Joan of Arc - Maid of Heaven

Joan Of Arc

by Ella Wheeler Wilcox

Short biography about Joan Of Arc from the book Great Men and Famous Women by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that gives a short but thorough account of Joan's life.

In the history of the world since the dawn of time, there is no other character so remarkable to me as that of Joan of Arc.

You have but to think of any young girl of your acquaintance, seventeen years old, and try to imagine her leading an army to battle, storming a fort, or planning a campaign, in order to realize in a measure the astounding qualities possessed by this wonderful being.

Not only did she do all this as wisely as the most astute general who ever lived, but she succeeded in liberating France from the hands of the English, where we have very good reason to think it might have otherwise remained to this day; for the English were gaining ground steadily, and the French dauphin was utterly discouraged, and had ceased to make an effort to maintain his rights, when Joan of Arc came to his rescue.

The English king, Henry V., had died in the midst of his triumphs. Two months later, imbecile Charles VI., of France, passed away also, and Henry VI., of England, was proclaimed king of both nations; while at the same time the dauphin was hailed King of France by his few followers. But his fortunes were at the lowest ebb, his small army, stationed at Orleans, was in need of food. Four thousand of his men went out to search for provisions, and encountered half that number of English soldiers. A battle ensued, and five hundred of the bravest French soldiers were left dead on the field of strife. Despite their bravery, hunger and fatigue had unfitted them to combat with their well-fed adversaries.

The dauphin had shut himself in the castle of Chinon, with fair women and gay comrades, while the siege was raging before the walls of Orleans. He was at that time a weak and vacillant youth, given over to the same pleasures and vices which drove his father mad and caused his brother's death. He had no pride in rescuing his crown from the English, and it must be confessed that the treatment he had received from his own mother and his own countrymen, who sold him to the enemy, was sufficient to dishearten a stronger nature than his. Added to this, he was doubtful of his legitimate right to the throne, owing to his mother's depraved career. But when, in the midst of his orgies, the news was brought to him, in the castle of Chinon, that his army was defeated before the walls of Orleans, what little hope or courage he had left seemed to desert him and he sank into a state of despair.

And far away on the frontier, in the little village of Domremy, a young girl watched her flocks, and wept over the fate of her beloved country; and weeping, prayed that God would save France from the oppressor. How earnestly she prayed, and how well God listened, history has recorded in a tale more wonderful than any story ever conceived by the imagination of man, and sadder than any other save the story of the Nazarene upon the Cross of Calvary.

The end of France as a nation seemed at hand. The nobility had been led into captivity and sold to an invading enemy; the clergy had seen its altars defamed by arrogant strangers. Industry had been ruined by civil wars during the long imbecility of Charles VI., and the succeeding ravages made by the English. Villages were depopulated, homes desolated, and look where they might, the people of France saw no hope of aid, save from on high.

Of this epoch Henry Martin says, "The people expected nothing from human sources; but a sentiment of indestructible nationality stirred in their hearts and told them that France could not die. Hoping nothing from earth, they lifted their souls to heaven; an ardent religious fervor seized upon them, which had no part with clergy or creed. It rose from the extremity of their need, and fixed its root in an old oracle of the Middle Ages, which had predicted that France should be 'lost through a woman and saved by a virgin.'"

France had certainly been lost through its wicked queen; that part of the old prophecy had been fearfully fulfilled; the remaining clause was yet to be verified. The people, excited to a religious frenzy by their desperate straits and their faith in the old superstition, prayed more fervently with each day; and their prayers rose like great white eagles and settled upon the heart of that strange divine child, who was weeping over the fate of France while she watched her sheep on the plains of Domremy.

A humbly born girl was Joan of Arc, unable to read or write; women who could do more than that were rare in those days, so she was not despised on account of her ignorance, but highly respected for her industry and piety. An enthusiastic Catholic, she added to her church duties by active benevolence and kindness to the sick and poor in her native town. Often she was seen to kneel in the fields and pray; and there was a chapel some miles from Domremy to which she used to make a pilgrimage every Sunday and offer prayers to the Virgin. There was, too, in the forest of Bois Chemin a famous beech-tree under which a stream of clear water flowed; and a superstition prevailed among the people of Domremy that fairies had blessed this tree and bestowed healing properties upon the waters of the stream. The priest and the villagers marched about the sacred tree once each year singing solemn chants, and the young people hung its boughs with garlands, and danced under its shading branches. Joan dearly loved this spot, and it became her favorite haunt. The echoes of war reverberated even to this quiet frontier hamlet, and in her hours of reverie she dwelt sadly upon the stories of bloodshed and suffering which she heard her elders repeat.

