Joan of Arc's Crimes

part 3 of 3

Jeanne d’Arc’s religious visions and voices directed her to take charge of France’s liberation from the invading English during the Hundred Years’ War. Her “mentors” in this venture were the archangel Michael, and two female saints, Catherine of Alexandria and Margaret of Antioch.

Jeanne’s quest led to her to seek Charles VII, the displaced heir to the French throne.  With Jeanne’s aid, the French forces relieved a siege at Orléans, and routed the English occupyingJeanne d'Arc at the Stake (frontispiece)Credit: Vic Dillingerâ„¢, © 2011 forces from the area in May 1429.  By this time the 17-year-old peasant girl had earned the trust of the future king of France.  He made her co-commander of his army, and Jeanne’s forces cleared a swath to Reims, the French capital occupied by English sympathizers.  En route to Reims, she and her troops brought all hostile encounters to a quick close, and Charles was led to Reims and a coronation as the true king of France in July 1429.

Because of Jeanne’s service to the French crown, Charles VII raised the d’Arc family into the nobility on December 29, 1429.  Their names were officially registered on January 20, 1430.  This grant allowed them to replace their surname with “du Lys”.  Although now members of the élite of France, the circumstances of their life style did not change much.

Jeanne d’Arc, meanwhile, continued to fight the English, mostly failing to rid the country of them.  Her biggest fiasco was an assault on Paris – Jeanne’s men were humiliatingly repulsed. Fighting in a minor skirmish in May 1430 along the frontier of English-occupied French lands, Jeanne’s army met with fresh enemy forces too great in number to defeat.  They began a tactical retreat to a nearby fortress – Jeanne, as co-commander, stayed behind on the battlefield, and was one of the last to retire from the situation.  Before she could reach safety, however, she was ambushed and captured by a group of Burgundian soldiers (the Burgundians had sided with England in the ongoing conflict and paid allegiance to the English throne and its representatives). An archer forced Jeanne from her mount, and she was taken forcefully into custody as she refused to surrender. 

The Burgundians had captured a scourge; many English and French soldiers had died at the end of her sword and from her men.  She had been a naturally brilliant tactician.  She was the first to more fully use newly developed artillery.  She also, perhaps cavalierly, popularized the strategy of full-on frontal assaults, something not done as a matter of course.  This sort of overrunning tactic became normative afterward.  She had embarrassed the English crown, this illiterate farm girl.  Her military strategies had been devastating – England lost most of its holdings in France thanks to her tireless warring on behalf of her God and her King. The real question for the Burgundians was what to do with such a valuable prize?

In medieval times many prisoners-of-war were ransomed back to their governments or relatives for outrageous sums.  Most of the time, the hostages were key nobles either kidnapped outright or captured in battle.  Jeanne’s family was in no position financially to meet any ransom demands.  The current Duke of Burgundy, Philip, made her situation known to Charles VII in Reims.  He elected to do nothing.

There is a reason for Charles not helping Jeanne.  It is a poor one, but it is important.  In medieval times, mental illness was seen as a sign of demonic possession or of witchcraft.  Charles VII’s father, King Charles VI (died 1422) was intermittently given to bouts of bizarre and insane behavior.  His fits of mental illness distracted him sufficiently from the business of running the country; the English were able to gain a toehold because of his inattention.  Historically, the French nicknamed Charles VI “Charles the Mad”.  Because of some of his more eccentric behaviors, he was also known as “Charles the Silly”. Charles VI’s delusions, when the fits were upon him, were truly strange.  One of his delusions, for example, was he thought he was made of glass: not metaphorically, but literally made of glass. 

Because mental illness (or the “fits”) was thought to be inherited, the court of Charles VII watched him very closely for any developing signs of his father’s insanity. That is why, when Jeanne first presented herself to Charles VII in 1429, he sent her off for validation after he heard her story of visions.  He could not afford the association with this girl who heard voices if she were not proven sane. The validation of her visions’ orthodoxy (something Bernadette Soubirous was also put through several times in the mid 18th century) offered some hope to Charles VII that this girl was at least stable enough to carry out her task.  It also meant he did not have to suffer vicarious scorn for commissioning her to lead his troops, since she was adjudged intelligent and cognizant.

Charles refused to pay Jeanne’s ransom simply because her being guided by voices was made very public.  He could not afford the guilt by association, and his court was extremely sensitive to any aspersions cast about the sanity of the king.  However callous his decision may have seemed, it was politic at the time.

