JOAN of ARC as MILITARY COMMANDER
Military Illustrated, January 2000
by John Egan
Joan of Arc is the most astounding figure in the whole of medieval history. What makes her story so especially compelling is that she is the most thoroughly documented figure in European history until the modern era. Her two trials, one of condemnation and one of rehabilitation, the latter in which over one hundred and fifty eye witnesses gave direct testimony to the events of her life and military career, are an enduring and unimpeachable record of a story so fabulous, it’s still hard to believe. Perhaps most astounding, the affirmations of her Captains indicate that Joan was in actual command of the French army, responsible for the strategic, grand tactical and tactical decisions which reversed the course of the Hundred Years War.
Joan’s military career began when she arrived at the fortified town of Vaucouleurs in February 1429. She was there to convince the garrison commander, Robert de Baudricourt, to give her a military escort to Charles Valois, or the Dauphin, as Joan referred to him. Baudricourt, of course, refused to see her. But since the town was small he could not avoid her forever. Eventually, she cornered him in the marketplace. A crowd gathered, there not being that much to do in a provincial town, even nowadays. Joan then made a speech, something she was wont to do, being a highly intelligent and articulate girl. The gist of it was that she was the only one in the world who could save France. Baudricourt laughed her off. He told her that he had seen her before, a year ago, when she had approached him with the same fool’s mission. “I sent you home to your father for a good spanking” he reminded her. Undeterred, she continued to eloquently present her case. The commander shrugged her off and made to continue on his way when the extraordinary intervened. A knight, Jean de Metz, spoke up.
What are you doing here, sweetheart? Isn’t it fated that the king be driven from his kingdom and we all become English?
With a heartfelt passion that swayed him, Joan replied:
Before we are at mid-Lent, I must be at the King’s side…For indeed, there is nobody in all the world, neither king nor duke, nor daughter of the King of Scotland, who can recover the kingdom of France save me. And although I would rather remain spinning at my dear mother’s side, for that is my proper station, I must go and do this thing; for my Lord wills it.
Who is your Lord? Asked the knight.
It is God. Said she. 2
At this, the knight de Metz knelt before Joan and in a token of fealty placed his hands in hers and vowed to serve her faithfully. This act, the greatest moment the history of chivalry, made de Metz, Joan’s liegeman. He was in her service, and, according to the rules of chivalry, there was nothing Robert de Baudricourt could do about it. The garrison commander, fairly isolated and short of men, was further exasperated when another knight, Bertrand de Poulengy, stepped forward and also placed himself in Joan’s service. Baudricourt gave in to the inevitable. He assigned the king’s messenger to accompany them along with an archer to ride point. They, the knights and their two squires, safely escorted Joan through 300 miles of enemy territory to the Dauphin’s residence at Chinon.
The Kingdom of France was then in disarray. It wasn’t even altogether clear just who was king, as the French claimant, Charles Valois, his holdings reduced to a few rather poor provinces south of the River Loire, was unable to even be ordained king, as the sacred site for the annointment was in English territory. In addition, his father, Charles VI, had disowned and disinherited him. Fairly destitute Charles and his Court could only idly wait as their last great bastion on the Loire, Orleans, was about to fall to an English siege. When Orleans fell, there would be no barriers remaining to the complete conquest of France by the English claimants. Charles and his entourage literally kept their bags packed, ready for immediate flight to Spain.
It is important to note that the Hundred Years War was not a conflict between England and France. In the 15th century, the modern notion of the nation state did not exist. The entities we refer to as England and France were nominally under the suzerainty of a king but, especially in the case of France, were in reality a loose knit confederations of principalities ruled by princes often more powerful than the king. The Hundred Years War was a French dynastic struggle in which English soldiery formed the infantry core of the armies assembled by the Norman French rulers of England who were also claimants to the throne of France.
The Hundred Years War originated in AD 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy, led his army in a successful invasion of England in which Harold, the last English king, was killed. William, later dubbed “the Conqueror” was a descendant of Viking settlers in a province named after them i.e. Normandy, land of the Northmen. He then became King of England. Dynastic and legal problem evolved between William and his descendants, known as the Plantagenet clan, and the Kings of France. The problem was that while William was, through conquest, the legal King of England, he, and his descendants were, as Dukes of Normandy, still vassals, and legally subordinate, to the King of France.