She was twelve years old when the dauphin was proclaimed king by his few followers; and in all his flight from province to province, fleeing before the usurpers of his throne, no heart in all France suffered more keenly than the heart beating in the breast of this humble shepherd girl. The misfortunes of the dauphin, the woes of her country, took complete possession of her expanding mind. Her pure young soul yearned toward the Infinite in one ceaseless prayer; and when any soul is so lifted up above all thought of self, praying for the good of others, a response never fails to come. It is only selfish prayers which remain unanswered. Joan's beautiful nature was like the sensitive plate prepared to receive the impression; and while she prayed the angels to save France, the angels prepared her to become the saviour.

One summer day, when she was in her fourteenth year, she was running in the fields with her companions, when, as she afterward declared, "she felt herself lifted as by an invisible force and carried along as if she possessed wings." Her companions gazed upon her with astonishment, seeing her fly beyond their reach. Then she heard a voice, which proceeded from a great light above her; and the voice said, "Joan, put your trust in God, and go and save France."

This strange experience filled her with terror; but ere many days she heard the voice again, and this time she saw the figure of a winged angel. "I am the Archangel Michael," the voice said, "and the messenger of God, who bids you to go to the aid of the dauphin and restore him to his throne."

Overcome with fear, she fell on her knees in tears; but the angel continued to appear to her, accompanied with two female forms, and always urging her to go to the aid of her country. Fear gave place to ecstacy, and in the heart of this divine child awoke the audacious idea whose climax astounded the whole world.

At first she reasoned with the voices, telling them "she was but a poor girl, who knew nothing of men or war." But the voices replied, "Go and save France; God will be with you, and you have nothing to fear."

During three years she listened to these voices, which made themselves heard by her two or three times each week. She seemed consumed by an inward fever, and strange words escaped her. One day she said to a laborer, that "midway between Coussi and Vaucouleurs there lived a maid who should bring the dauphin to his throne."

These words were repeated to her father and they alarmed him; and we cannot wonder that they did. How could he think otherwise than that his little girl was losing her senses? How could he dream of the divine and superhuman powers that had descended upon her from a higher world? He told her brother that if Joan should attempt to follow the army, as he feared she might, "he would rather drown her with his own hands." Her parents set a watch upon her movements, and decided to marry her to a young man who was secretly enamored of her. They connived with this admirer to swear before an officer of the law that Joan had promised him her heart; but she so strenuously denied the assertion before the judge that she gained her case.

Just at this epoch the people of Domremy were obliged to fly before an invading troop of soldiers. When they returned to their village they found their church burned and their homes pillaged. Joan regarded this as a direct punishment for her hesitation in heeding the "voices." She would hesitate no longer, and after repeated delays and disheartening rebuffs, she succeeded in winning her way, with a few believers in her mission, to the king's castle.

When Charles finally consented to an interview, he disguised one of his courtiers as king, and he was disguised as a courtier; but Joan was not deceived by clothing; she fell at his feet, clasped his knees, and exclaimed, "Gentle king, God has taken pity on you and your people; the angels are on their knees praying for you and them."

The king was impressed with her lofty enthusiasm, and plied her with questions. Her responses astonished him. One reliable authority tells us that she revealed to him something known only to himself--and answered a question which he had that day demanded of God in the privacy of prayer--the question of his legitimate right to the throne. Joan told him that he had asked this question of God, and that she was able to reply to it in the affirmative.

The king was so astonished and overjoyed at this proof of the maiden's powers, that he expressed belief in her divine mission; but he quickly relapsed into doubt again, and Joan was obliged to endure a very critical examination before a parliament, where she confused and confounded the learned doctors by her simple words: "I know not A or B, but I am commanded by my voices to raise the siege of Orleans and crown the dauphin at Rheims." When one aggressive doctor, with a bad accent, asked sarcastically; "what language her voices spoke," she replied, "Better than yours, sir," which brought the laughter of the whole parliament upon him. A messenger sent to Domremy, to ascertain the early conduct of the maid, returned with accounts of her piety and benevolence. All this worked in her favor, together with the strong faith which the masses reposed in her; for the people remembered the old prophecy and believed that the maiden had come to deliver France.

