Joan of Arc was a French heroine. She led the French to victory against the English and brought the bloody conflict to a close, ending a brutal chapter in Europe’s history. The story of her courage and valor didn’t, however, end with her capture. Joan’s trial, death, and what happened afterward are the subjects of many books. They are just as worthy a tale as the stories of her fight against the English. Joan of Arc’s death and what happened afterward is a story of betrayal, mystery, intrigue, and inspirational defiance that deserves a substantial chapter in the history of France.
Who Was Joan of Arc?
Joan of Arc was a peasant girl born in 1412 in the village of Domrémy in the Kingdom of France. From an early age, she became a devout believer in her Christian faith and claimed to have had visions from the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine.
For almost a century, France had been ripped apart by war as the English House of Plantagenet sought to oust the French House of Valois for ownership of the throne of France.
Joan claimed that her visions told her that she was to free France from English occupation and ensure the coronation of the Dauphin (heir to the throne of France), Charles VII. After initial struggles to get noticed as a messenger from God, Joan of Arc was eventually granted an audience with the Dauphin. He sent her to Orléans, where the French city was under siege by English forces. Her presence uplifted the spirits of the French, and her insistence on them following her strategic advice led to a complete victory for the French.
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She would go on to accompany the French to victory during the campaign in the Loire, again spurring the French to battle even though they would rather not have risked it. She inspired the French to engage a numerically superior English army at Patay, resulting in a decisive victory for the French. All but one of the English commanders were captured, and the English offensive was broken.
Her actions led to the French being able to make their way to Reims for the coronation of Charles VII. After the coronation, Joan of Arc claimed her mission was complete, although she continued to fight and inspire French forces. Her later campaign saw mixed results, and she was eventually captured by Anglo-Burgundian forces, sold to the English, and put on trial. She stood accused of heresy and wearing men’s clothes. The latter was a serious offense in medieval times.
A Highly Irregular Trial
Before the trial began, Joan of Arc was held in the Tower of Beaurevoir, where she tried to escape by jumping out of the window. Her attempt failed, and she was injured. Her reason for the attempt, as she stated, was that she had heard that all the people of Compiègne were to be put to the sword. She claimed, “And I would rather be dead than live on after such a destruction of good people.”
The trial of Joan of Arc was lengthy (by medieval standards) and complex, but it was also manipulated by the English in whose charge Joan was placed. She was put on trial under the authority of the pro-English faction in France. One hundred fifteen witnesses were called to testify, but many of the transcripts of their testimonies were conveniently left out of the records.
Questioning began on February 20, 1431. Joan of Arc conducted herself with dignity and kept her wits about her the whole trial. The prosecution, for example, tried to entrap her by asking whether she knew if she was in God’s grace. Church doctrine held that nobody could know if they were in God’s grace. A “Yes” answer would go against accepted doctrine, and a “no” answer could have been used against her as an admission of sin.
Joan answered, “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace.”
From March 10, the sessions took place in her prison cell. The prosecution’s evidence of the accusation of heresy was proving to be a continuously weak line of questioning, and the questions in the trial began to shift more toward the fact that Joan wore men’s clothes.
Nevertheless, the English subsidized the trial, and a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion. Joan was convicted of heresy and taken to the churchyard of Saint-Ouen Abbey on May 24 for public condemnation. Joan, however, repented.
As a “repentant heretic,” Joan could not be executed unless she renounced her abjuration. A condition of the abjuration was that Joan had to agree to give up wearing men’s clothes. She was given a dress, and her head was shaved. But she was not free yet. She was returned to her prison cell, where she was cruelly treated. Her English captors tried to rape her, and she was refused mass.
At this point, Joan of Arc rescinded her abjuration and claimed it had been a mistake. She was convicted of being a relapsed heretic, and on May 30, she was taken to the old marketplace in Rouen and released to the control of the English. Despite being convicted of heresy, she was given sacrament and embraced a processional crucifix from the nearby church before her hands were bound. She was tied to a plaster column and burned to death. As the flames engulfed her, she cried out her last words in the form of a prayer: “Jesus! Jesus!”
