Between October 1428 and May 1429, during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), the city of Orleans, France, was besieged by English forces. On May 8, 1429, Joan of Arc (1412-31), a teenage French peasant, successfully led a French force to break the siege. In 1920, she was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Siege of Orleans: Background

In 1415, the Hundred Years’ War between England and France entered a crucial phase when the young King Henry V (1386-1422) of England invaded France and won a series of decisive victories against the forces of King Charles VI (1368–1422). By the time of Henry’s death in late August 1422, the English and their French-Burgundian allies controlled Aquitaine and most of northern France, including Paris. Charles VI, long incapacitated, died in October, and his son, Charles (1403-61), regent from 1418, prepared to take the throne. However, Reims, the traditional city of French coronation, was held by the Anglo-Burgundians, and the dauphin (heir apparent to the French throne) remained uncrowned. Meanwhile, King Henry VI (1421–1471) of England, the infant son of Henry V and Catherine of Valois, the daughter of Charles VI, was proclaimed king of France by the English.

Did you know? In modern times, some doctors and scholars have suggested that the visions and voices experienced by Joan of Arc, which she interpreted as signs from God, might have been the result of a neurological or psychiatric condition that triggered hallucinations or delusions.

When she was about 16, Joan, the daughter of Jacques d’Arc, a farmer in Domremy, France, heard “voices” of Christian saints telling her to aid Charles, the French dauphin, in gaining the French throne and expelling the English from France. In May 1428, she traveled to Vaucouleurs, a stronghold of the dauphin, and told the captain of the garrison of her visions. Disbelieving the young peasant girl, he sent her home. In January 1429, she returned, and the captain, impressed by her piety and determination, agreed to allow her passage to the dauphin at Chinon.

Dressed in men’s clothes and accompanied by a small group of soldiers, she reached the dauphin’s castle at Chinon in February 1429 and was granted an audience. Charles hid himself among his courtiers, but Joan immediately picked him out and informed him of her divine mission. For several weeks, Charles had Joan questioned by theologians at Poitiers, who concluded that, given his desperate straits, the dauphin would be well-advised to make use of this strange and charismatic girl.

Siege of Orleans Broken: May 8, 1429

Charles furnished Joan with a small army, and on April 27, 1429, she set out for Orleans, besieged by the English since October 1428. On April 29, as a French sortie distracted the English troops on the west side of Orleans, Joan entered unopposed by its eastern gate. She brought greatly needed supplies and reinforcements and inspired the French to a passionate resistance. She personally led the charge in several battles and on May 7 was struck by an arrow. After quickly dressing her wound, she returned to the fight, and the French won the day. On May 8, the English retreated from Orleans.

Joan of Arc Burned at Stake

During the next five weeks, Joan led French forces into a number of stunning victories over the English, and Reims, the traditional city of coronation, was captured in July. Later that month, Charles VII was crowned king of France, with Joan of Arc kneeling at his feet. (Although she later would be remembered as a fearless warrior, Joan never actually fought in battle or killed an opponent. Instead, she would accompany her men as a sort of inspirational mascot, brandishing her banner in place of a weapon. She was also responsible for outlining military strategies, directing troops and proposing diplomatic solutions to the English.).

In May 1430, while leading another military expedition against the English occupiers of France, Bourguignon soldiers captured Joan and sold her to the English, who tried her for heresy. The so-called Maid of Orleans was tried as a heretic and witch, convicted, and on May 30, 1431, burned at the stake at Rouen. In 1920, Joan of Arc, already one of the great heroes of French history, was recognized as a Christian saint by the Roman Catholic Church.