St. Joan of Arc, Virgin

Author: Alban Butler


Feast: May 30

Transparently simple as were the whole life and actions of the spotless Maid of Orleans, her biography is nevertheless one that presents a considerable initial difficulty. It is a theme that requires a sort of historical disquisition by way of introduction. The reason of this is, of course, that her personal narrative is so interwoven not merely with the complicated history of France and England during the period of her short and glorious career, but that considerable reference has to be made to events immediately preceding the stirring years that witnessed Joan's meteoric rise, triumphant progress, and tragic death.

When Edward III took active steps to enforce his shadowy claim to the Throne of France, and so began the hideous welter of blood and ruin known as the Hundred Years War, he bequeathed that legacy of hatred which from age to age has divided the two nations more effectually than the Channel that physically separates them. The renewal of that claim by Henry V in 1415, however, has no such measure of guilt. For Henry, according to Professor York Powell, seems to have been really impressed by the sporadic, but none the less formidable Lollard movement, with its scheme of a sort of federal republic by captains over each shire, and Lord Cobham (Sir John Oldcastle) as head or president over all. This and the deadly, though for the time being slumbering, feud between the descendants of Edward III, and also the knowledge of the inferior claim of his own branch of the family to the Crown, made Henry very desirous of securing a place of independent retreat in case of drastic political changes. At the time of his death, 1422, all fear of a possible revolution had passed away. His own commanding abilities, the stupendous victory of Agincourt and other brilliant successes in France, had made him one of the first monarchs in Europe, and, to say the truth, this "England's Darling" thoroughly deserved his good fortune, for after becoming master of the north of France, Henry had introduced order and good government into a country not only harassed by war, but long notoriously oppressed by its own despotic seigneurs and the other "incidents" of a feudalism easily the most galling in Europe. On the French side not only was the King, Charles VI, mad, and the Dauphin a minor, but the members of the royal family of France were at open feud with each other, each faction being quite prepared to aid the invader for its own private ends. Ever since 1407, there had been a more or less continuous civil war in the distracted country between the Armagnacs and the House of Burgundy, arising out of the murder of the Duke of Orleans, the King's brother, by John, Duke of Burgundy. Four years later, Burgundy openly requested and received help from England in the form of money, knights and archers. Even the death of Henry V did not alter much the situation of affairs in France. His able brother, John, Duke of Bedford, continued his wise rule over the spheres of English influence. He enforced strict justice and good order, put down the brigands who often, in the uniforms of English soldiers, oppressed the wretched peasantry, fostered trade and lightened the taxes, so that many Frenchmen, especially of the merchant class, welcomed, rather than opposed, so just and firm a rule. Paris was not only under the English, but was curiously enough strongly pro-English, so that it seemed not unlikely that the little Henry VI, who when ten years old was actually crowned King of France at Notre Dame, would eventually rule without opposition over the two nations. But, meanwhile, Charles VI had died and with the accession of his son there also arose a new and strong feeling of patriotism and of "France for the French." Charles VII, though emphatically not "every inch a King," was at least a rallying point for the party of la Patrie, which now concentrated all its efforts on saving the City of Orleans then closely invested by Thomas de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. After his death—from a splinter of a cannon-shot—the siege was continued by the Earl of Suffolk, and great were the sufferings of the miserable inhabitants. The Scots had long been in France fighting side by side with their natural allies, the French, the hereditary foe of both nations, but the combined effort of Sir John Stewart and the Count de Clermont to prevent food from being brought up to the besiegers, ended in the severe defeat of Rouvray, humorously known as the "Battle of the Herrings."1 The deadly shafts of the English Archers again proved too much for French lance and Scottish broads word, and so desperate grew the situation of the city, that not only was a surrender proposed, but the Dauphin, ever faint-hearted, thought of abandoning France, at least for a time. It was at this point of the national crisis, that effectual help came, and from the most unlooked for quarter.

On 6th January, 1412, there was born at the obscure village of Domremy, on the banks of the Meuse, and near the fair and typically French province of Lorraine, Jeannette, or Jeanne, or Joan D'Arc, daughter of pious parents of the peasant class. The family-name seems to have been originally spelt Darc. Her father, James, and mother, Isobel Darc were not only devout and laborious, as became a son and daughter of Catholic and rural France, but they are described as having been people well endowed with that strong self-reliance, shrewd common sense, and sturdy independence, which modern "civilization" with its constant bureaucratic interference, and widespread, free, uniform "education," has rendered almost as extinct as the classical case of the Dodo! Jeanne, their daughter, certainly, and no doubt the other children as well, inherited these splendid and irreplaceable qualities in a very marked degree. Up to about the age of sixteen, Jeanne or Joan, to call her by her most generally known name, led the ordinary life of a peasant girl of her class, doing her part in ploughing, sowing and harvesting, tending the parental flocks, and at home spinning hemp and wool, and attending to other feminine domestic duties. She was a singularly pious girl, even among a simple and devout people, hearing Mass daily, making frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and often undertaking journeys of devotion to places of religious repute. Messire Guillaume Fronte, the worthy Cure of Domremy, later left a record that Joan was "a simple and good girl; pious, well brought up and God-fearing, and without her like in the whole village." To her other acts of personal piety, she added great charity to the poor, even to the extent of giving up occasionally her own bed to some necessitous wanderer, and sleeping herself on the floor by the hearth.

