It’s the morning of May 30th, 1431.
In the French market town of Rouen, ten thousand people have gathered to witness an execution.
The crowd parts to allow a horse-drawn wagon to approach the middle of the square. Sitting in the back, her manacled wrists folded across her lap, is the condemned prisoner and military hero, Joan of Arc.
The nineteen-year-old Joan lowers her head as the hostile crowd spits insults and abuse. Cries of “heretic!” and “witch!” echo through the streets. Joan closes her eyes and tightens her grip around the wooden crucifix clutched in her hand.
When the wagon comes to a stop… two guards step forward and drag Joan from the back of the cart.
They lash her arms to a wooden stake and position her atop a pyre. Joan trembles with fear, but she draws courage from the knowledge that even though her accusers believe her guilty, she remains innocent in the eyes of God.
Hearing footsteps, Joan turns her head to see Bishop Cauchon – the scornful and sneering priest who sentenced Joan to death. The Bishop silences the baying crowd with a raised hand. He grimaces as he unfurls a parchment and recites Joan’s various sins.
Once he’s finished, Bishop Cauchon beckons the executioner, who steps forward with a burning torch.
The crowd roars with bloodlust as the executioner lights the pyre.
Joan stares ahead defiantly, her bright eyes gleaming with the flames now flickering around her. The conflagration quickly grows, and Joan screams as the fire scorches her flesh. But still, her eyes remain defiant, staring upward into the late spring sky, until the smoke chokes her lungs and Joan succumbs to the inferno.
At the time of her death, Joan of Arc is the most celebrated military leader in France; a teenage peasant girl who took command of the French army and single-handedly reversed France’s fortunes in the Hundred Years’ War. She became a heroine during her short life, and after her death at the hands of the English, she became a martyr – sealing her status in the annals of history and providing France with a patron saint - a legacy that was ensured when Joan of Arc was executed on May 30th, 1431.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is May 30th: Joan of Arc is Burned at the Stake.
Act One: The Prince & The Maid
It’s February 1429, in the Loire Valley in France, two years before Joan of Arc’s execution.
Inside the great hall of the French Royal Court, a fair-haired 26-year-old prince paces back and forth, his hands clasped behind his back. Charles VII is heir apparent to the French throne. But despite his exalted status, worries plague the young prince’s mind.
For almost a century, France has been embroiled in a war with England over control of its sovereignty. The conflict, which will come to be known as the Hundred Years’ War, is - at its core - a war of succession, with both the English and French royal families claiming rightful ownership of the French crown.
The fighting has been bloody and fierce. In 1423, England struck an alliance with the northern French region of Burgundy. At the time, the Duke of Burgundy swore allegiance to the English king and refused to recognize the legitimacy of the French heir apparent, Charles VII.
Even though many people in France support Charles, the prince has not yet been coronated because custom dictates that French Kings must be crowned in the city of Reims – which is currently under English control. So Charles, driven from his traditional domains in the north, was forced to establish a court-in-exile here in the Loire Valley.
Now, Charles paces around the Great Hall, racked with concerns over the future of his kingdom. He controls southern France, but England and Burgundy control the north. Last year, Burgundy and the English laid siege to Orléans, a crucial city at the border between the two regions. So far, Charles’ troops have been able to withstand the siege, but Charles fears that if Orléans falls, the rest of the French-controlled South will fall with it.
Charles stares into the fire crackling in the grate, his mind racing.
Several days ago, his advisors told him a truly extraordinary tale of a teenage girl who claims God told her to lead an assault on the English army at Orléans. The girl wants an audience with Charles.
But Charles declined, dismissing the story as the deranged ramblings of a religious fanatic. But today, as he gazes into the flames, he knows he is running out of time and options. Soon, he summons his advisor, who rushes to his side. Without looking away from the glowing embers, Charles instructs his advisor to send for Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc is a farmer’s daughter from a small village in eastern France. When she was twelve, the pious and strong-willed child was visited by apparitions of three saints: Saint Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret. During one such visitation, the saints urged Joan to help Charles VII defeat the English in the Hundred Years' War. The apparitions insisted that she alone was destined to deliver victory to France.
