Saint Jeanne d’Arc, the maid of Orleans, is hailed as patroness of France, their saviour, as the story goes, in the fight for their nationhood, identity, and independence against the land-hungry English in the Hundred Years’ War. The royal house of Plantagenet, which ruled Britain, claimed the right also to rule all of France, then under the declining house of Valois, with inter-marriages, and dynasties and the fact that all the nobles spoke French. As the saying goes, it was complicated, and the bloody and brutal conflict went on for just over a century, from 1337 to 1453. The Brits nearly took all the marbles – with Agincourt in 1415 under Henry V on Saint Crispin’s Day and all that.
But then fifteen years later, Joan of Arc, inspired by God, in turn inspired the French people and soldiers, who rallied quite literally behind her, as she led the charge, unarmed, holding a banner. By 1453, the English were driven almost completely out of most of France. But that was well after Joan had been burned at the stake as a heretic.
Saint Joan is not commemorated in the universal calendar of the Church, but it is a holiday in France, as she is her primary patron. A young peasant girl from Domremy in north-eastern France, born about 1412, Joan, as she is styled en Anglais, as a young teen in 1425, began receiving visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine of Alexandria – the latter two early virgin martyrs. The heavenly messengers, whom Joan described as ‘so beautiful’ that she cried when they left, asked, nay, commanded her to help the dauphin Charles VII, the uncrowned French king, to defeat the aggression of the English and drive them out of France.
It was in 1429 that she approached the nearby garrison commander Robert de Baudricourt with this story; his initial reaction was to send her home, to receive a thrashing from her father, for allowing her to go out spouting such nonsense. But, then, something about her made him pause, a je ne sais quoi, a distinctly heavenly aura. He took her to the Dauphin, upon whom she also made a strong impression.
The travails of her brief life – she would live only another year and a half – through which her vivid personality shines forth, have been told numerous times, even by such non-believers as George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain. How Joan, by her persistence, managed to gain entrance to the king’s court. How Charles had disguised himself, but Joan walked straight up to him, embraced his knees and offered homage. How she disguised herself as a ‘boy’ to gain entrance to the camp, but, once discovered, was adopted as the ensign of the holiness, purity, the very ‘rightness’ of the French cause, leading the beleaguered troops – she was known as ‘la Pucelle’, the maid, the virgin, a very symbol of the purity and nobleness of their cause.
Like another Virgin a millennium and a half before, God uses what seems weak and insignificant in the world’s eyes to confound the strong and proud.
Joan never fought (she was once injured by an arrow to the shoulder) but her presence gave strength and courage to the French troops; in fact, they would soon not fight without her. As Joan was to put it, all battles are first won or lost in the mind. Her first symbolic victory was to help lift the siege of Orleans, after which the French troops went on from triumph to triumph, driving the English ever more towards the Channel, allowing Charles to be crowned king at Reims on July 17, 1429.
Bolstered, the French went on in the subsequent two decades to reclaim all of France, with the century-long war ending, as providence would have it, with the decisive Battle of Castillon on the very anniversary of Charles’ coronation, July 17, 1453 – not long after the tragic and significant fall of Constantinople on May 29th of that same year. Only the port of Calais remained in English hands, until it too fell a century later to the French under the brief reign of Mary Tudor.
We may wonder what might have happened had France still been in English hands in the time of her father Henry VIII. Would France also have broken allegiance with Rome? God has His ways in guiding history, and the history of our own lives, which we most often only see in hindsight.
But that was all in the future for Joan la Pucelle. In a tragic irony, after Charles had reclaimed his kingship in that fateful year of 1429, Joan was captured by Burgundian troops allied with England, and handed over to the enemy. The vacillating king, who owed his very life and throne to the noble and loyal maid, did little to help. Tried for heresy and witchcraft by a pro-English court of clerics, led by the biased Pierre Cauchon, Joan was unjustly condemned, and burned at the stake on this day in 1431, at nineteen years of age. They kept the flames going until her body was reduced to ashes, which were dumped unceremoniously into the Seine, to ensure there would be no relics. The executioner was quite certain she had been damned.
Yet, the answer she gave to her questioners during her trial, which make for fascinating and edifying reading, and centuries later were used for her canonization, evince a pure soul, motivated and inspired only by God. As she is quoted in the universal Catechism:
“Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.’
Would that we all could reply with the same trust in God’s goodness, even if the flames are licking at our toes.
Saint Joan was posthumously re-tried under Pope Calixtus III in 1456, and declared not only innocent, but a saint, even if her canonization had to wait for five more centuries. She was declared definitively amongst the heavenly court by Pope Benedict XV on May 16, 1920, not so much for saving France, but, as with all the saints, for who she was, and is – a humble and obedient handmaid of the Lord.
Saint Jeanne, priez pour la France, priez pour nous tous.