Jeanne d’Arc was a simple French peasant girl, the daughter of a poor shepherd in the province of Champagne. Ignorant and rustic, but pious and industrious, her parents, Jacques d’Arc and his wife Isabelle, differed in no wise from their neighbors in the little village of Domremi. Jeanne was the youngest of a large family, and while her brothers and sisters worked in the fields with their father, she stayed at home and helped her mother with the spinning, and other work of the household.
When the little Jeanne grew older, she was sent to tend her father’s sheep in the forest near her native village, and there, amid the peaceful solitude of the green hills, were fostered those great traits in Jeanne’s character, which rendered her one of the most remarkable women that ever lived. The unhappy state of France began to occupy her thoughts, almost to the exclusion of anything else. For many years, the kings of France and England, with the exception of brief intervals of peace, had been at enmity with one another. Since that far away time when William of Normandy had made himself master of England, the English kings, his descendants, considered themselves rightful sovereigns of various provinces of France, and it was very easy for them to try to extend their dominions by conquering the adjoining territory. Thus there were constant wars between the French and their English neighbors. These wars had resulted in victory sometimes for the English, and again for the French. But in poor Jeanne’s time, things looked about as dark for the French as they possibly could. Indeed it appeared as if all France would become a part of England, and be entirely under the dominion of the English king. The king of England, at that time, was Henry VI. who had not yet attained his majority. Owing to the king’s youth, the wars in France were conducted by the Duke of Bedford. The French king Charles VII, in the unsettled state of the country had not been crowned and was still called the dauphin, a title bestowed upon the heir-apparent to the French throne. His was a weak and timid character, but ill suited to cope with the difficulties and dangers which menaced France. One city after another had been captured by the English, and, at length, the city of Orleans, the key to southern France, was in the power of the victorious enemy. In this moment of national disaster, who came to the rescue of France? A great soldier, you will say, or perhaps a powerful king with his army. No, none of these. The deliverer of France was to be none other than the poor peasant maiden, who could neither read nor write, and who had never in her life been more than a few miles from her native village. By thus making use of the most humble instruments, does Almighty God sometimes confound the judgments of men.
Jeanne, alone in the forest with her sheep, used often to stop at a small chapel, before whose altar she was wont to pray. While kneeling there, one day, she thought she heard a voice bidding her go to the rescue of the dauphin. When she answered, “But I am only a poor girl, how can I accomplish this?” the voice replied, “Go to M. de Baudricourt, Captain of Vaucouleurs, and he will conduct thee to the king. Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret will be thy aids.”
When Jeanne related this incident to her parents, and begged their permission to go to Vaucouleurs, they were horrified, and her father declared that he would rather see her in her grave, than engaged in such an undertaking. Jeanne waited patiently five long years, for the fulfillment of her desire. Her parents thought that if she were married, Jeanne would abandon her project, and, accordingly, a young peasant of the village, at their instigation pretended that she had promised to marry him, and Jeanne was cited to appear in court, to stand trial for breaking her promise. The family, knowing her extreme timidity, never doubted that, rather than speak in public, as would be necessary at her trial, she would submit to be married. Great was their astonishment, therefore, when she appeared in court, and defended herself so well that the young peasant’s suit had to be abandoned.
Jeanne found an unexpected ally in her uncle, a poor wheelwright of Vaucouleurs. He pretended to take her to his house so that she could nurse her aunt, who was ill. Jeanne’s parents gave their consent to the proposed visit, and when she arrived in Vaucouleurs, was conducted by her uncle to the captain, M. de Baudricourt, who, at first paid but little attention to her. But Jeanne was not to be deterred, she spoke with so much earnestness, declaring that God would send aid to the dauphin in mid-Lent, and that Charles would be crowned at Bheims, that Baudricourt finally sent a message to the dauphin, recounting Jeanne’s prophecy, and asking that she be granted an audience. After a weary delay, the answer came, Jeanne was to repair to court. Probably no heed would have been paid to her, if the dauphin had not suffered another discouraging defeat. He determined to try any and every means to repair his fallen fortunes, and, as the drowning man grasps at a straw, so did the young French prince resolve to accept the proffered aid of a young peasant maiden.
