When Henry V of England won his decisive victory over Charles VI of France at the battle of Agincourt in 1415, the question of whether his heir Henry VI would be the joint ruler of both England and France (not to mention the long Hundred Years War) seemed settled. That the French dauphin, Charles VII (son of the ill-fated Charles VI) resisted English rule hardly seemed important with the English and Burgundian forces controlling most of northern France. Laying siege to the city of Orleans in 1429 should have settled the matter since it was Charles' strongest fortress and the key to all of his southern lands. Unfortunately for the English, their siege was broken on May 8 with the English troops being driven off. While that galling enough, the fact that the one leading the French troops to victory happened to be an eighteen-year old peasant girl who claimed to hear divine "voices" infuriated the English government.
The girl in question, Joan D'Arc, was born in 1412 or 1413 in a northeastern French village devastated by the Hundred Years' War more than once. The farm where her family had lived for generations had been repeatedly ransacked, most recently when Joan was sixteen years old. There are numerous stories relating to Joan and when she first began hearing the "voices" that would inspire her to lead French troops to victory. In the best-known of the stories, Joan's first experience with the voices happened when she was thirteen and she reportedly saw a dazzling light and a commanding voice telling her to "be a good and dutiful child, go often to church". A devout girl who remained a virgin all her life (according to some sources, she never menstruated), the voices eventually identified themselves to her as Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and Saint Michael (it was Saint Michael who symbolized French resistance to English rule). When she turned eighteen, the voices told her the mission that would consume her life: "Joan, go thou to the assistance of the King of France and thou shalt restore his kingdom to him".
Traveling to the fortess of Vaucoleurs in February 1429, Joan was able to convince the local ruler, Robert de Baudricourt, to provide her with an escort to Chinon where Charles had his court. Although Charles' courtiers were less than impressed with an eighteen-year old peasant girl dressed in men's clothes and accompanied by six of Baudricourt's men-at-arms, they eventually agreed to let her see the king (after two days of arguing). Charles seemed put off by Joan's dressing as a man and only agreed to let her lift the siege on Orleans after having her examined by a panel of theologians. When the theologians asked for proof that her visions were authentic, all that Joan asked was that the king provide her with men at arms and she would lift the siege. She answered that lifting the siege would be all the proof that they would need.
Whether Charles was genuinely impressed by Joan or simply decided to exploit a simple peasant girl's delusions (probably the latter given what came later), Joan was sent off with her men-at-arms and successfully lifted the siege. Considering that the English troops were in a weakened state after a long winter, Joan's victory was not that much of a miracle but the lifting of the siege on May 8 made her a national heroine and the legend of the "Maid of Orleans" was born. Charles was annointed as king of France on July 17 at Rheims, just as Joan had predicted. The English were hardly beaten though and even made their own arrangements to annoint Henry VI as king instead. By then, Joan had tried and failed to retake Paris, which was under English control and Charles had already decided that "the Maid of Orleans" had become a liability to him. He was not particularly interested in continuing with a bloody war with England and had already been having better success negotiating than he did with actual combat.
Joan, on the other hand, was convinced that she was on a divine crusade. After launching a mission to defend the city of Compeigne (without royal permission), Joan was captured by English troops on May 23, 1430. The capture was a major coup for the English who were determined to prove her guilty of witchcraft (and convicting Charles VII by implication since she had helped crown him). The trial itself opened at Rouen on January 9 1431 and the court made every effort to appear as fair as possible, even though there was no realistic chance that Joan could ever have been acquitted. Pierrre Cauchon, the bishop of Beauvais, presided over the trial although the exact nature of the charge against Joan was unclear at times. Bishop Cauchon realized soon enough that the original charge of witchcraft could never be proven so the charge was quietly changed to heresy instead. Through lengthy interrogation, which often involved dozens of Inquisitors, ecclesiasts, and lawyers, Joan consistently defended the "voices" that she heard and was emphatic that they were divine in nature. There was also the question of Joan's insistence on wearing men's clothes ( forbidden by Church law, by the way).
The prosecutors used various strategies to rattle Joan, including suggesting that she wasn't really a virgin and had been promiscuous with her fellow soldiers. The question of whether Joan was mentally ill was never really raised. As far as the ecclesiasts running the trial was concerned, the voices could not possibly have been authentic since the Church hierarchy had not certified them as being true. Joan's insistence that her own conscience was more important than Church teachings was particularly damaging. One of the highlights of the trial was Joan telling Bishop Cauchon, "You tell me you are my judge; ponder with great care over what you mean to do, for in very truth I was sent of God, and you are putting yourself in great jeopardy." When the examiners emphasized that Joan needed to submit to their judgment, not her own, she replied: "I came to the king of France, sent by God, by the Virgin, by the saints and the Church victorious above; to that Church do I submit myself, my works, all I have done, all I have still to do".
In questioning Joan, the examiners were often curious concerning the exact nature of her visions, whether God hated the English, whether the angels and saints who appeared to her were naked or clothed, and whether Joan claimed miraculous powers. Joan often lost her temper to the various questions posed to her but she cooperated as best she could. This was difficult at times, especially when the trial shifted from a public court to private interrogation sessions in her small cell. By the time of the final cross-examination on March 17, Cauchon and the Inquisition were satisfied that they had enough evidence to convict Joan as a heretic although legal experts disagreed. Even under canon law, the failure to provide Joan with legal counsel was damning and at least one legal authority argued that the entire hearing should have been suspended on that basis. Bishop Cauchon decided to ignore the lawyers, largely because it was a political exercise, not a legal trial.