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Martyrs in the History of Christianity by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Rev. Dr. Franklyn J. Balasundaram was Professor in the Department of the History of Christianity , United Theological College, Bangalore, India. Published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Delhi, India 1997, for The United Theological College. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 3: The Martyrdom of Joan of Arc (1412-1431), by Varneihthangi


Throughout history women and men have fought bravely for noble causes and Joan is one among them. Because of this, it can be said, without doubt, that Joan is among one of the richest personalities, and a representative of the end of the Middle Ages. She was promoted to be the heroine of French history for her bravery in leading the French army against the English like any modern general and driving the English away from the French territory. This she did in obedience to ‘her voices’ she received from St.Michael, St.Catherine and St.Margaret. But, as was exceptional, she was regarded by some of her contemporaries as a sorceress possessed by Satan and therefore put to death at the stake at a very young age.

Historical Background

It was the time when The Hundred Years War was going on and the English occupied Northern France. The War was continuing between the French and English monarchs, Charles of France and Henry VI of England respectively Because of this, the village of Domremy, where Joan lived was often exposed to the fighting between the French and the English, who freely looted the countryside. Also both French and English soldiers raided villages and carried away whatever they could lay their hands on, be it cattle or grain and this resulted in the poverty of the farmers who were not able to even enjoy the fruits of their hard labor and toiling.

Also, the English army was joined by the French Duke of Burgundy and this amalgamation posed a serious threat for the French king. The king’s eldest son, known as the Dauphin was camping in the country at Vaucouleurs as they were still loyal to the king. It was Joan’s mission to crown the Dauphin, Charles VII in Rheims’ Cathedral after clearing the French territory from the English hand. But since Rheims was in the enemy’s hand, the Dauphin could not be crowned even five years after his father’s death.


Joan, also called ‘The Maid of Orleans’ or ‘The Girl Soldier’ was born in 1412 to a poor farmer’s family in the village of Domrey-lapucelle in Northern France. Joan was illiterate because there were no education facilities in the village. Moreover, her parents were unable to send her to a distant place just for the sake of schooling. Her father Jacques worked in his own small holding. Her mother, though uneducated was a deeply religious person and so brought up Joan in the Church’s faith and taught her to say her prayers. Because of this, Joan had a special appeal towards the lives of holy men and women. As she did not go to school, Joan helped her parents in the home and in the field. Though they were poor there is no evidence to say that they lived in utter poverty or that Joan worked as a hired servant having no time to attend Church services regularly which she enjoyed very much. Also there is no evidence to say that she did not find time to go to confession or wait for vision and listen to the Church’s bells when she wanted, in order to hear voices. Joan spent her childhood years in the open air and she was a strong and sturdy girl. Nature for her was her teacher. She liked listening to the birds sing and lambs bleating which she used to watch grazing on the hill-slopes. Her piety and faith were strengthened in the quietness of the farmlands in which she was able to feel the Unseen’s power and presence. Joan was utterly honest, simple and straight forward, humble and earnest. (M.J.Sargunam, A Galaxy of Heroes, [Coimbatore, Palaniandavar Printers, 1981], p. 23.)

Joan’s Voices and Visions

Joan’s voices and visions and played many tricks with her reputation. They had been held to prove that she was sad, that she was a liar and imposter, that she was a sorceress for which she was burnt, and finally a saint. They do not prove any of these things; but the variety of the conclusions reached show how little our matter of fact historians know about other people’s minds, or even about their own. (Bernard Shaw, Saint Joan, (Calcutta: Orient Longman Ltd., 1979), p. 10.)

As Joan’s village was frequently exposed to fighting between the French and the English, with her growth in age, Joan also grew more and more sensitive to her village community’s suffering. She also came to understand that poverty was a result of the wars. She spent many a night in prayer for her people. Then at the age of 13 during her vigil and prayer, she heard voices. Her devotion and godliness grew stronger day by day as these voices taught her self-discipline. She was conscious in her prayer of the presence of St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret, the patron saints, whose voices directed and fashioned her life. She therefore without any word obeyed their word of guidance and was getting ready to obey the voices when the time came, voices of saints which spoke from heaven above. It was to the unseen world that her mind and spirit were tuned. She then received a message asking her to go to Charles, the heir to the throne of France and to help him in the war against the English. (M.J. Sargunam, Ibid., p. 22.) Though being a simple, immature, peasant girl, never been trained in the art of fighting, never having ever learnt to ride a horse or wield a sword, yet she was called to serve France.