And so in 1428 – following the saints’ instructions – Joan sought an audience with a local knight, Robert de Baudricourt. Joan explained to him she was on a mission from God and begged him to provide her with a military escort to the Royal Court. Initially, Baudricourt refused. However, Joan’s insistence and zeal eventually convinced the knight, and Baudricourt agreed to escort Joan to prince Charles.
Now Robert de Baudricourt and his knightly entourage gallop down a country lane. Joan rides alongside them. Her reddish brown hair is cropped short like a boy’s, and her pale, gently freckled skin emits a youthful glow in the late afternoon light. The knights cast her occasional glances, their faces betraying a combination of reverence and confusion.
After several days of riding, Joan sees the imposing walls of the French Royal Court in the distance. Soon, Joan and the rest reach the front gates. After Baudricourt announces her arrival, Joan is ushered into a private drawing room, where she finds herself alone with the prince, Charles VII.
Charles turns, sizing up the scrawny teenager with his piercing blue eyes. After a pause, the prince invites Joan to speak. She tells him of her visions, and that God has instructed her to lead the French army against the English at Orléans. Charles is skeptical at first. He orders his court theologians to assess Joan’s assertions. They ask her to provide a sign from God, to confirm her claims. Joan replies that victory at Orléans will be the only necessary confirmation. Charles doesn’t know whether to believe Joan or not. What he does know, however, is that this strange and charismatic teenage girl might be France’s last and only hope.
Act Two: The Siege of Orléans
It’s April 29th, 1429, two months after Joan’s meeting with Charles VII.
An army rides towards the besieged town of Orléans. Riding at the vanguard, sitting astride a white stallion, is Joan of Arc. Following Joan’s meeting with Charles, the prince agreed to allow Joan to lead his army to Orléans. He hopes that the presence of this alleged “divine messenger” will provide his soldiers with extra morale. Whether or not that will be enough to defeat the enemy, Charles can only pray.
While an advance force of the French distracts the English, Joan and her soldiers ride into Orléans through the eastern gate. The city has been under siege for many months. Its buildings are scarred by battle, and the citizens who line the narrow streets are gaunt and hollow-eyed. But Joan’s arrival is greeted with loud cheers. Word of a female warrior-prophet come to vanquish the enemy has quickly spread through the city, and her presence provides a psychological boost for troops and civilians alike.
But not everybody is convinced.
Not long after her arrival, Joan is introduced to the garrison commander, a grizzled veteran named Jean de Dunois. Dunois is suspicious of this teenage girl in soldier’s armor who claims to speak for God. Joan asserts her desire to fight, but Dunois won’t allow it. He forbids her from attending war councils or playing any role in military strategy. In his mind, her best use is as a figurehead and nothing more. Dunois marches back to his quarters, scoffing at the notion that a child could teach him anything about war.
Fighting recommences the following day. And Joan obeys Dunois’ orders and refrains from combat. Instead, she rides before the troops with a banner as a symbol of divine encouragement. Despite her youth and inexperience, Joan is fearless, never flinching in the face of danger. For Joan, this is a holy war, and she gallops along the lines, instilling her compatriots with courage and fortitude.
In so doing, Joan gradually earns the respect of the officers. Even Dunois starts to begrudgingly admire this spirited teenager.
And then on May 6th, the French army launches a counter-attack, and Joan leads the charge. She rides out across the drawbridge, her sword drawn, plunging headlong into the midst of battle. Joan has inspired the citizens of Orléans to assemble militias, and these bands of civilian soldiers ride behind her, swelling the French ranks by several thousand, vastly outnumbering the enemy.
With Joan at the helm, the French push the English back. Panicked, the English hastily abandon their positions and retreat to a fortified garrison. That night, Dunois convenes the war council. And this time, he invites Joan to join. The French commander wants to call off the counter-attack and allow his men to re-group – but Joan disagrees. She urges Dunois to push on, insisting that God compels them to do so. Dunois looks at Joan; her youthful face flecked with blood; her hazel eyes ablaze with conviction. Eventually, the commander nods in agreement.
The next day, on May 7th, Joan leads another charge. The fighting is ferocious and frantic. Spotting a row of archers assembled along the garrison ramparts, Joan turns to warn her soldiers of the danger. But as she does, she is struck by an arrow between the neck and shoulder. She is carried back to Orléans, bloodied and gasping for breath. The English have come to fear Joan as “the Witch of Orléans”, and Rumors of her death strengthen English morale, and leave the French deflated.