Even the doctors of theology were affected by this prophecy, and the result was the final equipment of Joan for battle. When arrayed in a knight's armor she refused to accept a sword. "The voices told me," she said, "that in the church vault at Fierbois there lies a sword marked with five crosses which I must carry, and no other."

A messenger was sent, who found the sword exactly as she had described it. This naturally swelled the faith of the people in her divine mission. She ordered a white banner made, covered with the lilies of France, and with the inscription, "Jesus Maria," emblazoned upon it. At the end of two months she entered the town of Blois, where the army was stationed, seated upon a fine horse, her head bare, her dark curls streaming in the wind, an air of triumph and joy on her face. Six thousand soldiers were drawn up to receive her. But the pleasure-loving young dauphin, be it said to his shame, was enjoying himself in his castle and was not there to meet her. Nothing had yet been decided about the position Joan was to occupy, but the wild enthusiasm of the army at once made her its leader.

The very first act of this pure being was an attempt to uplift the moral status of the army. Women of evil repute were sent away with good advice, and the men were called to battle by prayer and confession. Coarse soldiers followed her to mass, fascinated by her peculiar spell, and rough language was silenced in her presence. Remarkable as has seemed Joan's career up to this point, it was simple compared to the miracles which ensued. Modest as the simplest maiden in private life, gentle as a child in all matters pertaining to herself, utterly devoid of self-seeking interests, she was yet enabled to plan campaigns, direct attacks and lead armies with all the skill of any world-renowned general. In the dead of night, with a band of 200 men, she entered the beleaguered city of Orleans in the face of the English enemy. The inhabitants crowded about her, regarding her rightly with wonder and awe. Her first act was to hasten to a cathedral where the Te Deum was being chanted by torch-light. She then selected her home with a lady of spotless reputation, in order that all her hours of repose might be guarded from suspicions of evil. The following day she directed a letter of warning to be sent to the English, urging them to retreat before compelled to do so by the "fire of Heaven." She then reconnoitred the city, determining in her mind where to begin the attack; and as she saw no signs that the English had taken heed of her letter, she finally mounted the walls of the town, and in a loud voice warned the English to depart before overtaken with the shame and disaster in store for them. To this the English responded with insults and ribald words, and told her to "Go home and keep her cows." Joan wept at their insults to her modesty, and would have at once opened an attack, had she not been dissuaded by her generals, who begged her to await the arrival of her army.

Despite their bold words, the English were so influenced by Joan's peculiar power, that they allowed her army to enter Orleans with a convoy of provisions, and made no resistance. They seemed to be paralyzed with fear, and many of them expressed a belief that she was aided by the devil. Although the maid was immensely popular with the army, a lurking secret jealousy of her was already at work in the breasts of some of her officers; and these men chose an hour when she was taking a brief repose, to open an attack upon the English, hoping to take the glory of a conquest to themselves. But Joan's Voices awoke her, and told her the blood of France was being spilled; and seizing her white banner, she mounted her horse, and rushed into the strife, turning the tide of battle at once in favor of the French army, which had already suffered loss. Wherever the white flag was seen, a superhuman strength seemed to take possession of the men; and after a fierce battle of three hours, the bastile of St. Loup was won by the French.

The bastile des Augustins fell next, and here Joan was slightly wounded in the foot; but she resolved to attack the only remaining hold of the English the following day. Her officers counselled together and reported themselves unfavorable to this project, as the bastile des Tournelles was very strong, and filled with the bravest of the English army. But Joan replied, "I, too, have been at council with God, and we shall fight to-morrow."

They did fight, the English with fury, the French "as if they believed themselves immortal." After three hours of warfare Joan saw her men hesitate under the fierce attack of the enemy. She seized a ladder, planted it against a wall, and began to ascend it. At that moment an English arrow struck her between the neck and shoulder, and she fell to the ground. The disheartened soldiers bore her from the field, and dressed her wound, from which she extracted the arrow with her own hand, shedding womanly tears meanwhile. After the wound was dressed, a vision came to her, and with sudden strength she remounted her horse and rode back to battle.