Joan’s Response to Her Voices and Visions

Joan, after receiving the call to save France, boldly set out to meet the French king. Even though she was not successful to have personal contact with the king in her first attempt, she did not lose hope but made another trip the following year when she was just 17 years of age. Though the captain did not take her seriously, Joan insisted and was successful after weeks to an interview with the king. It was her firmness and piety which helped her in the end. Although people scoffed at her claim to have received orders from heaven, she was resolved to fulfil her purpose, believing that God wanted her to drive the enemy from France. She then dressed like a man, putting on the armor of a soldier and rode a horse. Though her unwomanly way drew much prejudice and opposition, she refused to give in, but instead said, "It is better to obey the voice of Heaven than that of man." (Ibid., p. 23.) It was her passionate love for freedom that made her ready to even sacrifice her life.

Joan also sought to instill pride, self respect and the spirit to fight for the king in her fellowmen. Though mocked, rebuked and disbelieved by the army officers, priests and the king, she was firm in her stand to her mission and was determined to do or die. It was her childlike trust in Heavenly Vision and burning zeal which finally overcame the king’s officers and she was allowed to meet the king. It is said that the king unwilling to meet a rustic teenager played a trick on her by dressing like one of his courtiers. But Joan, though never having ever met or seen the king or any of the nobles before, was not confused when she entered the big hall. She instead, to the surprise of all, went straight to the disguised king and said, "God grant you life, sire." (Ibid., p. 23.) It can be said that it is the Spirit alone who could have guided her.

She then told the king that he should be crowned in Rheims’ Cathedral after the English army was routed. (Ibid., p. 23.) Joan became impatient in the delay, for the king took time to consult his officers and supporters. But after much hesitation, the king permitted her to lead the French army against the English.

Joan, The Girl Soldier

Joan was then allowed by the king to lead the French army against the English as the city of Grisans held by the French was under heavy siege, on the point of losing the battle. A banner was made for her and she had her standard painted. She declared that a sword for her would be found in the church of St.Catherine and it was so. In spite of all the frightening inquiries of the church, Joan, like an experienced warrior boldly took to the battle field.

On May 4th she suddenly sprang up while resting. Being apparently inspired, she ordered an attack and took one fort and another the next day after which the French army crossed the river. The English army taken by surprise, with the view to reforming the ranks, evacuated the fort. The victory roused the French and the rallying point for the army now became Joan. Joan was acclaimed the victorious Maid of Orleans in the battle. She moved ahead of the soldiers with great speed. Though she fought on tenaciously, she was wounded in the next encounter at Tuileries.

Joan then asked Charles, the king, to go to Rheims to be crowned, but he hesitated. Joan promised great victory for France when the two armies, the French and the English met at Rheims. When it was so, it brought great honor and renown for her. She then promised pardon to the citizens of Rheims if they surrendered, and a Friar was sent to meet her. (M. J. Sargunam, op. cit. p. 24) But her promise was not believed in spite of the Friar’s positive report. Joan then ordered an attack and the city surrendered. The impossible, defeating the English army, took place and her mission was successful. Then on 17th July, 1429 the Dauphin was crowned Charles VII in the stately Cathedral at Rheims. (Ibid., p. 24.) Joan then knelt before him and for the first time, called him "My Lord, the king." (Ibid., p. 24.)

Her Capture

Joan was alone and unhappy after the victory. Her advice to march against Paris was not heeded by the king and moreover her enemies were active. Also her request to the king to be allowed to retire to her village to lead a quiet life was not granted either. She had to instead stay around the king’s court to face charges of the priests against her faith. (Ibid., p. 25.) As the king did not pay heed to Joan’s advice, he began to lose his power day by day. Then the English came back to fight. Joan once more bravely took to the battle field without enough support. She being fearless of danger or death led a small platoon against the English who had now surrounded Paris. Though wounded in the fight, she urged her followers not to give up. She then fell from her horse and taken prisoner, being led to the enemy’s camp. There was no attempt made to get her exchanged. Her courage and sacrifice were in vain. (M.J. Sargunam, op.cit., p. 25.) She had to suffer cruelty and shame for her love of her country and devotion to the king.