Jeanne was not a model prisoner.  Her captors gave her women’s clothing to wear; she flatly refused. Previously, because of her commission as a female soldier, her wearing men’s clothing was tolerated.  Her reasoning was sound – as an attractive young woman in the company of battle-hardened soldiers, co-commander or not, she was always in danger of sexual molestation or violent rape.  None of her fellow soldiers would have thought anything at all of raping her if the mood had so struck them.

Jeanne’s shorn hair (which she had cut for the first time upon leaving Vaucouleurs in early 1429), male garb, and tomboyish demeanor both encouraged respect from her men and discouraged their seeing her as a sexual object at the same time.  It was also practical – women’s clothing in medieval times, even the simple frocks of the peasantry, would have been completely impractical on a battlefield or in a soldier’s camp.  The physical nature of fighting required less cumbersome gear – armor was limiting enough. 

In addition to her clothing issues Jeanne made several escape attempts.  She was held in a tower in Beaurevoir for several months as the negotiations continued.  Philip, the Duke of Burgundy, finally struck a deal to ransom her to the English for a large sum.  The negotiations for this transaction were carried out by a bishop named Pierre Cauchon.  This bishop was a supporter of the Burgundians and of the English.

Map of Rouen & Tower of Jeanne's captivityCredit: map: American Peoples Encyclopedia, 1963, Tours Tower, wiki commons


When Jeanne learned of Philip’s deal, selling her to her mortal enemies, she leaped from the 70-foot tower where she was imprisoned.  At its foot was a dry moat, and the earth, though soft, did not prevent her from injury.  She was captured immediately and transferred, upon conclusion of the ransom, to Arras (in a more secure holding place).  While imprisoned there, the only known portrait of her was painted by a Scottish artist. [This portrait was destroyed within a short time, and a new one was made sometime between 1450 and 1500 from memory.]  Jeanne was then transferred to the provisional English capital in Rouen, France.

It was Jeanne who first roused the peasantry’s sentiments about liberation.  Before her appearance on the scene the populace considered the intrigue of The Hundred Years’ War a matter of internal politics and international scuffling only.  It only became a point of national pride with Jeanne d’Arc’s fervent patriotism. Additionally, she turned the war into a religious one and not simply a war over the right to rule – God wanted France free of English.

Jeanne d’Arc had to be dealt with by the English.  The Duke of Bedford (John of Lancaster, acting as regent for the infant Henry VI, the technical king of France) felt only animosity toward Jeanne.  He wanted to display this teenage girl, who had caused such a panic among his English troops and who had facilitated the crowning of Charles VII as the true king of France, to all the world as a heretic and a witch.

The Duke of Bedford could not order her execution outright; that would make her a martyr.  This would galvanize the French, further strengthening their nationalistic resolve. They had to punish and make an example of her, and the only way to do that was to first discredit her.

Witchcraft was a serious offense and in medieval times many women (and men) were executed in various ways (burning, hanging, dismembering).  The peculiarity of being accused of witchcraft is if one confessed to it, generally one was allowed to live, either with a prison term or a lashing or a fine. It was only those who refuted the charge but later convicted who were put to death.

Jeanne d’Arc was not a witch. The English could not accuse her of being a witch, even though that might have been the easiest charge to bring against her.  After all, the voices she heard could just as easily have been demons or Satan himself.  Who could say?  She liked to wear men’s clothes, she worked as a soldier (a man’s occupation) – that was something against the laws of God to some. 

What kept this charge from being brought was Jeanne’s virginity.  Her intact hymen prevented the witchcraft allegation from even being considered.  Although an intact hymen is no guarantee of “virginity”, in medieval times it was taken as fact.  Witches had sexual intercourse (often with the Devil); therefore, they could not be virgins. As part of her examination in Poitiers, Charles VII’s mother-in-law (the one who financed the army Jeanne led to Orléans) was the woman who confirmed Jeanne’s intact hymen. This same hymen exam was conducted in Rouen as well by a different woman who reported back it was unbroken. 

The only thing left concerned her religion and her visions.  Jeanne was brought up on charges of heresy instead of witchcraft.  Her orthodoxy had been validated in Poitiers in April 1429 upon Charles VII’s orders.  Her virginity was confirmed for the first time then as well.  So, the English hung their hats on her cross-dressing. And it was her male clothing that cinched the charge.  She had assumed a man’s role which was against the will of God.  It was okay for her to wear such gear when travelling (for her personal safety).  When she was fighting in the army it was overlooked as well.  Now, however, she was firmly in a subjugated position and had no need to wear men’s clothes.  Her insistence upon it was deemed an abomination. The religious basis for the charge?  Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman shall not wear an article proper to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s dress...” from the Old Testament. They had nothing else to bring to the table.

