Joan of Ark was born into a modest family in Domrémy, Eastern France, in 1412.
Contrary to a long lasting legend she never was a shepherdess but it was truly reported that she heard around 1425 the voice of God ordering her to help save Charles, the King of France, a country facing turmoil following the English occupation.
Charles' legitimacy was heavily disputed especially as the King of England had serious claims over the French throne. It should be remembered that following the marriage of Henry Plantagenet, the future King of England, and Alienor of Aquitaine who herself had been repudiated by her former husband and King of France Louis 7th in 1152, a great part of the kingdom then belonged to the English King who himself had strong French roots.
Charles refused to listen to Joan's plea in 1428 but she obtained from Robert of Baudricourt, commander of the town of Vaucouleurs, to receive an armed escort to visit Charles in Chinon the following year.
After convincing the latter that she had been invested by God to save his throne she rescued the town of Orleans besieged by English troops. This rescue however never was a glorious feat as the English did nothing to prevent Joan from entering the city and her feat of arms was limited to a brief skirmish.
Still English troops went on to suffer a series of defeats on various battlefields and Charles managed to rally Rheims where he was sacred King on July 17th 1429. From then on he felt he no longer needed Joan's support. She however continued to fight with a small troop and was first betrayed by the Parisians before being captured by Burgundian troops before the town of Compiègne in May 1430.
Joan was then handed over to the English occupant who decided to have her judged as a witch by a French court so as to cast discredit on the crowning of Charles. The trial, headed by Bishop Cauchon, took place behind closed doors in Rouen between January 9th and March 28th 1431 and Joan was sentenced to be burnt at the stake after she refused to submit to the authority of the Church and to admit that the voice she heard had simply been the fruit of her imagination.
Her legend slowly took shape after her trial was revised in 1456. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. During the 19th Century Joan of Arc, through her courage and suffering, became the symbol of French resistance and a highly respected figure among staunch Catholics. She notably was the object of deep admiration on the part of General de Gaulle but her memory also served to stir durable anti-English feelings in France. She now alas has been venerated by French right-wing extremists who have been used to gather before her statue erected rue de Rivoli in Paris every first day of May.
The character of Joan has been personified many times on the screen from Carl Dreyer's film "Joan's passion" in 1928 to Jean-Luc Besson film "Joan of Arc" released in October 1999. However Joan, usually called the "Maiden of Orleans", strictly owed her legend to the fact that the kingdom of France was at a loss during troubled times. Completely torn apart, the country surely needed a guide to ensure its reunification and historians during the 19th Century transformed adequately the naive girl from Domrémy into one of its greatest heroines.
The real truth is that the English occupants had failed to bring peace in that country after a long and tiring but legitimate presence that had been the result of an intricate family affair regarding the legitimacy over the French crown. Her unbelievable adventure had much in common with the feats of those prophets active during Biblical times especially when she much induced her fellow countrymen to believe that God was by her side to rescue Charles. Strangely enough she thus provoked the irritation of the French Church, which did not want its authority to be sapped. Nowadays she would rather be described as a crank and be sent without delay to an asylum.
In 1428 many members of the French court thought that this girl who came from nowhere was in fact utterly mad but Charles suddenly felt he finally had nothing to lose in choosing her as his champion even though at the risk of facing harsh criticisms. However the King showed he was a total hypocrite when he ignored her after she was arrested. One of Joan's companions was the great grandnephew of the famous French Marshall du Guesclin, Gilles de Rais, born in 1404, who was hanged and burnt to the stake in Nantes in 1440 after being accused of witchcraft and of having murdered numerous children.