Reason for Persecution

It was a view held by the priests and church leaders that none other than them could and must convey the Voice of God and God’s will. But here was Joan, who was just a poor country girl, illiterate, defying the social norm by dressing up as a man and affirming that she had received orders from ‘her voices’ to fight against the English. These, they could not tolerate for, they were certain that she was in touch with evil spirits and not with the Voice of God. Therefore, they wanted to defeat her. They felt that she was wrong. She was also accused of being an agent of Satan, possessing magical powers and must be put to death. The French and English joined together in their attack against her motives for action.

Another reason for Joan’s persecution it can be said that the Church in the Middle Ages was narrow minded and burnt those who did not accept its way. (Ibid., p. 24.) and here was Joan claiming to receive voices telling her to do things according to them, voices she believed to be directly coming from God.

The Trial

After being captured by the English, Joan was taken to Beaurevoir, but her soul was at Campaign, still fighting with all her heart for the king who had abandoned her.

The English, after capturing Joan, were in for a sorry state, for they not only failed to recapture Louviers, but also lost Chateaugaillard. They, therefore, tried all possible ways to check their rapid decline. It was then decided that the trial of Joan and the coronation of the king be held together, for they were regarded as one. Then Charles VII, the French king could be dishonored as being anointed by a witch and in his place Henry VI of England could be crowned, whose coronation would be the Lord’s whereas Charles’ of the devil.

Cauchon, who had only recently secured permission for persecution in its diocese from the chapter of Rouen Cathedral, was then called by an order issued by Winchester on January 3, 1431 to open the trial of Joan, who was only to be loaned for trial to the ecclesiastical judge "reserving the right to take her back again in case she was not convicted." (Jules Michelet, Joan of Arc, [The University of Michigan Press, 1974], p. 72.) The English took no risk in making sure that she did not escape death. They were firm to use the sword if fire failed.

Cauchon then opened the trial on January 9, 1431 at Rouen. He started with a sort of consultation with the eight doctors, licentiates and masters of arts of Rouen with information he had collected about Joan. Though this information which was gathered in advance by Joan’s enemies appear insubstantial to Rouen legal expert’s minds but they were so adamant to put her to death that the flimsy accusation of witchcraft was changed to heresy.

But in order to proceed, the first step was to win over the monk who was representative of the inquisition. Though the monk argued and pleaded, saying that until he was absolutely sure and convinced that his powers were sufficient another be appointed. But all were in vain and he could not escape but be the judge. Also he was bribed by Winchester who gave him gold for all the trouble he had gone through.

Joan was then brought to trial before the judges on 21 February 1431. She was admonished with gentleness and charity by the bishop of Beauvais who urged her to answer any question truthfully in order that the trial would be shortened and her conscience be unburdened without subterfuges. Joan answered, "I do not know what you propose to question me about; you might ask me things which I would not tell you." (Ibid., p. 74.) Questions about anything, which are not connected with her visions, she agreed to swear to tell the truth. But she said, regarding her visions, they would have to cut off her head first.

On the following day, 22nd February and once more on 24th February she was urged to pledge herself unconditionally. Yet she still resisted by saying. "Even little children repeat that often times people are hanged for having told the truth". (Ibid., p. 74.) But due to weariness, she finally agreed that if it can have a bearing on her trial she would tell everything she knew.

They then questioned her about her age, name and so on. They then asked her about the term ‘the Maid’ by which she was called by the people. To this, she eluded the difficulty with a white lie which may be due to reluctancy of feminine modesty and instead said, "As to what they call me, I know nothing about it". (Ibid., p. 75.) When she complained that she had been fettered, the bishop replied that it had been necessary to shackle her since she had repeatedly attempted to escape. She then said, "It is true, I have tried. Any prisoner has the right to do so. If I did escape, no one could accuse me of having broken faith, for I have promised nothing." (Ibid., p. 75.)