It was enough, however.  They let her wear her men’s clothing (simultaneously wearing two pairs of pants).   Jeanne was penned in a prison environment where her keepers were men.  Normally, women prisoners were housed pending trial in a cloistered environment in the care of nuns.  So, Jeanne’s unusual incarceration caused her to again fear for her physical being.  She said she had made a vow when she first saw her vision of Michael she would remain a virgin until God told her differently.  So, in the prison, she stuck to her manly appearance which helped discourage sexual Jeanne d'Arc (inquisition; painting detail)Credit: Paul DeLarouche; public domainadvances from her guards (although there were attempts to rape her nonetheless – Jeanne, being a battle-toughened soldier, successfully defended herself).

Her atypical housing aside she was treated relatively respectfully, though with suspicion.  The English let her wear her male clothing until it came time for her preliminary interrogations. Because she would be in the presence of officials and clergy (who would question her about religious matters) they asked again that she wear a “proper” woman’s outfit.  She finally relented and agreed to wear a dress and other feminine accessories of the day.

The legal proceedings started on January 9, 1431 (three days after her birthday of January 6 – she was 19 years old).  Jeanne had been captive for about eight months.  Her initial interrogations (and the trial based upon them) are amazing.  She acquitted herself well on questions of theology, religion, and her role in the French efforts to oust the English.  One sticking point for her, and this became a verbal game at the opening of each session, concerned her oath.  When she was directed to tell the truth to her inquisitor, no matter what he might ask, she refused.  Her reasoning was since she did not know in advance what he might ask she might lie about certain things [she had already made it clear she would give no intimate details of her visions].   Every day this verbal jousting occurred before the questioning resumed.

Jeanne hurt her case badly by refusing to speak about her visions in anything but the most oblique terms. She claimed (and this appears to be true) to only have told of her visions to the governor who sponsored her initial trek to Chinon, Robert de Baudricourt, and to Charles VII (to convince him of her claim of liberator). The court desperately wanted to know what she had told the ascendant French king – Jeanne, knowing she was speaking to her sworn enemies, flatly replied, “Ask him yourself.”

Jeanne was allowed no counsel (although she was entitled to it legally, even then).  The court in which she was charged and tried was an ecclesiastical one, not a civil court.  The officiate was the seditious and sycophantic Bishop Pierre Cauchon (who had been the middleman in her sale to the English).  He had no jurisdiction in Rouen.  His diocese was based in another department (Beauvais).  In fact, he had to obtain a written grant outside regular channels to bring the case, and he had finagled his appointment from the English. 

A field investigation into Jeanne’s background, which entailed visits to her village of Domrémy, had uncovered nothing negative about her.  There was no licentious behavior, no aspersions to uncover.  Character witnesses on her behalf were heard but carried little weight.  Similarly, the panel, the inquisitors, and all of the litigators involved were either English or Burgundian.  Jeanne had requested an equal number of true French ecclesiastic nationalists (supporters of Charles VII) be present as well to balance the proceedings.  This, of course, was denied.  Similarly, Jeanne was denied due process in another way.  She had requested an appeal to both the Council of Basel and the Pope.  Either authority would have stopped the proceedings long enough to examine the issues.  Bishop Pierre Cauchon denied her requests.  None of this mattered much.  The Maid of Orléans was doomed, her fate already determined.  The “trial” was merely a travesty and a formality. 

In the end the myriad charges all relating to heresy were consolidated into 12 specific issues, none of which had any basis in fact (one charge began with the words “It is rumored…”).  The court record of the proceedings was altered afterward to make Jeanne look guilty.  Some of those on hand creating transcripts reported they had been threatened with death if they did not record as directed. 

Jeanne was finally worn down by the whole process.  She wanted this to be over.  Jeanne was illiterate but she had learned to sign her own name (which she wrote as “Jehanne”). WhileJeanne d'Arc (signature: "Jehanne")Credit: public domain imprisoned she had dictated letters which she then signed herself (only three of her signatures have been recovered).  Because she couldn’t read, the court read to her a document that in effect said she was indeed a heretic, but that she renounced her heresy (among her “heresies” was the adaptation of a man’s garb and lifestyle).  She signed this without truly understanding it under the threat of immediate execution if she did not. This document was later substituted with one in the official record that more suited the court’s needs to discredit and humiliate her, Charles VII, and France. One of the conditions of this document was that she wear only women’s clothing from that time forward.

