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Joan of Arc: Significance and Legacy

Updated on November 29, 2017
Nick Burchett profile image

Nick is a US Army veteran, husband and father of three, and has a BA in History. He is a Civil War aficionado and also enjoys genealogy.

Painting by Sir John Everett Millais of Joan of Arc painted in 1865 titled: "Joan of Arc"
Painting by Sir John Everett Millais of Joan of Arc painted in 1865 titled: "Joan of Arc" | Source

Warrior Women - Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc would enter her first and most significant battle after she arrived at Orleans on April 30 1429 and would face the English at St. Loup. Orleans had been under siege already for over 7 months with both sides weary and worn from the prolonged stand-off. The English were in the position to cut-off the French supply route and were going with the plan to starve the French into surrender. The people of France believed in an old tale that spoke of a “virgin savior from Lorraine” who would arrive and bring victory for the French. Joan’s arrival was seen as fulfillment of this “prophecy” and would be instrumental in not only lifting the spirits of the villagers, but also in raising the moral of the very weary French troops.

The strategy presented by the commander, Count Jean de Dunois, was to not attack the English until the French received the much needed provisions that were on the river awaiting a good wind to arrive through the Burgundy Gate. Joan, initially angry and frustrated, would be the one to advise patience, and in doing so, the wind changed and the provisions made their way into the city. Dunois and the other knights would see this as nothing short of a God given miracle, further proof to them that Joan was sent by God.

Without alerting Joan, Dunois launched an attack on the fortifications at St. Loup and was being soundly defeated when Joan arrived on her white horse, standard raised high, to which the retreating French cheered and turned to engage the English again. They pressed on with such force that the English yielded and St. Loup was taken. It was not a huge battle, but immensely important in that it was Joan’s first real taste of battle and the first time in the long siege that the French had captured an English fort and prevented the eventual taking of Orleans by the English.

Joan would be captured by the Burgundians in Compiegne on May 24 1429. The fact that no one; not her king, her family or supporters, came to rescue her or provide the ransom surely leads to conspiracy. The English Earl of Suffolk was in French hands and would have easily been a worthy prisoner exchange. But this never happened and she was sold to the English by the John of Luxembourg. The English certainly had reason to want to purchase Joan. They could not try her for beating them on the battlefield, which was surely at the top of the list of insults to the English, but they could have her tried and burnt as a heretic and witch. This would remove any shame to the English for her victories on the battlefield and would also solidify the belief that she won those victories through the power of black magic. The French king Charles would be best to disassociate himself with Joan, fearing that guilt by association could render his rule illegitimate. This would be the main reason the king rendered no support for Joan.

Painting, c. 1485. An artist's interpretation, since the only known direct portrait has not survived.
Painting, c. 1485. An artist's interpretation, since the only known direct portrait has not survived. | Source

Joan had absolutely no chance from the beginning of her trial to escape the fire. She prayed to God, “Most sweet God, I beg You if You love me, reveal how I should answer these churchmen”, and even as an illiterate peasant woman, she put up a very well thought out and coherent defense. This would be one of the main supporting factors over time in reference to her “voices” and her sanity. It can be argued that a peasant woman who was so coherent and under the scrutiny of such forceful interrogation could not have been insane or schizophrenic.

On May 24 1431, Joan was led to the stake. She would be asked the question she had been asked a hundred times, if she would mend her ways and recant, and even when her king was branded as a heretic, she would defend him by saying, “Speak not of my King. He is the most noble Christian of all Christians.” Her faith failed her once and only once when she initially recanted and was saved that day from the stake.

Although Joan was apt to wear men’s clothing, highly taboo in those days, she did this out of necessity to preserve her virginity, and this would be one of the main reasons for her again donning men’s clothing while in prison. The prospect of rape was very high, but the nature of men’s clothing would make it very difficult and cumbersome for an attacker. The English knew this and knew that Joan would indeed don the men’s clothing if presented the option. This would be the “relapse” that would solidify the English case against her and send her to the stake.

On May 30, 1431 she was once again led to the stake, which was placed high to prolong her burning, but which actually in the end would be a blessing for her as she most likely died of smoke inhalation rather than burning. She cried the name of Jesus until she died. Assured that she was dead, the executioner pushed aside the burning wood so that all could see her charred and naked body to be assured that the “witch” had not escaped and then the fire was relit. Her ashes were gathered and then thrown in the Seine River. It is said that even some of the English wept and cried out, “We are all damned; we have burned a saint.”

Joan’s significance goes beyond her myth and religion. Joan was said to have never lifted a sword against the English, preferring her banner instead, and would pray for the English wounded and dead, yet this same peasant woman, a child at that, rallied hope and nationalism in the French that even their king could not muster. She would become the rallying point for the French people and a martyr for the Christian faith. She stands as a reminder of the sacrifice of self for not only ones nation, but for God. But even as well documented as her life is, the secret voices and her connection to God remain an enigma; they set her apart from everyday heroes and place her on the borderline of divinity. Joan of Arc continues to this day to be the name in which the word “hope” clings to.


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