May be because of superstition, they then ordered her to recite the prayers Pater Noster and the Ave Maria in order to catch her, for they believed that if she was a thrall of the devil she would not be able to do so and this would give them the chance to condemn her. But she replied "I shall be glad to say them, if only my Lord the bishop of Beauvais consents to hear me in confession." (Ibid., p. 75.) This was a clever and touching request, to take her judge, her enemy into her fullest confidence, for this would have compelled him to bear witness to her innocence and made him her spiritual father. But Cauchon refused, and instead adjourned the session for the next day and turned the task over to one of his successors.

A strange quickening of her spirit was manifested at the fourth session of her trial. She did not conceal the fact that she had heard ‘her voices’. She instead said, "They woke me up. I folded my hands and begged of them to advise me; they said to me: Ask our Lord" -- "And what else did they say?" "That I should answer you without fear. (Ibid., p. 75-76.)

When she told them that she was not free to speak everything out, not because of fear of answering them, but instead fear of offending ‘her voices’, the bishop insisted by saying. "But Joan it is then possible to offend God by telling what is true?" (Ibid., p. 76.) But she answered, "My voices have told me certain things that are not meant for you, but for the king." (Ibid., p. 76.) Her sayings were mingled with naive words, but at the same time with sublime meanings like, "I was sent by God, from whom I came ..." Her words, "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," (Ibid., p. 76.) must have irritated the judges for they asked her, "Joan, do you believe that you are in a state of grace?" (Ibid., p. 76.) Which is an insidious and perfidious question, sinful to ask any living human creature. Also because with this question they thought that they would catch her with a snare that could not be loosened by anything for if she said no, it would be confessing her unworthiness to be God’s instrument. But if she said Yes, she would be labeled as proud and presumptuous, one among who are farthest from grace. But with heroic and Christian simplicity she cut the knot by saying, "If I am not, may it please God to bring me into it; If I am, may He preserve me in it." (Ibid., p. 77.)

After all her heroism, according to Jules Michelet, Joan still being a woman relapsed, grew soft, even doubting her state and striving to reassure herself by saying, "Ah! If I knew I was not in God’s grace, no one in the world could be more afflicted... But if I were in a state of sin, surely the voices could not come to me... I wish everyone could hear them as I do..." (Ibid., p. 77.) These words became a weapon for the judges against her who, after a long pause attacked her anew with fiercer hatred, asking her questions in quick succession. Questions like, "Did not the voices tell her to hate the Burgundians? Did she not go, as a child, to the tree of the fairies?" (Ibid., p. 77.) With a hope to find out which might have led to her undoing for they wanted to burn her as a witch.

She was attacked on a delicate perilous point, that of the apparitions at the fifth session, where she was even asked whether St.Michael was naked when he appeared to her. But she answered this question with heavenly purity, not even aware of its nastiness by saying, "Do you think our Lord did not have the wherewithal to clothe him?" (Ibid., p. 78.)

More bizarre questions like, "This St.Michael these sainted women, did they have a body, limbs? (Ibid., p. 78.) were asked on 3rd March in order to make Joan confess to some devil’s work. She instead replied, "Yes, I believe it is firmly as I believe in God." (Ibid., p. 78.) And this was carefully noted down.

As the trial was not progressing as expected, Cauchon thought it more prudent to proceed as quietly as possible with only a few men he could trust. The number of assessors also varied from session to session, for while some left, others came. There was also variation in the place of the trial, for Joan was on trial in the hall of Rouen’s castle, but later in her prison, where Cauchon in order ‘not to bother others’, (Ibid., p. 79.) went there on March 10-17 with only two assessors and two witnesses. This bold secret step taken by Cauchon may be due to the reason of knowing that the Inquisition was in support of him and due authority was received on March 12 by the vicar from the Inquisitor General for France, Win-chester, to jointly judge with the bishops.

