That we may understand the part that Joan of Arc played in the history of France we must know that at the beginning of the fifteenth century the king of France, whose name was Charles, was a half mad and totally incompetent ruler. His son, also named Charles, was a young and pleasure-loving boy, who thought very little of his kingdom.
The consequence of this was that the kingdom of France was at this time torn by dissensions and open to invasion. England was one of its enemies. King Henry of England had agreed with the queen of France that he was to marry her daughter and be the heir to the French throne. In this way, the young Charles, who was known as the dauphin and who was a rightful ruler, was entirely ignored. Of course this brought on war between the two countries, in which France suffered a great deal.
The English entered France. Henry married Catherine, the dauphin's sister, but shortly after, he, as well as the poor mad king of France, was dead. All this brought about much confusion, for now the heir to the throne of England, who was only nine months old, was contending through his party for the throne of France, and the friends of the young dauphin, Charles, contended that he should be the king of France. Charles was proclaimed king, but had not been crowned at Rheims according to the ancient custom of the French kings.
The beautiful land of France was filled with war and strife. In every part of it the English and French were fighting. Villages were plundered, towns were burned, the poor people suffered much hardship, and it seemed as if nothing would be left to the unhappy inhabitants of these fair lands. This is the time when the story of Joan of Arc begins.
At the little town of Domrémy, which is a village of Lorraine, there lived a farmer whose name was Jacques D'Arc. He had several children, among whom was a beautiful little girl named Jeanne, but we have always known her as Joan of Arc. She grew up as other little girls of her station, until she was about thirteen years of age. She went to church and said her prayers, but she never learned to read and write, for very few people learned to read and write in those days.
Since her parents were poor, Joan had much housework to do, but when the household tasks were finished she and her mother and sisters would sit and spin and sew and talk about the unhappy conditions of the country. The mother would say to her children, "What is to become of our beautiful France? The English are over-running the country, destroying our crops, killing our men, burning our towns, and our poor little dauphin cares for nothing but his pleasure. Would that the good Lord would send some one to rid us of the English!"
Out in the fields Jacques D'Arc and his three sons plowed and sowed and reaped and looked after the sheep, fearing all the time that the English soldiers would come by and destroy their crops and kill their cattle. In this way, between industry and fear, the family lived on quietly, just as many simple people did in those days.
At last Joan became thirteen years of age. The wretched state of affairs in France continued; in fact, they were becoming worse. News came to the little family of dreadful happenings everywhere. Sometimes soldiers passed and told them that the English were besieging Orleans and that the French would not be able to hold out much longer. Sometimes wandering friars would come by bringing sad news of the condition of the country.
Joan became more and more thoughtful. She heard with great sadness that the dauphin, Charles, who was yet an uncrowned king, was living in idleness, trifling his time away and taking no interest in the troubles of his country.
She said to her mother one day, "Would that I were a man, that I might be a soldier, or at least that I might go to the dauphin and tell him to lead his people to war and drive the English from our shores!"
One evening Joan was seated in the little garden in front of the cottage, sewing. She was thinking of the dauphin and of France and the distress of the poor people everywhere. As she sat thinking, suddenly it seemed to her that a bright light shone between her and the church, which was close by. She heard a voice speaking to her, saying, "Joan, you must be a good girl, and go often to church, and you will yet be of great service to your country."
The child was frightened at first, and spoke to no one about the light and the voice which she had heard. Every day voices sounded in her ears, each time saying, "Joan, you will be of great service to your country some day." Some of these voices she thought were those of saints. At another time she thought she heard the voice of Michael, the archangel, saying to her, "Joan, arise and go to the king of France and help him. It is for you to win his battles."
These voices spoke to Joan always when she was alone and in the open air and walking about the fields or through the woods near by. For five years the voices spoke to the young Joan, but she did not know what they meant nor what she could do. She asked herself, "How can a young peasant girl be of any service to the king of France? He would not believe me if I should tell him my story. But I cannot stand these voices any longer and I must tell some one what I have heard."
She told her story to her uncle, who took her to a French lord, who lived close by. Together they told their simple story, but the lord, whose name was Robert, laughed loudly at the thought of the young girl who proposed to help France in this time of trouble. So he said to Joan's uncle, "Take this child away. She is mad. Send her back to her mother."
Her words were very steadfast, her look was very serious, and her face was very sweet. She insisted that the voices still spoke to her and that she must go. At last Robert said, "Take the child to the king and tell him what she has heard. At least it can do no harm." So with two friends, Joan of Arc started out on her journey to the king's court.
She had on armor and breastplate and wore boy's clothes. Her hair was cut short, and one could not tell her from a young squire who was going to battle. She was mounted on a splendid horse and attracted much attention as she rode through the country. Robert himself had given her a sword.
