Joan of Arc lifts the Siege of Orléans
- 8th May 1429 -
A war that was to last over 100 years, fought between mighty Kings of Europe, including the finest knights both sides could muster over vast tracts of land was, in effect, decided by a peasant woman. The irony!
In 1328 the French King Charles IV died. He had no sons and all his brothers were dead. His sister, Isabella, mother of Edward III, was still alive. It was for this reason that Edward felt he was the rightful heir but instead the French chose Charles’ cousin Philip as French law forbade the throne passing through the female line. It was not until 1337, when Edward III was in a position to do anything about it, that he declared war on France. Since the days of Henry II (1154-1189) England had enjoyed a large Empire in France, the Anjevin Empire, named after Henry’s father, Geoffrey of Anjou. Edward feared that Philip would threaten his lands, especially in the North and South West, and thus impact on the very profitable wool and wine trades.
In 1340 Edward invaded with a large fleet and arrived in the Zwyn estuary. He met resistance in the form of the French fleet however and a naval battle ensued that has become known as the Battle of Sluys. The English tricked the French and defeated them with the sun and wind at their backs, dominating the channel for the rest of the war and preventing any possible French invasion of England. Due to this larger than expected encounter Edward’s money ran out and it was not until 1346 that another invasion was mounted that ended with England in charge of the key port of Calais after the famous battle at Crécy. This was a port that the English held until the end of the reign of the Tudor, Mary I, in 1558. On another front King David of Scotland, spotting an opportunity in the North to take some land, invaded but was defeated at Mortimer’s Cross.
Further success was enjoyed a decade later at Poitiers in 1356, when Edward, the Black Prince, son of Edward III, led the English to another famous victory, once again using the famed longbow. The French King, now John, was captured, and Edward pushed on to claim the throne at Reims. However he was unsuccessful and moved towards Paris where he also met resistance. A treaty was negotiated, John was ransomed back and ownership of lands exchanged.
The 100 Years’ War continued on and off. After the death of Edward III the throne passed to his grandson Richard II, the Black Prince having died the previous year. Richard was only 10 when he came to the throne and ruled with the help of a council. With war being costly and the barons concerned with both their own security and that of the King little happened except that gradually the French pushed back English lands to Calais. High taxes to help pay for the war were making Richard II very unpopular and contributed to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 led by Wat Tyler.
Henry Bolingbroke, cousin of Richard, captured him and took the throne - the first of the Lancastrians. Whilst he established his power little happened in France until his son Henry V took over. He organised another invasion in 1415. After the protracted siege at Harfleur when sickness deprived him of many of his soldiers, Henry marched to Calais to sail back to England rather than push on to Paris. He met a large French army near the River Somme at a village called Agincourt. One of the most famous victories in English history took place and in the years that followed Henry V won back much of the territory that had been lost. In 1420 the Treaty of Troyes was signed where Henry was acclaimed heir to the French throne and given the hand in marriage of Catherine of Valois, daughter of the mad French King, Charles VI.
Unfortunately, Henry V died of dysentery about 6 weeks before Charles VI and was never able to claim his throne. His son, Henry VI, was only 9 months old when he inherited the throne in 1422 and, although he was acclaimed King of France it was an empty title.
Enter, stage left, Joan of Arc, a peasant girl from Domrémy in north eastern France. She claimed to have had visions from God whilst working in the fields that her calling was to help the French army defeat the English and drive them out. Aged 16 she attempted to see the Dauphin, Charles of Valois, but was initially shunned. With her hair cut short and dressed in men’s clothing she finally persuaded him to let her lead an army against the English forces at Orléans. Nothing else had worked and this was almost a last throw of the dice. In white armour and riding a white horse she set off in March 1429. On 8th May after several attacks she sent the Anglo-Burgundians into retreat pushing them back across the Loire. She then escorted Charles to Reims where French Kings were traditionally crowned. On 17th July 1429 he officially became King of France.
Joan’s reputation spread, and further victories resulted in the English losing most of their land in France. She wished to retire back to her home village but Charles persuaded her to launch an attack against the Burgundian town of Compiégne. After an assault she was thrown from her horse and left outside the town walls. She was taken prisoner and sold to the English who put her on trial. She was accused of witchcraft, heresy and dressing as a boy. Charles VII, not wanting to be associated with someone on a charge for heresy, did nothing to help her. After a year in captivity she declared that she had not received any divine inspiration. However, she later invalidated this confession by dressing as a boy again and a sentence of death was passed. On May 30th 1431, aged just 19, she was taken to the market place at Rouen and burned at the stake. A soldier on duty made a cross out of two twigs and gave it to Joan as she waited for the flames to engulf her. She died with dignity and the English, so concerned that people might think she was still alive, raked over the ashes to expose her burnt body and then threw it in the river Seine.
20 years later Charles VII organised a retrial where she was cleared of all charges and in 1920 Pope Benedict XV canonised her. She is now the patron saint of France.