Joan was then pressed only with few points in these fresh examinations which was indicated by Cauchon in advance. With questions like -- "Do you believe you did rightly in leaving your parents without their permission ? Should not one’s father and mother be honored?" (Ibid., p. 80.) But Joan answered all these questions with simplicity and honesty for which they could not find fault. The judges at last reached proper ground for their accusation to their question whether she will be saved or go to hell ? Joan replied that ‘her voices’ told her to "accept everything with a willing heart; be not dismayed at the thought of martyrdom, for it will lead you at last to the Kingdom of heaven," (Ibid., p. 82.) and that she firmly believed that she was saved already.

They then closed their preliminary examination, asking her if she would let the church be the final judge. But to this she replied, "I love the church, and I want to uphold her with all my strength. As to the good works I have wrought, I must refer them to the king of Heaven, who sent me." (Ibid., p. 83.) Even when the question was repeated, she gave no answer, but added, "the church and the Lord are one." (Ibid., p. 83.)

Manner of Martyrdom

It was nine o’clock in the morning of May 30, 1431. Joan was clothed in her woman’s garb and put into a cart. Brother Martin I’Advenu, the confessor and Massieu, the usher stood on both her sides. She was carried in the cart through the street into the fish market in Rouen amidst a quivering multitude, under the guard of hundred Englishmen armed with swords and spears. Though she did not weep and mourn, she did not accuse her king nor her saints. She was only able to whisper, "O Rouen, Rouen is it here that I must die?" (Ibid., p. 116.) Three platforms had been erected. The first was for the Episcopal and royal chair where the English cardinal and his prelates were to be seated. The second was meant for the preacher, judge, the bailiff who were the figure characters in the somber drama and for the condemned Joan. The third was a high platform heaped with firewood meant for pyre. This was meant in order that the executioner would not be able to reach its base and shorten Joan’s torture and dispatch her as done usually, but instead that she would literally burn alive for everyone present in the market place to see, above the encircling spears and swords. (Jules Michelet, op.cit., p. 117)

Master Nicholas Midy, one of the lights of the University of Paris began the horrible ceremony with a sermon on the edifying text, "when one limb of the church is sick, the whole church is sick", and the church could only be healed by cutting that sick limb. He concluded with the formula: "Joan, go you in peace, the church could no longer defend thee." (Ibid., p. 117.) Then the bishop of Beauvais who was the ecclesiastical judge exhorted her with benignity to care for her soul and to remember all her transgressions so as to rouse herself to contrition. (Ibid., p. 117.) The bishop omitted the reading of her abjuration of her which was according to the assessors law for fear that she would raise a protest by saying that he was lying. But Joan’s mind was thus far from trying to save her life, but fixed on different things. Instead, she fell on her knees, invoking God, the Virgin, St. Michael and St. Catherine to forgive all as she has forgiven them. She also begged the crowd to pray for her and entreated all the priests present to say a mass for her soul. All present were so moved by her humble gesture that some began weeping and others in tears, even those who had condemned her to the stake.

Then the bishop of Beauvais after wiping his eyes, began reading the sentence which he had rehearsed for the culprit all her crimes-schism, idolatry, invoking demons; how after being admitted to penitence, she was

seduced by the prince of lies and had relapsed, O grief: Like the dog returning to his vomit! Therefore, we pronounce you a rotten limb, and as such cut off from the church; we deliver you over to the secular power, beginning it however to be mild in dealing with you, and to spare you death and bodily mutilation. (Ibid., p. 118-19.)

Thus Joan, the Maid, committed herself in full confidence to God after being rejected by the church. She asked for a cross and was given a wooden one made out of stick by an Englishman. Though she received it devoutly, placing it under her garments next to her skin, she wanted a regular church crucifix to be placed before her eyes. This was done only after such pleading by the kind usher Massieu and Brother Lambert and the cross was brought from the parish church of St. Saviour.

She was roughly handled and brought down from the platform by the English soldier and because of this rough handling, Joan cried anew, "O Rouen, so thou art to be my last abode! . . ." She said not more and did not sin with her lips, in this hour of terror and agony (Ibid., p. 120.) She neither did accuse her king nor her saints.

