if, instead, we trace the evolution of key elements in her story through the evidence of the two trials we get closer to the real Joan. And she, a roaring girl who – in fighting the English, took sides in a brutal civil war – is every bit as extraordinary as the myth, as the five examples that follow prove…

 

Talking with saints

She boasted of having a hotline to angels, but was Joan just playing to the crowd?

The kingdom of France in which Joan lived was deeply divided by civil war. One side, known as the Armagnacs, believed that the rightful king was Charles VII, son of the dead Charles VI, whose madness had first plunged the realm into conflict.

Charles VII receives Joan of Arc at Chinon Castle in 1429, in a scene from  a German tapestry. It was here that Joan made her fateful claim that she had been sent to assist Charles by God himself. (© Bridgeman Art Library)

But their enemies, the Burgundians, could not accept Charles VII as their sovereign: he had arranged the assassination of the Duke of Burgundy, and as a result, they believed, he had forfeited his throne. Instead, the Burgundian French allied themselves with the English, and now acknowledged the English ruler, Henry VI, as the king of France.

In February 1429, Joan – an unknown teenage peasant from the village of Domrémy – arrived at the Armagnac court at Chinon Castle. She had come, she declared, on a mission from God to support Charles’s cause. “I am sent here by God, the king of heaven,” she stated, while dictating a ferocious challenge to the English. But there is no surviving evidence from this moment at the start of her mission that she spoke of saints, or identified her revelations in any more specific terms.

However, the nature of her voices or visions became a crucial point of contention when Joan was captured in 1430 and then, in 1431, put on trial for heresy by Burgundian French theologians. Joan claimed she was sent by God; they knew that she had been deceived by the Devil – and to prove it, they needed information about the spirits that had appeared to her.

At first, Joan refused to answer questions about her revelations. But under the pressure of interrogation – and with a public stage on which to assert the truth of her mission – she began to speak of what she heard and saw. There was a light, she said, and a voice, that she had first heard when she was 13 in her father’s garden: the voice of an angel, sent by God.

The questions went on: how did she know the voice was from God? Was it an angel, or a saint, or directly from God himself? Over hours and days, she parried and demurred – until at last she gave the detail her questioners seemed to require. She had heard and seen the archangel Michael – the patron saint of Armagnac France – and the virgin saints Margaret and Catherine.

What she did not know, as she talked of their crowns, their faces, and the fact that they spoke French, was that she was condemning herself. Theologians – unlike Joan – were aware that, if she had truly seen saints and angels, she should prove it by describing their spiritual essence. The more she sought to make them ‘real’, with details she had never before described, the more she demonstrated to her accusers that this was a visitation not from heaven, but from hell.

Unease over her claims about the nature of her voices was evident on her own side too during the later hearings to clear her name. “It is very difficult to reach a settled judgment in such matters,” was the inquiry’s briefest of conclusions on the subject in 1456.

 

 

Joan's 'sign' to Charles

For all the talk of miracles, Charles VII was won over by victory in battle

How did a peasant girl persuade Charles VII to put her at the head of his army? All the evidence from 1429 suggests that Joan’s claims that she had been sent by God were a source of deep anxiety at the Armagnac court. If Charles were to put his faith in a false prophet, his kingdom of France would be lost forever. But if he rejected the words of a true prophet, the result would be equally disastrous.

The decision was not quickly made. Charles sent Joan to Poitiers to be examined by the best theologians in Armagnac France. Their answer was equivocal: they could not corroborate her claims, but they could find no evil in her.

Joan is depicted on a page from  the contemporary Register of the Council of the Parliament of Paris (though the clerk had never seen  her – hence the long hair and dress). (© Bridgeman Art Library)

But this moment too became an issue of critical importance at Joan’s trial. A true mission from God should be verified by a sign. What had been Joan’s sign? She was forbidden to say, she claimed; but little by little, she began to offer a remarkable story. An angel had come to the court at Chinon, and had brought her king a golden crown, so finely wrought that no earthly goldsmith could have made it. “Sire, here is your sign; take it,” she had said. Again, Joan’s attempt to prove the reality of her claims succeeded only in convincing the Burgundian theologians of her heresy and error.

On the morning of her execution, they asked again: had an angel really brought her king a golden crown? Now, faced with an imminent death from which she had believed God would save her, she gave a different answer. She herself had been the angel, and the crown was her promise that she would take Charles to his coronation.

Joan’s need, alone in a hostile courtroom, to vindicate her mission had drawn her into a tale that made metaphor reality – to such problematic effect that her supporters, at the hearings to clear her name 25 years later, passed over it in silence. Some witnesses claimed instead that she had miraculously recognised Charles at first meeting even though he sought to disguise his identity, or that she had told him secrets she could only have known from God. But the truth seems to have been that what convinced the Armagnacs of her claims was victory in battle, proof positive that God was on their side. And that, of course, was a sign her Burgundian judges would never have accepted or recognised.