For a while this dichotomy didn’t matter as the Plantagenets, who spoke Norman French, were concerned mightily with the subjugation of the local inhabitants, a mixture of Celtic and Germanic peoples, most of whom spoke a dialect we know as Old English. It was at this time that the era of castle building began in England. Prior to the Conquest, there were no castles in the realm but the Normans needed them not to repel foreign invaders, but to protect themselves from the very rebellious Angles and Saxons they ruled. A situation evolved in which the Norman ruling elite spoke a language indecipherable to the people they ruled, and from this we get the legends of Robin the Hood who protected the Anglo-Saxon underclass from the transgression of their Norman French oppressors.
Legal problems erupted in 1200 when the Plantagenet king John I fell in love with an heiress of note who was betrothed to one of his vassals. John married the Lady anyway but his vassal, who felt grievously wronged, appealed to John’s liege lord, Phillip, King of France. Phillip didn’t fail to see the juridical ramifications of John’s transgression. When John failed to appear for a hearing, Phillip declared the King of England’s Norman fief forfeit and occupied it with his army in 1204. This was a severe loss for the Norman rulers of England who still regarded Normandy as their true homeland, and with reason, for the Angles and Saxons remained rebellious. Eventually though, the Plantagenets did begin to reconcile themselves with the people they ruled and did learn to speak English when Edward I (1272-1307) became the first English king to speak the language since Harold. 1
It was John’s loss of Normandy which really marked the beginning of the Hundred Years War, for the rulers of England spent the next 250 years attempting to regain and retain Normandy. Later, in a reversal of the dynastic maneuverings, the Plantagenets claimed the throne of France for themselves when the Capetian dynasty left no male heirs in 1328. This event marks the beginning of the Hundred Years War in the general literature. From that point on, a series of military struggles erupted for the control of various provinces in the country we now call France. For the most part the Plantagenet claimants prevailed primarily because they recruited English longbowmen into their army. Their missiles were decisive in a long series of battles in which the French were almost always beaten, and by 1429, the Plantagenets were close to uniting the thrones of England and France. Enter The Maid.
No doubt Charles and his entourage thought they would play farm girl from Bar/Lorraine for a fool, but Joan was too smart for all of them. Driven by a passion that comes from direct revelation, Joan convinced Charles that she might help him. In a series of speeches to his Court as well as in private conversation, she told him that that his father had no right to disinherit him; that kingship was a matter solely for God and his angels to dispose, by the miracle of birth alone.3
Charles sent her to Poitiers to be examined by Catholic clerics. After three weeks of interrogations they found her pious and recommended that she be entrusted with any mission Charles might have for her. Enlightened in Joan’s presence, the Dauphin had her rigged up in armor, assigned her two pages plus two heralds which automatically made her a Captain, the highest rank then known. In the company of army Captains Gilles de Laval (Bluebeard), Jean de la Brosse, La Hire and Ambrose de Lore’, all experienced and capable officers, she was to accompany the army with the commission to resupply and relieve the bastion at Orleans from English investment.
Her head spinning with success and magically intoxicated with her mission, Joan met up with her army at the town of Blois, where it was encamped. She didn’t make herself right popular with the men when she ordered the camp followers away with the point of her sword. Cooler heads prevailed and Joan acquiesced to a “don’t ask & don’t tell” policy, i.e. the prostitutes would be allowed to follow the army as long as they stayed out of Joan’s sight. Acceding to the will of her Captains, she followed unwittingly along as they led the army to Orleans by a route designed to avoid contact with the English. This placed the army on the southern bank of the River Loire and meant that the army could not directly enter Orleans, but would rather have to be transported into the city on boats along with the supplies. Rightly, Joan balked at her Captains’ plan, for she reasoned that she would not allow her army to be divided and destroyed piecemeal. For the first time, she realized that she might know more about how to conduct military operations than they did.
Joan was ready to return to Blois with the entire army and march it back to Orleans by the northern route. The commander of the garrison at Orleans, John, the Count of Denois, Bastard of Orleans, then interrupted. He begged Joan not to leave; for he pleaded that the people of Orleans, who had heard of Joan’s arrival, would lose hope and surrender if they learnt she had come and gone. Joan saw the wisdom in the Count’s argument. She reluctantly entrusted the army to her Captains, and with the Bastard and Captain Le Hire, entered the city in tumultuous triumph.