But Joan survives.
She returns to the battlefield later that day, inspiring her troops by giving them an attainable goal: she tells the men that when her banner touches the garrison walls, the fortress will be theirs, the battle will be won and the English will be defeated. After a swift advance, Joan’s banner does indeed make contact with the battlements. One soldier cries: “it’s touching the wall!” and Joan declares: “All is yours – go in!”
The resulting French surge allows them to take the garrison, and forces English commanders to call off the siege. The French celebrate a miraculous victory.
Five days later, Joan meets with Charles at the town of Tours. Now convinced of her mystical powers, the prince venerates Joan like a saint. But the war is far from won. Next, Joan wishes to capture the English-held city of Reims, the place where the French monarchs are traditionally crowned. Until Joan and her army take the city, Charles cannot be proclaimed king.
On June 29th, the march on Reims begins. Supported by an army of volunteers – all eager to serve beneath the famous banner of Joan of Arc – Charles and Joan advance together toward the city. Along the way, Joan leads the French to a series of stunning victories. And by mid-July, the French have re-captured Reims. With Joan at his side, Charles VII is officially crowned King of France on July 17th, 1429.
For the first time in decades, France is turning the tables on England, gaining the upper hand in the Hundred Years’ War. But England still controls much of northern France. Fearful of losing the momentum, Charles will send Joan on a mission to relieve another besieged town, placing his full trust in her leadership to once again deliver victory for France. But the King will underestimate the size of the English force, a fatal mistake that will spell the beginning of the end for Joan of Arc.
Act Three: The Trial of Joan of Arc
It’s May 23rd, 1430, a year before Joan of Arc’s execution.
About fifty miles north of Paris, a detachment of French troops advances toward the town of Compiegne. Leading the soldiers atop her trusty white steed is Joan of Arc.
Following Charles VII’s coronation last July, several towns in English-controlled northern France swore allegiance to Charles. One of those towns was Compiegne. Under the command of the famous knight, John of Luxembourg, the English swiftly laid siege to the city - to bring its rebellious citizens into line. Now Joan has been sent by Charles to relieve the town and rescue its people.
But John of Luxembourg’s army is much larger than Charles anticipated. Still, Joan and her outnumbered soldiers manage to sneak inside the city's walls. Joan organizes an escape route for the besieged townsfolk, while her soldiers attempt to hold off the attackers. Once all the civilians have been evacuated, Joan orders her troops to follow.
But when they reach the narrow exit of the town, they discover it’s been blocked off by English cavalrymen. A skirmish ensues. And in the melee, Joan is pulled from her horse and surrounded by enemy soldiers. Though dressed like a man, Joan is instantly recognizable. She is transported to Luxembourg’s castle, where she is locked inside his dungeon and left to languish for months.
Then in January 1431, Joan is transported to the English-held town of Rouen for trial. The verdict of the trial is a foregone conclusion. A cruel and pitiless bishop, named Pierre Cauchon, presides over the ruling. Cauchon is supported by the English, and it doesn’t take long to convince the jury that Joan of Arc is guilty of both heresy and witchcraft.
Throughout the trial, Joan remains stoic and calm. She refuses to betray King Charles VII or France, and when it’s decreed that she will burn at the stake, her courage does not waver.
On May 30th, 1431, before a crowd of 10,000 gathered in Rouen’s Market Square, Joan of Arc is burned alive. Her final words – heard only by her executioner – contain a simple prayer, a quiet invocation of the name of Jesus Christ.
But Joan of Arc’s execution will not alter the course of the Hundred Years’ War. Thanks to her leadership, France regained the upper hand, and the English will be driven from French shores by 1460. And following her death, Joan’s legend will only grow, until she is remembered not only as a war heroine but as a saint.
Today, Joan’s legacy is wide-ranging. For some, she is a Catholic martyr; for others, a feminist icon and symbol of female strength. However her legacy is interpreted, Joan’s life will continue to compel and inspire, a life that was brutally snuffed out, when Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, on May 30th, 1431.
Next onHistory Daily.May 31st, 1921. After a young Black man is accused of assault in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a violent white mob takes to the streets, killing hundreds of Black residents in what will come to be known as The Tulsa Race Massacre.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.