The terrible foreign war which had so long devasted France, was painfully brought home to the retired village-folk of Domremy by the actual experience of invasion itself. The poor people of Domremy had more than once to flee before the bands of marauders who warred on the unhappy natives in the name of one or other of the contending parties, and on one occasion the humble home of the Darcs was plundered and burnt to the ground! This dreadful experience and also some old prophecies to the effect that the "fair realm of France" was to be delivered from the terrible English by a woman, made a great impression on little Joan, and the theme and all that it stood for, soon became her constant meditation and the subject of most fervent prayer.

On the 17th of August, 1424, the French and Scots under the Earl of Douglas (Due de Tourraine), met with an overwhelming defeat at Verneuil, at the hands of the Duke of Bedford. So many Scots and Frenchmen fell beneath the "cloth yard" hail of the English Archers, that the field resembled a shambles rather than a place of battler The news 'of this appalling catastrophe, which for the time stunned every French Nationalist, set Joan praying the more. The following summer (1425) Joan was one midday in her father's garden, when, as she said: "I heard a voice from God for my help and guidance. The first time I heard this voice, I was very much frightened. I heard this voice to my right towards the Church. Rarely do I hear it without its being accompanied by a light.... I believe it was sent to me from God. When I heard it for the third time, I recognized that it was the voice of an Angel." She always asserted that she was as sure that the voice came from God, as she was as sure of the Christian Faith!

But the "Voices" did not come alone. They were presently accompanied by visions of the holy Angels, accompanied by St. Michael the Archangel, and at other times by Angels with apparitions of St. Catharine and St. Margaret (Queen of Scotland, d. 1093). These Saints as described by her were adorned with "beautiful and precious" crowns, and the voices were sweet and subdued, yet unmistakable in their commands.

At first, the messages were personal and general. Joan was bidden to continue to be a good girl, to go often to Church and put her trust in God. Then at last came the crowning order. She must leave Domremy and go and deliver Orleans. Joan, needless to say, was dumbfounded! She, a poor, unlettered peasant girl, knowing nothing of the science of war or of the world, ordered to go forth and tell this mysterious occurrence and command to great lords and captains, and persons in authority generally I The idea might well seem too absurd even for the wildest dreamer, but the visions continued, and the Voices became more imperious than before!

Joan's whole conduct throughout this extraordinary episode, shows that she was no visionary, no dreamer nor schemer, eager to be led, but a girl of remarkable common sense and most rare prudence. She consulted her uncle, Durant Laxart (or Durand Lassois), a sensible, matter-of-fact man, who at first did not put any credence in what she told him, but finding by time and experience how insistent his niece was, and how free her narrative was from any taint of personal conceit or self-seeking, the shrewd yeoman finally agreed to do as she requested. This was to go with her to Vaucouleurs to see the King's Commander, Robert de Baudricourt, there, and tell him of her mission and of the heavenly commands which dictated it. Joan succeeded so far in getting more than one interview with de Baudricourt, though, of course, it was not until after many difficulties had been surmounted-harsh rebuffs, ridicule, wearisome delays all of which had to go towards the testing and perfecting of the wondrous maid. Military leaders in all campaigns are accustomed to be harassed by cranks and self-styled geniuses eager to show them how "to win the war," so we cannot perhaps wonder at de Baudricourt's extreme reluctance to listen to, much less to be impressed by, this apparently impossible story. But listen, at length, the rough but honest soldier did. In brief, her communication was that she was to go to the "gentle Dauphin," obtain an army from him to raise the siege of Orleans-"take him to be annointed at Rheims, win back Paris and drive the English from the realm."

Armed with a letter from de Baudricourt and accompanied by Jean de Novelonpont, her two brothers, and a suitable escort, Joan, after a perilous journey through the territory of the Burgundians-the Allies of the English -reached Chinon on 6th March. She recognized the Dauphin in spite of his well-prepared disguise, and delivered her message in open court. She conjured him by St. Louis and St. Charlemagne to believe her. Prelates, courtiers, lawyers, and the worldly-wise generally, had to be won over, but in the end, Joan, clad in bright armour and mounted on a coal-black steed, was allowed to have her way and proceed with the army detailed to raise the siege of Orleans. She carried a sacred sword found, according to her prophecy, under the altar of the Church of St. Catharine de Fierbois, and bore a white banner adorned with lilies, and the holy names: "Jesus, Maria," separated by a cross.