The besiegers had erected ten blockhouses of various size to enforce the investment. The siege was not complete in that it was still possible to sortie out of the town in force and boats could still navigate the Loire in and out of the city. The effectiveness of the siege lay in the fact that medieval agrarian life was completely disrupted and the citizens were slowing losing their strength to resist. Joan gave them newfound courage. A few days after her arrival, a group of them armed themselves into a mob and took the weakest of the blockhouses by coup de main. The attack was in full swing when Joan heard of it. She sprang to horse and arrived in time to give the mob courage to maintain the assault. Hot blooded, the rabble broke through and it was all Joan could do to halt the wholesale slaughter of prisoners by the inflamed citizenry. Joyous in victory and in sorrow for the bloodshed, she cried. But the girl was crafty. She saw that the English siege could be broken. Since her army was not yet arrived she resolved to send the English commanders a letter, advising them to surrender.
Joan’s first letter to the English, written like Caesar in the third person, gives keen insight into her character. It is incredible that Joan is almost always referred to as “illiterate,” often vehemently. Was Hannibal, for example, literate, and why would it matter? In fact, Joan had dictated close to thirty letters (17 extant), some of them signed in her own hand.4 She had her own unique literary style, made lengthily speeches and at her trial of condemnation, asked if she might have a copy of the articles against her “so that I might ponder them.” After all, what’s so difficult about learning to read? A child can do it. Her letter began:
King of England, and you, duke of Bedford, who call yourself regent of the kingdom of France, you, Sir John Talbot, and you, Sir Thomas of Scales, who call yourself lieutenant of the aforesaid duke of Bedford, render your account to the King of Heaven. Surrender to the Maid.
She is entirely ready to make peace, provided you are willing to settle accounts with her and provided that you give up France and pay for having occupied her… and go back to your own countries for God’s sake. And if you do not do so, wait for the word of the Maid, who will come visit you briefly to your great sorrow. I am the war commander, and in whatever place I shall meet your French allies I shall make them leave it. And if they will not obey, I shall have them all killed.
And so on. This letters reveals Joan’s essential qualities as military commander; her audacity and nerve. When the army arrived, she counted upon her Captains to lead an immediate attack. They instead advised her to be prudent. Scrupulously avoiding profanity, she told them, in effect, to go to hell. She mounted her war-horse, donned a magnificent white and gold mantle, and with her heralds trumpeting, gathered the army and led it to the gates of the city for a sortie. There, she was met by the mayor who blocked the gate and refused to lower the drawbridge. Joan drew her sword and threatened to cut his head off right then and there. The bridge went down immediately as her Captains hastened to join her or be left behind. Joan personally led the assault upon the stronger English positions and was wounded for the first time. This only kept her out of the fight for a while. Her wound was dressed and she returned the next day to again personally lead the attack the broke the siege. The date was May 7, 1429.
The next day, Sunday, the English army drew up before Orleans in battle order. Joan forbade her men to attack, not just because it was Sunday, as she did prefer to honor the Lord’s Day, but also because she knew that the English were already defeated. She advised her Captains to let the English army retreat and the men obeyed. Here Joan exhibits for the first time her essential grasp of strategy. The strategic imperative was the relief of the fortress. With the redoubts were taken, the siege was broken. A pitched battle would gain little at the risk of losing all.
This was the turning point not only in the whole war but also for Joan as military commander. It is difficult to grasp that a young girl might be so endowed with wisdom that she could immediately see long-term strategic as well as tactical goals while experienced statesmen and soldiers did not. However, there is nothing absolutely extraordinary about this. There are principles of military action which are immediately discernible to some people the way brilliant children intuitively grasp the essential strategic and tactical principles of chess. For example, the Prince of Conde' took command at 21 with neither training nor experience and led the French army to major victories. From this point on, it was Joan who made every strategic, grand tactical and tactical decision for the French Army. She took advice to be sure, especially since she had a loyal retinue of experienced warlords by her side. But it was the Maid who made the final determination.
