Joan of Arc’s Relief of Orléans

Joan of Arc’s military leadership in the relief of Orléans began a series of French victories that shattered the myth of English invincibility and turned the tide in the Hundred Years’ War. Her legacy as a national savior, warrior, and martyr remains to this day.

Summary of Event

During the Anglo-French Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) , the English invaders repeatedly defeated France’s feudal armies in battles such as Crécy (1337) and Poitiers (1356). With Henry V’s victory at Agincourt Agincourt, Battle of (1415) in 1415, English mastery of all France seemed possible. Defeated and demented, King Charles VI Charles VI (king of France) of France, by the 1420 Treaty of Trois, Trois, Treaty of (1420) gave Henry his daughter Catherine in marriage and regency powers and inheritance rights, in effect disinheriting his own son, the dauphin Charles. Henry V and Charles VI died in 1422, leaving an infant Henry VI Henry VI (king of England and France) as sovereign of both kingdoms. Henry’s regent for France, John of Lancaster John of Lancaster , duke of Bedford, held Paris and northern France with the alliance of Burgundy and the acquiescence of Brittany. The former dauphin, claiming the throne as Charles VII Charles VII (king of France) , was an uncrowned and generally unsuccessful challenger. His “capital” at Bourges and a residence at Chinon were threatened as Bedford’s commanders advanced. On October 12, 1428, the English attacked the key city of Orléans Orléans, Siege of (1428-1429) on the north bank of the Loire. [kw]Joan of Arc’s Relief of Orléans (May 4-8, 1429)
[kw]Arc’s Relief of Orléans, Joan of (May 4-8, 1429)
[kw]Orléans, Joan of Arc’s Relief of (May 4-8, 1429)
Joan of Arc
France;May 4-8, 1429: Joan of Arc’s Relief of Orléans[3160]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 4-8, 1429: Joan of Arc’s Relief of Orléans[3160]
Government and politics;May 4-8, 1429: Joan of Arc’s Relief of Orléans[3160]
Religion;May 4-8, 1429: Joan of Arc’s Relief of Orléans[3160]
Joan of Arc
Charles VII (1403-1461)
Jean Dunois
John of Lancaster
Talbot, John

The invaders had scattered so many troops in Loire valley garrisons that less than five thousand were at hand to take the walled city, and even these forces were dispersed—some in connected forts northwest of Orléans, others in isolated forts upstream or downstream or at the south end of the nine-span Loire bridge. Despite this, river traffic continued, there was an upstream ford, and the city’s eastern gate admitted supplies. Orléans’s seventy-one heavy cannon and numerous field pieces outgunned the besiegers. John Talbot, Talbot, John the effective English siege commander, was essentially waiting for the city of perhaps forty thousand, including refugees, to starve. On the other hand, the capable French commander, Jean Dunois, Dunois, Jean felt that with only two thousand troops and two thousand militia, he could not attack, and so waited for reinforcements. The bishop and several leading citizens left, and, by early 1429, the people of Orléans began to feel abandoned. At Chinon in March, while King Charles was trying to organize a relief force, a seventeen-year-old peasant girl arrived and volunteered to lead the expedition.

Joan the Maid, or Jehanne la Pucelle, as she described herself, was one of five children born to Isabelle Romée and peasant farmer Jacques in the Lorraine village of Domrémy. Her childhood was “like the others” until about 1425, when she began to sense voices and visions of saints telling her that God wished Joan to drive the English from France. By 1428, she was petitioning local officials for support, and in February of 1429, Joan was given an escort for the 240-mile (386-kilometer) journey to Chinon. There the court awaited her with a mixture of curiosity, skepticism, and faint hope.

Joan of Arc entering Orléans.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Joan presented to Charles a still secret “personal message” as well as her service toward raising the siege of Orléans and leading the troops to Reims, where Charles could be anointed with the sacred oil kept there for traditional French coronations. Charles was impressed by Joan’s confidence, but he cautiously had her examined by clerics and matrons to make sure the virgin claiming divine inspiration was not a witch deceived and seduced by the devil. Once cleared of Satanic associations, Joan was equipped with white armor, a sword, a small battle-ax, a white religious standard of her own design, a large black charger that she rode with admirable skill, and a vague status as a commander (but not a knight or chevalier) in the four-thousand-man relief force that set out from Blois for Orléans on April 27. The march seemed an uncertain combination of supplies, military force, religious devotion, and showmanship.

The French relief army, keeping south of the Loire, arrived upstream from Orléans on the afternoon of April 28 or 29, and were met by commander Dunois. He was impressed by Joan’s forcefulness and anxious to show this much-expected arrival to the people of Orléans. Accordingly, in the early evening Joan rode through the eastern gate, escorted by Dunois and other captains. Torches dramatized the procession and crowds pressed forward to touch the garments or at least the horse of this girl they hoped would save them. For several days, while the French commanders debated plans of attack, Joan mingled with the garrison and citizens of Orléans, while also sending surrender demands to the English commanders. The English troops hailed her with earthy insults, but the French soldiers increasingly accepted her as a leader.

