On May 16, 1920, Pope Benedict XV conducted a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to canonize Joan of Arc, often referred to as the Maid of Orleans. This ceremony was the final step in a process that was begun in 1849 by the Bishop of Orleans, Felix Dupanloup, over 400 years after St. Joan’s was tried, convicted and executed in the name of the Church. A study of her heroic deeds and an intensive review of her life, virtues and the trial transcripts that condemned her to be burned at the stake, resulted first in her beatification in 1909, and finally her canonization 11 years later in 1920 (Pernoud 245). Amazingly, two years after that, the woman who had been condemned, put to death, and then canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church, was declared the patroness of France (McBride 82).
Jeanne d’Arc was born around January 6, 1412, in the village of Domremy in France (Thurston). At the time of her birth, France and England had been engaged in the longest war in history, which has come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War. These two countries were fighting over whose right it was to rule. The English had occupied much of northern France, and the primary issue became the survival of France as an independent state rather than as part of an Anglo-French empire ruled by the English monarchy. The French were determined to drive the English out and crown Charles VII as their king (Reither 227-229).
Joan was a simple peasant girl who was raised in a Catholic home as the youngest of five children (Thurston). Her mother was very religious and had a big influence on Joan’s life. Joan never learned to read or write, but was skilled in spinning and sewing. She was also always very strong and healthy (Michelet 8). At the age of thirteen, Joan began to have holy visions and hear the voices of saints she identified as St. Margaret, St. Catherine, and St. Michael (Thurston). Her voices convinced her to vow to remain a virgin (Lucie-Smith).
When Joan was seventeen years old, the voices revealed her divine mission. Joan was told that she had been chosen to lead the French army into battle against the English, to drive them from French soil. The voices instructed her to go to see Robert Baudricourt, the Captain of Vaucouleurs, who would arrange for her to be taken to see the king (Michelet 12). On her second visit she was able to convince Baudricourt to allow her to see the king. She dressed in men’s clothing for the first time to make this trip (Thurston).
When she arrived, the council kept her waiting for two days while they debated whether she should be taken to the king. Eventually, it was agreed that the king would receive her. The king was doubtful and tested Joan by disguising himself. Joan identified him immediately, and won his confidence by assuring him that God recognized him as the true heir to the French throne. A committee made up of several bishops and doctors were assembled in Poitiers to examine her and determine the truthfulness of her revelations (Michelet 18-20). Joan made a good impression on the committee members. Their final conclusion was that they could “find no evil but only good, humility, virginity, devotion, honesty, and simplicity” in Joan. They finally recommended that the king accept her help (Pernoud 30). King Charles gave her armor, and horses. A special banner was made for her to carry into battle (Michelet 22-23).
An army was assembled to lift the siege of Orleans and Joan rode with them. She was not a military commander, but acted more as a moral leader. Joan imposed strict rules and required her troops to go to confession and leave prostitutes behind. She traveled with the army and was there to inspire the troops with confidence for victory. After inviting the English to surrender, she developed the plan that was used to free the city of Orleans from the English. She was actually wounded in the battle, but returned to inspire her troops to a great victory (McBride 80).
She continued to lead her troops into battle against the English, resulting in great successes in many more battles. In a great victory at Patay, the English were completely defeated and forced to retreat. This opened the way for the fulfillment of her mission and the coronation of Charles VII as king of France in Reims on July 17, 1429 (Thurston). After the coronation, the king seemed less interested in Joan and the continuation of the campaign to remove the English from France (McBride 81). Joan was frustrated by the king’s attitude and a truce he had signed with the Duke of Burgundy (Thurston).
Finally, at the end of the truce, Joan once again rode with the troops to defend the town of Compiegne which was under siege from the English. Although her voices had predicted that she would be captured, she threw herself into the battle. She stayed to the rear to cover the retreat of her men, but ended up being pulled from her horse and captured. The man who had taken her prisoner sold her to John of Luxembourg (Michelet 50).
Joan’s capture was met with strong reactions. The English badly wanted to discredit Joan, especially her claim that God directed her. If true this would mean that God favored the French over the English (McBride 81). England was a government dominated by Bishops who were led by a Cardinal. Any suggestion that God favored Joan’s mission was intolerable (Michelet 62). The Vicar General of the Inquisitor demanded that Joan be sent to Paris for trial on the grounds that she was a heretic and a witch. A letter had been sent from the University of Paris to the Pope in Rome accusing Joan of heresy because she pretended to predict the future (Lucie-Smith 207).
Although Joan was in reality a political prisoner of war, the English leadership wanted a trial that was conducted by the Church (Michelet 63). Although the French people saw Joan as a hero and a saint, her name inspired fear and dread in the English people, and they were determined to be rid of her for the humiliation she had caused them. The English could not afford to put Joan to death for beating them in battle, but they could possibly have the Church condemn her as a heretic and a witch (Thurston). Incredibly, Charles and his advisors did nothing to rescue or ransom Joan even though she was responsible for placing him on his throne (Pernoud 98).