 

Her great victory

There was no master-plan to save Orléans

It is difficult to be sure exactly what Joan claimed God had sent her to do when she first arrived at Chinon. A quarter of a century later, witnesses who had been trapped within the besieged town of Orléans in February 1429 remembered hearing that a maid had come to save them – but no one who had known her at home in Domrémy recalled her speaking of the siege of a town that was more than 150 miles away. Instead, they remembered her saying that she would save France from the English and take the king to be crowned at Reims.

Joan, on horseback, announces news of her astonishing victory at Orléans to Charles at the Castle of Loches. The banner above her says: “Here comes  the virgin sent  by God...”. (© AKG Images)

What seems most likely is that, when Joan was examined by the Armagnac theologians at Poitiers, they – like her later Burgundian judges – asked for a sign that would verify her claims. At the same time, they pointed out how hard it would be to lead the king to Reims when the besieged town of Orléans lay directly in the way. Joan’s response was that she herself would raise the siege – and the idea that this limited goal could be the test of her mission was an appealing one to Charles, given that it would require relatively few resources and risk little if she failed.

In the event, Joan’s will, her charisma and her unyielding belief brought success in just four days of fighting, an outcome that seemed to the Armagnacs to be an evident miracle. For them in 1429, and again at the hearings in 1456, it was victory at Orléans that was Joan’s sign.

But perceiving God’s will at work in the world could be a treacherous business. In September 1429, given just a single day to storm the walls of Burgundian Paris, Joan failed; and in May 1430 she was captured outside Compiègne. For her Burgundian and English enemies, it was Compiègne, not Orléans, that was a sign from heaven. Her moment of miracles had passed.

 

The trial's climax

The famed defiance melted in the face of the flames

Joan’s boldness and defiance during the prolonged interrogations to which she was subjected in 1431 were, and are, utterly compelling. Her voice, speaking through the trial transcripts, has done more than anything to shape her lasting historical presence.

The ‘holy maid’ is tied to the stake in this illustration from Les Vigiles de Charles VII (1484). It was later claimed  that a white dove had been seen fluttering away from the flames. (© Bridgeman Art Library)

But this young girl of about 19 could not hold on to the certainty with which she had begun. Asked again and again for proof of her claims, she told her judges ringingly: “The sign you need is that God will deliver me from your hands, and it is the most certain one He could send you.” Rescue, however, did not come; and on 24 May 1431, bound on a scaffold with the executioner standing by, Joan recanted. She signed an abjuration, and accepted a sentence of perpetual imprisonment, putting on the female dress she had refused since the start of her mission.

A few days later, Joan’s judges were called back to her cell to find her dressed in male clothes, and making her old claims once again. But this Joan was full of distress, not her former fiery conviction. Some later witnesses claimed she had been assaulted by her guards; certainly, she was agonised by her denial of her voices – her thoughts tangled and her answers tumbling. It was fear of the fire, she said, that had made her recant. Now, because she could not live with her recantation, it was the fire she would have to face.

She had been so certain that heaven would save her. In the end, it is this broken Joan, unable to abandon her belief in her voices but knowing that they brought no rescue from a terrible death, that makes the conclusion of her trial so profoundly moving.

 

Joan is put to death

We should be wary of tales of an English epiphany as Joan burned

The story is irresistible: a witness in Rouen on 30 May 1431, the day of Joan’s death, bumps into an Englishman, the secretary of the English king himself, returning from the execution. “We are all undone,” the Englishman cries in horror, “for a saint has been burned!”

A 15th-century wood carving  depicts a contemplative Joan. By the time of her death she was, says Helen Castor, a confused, troubled figure. (© Topfoto)

The tale was told in 1456 by a townsman of Rouen who had met Joan during her imprisonment – but the witness himself and the nature of his testimony should give us pause for thought. Pierre Cusquel had been brought illicitly to inspect Joan in her cell by his friend, the master builder at the castle – a chance, it appears, to gawp at this celebrated prisoner – and seemed thrilled to find himself caught up in such significant events. And his account of Joan’s death, like many others in 1456, had grown in the telling since his first statement to a preliminary hearing.

One cleric declared that Joan’s heart had remained whole and unconsumed by the fire, despite the best efforts of the executioner. But when giving evidence for a second time, he reported that a white dove had been seen fluttering from the flames as the last breath left her body.

Clearly, to watch a young girl burned alive was no easy thing. And yet, the English and Burgundian French who had condemned her believed that she was a heretic under the Devil’s sway, who had resisted God’s will that English France should prevail.

Twenty five years later, with France united under its Armagnac king, that judgment no longer stood. Now, the witnesses who had seen Joan die recalled that every Frenchman there had been moved to tears by her suffering. As Pierre Cusquel declared, even some Englishmen had been overwhelmed by the enormity of what they had committed.

And, if that was not quite as it had seemed at the time, there was no one, now, to contradict him.

Helen Castor is a presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Making History.

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