For eleven days she and her escort rode through the country, traveling mainly by night for fear that the English soldiers would arrest her on the way. Finally they came into the beautiful country of Touraine and rode along the banks of the river Loire. Soon they came in sight of the great castle of Chinon, where lived the king. The castle stood upon a great cliff above the little town, and in it the king was having his pleasures, with but little thought of the condition of his country.
For two days Joan waited in the town before she was allowed to see the king. At last one evening, just about dark, some one said to the king, "There is a young girl below who says she has a great message for your majesty. She says she has heard voices from on high and that she is appointed by God to rid your majesty of your enemies."
The king smiled and said to himself, "This at least will amuse me for awhile," and then ordered the girl to be admitted to his presence.
The castle was crowded with members of the court. There were several hundred present when Joan and her friends, lighted by torches, were taken through the corridors and passages into the great hall where the king stood. The king had dressed himself very plainly so that he could not be distinguished from the others. Joan had never seen him, but when she entered the hall she walked straight up to him and knelt before him, saying, "My king and master, may God give you a long and happy life!"
Charles tried to confuse her by saying, "I am not the king, but there he stands," and pointed to a courtier near by.
But Joan was not to be deceived. "No, gentle dauphin, thou art my king and master. It is you to whom I speak and to none other." Arising from her knees, she said, "I am Joan, the maid. I am sent to the king by heaven, to tell you that you shall yet be crowned at Rheims, according to the ancient custom of the kings of France."
Joan stayed around the court for several days while the weak king made up his mind what to do. The ladies of the court questioned her about the voices which she had heard. She was examined by bishops and by other learned men, but to all who questioned her she gave the same answer, "I have heard voices from on high and they have told me to go to Orleans and drive the English from that town and then lead the king to Rheims, where he might be crowned."
Now Orleans, a city on the Loire river, was reduced to a state of great distress. The place was faithful to the king of France and the English had laid siege to it. They had built towers around its walls and from these towers they fired upon the inhabitants, killing many of them and driving others into the cellars. It was to this place that Joan begged King Charles to allow her to lead an army.
At last Charles and his counselors agreed that she should have her wish. She was provided for in every way. She was given a banner of snow-white linen on which was embroidered a figure of the Saviour with an angel kneeling at each side. Her armor was pure white inlaid with silver. Her sword was one which had lain many years buried in a dead knight's tomb. She rode upon a great black horse that was accustomed. to battle.
In this way, one spring morning, she and a large following set out for Orleans. Joan rode at the head of the army, her face very serious. The men were awed by her appearance and by her gentle reproofs, and ceased their oaths and foul language. In fact, the army moved forward singing hymns and accompanied by chanting priests.
As she neared Orleans the English were quite astonished at the appearance of the approaching army. They looked down from their towers in amazement as Joan and her forces approached, but did not try to prevent her and her forces from entering the town. They said to themselves, "The more we can get in this town the more we will capture in the end."
As Joan's white armor gleamed through the evening dusk the people of the town crowded around to see and to touch her and to kiss her hand. They had all heard of what she had said and many of them believed that she had been sent by God to deliver them from their oppressors. She was lodged in a house whose owner furnished such food as he had to her and her little army. Joan merely dipped bread in wine and water, saying that she would eat nothing else until Orleans was delivered.
The presence of the army cheered the people of Orleans and gave them great hope. They made many bold sallies from the town and one by one the English towers fell. The strongest of them, however, remained untaken. It was commanded by an English knight named Glansdale. Joan decided herself to lead the attack upon this tower.
Clad in her white armor and riding her black horse, she drew her sword, though she had never used it, and ordered the gates to be opened and her men to sally forth. In her hands she bore the embroidered banner, which could be seen from every part of the field of battle. Joan was in constant danger everywhere, but she seemed to bear a charmed life. She stood unhurt amid the cloud of arrows that fell about her and which were directed at her.
As she was standing at the foot of the great tower one arrow struck her in the breast. In fact, she had already prophesied that she would be wounded on that day. With her own hands she drew the arrow from the wound, and getting down from her horse she asked some one to pour oil upon the wound and bind it up with linen. Then remounting her steed, she showed herself again to her host, and cried, "On, ye Frenchmen! One more effort and the tower is yours!"
The Frenchmen, seeing Joan again mounted, rushed forward with yells of courage. The English, who thought she had been killed, saw with dismay her boy-like figure riding through the field of battle and her white banner streaming in the wind. She seemed inspired of God, as she turned her face toward the skies. Again she cheered her followers. "Forward in the name of God! The place is yours in an hour!"
At last the tower was taken, and Glansdale, attempting to escape across a bridge, fell into the stream below and was drowned. He and his men had crossed the moat as Joan had moved along the lines, calling out, "Yonder goes the witch!" and calling her evil names. When Joan saw Glansdale and his men drowning in the stream she stopped and shed tears and said aloud, "I have great pity for the souls of those men. May God forgive them their sins!"
