Joan of Arc: Visionary Leader or Ill Puppet?

Joan of Arc. Getty Images

Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d’Arc, was a teenage French peasant who, claiming she heard divine voices, managed to persuade a desperate heir to the French throne to build a force around her. This defeated the English at the siege of Orléans. After seeing the heir crowned she was captured, tried and executed for heresy. A French icon, she was also known as La Pucelle, which has been translated into English as the Maid, but at the time had connotations to virginity.

It is, however, entirely possible Joan was a mentally ill person used as a puppet for a short term success and then cast aside for the longer impact.

Context: The Hundred Years War

In 1337, a dispute over feudal rights and land led England and Edward III into war with France. What made this different from previous disputes was that the English king, Edward III, claimed the French throne for himself through his mother’s bloodline. The Hundred Years War ebbed back and forth, but after the successes of England’s Henry V, by 1420s England appeared to be winning. They, together their allies - a powerful French faction called the Burgundians - ruled vast areas of France under a dual Anglo-French monarch. Their opponents supported Charles, the French claimant to the French throne, but his campaign had stalled. In reality, both sides were in need of funds. In 1428 the English began to siege Orléans as a springboard to pushing further into the Charles’ territory.
Although the English siege forces were desperate for money and in need of more men, no major rescue was forthcoming from Charles.

The Visions of a Peasant Girl

Joan of Arc was born sometime in 1412 to farmers in the village of Domrémy in the Champagne region of France. She worked as a cowherd, but even as a girl was noted for her unusual levels of piety, spending many hours in church.
She began to see visions and believe she heard voices, supposedly of Michael the Archangel, St. Katherine of Alexandria, and St. Margaret of Antioch. These developed to the point where they were telling her to go raise the siege or Orléans. After an uncle took her to the nearest stronghold loyal to Charles – Vaucouleurs – in late 1428 she was sent away after asking to see Charles, but she returned again and again and either impressed so much, or gained the eye of powerful backers, that she was sent to Chinon.

Charles was at first unsure of whether to admit her but, after a couple of days, he did. Dressed as a man she explained to Charles that God had sent her to both fight the English and see him crowned king at Rheims. This was the traditional location for the crowning of the French kings, but it was in English controlled territory and Charles remained uncrowned. Joan was only the latest in a line of female mystics claiming to bring messages from God, one of which had targeted Charles’ father, but Joan made a bigger impact. After an examination by theologians at Poitiers allied to Charles, who decided she was both sane and not a heretic – a very real danger for anyone claiming to receive messages from god – Charles decided she could try.

After sending a letter demanding that the English hand over their conquests, Joan donned armour and set out for Orleans with the Duke of Alençon and an army.

The Maid of Orléans

The English were besieging Orléans but couldn’t fully encircle it and had seen their able commander killed while observing the town. Consequently, Joan and Alençon were able to get inside on April 30th 1429, and were joined by the bulk of their army on the 3rd of May. Within days their forces had captured English earthworks and defences and effectively broken the siege, which the English abandoned after trying to draw Joan and Alençon out into a pitch battle. They refused.

This boosted the morale of Charles and his allies greatly. The army thus carried on, recapturing land and strongpoint from the English, even defeating an English force which had challenged them at Patay – albeit one smaller than the French – after Joan had again used her mystical visions to promise victory.

The English reputation for martial invincibility was broken.

Rheims and the King of France

In a campaign where the English had believed God was on their side things seemed to be changing, and Charles’ supporters thought Joan was invincible. She talked Charles into leaving France’s capital, Paris, to the English for the moment, and instead go to Rheims, although such persuasion took a while. In the end he mustered perhaps 12,000 men and marched through English territory for Rheims, accepting surrenders along the way, and Joan did indeed see him crowned as King of France on July 17th 1429. There is uncertainty as to whether Joan had told Charles she would see him crowned before Orléans, or whether she only said this after her initial success.


However, the image of the invincible ‘maid’ was soon broken, as an attack on Paris failed, and Joan was wounded. Charles then sought a truce, and Joan was packed off with Lord Albret and a small army to campaign elsewhere, with mixed success. The next year Joan joined the defence of the Oïse where, on May 24th 1430, Joan was captured in a skirmish by Burgundian forces. Late in 1430 or early 1431 the Burgundian leader, partly responding to pleas from the theology staff at the University of Paris – which was in English hands - to have her handed over and put on trial for her possible heresy, sold Joan to the English, who gave her to the church.


The trial was to take place at Rouen, an English held town, with staff and religious men loyal to the English claims on France. She was to be judged by the vice-inquisitor of France, and the Bishop of the diocese where she had been captured, plus men from the University of Paris. Joan’s trial started on February 21st 1431. She was charged with seventy crimes, largely heretical and blasphemous in nature, including prophecy and claiming divine authority for herself. This was later reduced to twelve key ‘Articles’. It has been called “perhaps the best recorded heresy trial of the middle ages” (Taylor, Joan of Arc, Manchester, p. 23).

This wasn’t just a theological trial, although the church certainly wanted to reinforce their orthodoxy by proving that Joan wasn’t receiving messages from the God they themselves claimed the sole right to interpret, and her interrogators probably did genuinely believe she was a heretic. Politically, she had to be found guilty. The English said Henry VI’s claim on the French throne was approved by God, and Joan’s messages had to be false to keep the English justification. It was also hoped a guilty verdict would undermine Charles, who was already rumoured to be consorting with sorcerers, even though England held back from making explicit links in their propaganda.

Joan was found guilty and an appeal to the Pope refused. At first Joan signed a document of abjuration, accepting her guilt and coming back into the church, after which she was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, a few days later she changed her mind, saying that her voices had accused her of treason, and she was now found guilty of being a relapsed heretic.

The church handed her over to secular English forces in Rouen, as was the custom, and she was executed by being burnt on May 30th. She was probably 19.


An English resurgence checked Charles and stalemate ensued for a few years, until the Burgundians switched sides, the single most important event in Charles’ victory, which took another twenty years after Joan. When secure, at the end of the war, Charles started the process through which Joan’s sentence was eventually annulled in 1456. The exact extent to which Joan helped change the tide of the Hundred Years War has always been debated, as has whether her inspiration affected only a few high ranking soldiers, or the main body of combatants. Indeed, most aspects of her history are open to argument, such as why Charles listened to her in the first place, or whether ambitious nobles simply used her as a justification.

One thing is clear: her reputation has grown enormously since her death, becoming an embodiment of French consciousness, a figure to turn to in times of need. She is now seen as a vital, bright moment of hope in France’s history, whether her true achievements are overstated – as they often are -or not. France celebrates her with a national holiday on the second Sunday in May every year. However, historian Régine Pernoud added: “Prototype of the glorious military heroine, Joan is also prototype of the political prisoner, of the hostage, and of the victim of oppression.” (Pernoud, trans. Adams, Joan of Arc, Phoenix Press 1998, p. XIII)

Aftermath of the War

List of French monarchs.