On May 4, French troops attacked Saint Loup, an English fort east of Orléans. Joan hastened to the fight, which Dunois was ready to discontinue, and rallied the French to capture the position. Thereafter, Joan was one of the military council, and she also played a leading part in taking Les Augustins near the south end of the bridge. On May 7, while fighting at the Tourelles fortification (towers) and guarding the bridge itself, Joan was seriously wounded by an arrow, but still took charge of the attack that captured the towers. By nightfall of May 7, the Loire bridge was in French hands, and Orléans was no longer isolated. The following day, after challenging the French to battle (which they declined) the English army marched north. On the evening of May 8, the long-besieged citizens celebrated their rescue by the Maid of Orléans.

The relief of Orléans was accomplished without a major battle of main forces—only a few hundred lives were lost on each side, and the odds clearly favored the French after April 29. Nevertheless, the prolonged September to May “siege” was lifted unexpectedly only nine days after Joan’s arrival, enough of a “miracle” to encourage the French and disquiet the English, as Bedford reported to London. Joan, Dunois, and other French commanders captured English garrisons along the Loire at Jargeau, Meung, and Beaugency. On June 17, the English and French main armies, each numbering about five thousand, encountered each other near Patay. While Talbot and Sir John Fastolf began to deploy in the usual English “hedgehog” defense line of stakes and archers, Joan’s insistence on immediate attack took them by surprise. In a paralyzing defeat, the English lost thousands, Talbot was captured, Fastolf fled, and the English, decisively beaten in the field, fell back on Paris. Patay ranked with Orléans as a decisive French victory and a blow to English morale.

French debates over strategic direction continued until Charles reluctantly tried Joan’s plan to advance through Champagne for a coronation at Reims. The march became a triumph—popular enthusiasm (and a few bribes) disarmed opposition and avoided any divisive battle between the French. The idolized girl on horseback achieved her greatest political success with the Reims coronation, which dramatized Charles as the crowned, anointed, and rightful king of France.

In 1430, however, Joan failed to take Paris, was captured near Compiègne in May by Burgundian forces, sold to the English-controlled Paris authorities, and tried by a Church court at Rouen from January through May, 1431. The judges and Joan disagreed somewhat dogmatically concerning God’s will, and the court predictably insisted that Joan’s anti-English voices must be either imaginary or proof of Satanic possession. After a brief “recantation” of the voices, Joan “relapsed” and as a convicted heretic and tool of the devil, was turned over to the civil authorities and burned at the stake in Rouen on May 30, 1431. Heresy;Joan of Arc

The popular nationalism that Joan had harnessed so dramatically in 1429 did not by itself drive the English from France. Those who could pay for such a war wanted to be able to profit from the outcome. King Charles (who made no attempt to ransom Joan in 1430) methodically pursued governmental, fiscal, and military reforms and in 1435 also won the support of Burgundy for expelling the English. Only in 1450, with success assured, did Charles order the inquiry that cleared Joan (and the king) of any taint of witchcraft or heresy. Papal authorities declared Joan rehabilitated in 1456, and in a later and different context, the Church declared her “venerable” in 1904, “blessed” in 1909, and canonized on May 16, 1920, as “Saint Joan.”


Joan of Arc added the spark of moral and combat leadership needed to give the French a season of military and political success and the confidence and credibility for ultimate victory at Orléans. Yet in the long run, Joan’s life was seen as a human drama even more compelling than the war itself. She was a “guided” heroic savior by the age of nineteen—a sort of fairy tale, but with a brutal ending.

Further Reading

  • Burne, Alfred H. The Agincourt War: A Military History of the Latter Part of the Hundred Years’ War from 1369 to 1453. Ware, Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions, 1999. An English military analysis of the Battle of Agincourt, originally published in 1956.
  • DeVries, Kelly. Joan of Arc: A Military Leader. Phoenix Mill, Mich.: Sutton, 1999. A biography exploring Joan as a saint and a military leader. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Elliott, Dyan. “Seeing Double: John Gerson, the Discernment of Spirits, and Joan of Arc.” American Historical Review 107, no. 1 (February, 2002). Argues that the work of the French theologian Jean de Gerson (1363-1429) attempted to use clerical control to “contain” female spirituality, including Joan’.
  • Gies, Frances. Joan of Arc: The Legend and the Reality. New York: Harper and Row, 1981. A scholarly account, but omits some “legends.” Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • Pernoud, Régine. Joan of Arc by Herself and Her Witnesses. Translated by Edward Hyams. 1966. Reprint. Lanham, Md.: Scarborough House, 1994. A work of great integrity and judgment by the former director of the Centre Jeanne d’Arc in Orléans, who culled documents of Joan’s own times for this extremely useful book.
  • Sackville-West, Vita. Saint Joan of Arc. New York: Grove Press, 2001. A comprehensive and well-balanced biographical account of Joan, first published in 1936 and written by the noted twentieth century British author. Includes discussion of the history of France during the reign of Charles VII.
  • Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. The author ranges through the centuries and provides, for example, a hard look at how little is known about Joan’s appearance and image as a hero.
  • Wheeler, Bonnie, and Charles T. Wood, eds. Fresh Verdicts on Joan of Arc. New York: Garland, 1999. A wealth of essays ranging from topics such as Joan’s military leadership of men, her gender expression, her interrogation at trial, errors in histories of Joan, comparisons with Christine de Pizan, and more.