For a nation as chauvinistic as France, it must be something of an embarrassment that one of its greatest military triumphs — and over the English no less — was led by a woman, actually a teenage girl, named Joan of Arc. Alas, Joan paid dearly for that honor, having later been tried as a heretic by the vengeful English and burned at the stake this week (May 30) in 1431.
It was during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France that Joan, a fanatical Catholic, began to hear “celestial voices,” which told her to help the young French Dauphin, whose coronation as French king was prevented by English control of vast stretches of French territory, including a successful siege of the French city of Orleans. At an arranged meeting, Joan convinced the Dauphin that she was on a divine mission to save France, so he gave her a small French force, which she led to Orleans to relieve French forces trapped there. In fierce fighting, Joan broke the siege and forced the English army to retreat. Over the next month, Joan and her small French army defeated the English at every turn, finally recapturing the city of Rheims, where the coronation of French kings traditionally took place.
That tradition continued in July of 1429 when the dauphin became King Charles VII. At the coronation, Joan D’Arc was given a place of honor beside him.
As king, however, Charles VII took a curiously pacifist approach to the English, pinning his hopes on diplomacy, so it was without royal support that Joan again took the field against the English occupiers in 1430. Intending to fight them at Compiegne, a city near Paris, Joan was ambushed by forces loyal to the Duke of Burgundy (who had allied himself with England), captured and sold to the English for a large sum.
Bent on revenge, the English put Joan on trial, not for her military exploits — military victories were not punishable by death — but because “hearing voices” proved she was a witch and heretic. Found guilty, Joan was given a lifetime prison sentence, but later, after violating the terms of that sentence, she was condemned to burn at the stake in the English-controlled city of Rouen, in Normandy. With a crucifix in her hands, and repeatedly praising “My Lord, Jesus Christ,” Joan at last died. Her ashes were scattered over the Seine River.
But her legend would not die, and five centuries later the “heretic” would become a martyr — and a saint. In 1920, Joan was canonized by Pope Benedict XV, making her among the few people in all of history to have saved both her country, and her soul.