Joan didn’t linger. Within a few days she was with Charles. His advisors wanted the army to attack the English bastions in Normandy, thus isolating Paris. It was a good military plan but Joan took into consideration long term strategic goals. Here is testimony from Denois:
And I remember that after the victories of which I have spoken," (which he credits entirely to the Maid), "the Princes of the blood royal and the captains wanted the King to go into Normandy, and not to Rheims. But the Maid remained of the opinion that they should go to Rheims to anoint the King and gave as reason for her advice that once the King was crowned and anointed the power of his enemies would decline continually until finally they would be powerless to harm him or his kingdom. Everyone (then) subscribed to her opinion. 5
Here was the single most significant strategic decision of the campaign and the one that changed the course of French history. Traditionally French kings were not just crowned at Rheims but were sanctified with an ancient and precious holy oil, kept at Rheims. Charles would never be the true king in the popular imagination until he was anointed with this oil in Rheims. It’s true Charles had been named king seven years before by Electors. But it is important to remember there were severe doubts about Charles’ legitimacy, even in his own mind. In fact, he was derisively known as “King of Bourges” rather than of France. The Rectors of the University of Paris, who would later burn Joan, had laboriously worked out the theoretical foundation for the “Double Monarchy” in which the King of England was also that of France. Charles Valois’ triumphal march upon Rheims and coronation, which was so sudden and seemingly quite miraculous, shattered those theories and eliminated doubts about his legitimacy forever. 6 But to get to Rheims Joan had to escort Charles through enemy territory and past a number of fortified cities, no easy task. This was the Loire Campaign of 1429 and Joan’s success here marks her as one of history’s Great Captains.
Her contemporaries remarked upon Joan’s attributes as a military commander, and it’s rather amazing that she is still given scant credit for the success of French arms after she took command. Here is Thibault d' Armagnac, a knight and captain of Chartres:
Except in matters of war she was simple and innocent. But in the leading and drawing up of armies and in the conduct of war, in disposing an army for battle and haranguing the soldiers, she behaved like the most experienced captain in the world, like one with a whole lifetime of experience. 7
The evidence indicates that Joan was especially skillful in the use of artillery. Since the English relied on the longbow and as the French were never able to develop a comparable arm, the gunpowder revolution affected the French more positively than their opponents. As early as October 7, 1418, Charles VI gave a certain Jean Petit the title “Master of Artillery.” On October 1, 1420, Dauphin and later Charles VII, gave Pierre Bessonneau the title “Master General and Inspector of Artillery.” This officer was with Joan on the drive on Paris. Many of the younger officers, like Ambrose de Lore’ were successful against English arms in small engagements prior to Joan’s arrival and no doubt Joan learned well from these officers. 8
The Duke of Alencon:
In everything that she did, apart from the conduct of the war, Joan was young and simple; but in the conduct of war she was most skillful, both in carrying the lance herself, in drawing up the army in battle order, and in placing the artillery. And everyone was astonished that she acted with such prudence and clear-sightedness in military matters, as cleverly as some great captain with twenty or thirty years experience; and especially in the placing of artillery, for in that she acquitted herself magnificently.9
If Joan knew how to well place artillery, and there is no reason to assume the Duke be lying here, then she must have grasped the principle of concentration. The necessary corollary is that concentrated artillery, well placed, will defeat archers in the open field anyday. This must be the reason why the course of the war was so suddenly and drastically altered when Joan took command: The French changed their tactics. Artillery became the decisive arm, and the French retained superiority in this domain into the modern era.
The Loire Campaign began with the fall of Jargeau on June 10, 1429. Joan directed the timing of the assault and personally led it. This was one of her hallmarks: She was in the vanguard of every attack and personally commanded the rearguard in every retreat, although those would come later.
Joan herself said to me, “Forward, gentle duke, to the assault!” It seemed premature to me to start the attack so rapidly, but Joan said, “Have no doubt, the hour that pleases God is at hand.10
One might argue that the Maid was just lucky. However, it was she who gave the general order and her soldiers immediately and victoriously executed it. Martial ability is measured by success.