The English, believing her nearly dead from her wound, were terrified to see her return, and lost courage from that moment; while the French, electrified by her unexpected presence, fought with such zeal that before nightfall the maid led her army into Orleans crowned with triumph. It was only seven days since she had entered the city, and Joan had already verified her assertion that she could and would "raise the siege of Orleans."

The indolent and unworthy dauphin, however, refused to go to Rheims and be crowned and so fulfil the second part of Joan's mission. He said there were ports along the Loire which needed to be taken first so the girl general laid out her campaign and added Beaugency and Jargeau to her other conquests. The English had become filled with superstitious fear of her power, attributing it to the devil. But the Dauphin of France still dallied with light women in his castle, and treated Joan with coldness and suspicion. The army now became so unanimous in the desire that the king should go to Rheims, that he finally, with reluctance, consented. On July 16th, after having taken Troyes and Chalons on the way, the French army entered Rheims; and there, on the following day, the dauphin was anointed with holy oil and received the crown of France.

Happy, but modest and humble in her happiness, rejoicing only in the prosperity of the king and the country, the sublime saviour of her land knelt before her sovereign after the ceremonies were concluded and said, "Gentle king, I wish now that I might return toward my father and my mother, to keep my flocks and my herds as heretofore." Alas for the happiness of the poor girl and the honor of two countries, that her request was not granted!

Joan's father was present on this occasion, and the inn where he lodged at the king's expense, and the cathedral where the dauphin was crowned, still exist in Rheims.

During all Joan's life as a soldier and general, she exhibited a most touching humanity toward the conquered enemy. She would spring from her horse to sooth the wounds of a suffering English soldier, and it is recorded of her that she carried a dying enemy in her arms to a confessor, and remained with him till his soul took flight. The people adored her, the soldiers of her army idolized her, and the king realized that she was of too great value to him to permit her to go in peace to her old humble home. So Joan remained, asking that the king would remove all impost from the village of Domremy, in place of bestowing a title upon her family as he offered to do. For three hundred years her request was obeyed. From this time to the tragic end, the story of Joan's life is a hard one to relate. Although we are nearing the fifth centennial of her birth, the recital of her sufferings and death must still wring tears from every heart which is not made of stone. The feeling of jealousy which great success, of even the most worthy and noble souls, arouses in meaner natures, had already sprung up against Joan. This feeling increased as the days passed by and she added more and more to her glory by the conquest of Laon, Soissons, Compiegne, and Beauvais. Paris was next besieged, and here Joan was seriously wounded, an event which depressed the king and the army.

Her wound disabled her from action, and she was left lying on the field until evening, neglected, and seemingly forgotten. Already conscious of the growing sentiment of jealousy among her officers, this final proof of their indifference to her fate must have been more painful to her pure and lofty mind than the physical agony she was enduring. But even lying there, wounded, she cheered on the men as they passed her in the combat, and revived their failing courage.

She was enabled to resume action the next day; her plans were all perfected, and judging from her past triumphs we can but suppose victory would have attended her, had not that most remarkable mandate arrived from the king, commanding the French army to retreat to Saint-Denis.

To the undying shame of his memory be it said that Charles VII. entered into a plot, with jealous enemies of Joan, to force failure upon her. The people and the soldiers had grown to believe her infallible; the king and his favorites determined that she should be proven fallible. They deemed the country sufficiently safe, the army sufficiently strong, to enable them to go on now and claim victories of their own, without having their divine deliverer share the glory.

Next to the crime of Isabel, who sold her son and her country to the enemy, this base act of Charles VII. stands unparalleled in infamy. So discouraged and heart-broken was Joan over the conduct of the king, although she did not understand the deep-laid plot against her, that she resolved to abandon the life of a soldier and enter the church of Saint-Denis. She hung up her armor and her sword, but when the king heard of this he sent for her to return to the army. He was not yet sure of himself, and he wanted her where he could call upon her if need be.