The English had raised a quantity of very strong earthworks and bastions about the city, and it is not quite clear how Joan and the relieving force with her came to pass, as they did, into the beleaguered place. For though the besiegers swore to burn "La Pucelle" as a witch, if they caught her, "they did not try to stop the army that was with her from coming into the town."2 In the series of desperate sorties that now ensued, the English, though hitherto seemingly invincible, so that two hundred of them used easily to rout four times that number of Frenchmen (Dunois), were everywhere worsted, and their chain of works one by one destroyed. Amidst all this heavy fighting, the glorious Maid was the life and soul of her countrymen, even though when wounded severely, as she was, by an arrow during one of the assaults. In the attack on the great "bastille" known as "Les Tourelles," she said to her soldiers: "Wait till my banner touches the fort, then go in and all is yours." They did so, and very soon the place was in their hands.. The siege of Orleans was raised, 9th May, 1429. In the next campaign, victory everywhere followed the wondrous "Pucelle "-at Jargeau Troyes, Beaugency, and Chalons. But Joan did not rely on courage and enthusiasm alone. She insisted on the army of the deliverance purging itself from the sins and scandals which had filled the encampments and garrison towns with disorders and immoralities, and, indeed, the mere presence of the stainless Maid was almost of itself enough to repress all that was morally wrong. As a leader, this girl of eighteen showed herself not only valiant to an extraordinary degree, but she displayed military qualities that can only be described as Napoleonic. In all the battles up to her appearance in the field, the mighty red yew bows of the English Archers, and their cloth-yard shafts tipped with keenest steel, calculated to pierce the finest mail and plate, had ever proved irresistible. To the deadly arrow-volleys of the foe, Joan now opposed the concentrated fire of field-pieces, with the result that the old archer formations were broken up and their discharges rendered far less effective.

On 17th July, 1429, the Dauphin was solemnly crowned at Rheims, and duly anointed from the sacred Ampoule, traditionally believed to have been used at the baptism of Clovis.3 Joan, who, during the imposing and triumphant ceremony had stood by the King amidst the Peers of France with the Oriflamme in her hand, now declared her mission accomplished and begged leave to be allowed to return to her home. Her earnest request was refused. She and her family, however, were ennobled, though Joan never sought any worldly distinction being more than satisfied that her heaven-appointed task to deliver France from the foe and hand her country over to its rightful King, had at last been achieved. As usual, Joan spoke but the simple truth when she declared her life-work finished. In the sortie from Compiegne on 24th May, 1430, the Maid was taken prisoner by the Burgundians, and after four months' imprisonment in the Castle of Beaulieu was sold to the Duke of Bedford by John of Luxembourg for 10,000 livres.

What Burke wrote about "the age of Chivalry" in 1794, applies with even greater force to the disgraceful epoch of 1430-31. For all its mailed knights and belted counts and earls, its portcullised castles and streaming pennons, "the age of Chivalry" by the mid-fifteenth century was indeed "gone." We gladly refrain from detailing the barbarous and cowardly insults and outrages that were now heaped upon the defenceless "Pucelle" by her infamous captors. The subject, bad as it is, is, however, less odious than that of the shameful abandonment of the Maid by the poltroon Charles VII and his contemptible Court. Vile as the conduct of the English was, these brutal soldiers and officials were after all, Joan's sworn enemies-the men from whose grasp she had snatched at the eleventh hour the glittering prize of victory. But the cur of a King and his infamous minions owed everything to Joan's prowess, and they abandoned the incomparable Maid without even apparently considering further her cruel fate!

The marvellous successes of the "Pucelle" had been widely attributed by her enemies to sorcery, and Bedford, in fact, had openly denounced the amazing heroine in the full tide of her victories as a "Lyme of the Feende!" As a prisoner of war, Joan could not legally be punished, but as a reputed witch, matters were very different, and it was resolved to prostitute justice and pervert the canon law to encompass her destruction. The abetters and tools of this horrible crime were the vile Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais and a "Court" of some fifty ecclesiastics and lawyers of a like kidney, and all, of course, Bedford's men. The trial of the Maid began at Rouen on Wednesday, 21st February, 1431, and with a few adjournments the horrid travesty of justice lasted till 23rd May. Without help of any kind, the Maid heroically faced her judges, or murderers rather, consistently maintaining that her Voices and her Mission were alike from God. A garbled account of her case was submitted to the Sorbonne, which, being entirely in the English interest, returned a condemnation—though a qualified one—of the accused. By a base trick—well worthy the abandoned wretches whose "hour" it was—Joan was led to retract, though when Cauchon and some of his assessors saw her in prison on 28th May, she withdrew her so-called "recantation" and reaffirmed her belief in the divine nature of her cause. This was enough. As a relapsed heretic, Joan was burned to death in the Market Place at Rouen, 30th May, 1431—and the world has ever since shuddered at the crime! "My voices were from God," declared the dying heroine of France, who in death as in life, was true to her sacred cause.

