- James Houser
April 29, 1429 - Joan of Arc & the Siege of Orleans
Updated: Jun 11, 2021
April 29, 1429. A 17-year-old French girl arrives with her army at the city of Orleans. The city is currently under siege from the English, and it seems like only a miracle can save them. Joan of Arc is here to provide the miracle, and she is about to turn the tide of the Hundred Years’ War.
The Hundred Years’ War actually lasted around 114 years, and was really a series of intermittent wars rather than a continuous struggle. It started with English King Edward III’s claim on the French crown. While Edward and his son the Black Prince won many major battles, including Crecy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), and even captured the French King, they failed to conquer most of the country. The arrival of the Black Plague in the 1350s derailed the English attempt at conquest, and the French managed to reconquer most of the lands the English had taken.
When England’s Henry V came to the throne, however, the fortunes of war shifted yet again. Henry was a brilliant general and an inspiring leader, and his victory at Agincourt in 1415 shattered the French nobility. He managed to conquer Paris and forced the mad French King Charles VI to name him both heir and regent – meaning Henry would basically rule France until the King’s death, after which he would taken the throne himself. This deal disinherited Charles’s son Charles VII, who continued to resist the English forces. As long as Henry was in the field, though, it seemed like the English had a firm grip on France, and maybe a north European superpower was in the making.
Henry’s early death in 1422 upset the plan. The English named Henry’s infant son Henry VI as the rightful King of both England and France, while most of the French supported Charles VII. Charles VII had the right bloodline for the French throne, but that was just about all he had. His weak character did not exactly inspire loyalty, and the French armies were scattered and useless. Henry V’s brother John, Duke of Bedford, launched major attacks all across France to seize full control of the kingdom in the name of the English. In 1428, he sent an army of 5,000 men to seize the major fortress city of Orleans south of Paris.
For six months, the English tried to crack Orleans, which stood on the north side of the Loire River. The English bombarded the city with artillery and launched multiple assaults. When these failed they crossed to the south side of the river to finish the encirclement of the city and seized the critical Tourelles fortress. The Tourelles guarded the southern end of a quarter-mile bridge that spanned the Loire and was the only way in or out of the city. The bridge was the real key to Orleans, and the reason the English had to take it. If the English took Orleans, they would split France in two and the country would fall. With Orleans cut off, though, it seemed like they needed a miracle.
Enter Joan of Arc. She was the illiterate daughter of a well-to-do peasant family from Lorraine, born around 1412. According to Joan, she experienced her first vision at age 13 while working in her parents’ garden. She reported visions of the Archangel Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, who commanded her to drive the English out of France and take King Charles to the city of Reims so he could be religiously consecrated as the rightful King of France. She said that when the visions left, she cried because they were the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. The visions recurred throughout her teenage years until she was finally moved to action.
At age 17, she convinced her soldier uncle to present her to the local garrison commander in Lorraine, and convinced *him* to provide her with an armed escort to stand before the King. She appears to have been very convincing, and according to some anecdotes she made predictions that came true within a few days, as well as knowing military secrets that she had no reason to know. Joan, dressed as a man, rode through enemy country for eleven days without a hindrance and arrived at the French court in Chinon. After being vigorously interrogated for a month by Catholic clergy, they reported with astonishment that she was genuine in her beliefs and that she, at least, believed her visions were true. When Joan was finally presented to the court Charles, fearing assassination, had disguised himself as a member of the crowd; Joan, who had never seen him, walked straight up to him and addressed him as the King.
All this, of course, reeks of medieval lore. There is much to doubt in the breathless French accounts of these events. Medieval history is rich with the roles of “holy women” such as Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila who assumed spiritual leadership roles, often through a mystical and prophetic approach. Joan worked within this tradition, but unlike these women assumed a military role. There is no reason to think that Joan was an imposter, or that she did not *believe* in her visions and her God-given destiny. There is also no reason to doubt that the French King and court did not believe in the same; Charles VII was noted for his belief in mystical religion. Whether or not these events truly happened as depicted, of course, is up to the reader.
What is not in dispute is that Joan was remarkably persuasive. The French war effort was falling apart, and her holy charisma appealed to the French King and court. Charles gave the peasant girl an army, armor, and a sword, though she was never to use the sword. So a 17-year old girl marched off with an army of 4,000 men to save Orleans – and save France. Forget the King…I want to know how she convinced a bunch of salty soldiers to follow her. Most of my soldiers have to be convinced to follow actual officers, and these guys followed a teenage girl.
