The Horrific Execution of History’s Most Famous Woman Warrior

Ryan Fan
Photo from Hermann Stilke at the Public Domain

I remember playing Age of Empires and using Joan of Arc as a character for the French. She was one of the only female characters you could play with, and she rode on a white horse, brandishing a spear.

It took me a long time to learn who Joan of Arc actually was, but she was a military hero in France during the Hundred Years War, turning the tide of the war in favor of the French over the British. I never knew she died at 19. I never knew how she rose to fame and power. I never knew how she died.

Joan of Arc was a military hero — but she was also an 18-year-old girl from a humble farmer background. According got Biography, she would later be canonized as a Roman Catholic saint in 1920.

At the time, female military leaders were not common— Joan of Arc led a 2016 USNI News poll for the greatest woman in military history. After the victory at Orleans, Joan of Arc became a military advisor for Charles the Victorious, helping the French Army to major victories at Reims and Troyes.

She would be honored as a martyr due to her role in the war and her premature death — Joan of Arc was executed for heresy by the English.

But she died in one of the most horrific ways possible — Joan of Arc died by being burned at the stake, three times.

Who was Joan of Arc?

According to Lesley Kennedy at History, before her execution, Joan claimed to hear divine voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret at the age of 13. She said the voices said Charles should be the king of France and control of France should be taken away from the English.

“When I was thirteen years old, I had a voice from God to help me govern my conduct. And for the first time I was very fearful. And came this voice, about the hour of noon, in the summer-time, in my father’s garden…I knew that it was the voice of an angel,” Joan said at her trial.

Today, experts and historians attribute the voices she heard to hallucinations, possibly from bipolar disorder to epilepsy to schizophrenia.

But Joan of Arc was born in Domremy, France as the daughter of a farmer family. Her parents’ names were Jacques and Isabelle d’Arc. According to historian Kelly DeVries, at 16, Joan initially was rebuffed by a garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt, when she demanded an escort to see Charles at the French castle of Chinon.

Somehow, she convinced him to give her an escort through her divine visions and predictions, and partially through persistence. Throughout the trip, she dressed as a male soldier, accompanied by a group of followers who thought she was destined to save France.

While meeting Charles, Joan quickly won him over. He gave in to her request to grant her an army to travel to Orléans.

At the time, according to author Stephen W. Richey, the French were not doing well and looking for any hope they could get. He calls the military leadership of France “demoralized and discredited.” Richey says it was in its “final straits of desperation” to have to pay attention to “an illiterate farm girl who said that the voice of God was instructing her to take charge of her country’s army and lead it to victory.”

While all this was true, it worked out. She broke the Siege of Orléans while riding on a white horse. She helped escort Charles to Reims, through enemy territory, and Charles was coronated as King Charles VII in July of 1429.

Without Joan, Charles would not have been coronated. But he only stood by Joan while she was successful. When she failed to liberate Paris, and when she was captured, he gave up on her and made no attempt to negotiate her safety.

In Charles’s defense, he didn’t want to be associated with an accused witch and heretic.

Joan was captured by the Duke of Burgundy at the Siege of Compiègne. Kennedy says she was accused of heresy, witchcraft, and violating divine law, with a combined 70 charges against her, all while Charles wanted a truce with the Duke of Burgundy.

While Joan of Arc was captured, she tried to escape to go back to Compiegne. However, her escape was unsuccessful, and John of Luxembourg, who led the Burgundian company, moved Joan to a different castle.

Joan kept trying to escape. According to Britannica, Joan once leaped from the top of the castle tower. Fortunately, Joan was not hurt — she fell into the moat, and she got better. But she was moved to yet another castle near the Duke of Burgundy.

The execution
Joan of Arc — Public Domain

In 1431, Joan had a two-day trial addressing her 70 charges. She was questioned about her voices and visions, as well as why she dressed like a man.

It was a sensational trial where Joan defended herself and defended dressing as a man to defend her modesty as a woman. She was swiftly found guilty by the Church and church officials that sided with the English, and historian Daniel Hobbins says the trial was strictly political, and she was swiftly tried because she threatened English rule in France:

“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.”

Joan was initially sentenced to death, but after her sentence, she agreed to recant her claim of hearing voices and visions from angels, which gave her life in prison instead. At the time, the Protestant Reformation had not yet happened, and claims of direct contact with God were viewed as a threat to the Catholic Church.

The Church ordered Joan to put on women’s clothes, but when authorities went into her cell, they found her in men’s clothes. History writes she claimed to hear voices from angels St. Catherine and St. Margaret that chastised her for recanting her visions to the Catholic Church.

Now, Joan was not only a heretic, she was a relapsed heretic, in the eyes of her judges.

On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was executed by being burned at the stake in Rouen. She held a crucifix while she was being burned, and after the first time her stake was burned, the English raked the coals to show Joan had actually died.

Alex Duval Smith at The Guardian says she was burned three times. While Joan initially died of smoke inhalation, Smith says the Cardinal of Winchester had her burned a second, and then a third time, to make sure all her organs and body were destroyed. Her body was then thrown into the Seine so nobody could find her remains.

“May God forgive us; we have burned a saint,” a French bishop who saw the burning said.

Only decades if not centuries after her death would Joan’s reputation rehabilitate. Her sham trial would be reversed in 1456 by King Charles, and she would be declared an innocent martyr. One of her judges, Pierre Cauchon, would be implicated for heresy. In the 20th century, she would be beatified and canonized by the Catholic Church.

Many people were burned at the stake at the time, but few, like Joan of Arc, were burned three times. This showed how much the English feared Joan or at least feared her influence among French military forces. Joan of Arc played a major role in turning the tide of the Hundred Years’ War.

Who knows where Charles would have ended up without her.

Originally published on Frame of Reference on October 26, 2021.

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