The English claimed many offenses against Joan of Arc. But when they burned her at the stake in Rouen, France on May 30, 1431, they not only immortalized the 19-year-old, but made her a national symbol for the French cause during the long-fought Hundred Years’ War.
Born a peasant in a small French village, the illiterate girl claimed to hear divine voices and see visions of St. Michael, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch from the age of 13. Their message: Help Charles VII, heir of Charles VI, be named the rightful king of France.
Convincing Charles to let her fight—and dressed as a man—Joan led the liberation of Orleans, triumphed with other victories against the English, and soon Charles VII was crowned. But a series of missteps, including her failure to liberate Paris followed, and on May 23, 1430, she was captured by the Duke of Burgundy’s men, jailed for more than a year and put on trial for charges including heresy, witchcraft and violating divine law for dressing like a man.
At the time of Joan’s trial, which began January 9, 1431, her notoriety could not have been greater, writes historian Helen Castor in her 2015 book Joan of Arc: A History.
“As the opening of the trial record noted, ‘The report has now become well known in many places that this woman, utterly disregarding what is honourable in the female sex, breaking the bounds of modesty, and forgetting all female decency, has disgracefully put on the clothing of the male sex, a striking and vile monstrosity. And what is more, her presumption went so far that she dared to do, say and disseminate many things beyond and contrary to the Catholic faith and injurious to the articles of its orthodox belief.’
“If her guilt were established, and she remained unrepentant,” Castor continues, “the Church would have no choice but to abandon her to the secular arm, which would sentence her to die in purifying flames.”
Joan of Arc's Trial Was an International Sensation
Perhaps no event during the Middle Ages created a bigger international sensation, writes Daniel Hobbins in his 2005 book, The Trial of Joan of Arc. “‘Such wonders she performed,’ wrote the German theologian Johannes Nider, ‘that not just France but every Christian kingdom stands amazed.’”
According to the trial transcript, Joan was questioned repeatedly not only about the voices she heard, but on why she chose to dress as a man.
“It is both more seemly and proper to dress like this when surrounded by men, than wearing a woman’s clothes,” she told the judges. “While I have been in prison, the English have molested me when I was dressed as a woman. (She weeps.) I have done this to defend my modesty.”
During the trial, St. Mary’s University notes, Joan faced six public and nine private examinations, culminating in The Twelve Articles of Accusation, which included the charges of dressing in men’s clothing and hearing voices of the divine. The church officials found her guilty, urging her to repent in order to save her life.
The trial itself was an ecclesiastical procedure covered under canon law—a heresy investigation carried out as an inquisition, according to Hobbins.
“Joan of Arc was tried as a heretic not because she was a woman, though that factor played an important part, nor because she heard voices, but because she heard voices telling her to attack the English,” Hobbins writes. “Joan believed that God favored the French: God was on her side. … As long as she insisted … that her voices were saints telling her to attack the English, she was doomed.”
Hobbins adds that the motivation for the trial was political, because Joan’s claims were political.
“If true,” he writes, “they would have invalidated the English claim to legitimate rule in France. Of course, exposing Joan as a fraud, or as someone deluded by evil spirits, would also have struck at the legitimacy of Charles VII.”
Death, Then Sainthood
On May 24 Joan signed a retraction, and, on the condition she would dress as a woman, her death sentence was reduced to life in prison. But four days later, she said the voices had returned and she was again found dressed in men’s clothing. All 27 trial masters pronounced her a relapsed heretic.
According to Hobbin’s trial translation, they declared: “Whenever the deadly poison of heresy infects a member of the Church, who is then transformed into a member of Satan, utmost care must be taken to keep the contagion of the disease from spreading to other parts of the mystical body of Christ.”
“We say and determine that you have falsely imagined revelations and divine apparitions, that you are a pernicious temptress, presumptuous, credulous, rash, superstitious, a false prophetess, a blasphemer against God and his saints, scornful of God in his sacraments, a transgressor of divine law, sacred doctrine, and ecclesiastical decrees; that you are seditious, cruel, apostate, schismatic, straying in many ways from our faith; and that in these ways you have rashly sinned against God and his Church.”
On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
The Hundred Years’ War waged on until 1453, with the French finally beating back the English invaders. In 1450, Joan’s guilty verdict was overturned by a Rehabilitation Trial ordered by Charles VII. Joan’s legend grew, and, in 1909 she was beatified in the famous Notre Dame cathedral in Paris by Pope Pius X. In 1920, she was canonized by Pope Benedict XV.
“Some scholars have dismissed Joan’s trial as a travesty of justice...” Hobbins writes. “The judge, Pierre Cauchon, has been denounced as a tool of the English who was willing to sacrifice Joan to further his own career.”