Joan’s voices told her to approach the city from the north, as opposed to the French officers’ belief that challenging the enemy directly was suicide. Turned out Joan was right, and the English were caught sleeping when she entered the city on April 29, 1429. It would not be the first time that her voices – or, maybe, an inborn military genius that she had to pass off as “the voice of angels” to get anyone to listen to a teenage girl – would win the day.
Joan’s next big task was to convince the army within Orleans to help her break the siege. They were understandably reluctant to attack the English; Joan assured them of God’s protection and favor, and ordered them to dig beneath the surface of the cathedral, where they would find a sword that would be a symbol of God’s promise. They dug, and found the sword. Joan had never been to Orleans and had no way of knowing it was there. Lucky guess?
On May 1, Joan suddenly decided it was time to attack. Donning her armor and mounting a white horse, she rode out with her forces to take an English fortress on the east side of the city by surprise. The English were caught off guard and were all killed in the battle. To ensure that God would continue to favor the French, Joan banished all prostitutes from the army and ordered them to fast and not fight until the Feast of the Ascension was over on May 2. Joan might have had strong ideas about purity – or she might have realized that the prostitutes were disease-ridden and would distract the English, to whose camp they immediately went. Divine inspiration, or military genius? Or both?
On May 5, Joan launched her final offensive. The English were now completely off balance – the French had gone from passive defense to a very sudden and active resistance. Joan decided that the south bridge had to be retaken. She avoided the bridge itself and instead had her troops wade across a shallow portion of the river under cover of darkness. Then she was able to surround the English forces in the fort of Tourelles, pinning them against the city to the north and Joan’s troops to the south. Joan attacked on May 6, only to take an arrow to the shoulder. It was only a flesh wound, though, and she quickly recovered in a matter of hours to rally her men and keep the stranglehold on the fortress. By the 7th, she had captured the Tourelles, and the English siege was broken.
The English had lost the Siege of Orleans, and almost half their army, thanks to the peasant girl’s counterattacks. On May 9, they made the decision to retreat. The French wanted to pursue, but Joan forbade the attack since Sunday was a day of rest and prayer; only fighting in self-defense was allowed. (Or, maybe, a headlong attack would have exposed her force and allowed the English to raise an ambush.) Either way, Joan did attack the next day, capturing the English artillery and supplies.
Victory at Orleans turned the tide of the Hundred Years’ War against the English. For the rest of 1429, Joan rampaged down the Loire River, smashing one English army after another, finally cornering the main English force and routing them at Patay on June 19. Joan’s inspirational leadership was evident everywhere; she fought and won numerous battles through her seemingly innate tactical sense and stunning bravery. She never wielded a weapon, just her banner; she ate little and wore her armor for days at a stretch. At her first battle in front of Orleans, she held a dying English soldier and cried as he slipped from life. To the French, she was God’s word, a force of nature.
In July 1429, Charles was duly crowned King at Reims, which Joan had captured days before. The orders she had received from Heaven had been fulfilled. From then on, though, Charles took a more active hand in the war and things began to go badly. Joan’s attack on Paris in 1430 failed, and later that year she was ambushed and captured by an enemy French faction that sold her out to the English.
The English decided that since they had God on *their* side, her voices could not be heavenly – they had to be demons. They placed Joan on trial for witchcraft, but despite how obviously rigged the trial was, her prosecution could find no real evidence against her and she impressed everyone who attended. Even the English had to admit that she could not be guilty, but she was condemned regardless. On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.
Religious prophet, or military genius, or maybe both? Despite being one of the most well-documented figures of Medieval Europe, so much about Joan remains a mystery. Whatever caused her visions, the religious explanation was the only one that mattered to the French. After almost a century of English attack and French suffering, Joan gave the French people the confidence to believe that they were in the right and that God was on their side. Moral ascendancy has its place in matters of history, even when the issue is in doubt – or especially when the issue is in doubt. Joan was, to the French, a miracle that appeared at their darkest hour. Nothing else explains why men followed her, why she triumphed, and why to this day she remains a symbol of French nationalism and was canonized in 1920 as a Saint – and remains the patron saint for female soldiers worldwide.
Joan of Arc, one of the most immortal figures of Christian and world history, never saw the age of 20. She embraced and fulfilled her destiny, and accepted her death, with more grace than any man of her era. Truly one of the most remarkable people in human history, if anyone belongs among the ranks of the Angels, it is Joan of Arc.