As was customary, admitting guilt meant relief from execution.  Jeanne was convicted as a heretic.  She was given a life sentence and returned to the tower.  She reported a few days later that “a great English lord” had entered her prison and tried to rape her.  She rebuffed this assault (not the first, but it was the last), and she put on her men’s clothing.  This was in direct defiance of her signed promise not to do this.  Her safety was at stake, however, and certainly her manly garb would have been more difficult to remove than the dresses worn by women of the day (and women wore no undergarments well into the middle of the 19th century – she had no physical barrier between her and a rapist except the two pairs of pants she generally wore).

Upon discovering she had reverted to wearing men’s clothing, Jeanne said she could not put on her dress because it had been stolen during her most recent rape attempt.  The English Duke of Bedford had been bitterly disappointed at Jeanne’s life sentence – he had wanted her executed.  Now he used her cross-dressing (despite the circumstances) as evidence of her true heretic nature.  Because she had already been convicted, this reversion was considered a breach of the terms of her conviction.  Heresy in that time did not become a capital offense unless one was a repeat offender.  In Jeanne’s case, she could have lived out the rest of her life in prison had she not been molested and her dress stolen.  The Duke of Bedford looked upon this as proof she was an unrepentent heretic; execution was the punishment for recidivism.

Her fate sealed, Jeanne d’Arc was prepared for a heretic’s execution, burning at the stake.  On May 30, 1431 (aged 19 years 4 months, 24 days if the only documented date for her birth is accurate) she was tied to a tall public pillar in Rouen.  She requested two of the clergy present to please hold a crucifix in front of her.  A random peasant had made a cross for her as a gift – Jeanne, in female garb for her death, tucked it into the bodice of her gown.

A common practice for nobility sentenced to such a death was to strangle them before setting them afire.  Jeanne’s family had been raised to nobility by King Charles VII in 1429.  Yet, this mercy was not extended to her (perhaps because the English refused to recognize Charles VII as king.  Or, more likely, they wanted to make a brutal example of her by burning her alive).  She was consumed by the flames, and after she was dead, English guards raked back the hot coals to inspect the remains to make sure.  This precaution was so she could not be turned into a folk hero; if not confirmed, the peasantry would simply believe she had escaped the fire into parts unknown and she would enter the world of legend and hero worship.

Jeanne d’Arc was very much deceased.  Her body was then burned two more times to completely reduce it to ash.  The English did not want anyone raking out bone fragments and revering them as holy relics. Finally, what remained of the heroine and French liberator Jeanne d’Arc was tossed into the nearby Seine River.  Her executioner, a man named Geoffrey Therage, was mortified by the whole thing.  As far as he knew he had put an innocent girl to the torch.  Certain he would be punished by God, he later stated he “greatly feared to be damned” for his role in her martyrdom. 

During her short life time Jeanne d’Arc was almost revered as a living saint, in about the same way as Bernadette Soubirous was venerated while she lived.  The masses all wanted to touch her, or lay a hand upon her.  Many people kissed the rings she wore on the fingers of both hands [she was questioned about this “worship” at her trial.  She replied simply that she was not seeking the people’s admiration, they just gave it, and she had no idea what motives anyone could have for kissing her rings.  Like Jeanne, Bernadette could also not understand why people wanted to touch her for blessings].

She was viewed as a savior of France. The tide of The Hundred Years’ War, directly because of Jeanne d’Arc’s battles and heroic stature as its symbol for liberation, turned in favor of the French. In 1435, the remaining English stronghold of Bordeaux fell, and there were no more English in power in France.  The infant Henry VI grew up and took charge as king, without benefit of a regent, when he was 14 years old in 1435 (the youngest King of England to ever rule autonomously).  This would-be King of France was an abject failure as an English king; he was stricken with mental illness later in his life, suffering a nervous breakdown in 1453 (in the convoluted world of royal inbreeding, Henry VI was the grandson of French king and lunatic Charles VI, best known as “Charles the Mad”).

It was only in the wake of Jeanne’s execution that Charles VII came to her aid.  He strove to rehabilitate her reputation as a true nationalist and patriot and the French embraced her readily.  In 1456 at the insistence of her mother Isabelle Romée d’Arc du Lys and Inquisitor-General Jean Brehal, her case was taken up anew.  In 1452, Pope Callistus III (a Spaniard who died in 1458) approved of a new investigation into Jeanne’s background and her heresy trial.