Twenty-four years after this unspeakable crime, Pope Calixtus III, at the representation of Joan's family and faithful friends, caused the whole process to be reinvestigated, with the result that the "trial" was declared to be "full of iniquity," and "manifest errors in fact as in law." The verdict in consequence was proclaimed "null, non-existent, and without value or effect." Solemnly published in the Archbishop's Palace at Rouen, and immediately throughout France, the reversal of the infamous sentence was received everywhere as "the triumph of truth and justice." The place of Joan's fiery death was marked by a splendid cross, and the day of her passing from the injustice of the world to the joys of Paradise, kept, especially at Orleans, as a solemn feast. Belief in the Maid's heroic sanctity grew with time, and passed from France over the whole Catholic world.

On 8th May, 1869, the Archbishops and Bishops of France presented a petition for her canonization, and quarter of a century later (27th January, 1894), Pope Leo XIII declared "this most perfect daughter of her Church "—as the late Andrew Lang styled her—" Venerable." Her Beatification at St. Peter's on 11th April, 1909, in the presence of seventy-five Archbishops and Bishops of France and 40,000 French pilgrims, preceded by eleven years the crowning act of the Canonization of the illustrious Maid by Benedict XV, on 16th May, 1920. The Great War had ended, and in the comparative quietude that followed the strife and tumult of those fateful years, all lovers of truth and justice had opportunity to join joyfully, at least in spirit, with the great and sacred act which irrevocably enrolled Joan of Arc among the celestial company of the Saints.

It has often been asked, in what precisely did the "Mission" of St. Joan consist? For clearly the mere temporal independence of her country could scarcely have formed its object, especially in view of the miserable, anarchic state of France at that time, and the undoubtedly excellent prospect of good and settled government held out by the probability of English rule. Even many Frenchmen, as we have seen, having enjoyed the blessings of peace, order, and civil justice under Bedford, were quite prepared to acquiesce in a change of rulers. Catholic writers explain the meaning and scope of the mysterious "Mission," thus: If France had passed definitely under the rule of England, then in the following century the powerful Huguenot party which subsequently arose, would, backed by the might of the Tudor dynasty, have wrested from the Church her "eldest daughter," and France thus have been lost to the Faith.

Even as it was, this eventuality came within measurable distance of being accomplished! The determination and vast resources of Protestant England would have made that menace a certainty. With the loss of France would have disappeared entirely, or rather never have come into being at all, the religious orders and congregations, the colleges, schools and numberless other ecclesiastical foundations which in the past three centuries have so powerfully extended, not only in France, but throughout the world, the teaching and influence of the Church. Not merely if France be largely Catholic today, but if all the blessings and advantages just named have been preserved to the Church, are facts entirely due, under God, to the Glorious Maid whose unflinching heroism, constancy, and devotion have given us the victory!

[A vast and almost entirely enthusiastic literature has grown up around the life and history of St. Joan of Arc. Admirable biographies of the Saint-are to be found in English by the late Andrew Lang (The Maid of France), and by Monsignor Stapleton-Barnes (Blessed Joan the Maid). St. Joan of Arc, a short pamphlet, Life, by J. B. Milburn (Cath. Truth Society), also gives an excellent summary of St. Joan and her time. English readers, too, are deeply indebted to the learned researches of the late Canon Wyndham of Westminster, which have done a vast deal to present a true and well-informed account of the wondrous heroine, and so made the labours of her many biographers much easier than they otherwise would have been.]


1 From the rampart of herring barrels and flour carts with which the English convoys protected themselves against the Franco-Scottish attack.

2 F. York Powell: History of England, vol. ii.

3 The Ampoule (Latin Ampulla), was a glass cruet containing the chrism used for the anointing of the Kings of France at their Coronation (Sacre) at Rheims. The ancient Ampoule of Rheims was broken by a Jacobin during the Revolution, but a portion of it is said to have been preserved, and the oil contained therein was used at the Coronation of Charles X—the last ceremony of its kind in France—in 1835.

(Taken from Vol. V of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler, (c) Copyright 1954, Virtue and Company, Limited, London.)