To accomplish their goals, the English used Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais. He was an ambitious man with no scruples who could be relied upon to use his authority to ensure the outcome of the trial favored the English position (Michelet 64). Cauchon negotiated a sale price for Joan of 10,000 pounds, which was paid by the English crown. The English always intended to burn Joan, and money was used to make sure it would happen (Lucie-Smith 231). The English paid all of the expenses of the judges and gave letters guaranteeing protection from consequences to Cauchon and other officials who participated in the trial (Lucie-Smith 227). Cauchon then had himself appointed the chief judge for Joan’s ecclesiastical trial (Pernoud 89).
The trial took place in Rouen Castle where Joan was also held prisoner and guarded by English soldiers. Joan complained about this and requested to be placed in a church prison where she could have women to attend to her needs (Thurston). They tried everything they could think of to break her. She was treated very badly. She was kept in an iron cage and chained by her neck, hands and feet. She was made to endure mental torment and insults by the guards. Throughout her ordeal Joan was treated as a prisoner of war and refused the decent treatment that she would have had in a Church prison (Pernoud 104-105).
Intellectuals at the University of Paris supported Cauchon’s efforts. Most of the trial judges were doctors and theologians from the University. The Great Schism of the Catholic Church had been mended when Joan was only a young child. During the Schism, opposing factions within the Church supported either a pope residing in Rome, or one in Avignon, France (Pernoud 4). The Schism had allowed the University’s faculty members to become a great independent political power because they had dominated the former councils called by the Avignon popes (Lucie-Smith 208). To preserve their position, the University supported the concept that a General Council should rule the Church together with the Pope. This was similar to the manner in which the English crown and parliament functioned (Pernoud 106).
The University faculty was a dictatorial body that demanded that heritage and faith be accepted without question, that men only believe what their appointed authorities told them to believe, and that belief in the supernatural was not reasonable. The doctors at the University considered themselves to be the experts in these matters. If Joan’s visions and voices were accepted to be fact, it would seriously undermine their authority and credibility. Additionally, Joan’s unsuccessful assault on Paris in September of 1429 had scared them and caused them to consider her to be a great threat to their power base (Lucie-Smith 208-209).
The trial began on January 9, 1431, and took five months to complete (Pernoud 105). To lend legitimacy to the event, Cauchon requested that an officer of the Inquisition help officiate at the proceedings (Michelet 73). The Inquisition was a special council established by the Catholic Church to discover and investigate heretics. It was necessary to have a representative of the Inquisition be present whenever a bishop conducted a trial for heresy (Lucie-Smith 226). However, the local vice-inquisitor, a Dominican friar named Jean Lemaitre, did not want to be involved in the trial. He argued that he did not have jurisdiction to preside since the alleged heresy had taken place in another diocese (Pernoud 108). After this problem had been resolved, he then claimed that he had doubts and did not want to jeopardize the proceedings. Although he continually argued against being a judge, he could not avoid it, and ended up being paid generously for his involvement (Michelet 73).
The trial proceeded even though an ecclesiastical body in Poitiers had already examined Joan. The result of that interrogation had been to approve Joan and support her mission. That assembly of Church officials had accepted her voices and visions as coming from God. Unfortunately, the transcripts of the proceeding conveniently disappeared, and could not help Joan during her trial for heresy (Pernoud 30). Heresy could not necessarily be proven by facts. It was considered to be an “intellectual ” crime. The judges were required to examine the heart and intent of the accused in order to decide whether there was an error in understanding, or that the heresy was deliberate and knowing. For this reason, the accused person was considered to be guilty until a determination otherwise was reached (Lucie-Smith 231-232).
Cauchon began by presenting information he had been collecting about Joan to the judges in a closed session. Unfortunately, the investigation of her habits and morality near and around her home, did not produce the compelling evidence needed to try her for heresy. The judges could not find anything to accuse her on (Pernoud 107-108). In spite of this, they proceeded with the public phase of the trial. On February 21, 1431, Joan was brought before a room full of intimidating figures, with Cauchon presiding, to be tried on charges of heresy and witchcraft. Although Cauchon had brought together an impressive group of judges, most of them were Frenchmen, many from the University of Paris (Lucie-Smith 232). There were forty-four people, including nine doctors of theology and four doctors of canon law in attendance. Established procedures for the Inquisition permitted a lawyer to represent the accused, but Joan stood alone without a lawyer to help her (Pernaud 109).
The trial began with Joan refusing to swear to tell the truth since she did not know what they intended to ask her. She was finally persuaded to swear to tell the truth about her religious beliefs (Pernoud 109). For days she was asked questions about her youth, her voices, and her activities prior to her meeting with Charles. The judges continually badgered and tried to confuse and entrap her with trick questions (Thurston). There were six public interrogation sessions conducted by the court. Joan’s strength, honesty, and her ability to remember the answers she had given previously to the questions she had been asked impressed witnesses to these sessions. Joan was a “tough nut to crack”, and Cauchon became worried about the outcome of the trial. For this reason, he decided to stop the public sessions and continue the trial by conducting future interrogations in private (Lucie- Smith 241-242).