Joan returned with reluctance; "her Voices" counselled her to keep to her resolution; but she was so accustomed to obey the king, that for the first time she allowed an earthly voice to overrule the counsels of her heavenly guides. And from this hour her star set; from this hour her path led into darkness. Soon after her return to the army she broke the magic sword with which she had achieved so many conquests; the Voices, too, were silent, and all this troubled her. The king kept her away from all active warfare, and she grew restive and impatient with her life of inaction. The army, which under her influence had been reformed of half its vices, now separated from her by the king's orders and fell into the most wild excesses. Joan prayed and pleaded to be allowed to go again into combat, and finally the king allowed her to do so; but such success attended her, and such enthusiasm seized upon her soldiers, that the jealous favorites of the king were alarmed. They resolved to prevent any further triumphs for her, but to pretend great friendship and admiration meanwhile.

The king was influenced to bestow honors and titles upon her family, and to present her two brothers, who had fought in the army, with swords of silver; all of which Joan received coldly and with indifference, for meantime she was suffering such agony as only so brave and valiant a soul could suffer in being kept from her duty.

After four months of this galling life, Joan could not fail to see that she was the victim of a jealous plot. What suffering to a nature so honest and self-sacrificing as hers, to discover that the king for whom she had achieved such miracles, was a coward and a hypocrite, unworthy of her respect and faith.

But it was surely this knowledge which actuated Joan to take a few brave men, and without orders from the king, to go in aid of William de Flavy, commander of the fortress of Compiègne, who was in distress. She set out, and on the evening of May 24th, headed an attack upon the English. She fought nobly and well, but before the close of the combat, she was obliged to sound a retreat, and as she was attempting to escape through the half-closed city gate, an English archer came up behind and pulled her to the ground.

Joan of Arc was a prisoner. The joy of the English was overwhelming‚--the despair of the French correspondingly great; and that despair gave place to anger when it was learned that William de Flavy, the man whom she had tried to defend, had betrayed her into the hands of the English because he was jealous of her. This man's wife slew him when she learned of his base act, and was pardoned for the crime when she told its cause. In all the cities which Joan had delivered from English control, public prayers and processions were ordered; people walked barefooted and bareheaded, chanting the Miserere, in the streets of Tours. She was imprisoned first at Beaurevoir, then in the prison of Arras, and from there she was taken to Le Crotoy.

It was customary in those days to exchange prisoners taken in arms, or to ransom them; but the English had suffered such loss and defeat through Joan that they determined she should die. Their only way to do this without publicly dishonoring themselves, was to accuse her of being a witch, and to compel the "religious" tribunal of her own land to become her murderer.

During the first six months of her captivity Joan was treated humanely; but the defeat of the English at Compiegne awoke anew the superstitions of the English, who believed that, though a prisoner, she exercised her spell upon the army; and she was taken to Le Crotoy, and cast into an iron cage with chains upon her wrists and ankles. After being starved, insulted, and treated with the most hellish brutality in prison for nearly ten months, the saviour of France was brought before a tribunal of men, all of them her enemies. There were three days of this shameful pretence of a trial, and the holy maid, deserted by those whom she had crowned with glory and benefits, was trapped into signing a paper which she supposed only a form of abjuration, but which proved to be a confession of all the crimes with which she was charged; and after she was returned to her dungeon this was exhibited to the people to convince them of her guilt and turn the tide of public sympathy. The Bishop of Beauvais then sentenced her to prison for the rest of her life, on condition that she resume woman's apparel; yet one morning she woke to find no dress in her prison but the clothes she had worn in battle. No sooner had she donned these than the bishop appeared, and accused her of disobedience to the orders of the Church, and he fixed her execution for the next day.

When the horrible fact was made known to her that she was to be burned at the stake in the market-place of Rouen, before a multitude of people, she burst into piercing cries of agony. Her physical strength, courage, and brain-power were all impaired by the months of abuse she had endured, and her very soul was torn by the neglect and indifference which the base king manifested toward her. Up to the very last hour she had believed deliverance would come, but it came only through death. Never since that spectacle of the bleeding Nazarene upon the Cross of Calvary, has the world beheld so terrible a picture of crucified innocence and purity as that of Joan of Arc, the saviour of France, burning in the market-place of Rouen. With her dying breath she cried out that the Voices were real, and that she had obeyed God in listening to their counsels.

Her last word was the name of--Jesus.

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