MILITARY (1412–1431); DOMRÉMY-LA-PUCELLE, FRANCE
Today, Joan of Arc (or Jeanne d'Arc) is most often referred to as a heroine and early symbol of female empowerment. But during her brief life, she was deemed a heretic—and burned at the stake for it in Rouen, France on May 30, 1431, when she was just 19 years old. Read on to learn more facts about Joan’s early life and premature death, how history transformed her from sinner to saint, some famous quotes, and how her legacy has lived on in movies, books, and art.
1. Joan of Arc’s birth date is unknown, but her childhood was marked by war.
Though her exact date of birth isn’t known, Joan of Arc was born in the French village of Domrémy (now known as Domrémy-la-Pucelle) around 1412 to Jacques d’Arc and his wife, Isabelle. Her remote area of northeastern France was not immune to the growing dangers of the Hundred Years’ War, a protracted conflict between France and England that lasted from 1337 to 1453 and saw the French crown fall into dispute. Raids were common at the time, especially as the area in which Joan and her family lived was controlled by the Burgundians, a faction allied with England against the French ruling family. During one incident, her home village was burned down.
2. Joan of Arc began having visions when she was just 13 years old.
While Joan of Arc spent her teenage years fighting for the French army toward the end of the Hundred Years’ War, her willingness to go into battle wasn’t just an act of patriotism. In 1424, Joan began having visions in which St. Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret of Antioch appeared to her to instruct her to live a life dedicated to God. As time went on, the visions grew more intense, and eventually the saints would tell her to meet with the Dauphin, the future Charles VII, whom she viewed as the rightful heir to the French throne. The visions urged Joan to convince him to allow her to take up arms against the English and drive them out of France, which would result in Charles officially being recognized as king.
In May 1428, Joan of Arc tried to convince Sir Robert de Baudricourt, commander of a royal garrison, to let her go see Charles. She was initially turned away, but her persistence paid off, because by February 1429, Joan and her visions had gained enough support from the war-weary townspeople to earn Baudricourt's respect and a trip to Chinon to meet with Charles. While traveling to the court, she cut her hair short and began dressing like a man to blend in with the other soldiers.
3. Joan of Arc had correctly spotted Charles VII in disguise.
Joan of Arc claimed she would be able to recognize the Dauphin without ever having met him, so before their first meeting, the future king decided to see this ability in person. He disguised himself as just another member of the court. When Joan arrived, true to her word, she was still able to pick him out, and before long, Charles was ready to listen to her.
While she had no military experience, Joan of Arc managed to convince Charles to let her lead an army to the town of Orléans, then occupied by English forces, so that she could liberate it in his name. In April 1429, as English and French forces battled near the west side of the city, Joan and her troops entered through the east, virtually unopposed, bringing much-needed supplies and reinforcements with them. Once entrenched in Orléans, Joan—dressed in white armor and riding atop a white horse—became an inspiration for the French soldiers and was known for charging into battles, distributing food, and openly calling for the English to depart.
Joan of Arc was an invaluable symbol of hope for the French in Orléans, and by May 8, 1429, after a series of battles within the city, Joan and her army were successful in driving the English out. After a few more victories, Joan of Arc attended Charles's triumphant coronation in Reims in July 1429.
4. Joan of Arc was put on trial for heresy and witchcraft.
In May 1430, Joan of Arc was captured by Burgundian troops during a siege on the town of Compiègne. After her capture, she was sold to the English for 10,000 francs, and she would be held in prison for more than a year on charges of heresy, witchcraft, and wearing men’s clothing. The latter was directly forbidden in the Biblical verse Deuteronomy 22:5, which states that women should not wear “that which pertaineth unto a man.”
A very pro-English trial ensued, with a guilty verdict all but confirmed. On May 28, 1431, Joan signed a retraction of her claims that saints had appeared before her and agreed to only dress as a woman, which would have reduced her death sentence to life in prison, instead. But a few days later, she was again found in men’s clothing and claimed that the visions had returned to her. Her retraction now nullified, the death sentence would be carried out.
5. Joan of Arc died when she was burned at the stake.
On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the Place du Vieux-Marché in Rouen, France. The main charges after her relapse did not involve witchcraft but were instead related to wearing men’s clothing and falsely claiming that God had urged her to commit violence against the English. Joan of Arc was only 19 at the time of her execution, and it’s estimated that 10,000 people gathered to watch. After her death, a legend soon grew that Joan's heart had somehow survived the fire.
6. Joan of Arc Became a Saint in 1920.
The rehabilitation of Joan of Arc’s reputation took place soon after her execution. In 1456, a retrial was held, ordered by King Charles VII, that posthumously overturned Joan’s conviction and cleared her of any dubious claims of witchcraft and heresy. While Joan of Arc would remain a hero in France for centuries, she gained wider immortality on May 16, 1920, when she was officially canonized by the Catholic Church and was named the patron saint of France, soldiers, and prisoners.
7. The Passion of Joan of Arc is known as one of the most important silent movies.
Less than 10 years after Joan of Arc was made a saint by Pope Benedict XV, her story was brought to the big screen while the movie industry was still in its infancy. Titled The Passion of Joan of Arc, this 1928 silent film is the product of director Carl Theodor Dreyer and star Renée Jeanne Falconetti, who played Joan of Arc. The movie depicts Joan’s imprisonment, trial, and execution. And while it was a financial flop at the time, it has since earned a reputation as one of the finest films of the silent era, with publications like Sight & Sound and The Village Voice, along with critics like Roger Ebert, singing its praises.
8. Jules Bastien-Lepage's Joan of Arc Painting Has Been in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art Since 1889.
Joan of Arc has inspired countless different works of art in nearly every medium imaginable. In addition to the Saint Joan of Arc statue in Notre Dame cathedral, one of the most recognizable works inspired by the famed French hero is the painting by artist Jules Bastien-Lepage that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The figure of Joan was modeled by Marie-Adèle Robert, one of the artist’s cousins, and was completed in 1879.
Famous Joan of Arc Quotes
- “I do not fear men-at-arms; my way has been made plain before me. If there be men-at-arms my Lord God will make a way for me to go to my Lord Dauphin. For that am I come.”
- “I would rather die than do something which I know to be a sin, or to be against God's will.”
- “I was in my thirteenth year when I heard a voice from God to help me govern my conduct. And the first time I was very much afraid.”
- “Children say that people are hung sometimes for speaking the truth.”