There were nine interrogation sessions conducted behind the closed doors of the prison. The legal experts, after a review of the transcripts, were not impressed with these proceedings. There were criticisms that the proper procedures were not followed, sessions were held in secret, and the judges were not free to express their own opinions. They also felt that it was unfair to expect an uneducated peasant girl to answer the questions she was being asked without the benefit of a lawyer (Michelet 85-86). However the theologians saw things differently. A thorough review of the transcripts by them resulted in seventy propositions of Joan’s crimes. These were extracted from the answers she had given to questions, but their meanings were twisted and most were taken out of context. These propositions were used as the basis for twelve accusations against her (Michelet 86-87).
The twelve articles of accusation were not read to Joan and she was not given an opportunity to defend herself against them. Since they had been taken from her own statements she basically had no defense (Lucie-Smith 253). Joan’s visions and voices were declared to be “false and diabolical”, and she was told that she wold be turned over for sentencing if she did not retract her statements about them. Joan refused to submit to the demands of her judges even though she was threatened with torture. At one point, Joan finally did agreed to sign a retraction, but changed her mind when it was read back to her (Thurston).
The University of Paris reviewed the articles of accusation. The theological faculty decided that Joan was the instrument of the Devil and approved them. The university’s law school agreed but only if Joan continued to insist that her voices came from God, and she could be proven to be of sound mind. The university wrote letters to the Pope and the Cardinals praising the procedure and stating that it had been conducted in a fair, just, and holy manner (Michelet 100).
On May 29, 1431 the court declared Joan to be a heretic and ordered her to be burned at the stake. The sentence was carried out the next day (Thurston). The authorities had wanted many witnesses to Joan’s death, and it is believed that the spectacle was attended by as many as 10,000 people. Her death, at the age of nineteen, was the ultimate retaliation for her defeat of the English armies at Patay (Lucie-Smith). It also served to invalidate her claims that Charles was the true king of France, supported by God. She and her voices had been condemned and rejected by the Church that she loved (Michelet 119). Her death was meant to demonstrate the falseness of her claims. However, Joan’s death at the stake caused great sympathy to be felt for her. Many people believed that she had not been fairly treated (Lucie-Smith 1-3). Her bravery and behavior in the face of the horror of being burned alive caused even her greatest enemies to shed tears (Thurston).
For a year or so after Joan’s conviction and death, the English cause in France grew stronger. But an alliance between Charles VII and Philip of Burgundy helped the French reclaim control of the Church in their own country. This was accomplished through the successful defeat of Paris in 1436 (Pernoud 139). Charles finally arrived in Rouen in 1450. After arriving, he began to hear the stories about Joan’s trial, and had the records brought to him. Review of the transcripts resulted in his request that a new trial be conducted for Joan (Pernoud 149).
The ordeal of Joan’s trial and execution in the name of the Catholic Church had been an event engineered by powerful men with political motives. The preliminary findings of the investigation initiated by Charles supported the fact that Joan had been a prisoner of war who was convicted of heresy and executed for political reasons. But Joan had been tried and convicted by a tribunal of the Inquisition, which meant that only the Church could clear her of the charges (Pernoud 149-150).
Finally, twenty-four years after her ashes had been scattered in the Seine River, proceedings were begun to overturn the findings of Pierre Cauchon and Joan’s judges (Thurston). The treatment of Joan at the hands of her captors in the name of the Church became a serious issue to be properly investigated and corrected. The initial inquiry was turned into twenty-seven specific articles that became the basis for future proceedings and the interrogation of the witnesses (Pernoud 153). These articles specifically mentioned and dealt with the hatred that the English had for Joan, and the bias of the trial. They identified the lack of freedom to act on the part of the judges. They addressed the fact that Joan was not given the benefit of counsel, and that she was kept in deplorable conditions. They also questioned the findings of her true feelings especially in regard to her submission to the Church and the Pope (Pernoud 155). Witnesses called to testify praised Joan’s virtues and expressed the belief that she had been telling the truth about her visions and voices (Thurston). The proceedings were sincere in their determination to right the wrong that had been done. Blame for the illegal trial and its outcome were placed clearly on the King of France and the Church as a whole for allowing the situation to occur (Thurston). As a result, the first trial of Joan of Arc in which she was convicted of heresy was annulled by the Catholic Church on July 7, 1456 (Pernoud 156).
Today Joan of Arc is remembered as a daughter and heroine of France. She is a canonized saint whose feast is celebrated on the day she was killed, May 30 (McBride 82). The injustices she suffered at the hands of the Church are now celebrated as proof of her martyrdom.
Lucie-Smith, Edward A. Joan of Arc. New York: W.W. Norton Company Inc., 1976
McBride, Alfred. and Praem, O. Saints Are People. Dubuque: Wm. C. Brown Co., 1981
Michelet, Jules. Joan of Arc. Ann Arbor: University Of Michigan Press, 1957
Pernoud, Regine. and Clin, Marie-Veronique. Joan of Arc: Her Story. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998
Reither, Joseph. World History: A Brief Introduction. New York: McGraw Hill, 1942
Thurston, Herbert. “St. Joan of Arc.” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Electronic Version. 1996