Joan of Arc’s death was a great tragedy, especially since she was only 19 years old at the time.
What Happened to Her Body?
After Joan of Arc’s death from smoke inhalation, the cardinal ordered her body to be burned a second and third time until only ashes remained. What was left of Joan was thrown into the Seine. In 1867, ashes purported to belong to Joan of Arc were found in an apothecary loft in Paris. The ashes were transferred to a museum in Chinon but have since been determined to be fake.
Joan of Arc’s death resulted in various other relics being found, including bones and pieces of cloth. They were claimed to be genuine articles belonging to Joan of Arc; however, none have been proven legitimate.
Nevertheless, religious relics are common in the Catholic faith, and they are treated with reverence under the curatorship of the religious authorities.
Joan of Arc and the Rehabilitation Trial
At the request of her mother, Isabelle Romée, and her two brothers, Jean and Pierre, and authorized by Pope Callixtus III, the trial of Joan of Arc was investigated in the 1450s by Inquisitor-General Jean Bréhal. Before 1450, a retrial was impossible, as the documents needed were kept in Rouen, which was not liberated from the English until 1449.
In February 1450, Charles VII ordered a clergyman, Guillaume Bouillé, to open an inquiry against abuse and irregularities in the original trial. The inquiry was conducted at the University of Paris, where many high-ranking officials had testified against Joan of Arc. Many of these scholars also had sworn allegiance to England before switching sides when it became clear which way the winds of war were blowing. As such, the inquiry did not achieve anything significant. Charles, who was still occupied with the war with the English, decided to wait.
Two years later, another attempt was made to reopen the case, this time under the auspices of Cardinal Guillaume d’Estouteville, a Papal legate appointed by the pope. Although sympathetic to Joan of Arc’s redemption, he had ulterior motives. His primary goal in France was to broker an Anglo-French peace, but the continued success of French armies in Normandy made this mission unsuccessful. D’Estouteville had, however, lost lands in Normandy during the English invasion, and the legate’s family had been devoted supporters of Charles VII. D’Estouteville’s goal was to gain favor with the French king and clear the monarch’s name of any association with a heretic.
Charles VII was not enamored with the idea of the Inquisition conducting a trial in France outside of royal control. Nevertheless, the trial went ahead under the command of Inquisitor Bréhal. Although it petered out and didn’t get anywhere close to delivering a verdict, vital information was gathered that would be used in a third and final attempt to exonerate Joan of Arc.
In 1455, Joan’s family again demanded the reparation of Joan’s honor. This time, the attempt garnered huge traction. Pope Callixtus III appointed three members of the higher clergy to consult with Inquisitor Bréhal, and the retrial went ahead. One hundred fifteen witnesses were again called to give testimonies. These included villagers from her childhood, the people of Orléans whom she had met during the siege, soldiers she had fought beside, and many others.
The final verdict was drawn up, and Inquisitor Bréhal suggested that those in charge of the original trial could be guilty of heresy themselves. On July 7, 1456, Joan was proclaimed innocent of the charges brought against her, and the trial which resulted in Joan of Arc’s death was annulled. She was subsequently declared a martyr.
Joan of Arc’s death and martyrdom inspired much courage among the French, and she quickly became a symbol of national pride which has endured to this day.
Joan of Arc’s death was a result of the political need for the English to justify their position. She was a highly valuable symbol of defiance that needed to be eradicated. Her life ended with betrayal, torture (both physical and mental), and a most painful death. It was a huge miscarriage of justice that was rectified 25 years later. Not only was Joan exonerated, but she was also beatified and canonized in the 20th century.
During the Second World War, the Nazis melted down a great number of France’s statues; however, the statues of Joan of Arc were spared.
Her story is still not over. Joan of Arc is a symbol for many, and her image is used for movements both in France and around the world from all sides and extremes of the political spectrum.