She was tied under the placard of infamy: a miter placed on her head with the words" "Heretic, backslider, apostate, idolater…" (Ibid., p. 120.) Then the executioner lit the fire. As the flames rose and reached her she shivered and because of agony cried for holy "water; water". (Ibid., p. 121.) But she soon conquered herself and had only the names of God, her angels and her saints on her lips. Finally, her head dropped, and she uttered a great cry: "Jesus!" (Ibid., p. 122.) and surrendered her life to her God by being burnt at the stake, at a young age of just 19 years.


Though a number of articles and stories have been written about Joan, I could not help but write again on the life and martyrdom of Joan, so I am and continue to be inspired by her. A girl, who was still young, full of life and may be with plans for the future, but was willing to give her all, even her life for what she believed to be true and felt called to death.

I would not go into all the details of her history, but concentrate on the few realities which have time and again struck and inspired me.

Joan can be said as one who really believed in the fact of God speaking to human beings, directing our life from ‘her voices’ which she obeyed without any word. The voices can be questioned as to whether they were really genuine or not. Here I would like to mention that it can vary from person to person. For some it can be like the voices which Joan may have heard directly. But at the same time, it can also be said as the word which was heard in our hearts/minds directing our consciences in the wrong and right. But also in order to respond to the voice, one important factor necessary is faith in God. For without faith, we cannot hear or follow the voice of God. Joan obeyed the voice in action in going to the king to ask him to grant her permission to go to battle, which was possible because of her faith in God. This faith in Joan is what I feel very important in our response to the voice of God. It must also be like Joan’s which was in action.

Joan’s firmness is another aspect which really struck home in me. Though being just a poor, illiterate country girl, she was firm to the mission to which she was called, even though the officers and the king did not at first take her seriously. But because of her firmness to her mission, they also had to give in to what she wanted in the end -- leading the French army in battle in obedience to ‘her voices’. Like Joan, we too, in our present day context need to be firm in our stand to work for humanity in response to what all are called by God.

Then comes Joan’s "obedience to God alone" in spite of being condemned by all, even the church which is supposed to be the people of God. But as Joan was sure that what she was doing was in obedience to God, she did not go back on her word despite the fact of being rejected and condemned by all. She fully committed herself to the mission to which she has been called against all the accusations and condemnations. She did not accuse anyone, her king who had abandoned her, the judges who had condemned her nor ‘her voices’ who guided her. Instead she forgave and prayed for all her accusers, giving up even her life to be burnt alive in the most humiliating and brutal manner in front of a large crowd in the market place. We too, like Joan, must not condemn anyone in our sufferings, but instead like Jesus Christ and Joan forgive and pray for them which is obedience to God.

Besides all these, it is clear enough without even mentioning what torture and degradation of her dignity, what Joan must have gone through during her imprisonment. Yet she did not react in the same manner, defending herself against false accusations in order to defend herself. Instead she underwent everything without going back on her commitment which I feel is very important for us in our everyday life. We must be true to our commitment against all false accusations and inhuman treatment.

One very strong argument I want to make is in relation to the view held by Jules Michelet where it is said that Joan relapsed, even, doubting her faith because she was still a woman though dressed in man’s clothing and who fought bravely in the battle. What I want to say here is that, to me it is not a person’s sex that makes one grow soft or passive, but one can relapse after much torture and psychological shock, that one is not even sure of what one is doing. So to me it seems that Joan also relapsed due to all torture and inhuman treatment she underwent, that she was not clear about what she was doing and not because she was a woman.

Lastly, I feel that like Joan, we too must be firm and be able to stand up against all forces that are against God’s concern for human liberation and justice, even the church if we are to be in obedience to God, for though the church is God’s many a times, the churches have and tend to practice things which are against God’s idea of church, like possessing wealth. Also the church, as in the Middle Ages, tends to be narrow-minded, showing indifferent attitude to one who does not go along with it in its sway.



Chenu, Bruno, et. al., The Book of Christian Martyrs. London: SCM Press, Ltd., pp. 98-105.

Michelet, Jules, Joan of Arc, The University of Michigan Press, 1974.

Shaw, Bernard, Saint Joan, Calcutta: Orient Longman Ltd., 1979.

Sargunam, M.J., A Galaxy of Heroes, Coimbatore: Palaniandavan Printers, 1981.

The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p.536.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 728.

The Westminster Dictionary of the Church History, p. 456.

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