This Day In History: January 6

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Joan of Arc, the "Maid of Orléans," is believed to have been born on January 6, 1412. She lived only 19 years, but would become a Roman Catholic saint and a national hero of France for her pivotal role in the Hundred Years’ War.

Joan was born to Jacques d'Arc and Isabelle Romée in a small town in northeastern France. At the time of her birth, the English and their allies controlled much of France, including Paris, Bordeaux, and Reims. In addition to the English threat, a faction loyal to the Duke of Burgundy challenged the right of the Dauphin (heir apparent), Charles of Orléans, to the French throne. Joan claimed that she first received divine instruction at the age of 13, in her father's garden, when Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret told her to drive the English from the country. At age 16, she correctly predicted the outcome of a battle to a French commander, who then agreed to take her to Charles.

HISTORY Vault: Joan of Arc: Soul on Fire

Joan of Arc: a teenage girl so dangerous, she had to be burned at the stake. Discover how an illiterate peasant girl took command of an army and placed a king on the throne of France.

The illiterate farm girl made a strong impression on the Dauphin, enough that she began to travel with him and advise French military leaders. It is unclear what exactly her role was in the subsequent campaign, but it is clear that it was more than merely symbolic. She carried a banner rather than a weapon, and later testified that she never killed an enemy soldier, but French leaders credited her as a major factor in lifting the siege at Orléans. The liberation of the city shocked the English and put the French on the offensive for the first time in years. With Joan's advice, foresight, and charisma aiding his advance, Charles' forces expelled the English and Burgundians from the Loire Valley. The French re-took Troyes and liberated Reims, the traditional coronation site for French monarchs, where the Dauphin took his crown.

A short time later, Joan was captured in battle with the Burgundians. She was put on trial by the English, who were determined to prove that her inspiration had come from the devil. Accounts of the trial feature prominently in her mythos, as she evaded English attempts to trick her into admitting heresy. In one such attempt, Joan was asked if she knew she was in God's grace. According to doctrine, answering "yes" would have been heresy because no one could truly know the answer, but saying "no" would be an admission of heresy. Joan replied, "'If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me," avoiding the trap. The court eventually convicted her anyway, and she was burned at the stake in Rouen on May 30, 1431.

A posthumous "nullification trial" ordered by Pope Callixtus III exonerated Joan of the heresy charges in 1455. By that time, the tide of the war had turned decisively against the English, and the Maid of Orléans had become the major figure associated with the victory. She was declared a national symbol of France by Napoleon in 1830 and canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920. Scholars also suggest that her story had a profound effect on French society—the end of the Hundred Years’ War is often recognized as the last gasp of feudalism. Over the next several centuries, the old societal order gave way to new ideas about nation-states and the dignity of the common man, and for the French Joan of Arc was a natural symbol of both.