Jeanne lost no time in starting on her journey to Chinon, where the dauphin was. Her poor parents were almost distracted when they heard of her departure, and Jeanne, doubtless, was much grieved to cause them such distress. She had a letter written to them (she could not write, herself) in which she insisted that she was compelled to fulfill her mission, and begging their forgiveness.
The way to Chinon lay over swollen rivers, and through trackless forests, infested by robbers, and by French and English men-at-arms. But Jeanne, steadfast in her purpose, knew no fear. She was accompanied only by five or six soldiers, and was dressed like them, in a suit of armor. Her escort feared her, thinking that she was a witch, but this did not disturb Jeanne in the least. At every town, they had to wait for her, while she heard Mass. “Fear not,” she said, “God guides me my way, it is for this I was born.”
Jeanne’s coming was regarded with great dis-favor by a certain faction at court, and, not far from Chinon, an ambuscade was laid for her, from which her escape was almost miraculous. When she arrived at Chinon, her enemies succeeded in delaying her interview with the dauphin for two days, while they used every argument against her. At length, the longed-for audience with the dauphin took place. In order to disconcert the simple village girl, Charles surrounded himself with unusual magnificence and pomp. It was evening, and countless lights shone on the rich dresses of the hundreds of nobles and knights who surrounded the dauphin. To test her, Charles mingled with the throng of knights, while one of the nobles took the dauphin’s place on the throne. Nothing daunted, Jeanne advanced modestly, but with perfect self-possession. Taking her way through the brilliant throng, she paused before the dauphin, and falling on her knees said, “Gentle Dauphin, I am Jeanne la pucelle (the maid). The King of Heaven sends you word, by me, that you shall be consecrated and crowned in the city of Rheims.”
The dauphin was greatly impressed by this prophecy, for a certain incident, well known at court, had caused Jeanne to be regarded as something more than an ordinary village girl. A short time before her arrival at Chinon, a certain French soldier committed a grievous sin of speech in her hearing. “Alas!” said Jeanne, “Thou deniest God, and art so near thy death.” A moment later, the soldier fell into the river, and was drowned.
Meanwhile, the distressed city of Orleans was clamoring for aid, and Jeanne’s impatience to go to the rescue knew no bounds. At length, all was ready and La Pucelle, as Jeanne was called, provided with an establishment, like any officer in the French army, started on the march to Orleans. She had a squire, two pages, two heralds and a confessor in her train, her brother Pierre d’Arc also accompanied her. Jeanne had begged that a messenger be sent to the church of Saint Catherine, at Fierbois, to bring, from a certain place which she designated, under the altar, a sword with three crosses on the hilt. She had never been in the church and many scoffers declared that no such sword would be found – But, just as Jeanne had said, the sword was there, and she used it during the fight for the rescue of Orleans. Jeanne wore a suit of white armor and was mounted on a black horse; she carried, on one side, the sword of Saint Catherine and on the other, a small battle-ax. In her hand, she carried a white banner embroidered with fleur-de-lis, the national flower of France. This banner had a representation of Our Lord, bearing the world in His hand, and having on His right and left two angels, each holding a fleur-de-lis. Jeanne said that she loved her banner better than her weapons. “I will never use any sword to slay anyone,” she said.
When Jeanne arrived before the city of Orleans with a force of six thousand men, the English were panic-stricken, thinking that they had to contend with the powers of darkness. The French, inspired by Jeanne, fought so well that their adversaries were compelled to raise the siege, and, on May 8, 1429, Orleans was once more in possession of the triumphant French.