It’s not altogether clear how the French defeated the English in the pitched battle at Patay on June 18, 1429. We do know the armies were in place the night before when the English tried to get out of the fight by issuing a single combat challenge. Joan turned them down, telling them she would take a closer look at them on the morrow. For this campaign, the French were also reinforced by a strong battalion of Scots, whom Joan held in high esteem. “You Scots make good war” she told them. The English then withdrew to a stronger position near Patay. With a set piece battle in the offering, the French would have had time to set up their guns.
There are nonsensical accounts of the armies blundering into one another in this battle with the English revealing their positions to cheer a stag that bounded by. This popular story, from the English/Burgundian side, only serves to discredit the great achievement of French arms at Patay. There are no detailed accounts of the battle’s course from the French side. We can surmise that the English were defeated with the same innovative methods Joan used throughout the campaign. She was in control of the troops. They obeyed her every command. Just as at Orleans and Jargeau, she made the appropriate deployments and with the essential element of correct timing, she properly directed the battle. Patay was not a replay of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt, with French battalions advancing and retreating on their own accord. The French Army under Joan’s authority moved with the unison of command and control that a Great Captain lends to victorious troops. The English chose to defend a field similar to Agincourt. The results were different. Their archers did not stand. The French quickly pounded a hole in the English center, broke through and routed the enemy army.
The remnants of the English army retreated to Paris and the road to Rheims lay open. The first town to fall in the drive on Rheims was the city of Troyes. Garrisoned by a strong Burgundian force, Joan personally reconnoitered the approaches and directed the disposition of troops and artillery. Eyewitnesses report that her deployments were so powerfully directed that the city surrendered rather than receive the assault.
Then the Maid crossed at once with the king’s army and left the encampment beside the moats, and made admirable dispositions, such as could not have been done better by two or three of the most famous and experienced soldiers.11
It is not reasonable to affirm that Joan’s only contribution to the French Army’s astounding reversal of form was in the sphere of morale. French soldiery at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt had fanatical determination. Their problem was that they lacked firm and decisive leadership. They needed a great general officer. In Joan, they found one. The results should, and must, speak for themselves.
Chalons fell next, and on July 16, Charles received a delegation from Rheims, which offered the city’s acquiescence to his authority. Later that evening Charles entered the city as a number of French collaborators sneaked out the back gate, among them Bishop Pierre Cauchon who would be the prime figure in Joan’s judicial murder.
The coronation took place the next day. Four knights known as the Guardians of the Holy Vial escorted the precious oil into the cathedral on horseback. Interestingly enough, it seems that the holy oil was the only traditional coronation item the English had not removed to Paris. They probably didn’t understand how significant it was in the popular mind. Folklore had it that the oil was brought to earth by angels for the coronation of Clovis, first king of the Franks. Charles was anointed with the oil and confirmed king. With the coronation at Rheims, Joan’s prediction proved correct: Charles VII ‘s power generally and steadily increased while his opponents’ decreased.
This was the high point of Joan’s career and for her, it all went downhill from there. She wanted to lead the army on an immediate assault upon Paris. Charles thought he might negotiate a peace with the Burgundians. The three-week truce only allowed the English time to reinforce Paris. When the French finally did attack they were unable to break through the defenses and Joan was again wounded storming the bulwarks. Another truce was arranged and Charles disbanded the army. Joan went into retreat, probably donned women’s clothing again and managed the stable of fine horses she had acquired from Charles. Now ennobled, and with her elder brother directing her finances, Joan accumulated some wealth. Charles continued to lavish fine gifts upon her and there is no reason to assume Joan never tried on the fabulous dresses and fine furs he gave her.
The evidence indicates that Joan might have used the wealth she accumulated to support resistance movements that sprung up in the winter of 1430. One resistance leader in Paris, the owner of the Hotel de l’Ours, was arrested and killed by the Burgundians. Before his death Joan had tried to arrange his ransom with a prisoner exchange. The evidence is sketchy but in the winter of 1430 Joan traveled quite a bit, continued to write letters asking the citizens of various cities for support, and the resistance flared up at exactly the same time. 12
By the spring of 1430 Charles had to admit that his negotiations had failed. The Burgundians laid siege to Compiegne and Joan resolved to help. “We have good friends in Compiegne” she said. Dressed again as a man, she outfitted her own battalion of Italian freebooters, led them to Compiegne and was greeted rightly as a savior. Never liking to waste any time, she led an immediate sortie, which was repulsed. She was captured, commanding the rear guard.