The town of Orleans was now out of danger, for the English marched away the next day. From that day Joan was no more known as Joan of Arc, but became known all over France as the Maid of Orleans.
One part of her mission was now accomplished, but the other remained to be done, and that was to see the dauphin crowned king of France. Going back to his castle, she begged Charles to go at once to Rheims, where he might be crowned, but the poor king put it off from time to time, for it seemed to him best that he should stay where he was in idle safety, rather than to risk battle and, perhaps, his life.
While the king was delaying, the Maid spent her time clearing the English from the country round about. The great French generals were now her friends. In fact, so splendid was her following and so successful was she in her battles, that many of the French leaders were jealous of her success and began to look upon her with suspicion and with no kindly thoughts. Said they one to another, "Perhaps, after all, she is a witch and may be leading us into trouble instead of leading us to victory. We had better be careful." So it came about that the Maid had almost as many enemies as she had friends in France.
At last, in the middle of the summer, the king was persuaded to go to Rheims, where he was crowned, and so the second part of her great ambition was accomplished. With her banner in her hand the Maid rode beside the king into the ancient town. The archbishops anointed Charles with oil, and on his head they put the crown of France.
Then the Maid of Orleans knelt at the king's feet and said to him, "My lord and king, the pleasure of God is now fulfilled. It was His will that I should raise the siege of Orleans and that I should lead you to this city to be crowned king. You are now the true king of France, and this fair country is yours. I hope you will rid it of all its enemies and do justice to all your people."
At the ceremony there were many friends from Domrémy who knew her as little Jeanne. There were her father and her uncle, who were very plain, simple people, and who once had looked with sorrow on her leaving her home dressed as a man and fighting with rough soldiers. It was a joyful sight to them now to see her riding by the side of the king, receiving such honor from his hands.
When the ceremony was over, her friends from Domrémy quietly went back to their homes, expecting the Maid to follow them. But in this they were disappointed, for they never saw the girl again. The Maid was not satisfied with having accomplished the two great purposes of her life, and which the voices had told her she must do. Orleans was free and the king had been crowned, but the English still had possession of Paris and other places in France. She persuaded the king to lead an army against Paris. There she fought as bravely as ever, but without success. Charles, who did not like fighting, retired from the wars and left that city in the hands of his enemies.
The next spring the Maid led an army into Picardy, to attack the English, who were threatening one of the towns. As the English approached, she said to her army, "We will sally forth to fight them before they reach the town. Guard the gates behind us."
Her forces went forward to battle, but suddenly the English appeared in great numbers, and her men, seized with panic, retreated towards the town whence they had come. To the consternation of those in the town, the English barred the way of the retreating forces. Then they made the cruel mistake of closing the gates of the town, leaving the Maid and her army outside.
In this way Joan was taken prisoner and led in triumph to the English camp. "At last we have you, thou witch and sorceress," said her taunting captors; "you shall no longer lead the French to victory, for we shall make short work of those inspired by the devil. You shall hear other voices than those of which you have spoken."
She was taken from one prison to another. Once she attempted to escape, and once she flung herself from a high tower, but was not injured by the fall. After a few months she was imprisoned at Rouen where her fate was to be decided. There she was treated shamefully. She was kept in a dungeon shut up in an iron cage. She was chained to her bed and watched day and night by rough soldiers who taunted her with her misfortunes.
King Charles, whom she had so bravely helped, and the French generals, by whose side she had fought, made no effort to ransom or to relieve the unhappy girl. She suffered in silence, and always she said to those around her, "I am sustained by a higher power than an earthly one. I have succeeded in my mission and no torture that you can inflict can conquer my spirit."
At last the day came at Rouen, of which the English were in full possession, when she was tried by a court of judges, and sad to relate, those judges were mostly French, and the charge was sorcery and witchcraft and other crimes. She told the story of her life and of the voices which she had heard, and always maintained that the voices were from God. The trial continued for days and even weeks, and in the end the Maid was condemned to die.
One spring day, in the early morning, she was taken to the old market-place at Rouen, where a stake had been driven into the ground. To this stake she was chained, and around her was piled a lot of wood.
She begged that she might hold a cross in her hand. One of the English soldiers who was on guard, broke a stick and fashioned the pieces in the form of a cross and handed it to her. The Maid took it and pressed it to her bosom and lifted her face to the sky. Then the cruel soldiers set fire to the wood and the flames slowly enveloped her form. Her last words were, "The voices I heard were of God. They still sustain me. They have never deceived me."
With these words upon her lips, the flames enveloped the form of the young girl and she died a martyr's death. Among all the heroes that France loves, whether they be soldiers or statesmen or even kings, there is none that is loved more tenderly or reverenced more sincerely than the little maid of Domrémy, whose wonderful courage has made her known to all the world as the Maid of Orleans.