By 1455, it was clear to all that a gross miscarriage of justice had been done in the name of politics.  In November 1455 a hearing opened.  A panel of theologians would hear testimony from 115 witnesses.  By June 1456 they were finished, and Inquisitor-General Brehal wrote up a summation for publication. In an ironic turnabout, Brehal described Jeanne as a martyr, and he went further by saying Bishop Pierre Cauchon, who had levied the charges against her, was himself a heretic for having convicted and causing the death of an innocent woman pursuing a secular vendetta.  This nullification trial reversed her conviction, and the appellate court declared Jeanne d’Arc innocent of all charges on July 7, 1456.

Jeanne d’Arc became a national symbol for the French Catholic League during the 16th century. Upon gaining the post of Bishop of Orléans in 1849, Félix Dupanloup made a fervent racket about Jeanne d’Arc, passionately and publicly praising her (which had the odd effect of making her an iconic figure in England as well as France).  Joan of Arc’s crimes dissuaded no one of her greatness; she was beatified in 1909, and she was canonized as St. Joan of Arc on May 16, 1920, by Pope Benedict XV (almost five centuries after her wrongful execution). Today this illiterate peasant girl is one of the most popular of all saints.

Beyond her popularity as a religious icon, Jeanne d’Arc also found her way into almost every culture as one of the best known historical figures ever.  Her image is recognized globally – the girl in the armor, the warrior teen raging ahead of a battle line, her standard held high.  That image of her is inspiring regardless of how one feels about her religious visions.

In art she is always treated with great respect.  She is invariably heroic and militant.  Even in simple portraiture she is usually depicted in the armor of a soldier.  In religious iconography her martyrdom is always sympathetically handled.  She has featured in many movies, and hundreds of books and studies have been written about her and the times in which she lived.

'Joan of Arc' (movie posters, 1948)Credit: Victor Fleming


As proof of Jeanne’s military brilliance, the Siege of Orléans is ranked as one of the top dozen or so decisive, history-altering battles ever (right up there with the storming of the beach at Normandy in World War II).  There was an interesting cable television program called The Ultimate Warrior. Although its screaming graphics, flashy camera work, and loud music were designed to appeal to the average lunkhead, the show was firmly grounded in hard science and documented history.  Each week it examined two famous warriors.  These were usually selected based upon comparable technologies, landscapes, political climates, etc. 

Using what is known about them (including their weaponry, height, weight, battle styles, etc.)   a computer simulation was developed that pitted these two historic figures against each other Ste. Jeanne d'ArcCredit: Vic Dillingerâ„¢, © 2011in a battle situation.  The computer simulation ran 1,000 times – the majority winner was declared history’s ultimate warrior for that session [For example, a good episode pitted Napoleon against George Washington.  Surprisingly, Washington won the most simulations. He gained a tactical edge over Napoleon for stamina – Napoleon fought short, furious battles with many casualties.  Washington managed extended battles with few].

One of this show’s best episodes (if not the best one) set Jeanne d’Arc against the medieval English warrior king Richard the Lion-hearted.  Jeanne’s use of artillery, the storm trooper mentality, and her field strategies turned into a victory for her against Richard in the computer model.  The death-blow in the video simulation was actually dealt by Jeanne in hand-to-hand combat – the particular sword she carried historically was a better fighting weapon than Richard’s.  It was exciting, and frankly awe-inspiring, seeing this girl brought to life in such a way.  This, too, was further proof that Jeanne d’Arc’s military victories were not flukes but the result of a great tactician at work.

For France, Jeanne d’Arc is their patron saint, their liberator.  Her charisma means she will always be a popular character, a warrior girl of unparalleled achievement.  Jeanne d’Arc changed the course of world history.  Probably the only other teenage girl upon whom such a claim can be pressed was a feisty 1st century Jewess named Mary (of Nazareth).  That’s noble company indeed for France’s immortal teenager, The Maid of Orléans, Jeanne d’Arc. 

[End of Part 3]

Part 1 of 3 – Jeanne d’Arc: Voice of God?
Part 2 of 3 – Jeanne d’Arc: Valkyrie

2 views of Joan, this one from 1928...

The Passion of Joan of Arc (The Criterion Collection)
Amazon Price: $39.95 $21.99 Buy Now
(price as of Jan 13, 2016)

...and the more modern take from 1999

The Messenger: The Story Of Joan Of Arc
Amazon Price: $7.99 Buy Now
(price as of Jan 13, 2016)