Although slightly wounded, Jeanne started at once to apprise the dauphin of her victory, and to urge him to proceed at once to Rheims, to be crowned. Charles received her with enthusiasm, but, at first, refused to take her advice. At length, he consented to go to Rheims, as soon as the course could be cleared of its English garrisons. The army was placed in command of the Duke of Alengon, who was instructed to act according to Jeanne’s advice. Many battles had to be fought, before the French could enter Rheims. Gergeau, where the Duke of Suffolk commanded, was taken first, then Beaugenci, where the English general, Talbot, was himself made prisoner. Next Troyes was captured, Chalons surrendered without resistance, and, on June 16, the French army came in sight of Rheims, which was still held by the English. When the garrison saw the approach of the victorious army, led by Jeanne, bearing her standard and her rusty sword, they became terrified and abandoned the city to the French, who entered triumphantly to take possession. The following day, Charles VII was crowned amid extraordinary rejoicing in the cathedral of Rheims, Jeanne standing beside him, with her banner, during the ceremony.
Her mission accomplished, Jeanne begged the newly-crowned king’s permission to return to her peaceful home and her old parents at Domremi, but her presence was considered indispensable to the success of the army, and Charles refused her request.
Poor Jeanne’s troubles then began. Her advice was disregarded at court, where her enemies spared no pains to influence the king against her. She began to lose her power over the soldiers, who would not second her designs and frequently dis-obeyed her orders; but, in spite of these discouragements, Jeanne continued to lead the troops against the English. She left Compiegne, then in possession of the French, on May 23, 1430, and met her first defeat, for, in attempting to attack an English post, Jeanne’s forces were repulsed. As the French approached Compiegne, on their return from this unsuccessful expedition, a detachment of the English made a rush to reach the city before them, and cut off their retreat. When the French reached a bridge leading into Compiegne, they found the barrier closed. After waiting some time in this dangerous position, the barrier was opened, and the troops entered the city, just as their English pursuers reached the bridge. Jeanne, who marched, as usual, in the rear of the army, was left outside, and, after a desperate struggle was dragged from her horse and taken prisoner by the triumphant enemy.
The English feared and hated Jeanne. They were ashamed to have been so easily vanquished by a woman, and many of them regarded the poor, innocent girl as a witch. A belief in witchcraft was rather common in the fifteenth century, and, indeed, much later. You remember the account, in your United States History, of the witchcraft delusion in Salem, more than two centuries after the tragedy of Jeanne d’ Arc’s life had been enacted.
With incredible ingratitude and cruelty Charles, who owed his crown and, probably all of his kingdom to Jeanne, made not the slightest effort to rescue her. She spent six weary months awaiting her trial, which took place in Rouen. The un- fortunate prisoner’s courage never failed her, although she was cruelly treated, and confined in an iron cage, with her feet in stocks. “I know that the English wish to kill me, in order that they may gain possession of France,” she said; “but they will never be masters of this kingdom.” Jeanne bore herself bravely at her trial, and heard her sentence calmly. She was condemned to be burned to death in the market-place of Rouen, which is called to this day, “Place de la Pucelle.” The poor girl flattered herself, to the last, with hopes of rescue. But alas! the day for her execution dawned, and no troops of French soldiers appeared before her prison to deliver her from the dreadful death to which she had been sentenced.
As Jeanne drove through the streets in the rough cart which conveyed her to the market-place, she wept, and exclaimed “O Rouen, Rouen, you will suffer for my death.” Her confessor, who had accompanied her on that last terrible journey, remained at her side until the fatal fire was kindled. lie recited the prayers for the dying and held a crucifix before her eyes and she was heard to pronounce the Holy Name of Jesus, before yielding up her brave soul to God.
Twenty years after Jeanne’s death a papal bull, or decree of the pope, proclaimed her innocence and a cross was erected to her memory in the market-place of Rouen, which then received the name of Place de la Pucelle.
It is difficult to understand the ingratitude of Jeanne’s own countrymen, in thus calmly abandoning her to her fate, or the cruelty of the English in putting to death the guileless and innocent country girl. Into the short span of Jeanne’s life (she lived only twenty years) there was crowded the work of a century, and generations yet to come will read with wonder and with pity, the tragic story of the Maid of Orleans.