Joan was now the prisoner of John of Luxembourg and by the laws of chivalry he could sell her to the English, ransom her to Charles or set her free. His aunt, Joan of Luxembourg, forbade him to sell Joan. However she died a few months later and he then sold his famous prisoner to the English for ten thousand in gold. This was the Maid’s death warrant. John’s wife and young daughter, also named Joan, knew it well and his act split the family asunder. John never recovered their good will and later tried to buy Joan back from the English to mend his family ties. The English only duped him, for they would never, even for one moment, let Joan out of irons.
The English plan for Joan was simple. They contrived of phony trial conducted by their collaborators in the University of Paris. A guilty verdict would discredit Charles Valois, while also eliminating their most dangerous foe. The outcome was seldom in doubt. The theologians tried their best to give the proceedings an aura of legitimacy but it was impossible since Joan was a not only a prisoner of war but also a political prisoner. Nothing against her was ever proven as no evidence against her was ever submitted. Joan was condemned solely upon the interrogations conducted during her trail. Her own words, as interpreted by her enemies, were the only evidence against her. She was not allowed to call any witnesses in her defense. Accused of witchcraft, her learned accusers could not prove any sorcery. The charge of heresy was also not shown and, regarding Joan’s visions, never was it heresy in the Catholic tradition to see angels and speak with them. The trial was a travesty, with neutral judges in fear for their lives from death threats and English knights rattling their swords at any ruling that displeases them. 13
Joan was denied counsel and was forced to defend herself. Kept chained and fettered in a dark dungeon with English soldiers of the lowest rank, she was regularly beaten and tormented. With her face swollen and disfigured, she nevertheless wrought "havoc with her examiners." 14
Martin Ladvenu, University of Paris:
In my opinion she might have been eighteen or nineteen. In her bearing she was very simple, but in her answers full of wisdom and discernment. 15
Eventually they broke her down and tricked her into signing a confession with the promise that she would be kept with women in a church prison. Instead, she was returned to an English dungeon and in women’s clothing now, beaten again and possibly raped. After three days she recanted which led her to the stake.
Most commentators go along with the notion that Joan had no real impact upon martial affairs except in morale. The direct testimony of her compatriots contradicts this. And so do the results. Surely one of the great geniuses in the thousand-year history of medieval agrarian civilization, in Joan, we have a girl of nineteen who was able to cogently argue arcane points of theology with university rectors intent to destroy her as well as triumphantly command an army in one of history’s most remarkable campaigns. The evidence shows that while Joan was a paragon of chivalric and Christian virtue she could be as ruthless as any man in the storm of combat. With thousands of women officers and enlisted personnel currently in the United States Army, Joan’s career as military commander of the first order may serve as a beacon for the betterment of the service.
Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of English, (Prentice-Hall, 1978), pp. 126-7.
Regine Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc: The Evidence at the Trial for Her Rehabilitation, 1450-1456, (New York, 1955), pp.85-6.
Georges Duby, France in the Middle Ages, Juliet Vale, trans., (Oxford, 1991), pp.289-90.
Regine Pernoud and Marie Veronique Clin, Joan of Arc: Her Story, Jeremy duQuesnay Adams trans. (New York, 1998), Appendix I, “The Letters of Joan of Arc,” pp. 247-64.
Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc, p.126.
J.F.C. Fuller, A Military History of the Western World, vol. I (New York, 1954), pp.490-91. The dissenting view is offered in M.G.A. Vale, Charles VII (Berkeley, 1974) pp. 56
Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc, p.108.
The First Biography of Joan of Arc, translated and annotated by Daniel Rankin and Claire Quintal, (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964) p.139-40.
Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc, p.142.
Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc, p.139.
Regine Pernoud, Joan of Arc: By Herself and Her Witnesses, Edward Hyams, trans. (New York, 1966), p.123.
Pernoud, 1966, p.148.
Pernoud, 1998, p.108 and The Retrial of Joan of Arc, pp.180-81, 199-200.
Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc, pp. 184, 186, 193.
Pernoud, The Retrial of Joan of Arc, p.192.