Did you know that William Shakespeare hated Joan of Arc?
I don’t think “hatred” is too strong a word either. In his play Henry VI (1591), written a century and a half after she died, he called her the “foul fiend of France” as well as a few other nasty and derogatory female terms which cannot be repeated in a polite publication! What was his problem?
Well, the essence of it was that Shakespeare was English.
A Terrible Defeat
That feisty little French girl had humiliated the English a century before by breaking the back of England’s invasion of her country. Her leadership of the armies of France was the first time in a hundred years that the French had defeated the English in battle.
To make matters worse, Joan was not very diplomatic about it either. Here is a portion of her first letter to the English prior to giving them a proper whooping:
You, King of England and you, Duke of Bedford, who call yourself Regent of the realm of France… Hand back to the maid, who is sent by God, the King of Heaven, the keys of all the fine towns of France you have taken and ravaged… And you, archers and soldiers, noble or not, who are before the city of Orléans, go in God’s name back to your country.… King of England, if you do not do what I ask, I will force your men to depart wherever I meet them in France; if they do not, I shall have them all slain. (Beevers, Joan of Arc, TAN, 55)
Have you ever spoken like that to a king or a military general? Probably not.
The proud English commanders and arrogant nobles didn’t take kindly to such insolence from a French peasant girl, who by the way, was only eighteen years old when she sent that first of numerous brazen and disrespectful letters to the invaders.
The memory of that defeat was still a festering wound in Shakespeare’s England a century later, and perhaps the Bard was more swayed by the English “fake news” about Joan than we are today.
The Crowning Glory of the Middle Ages
Yet, Joan was the crowning glory of the late Middle Ages, the last gasp of heroism before Europe broke apart in the Reformation. Notwithstanding the hatred of her enemies, Joan remains one of the most inspirational characters in all of history, and we remember her fondly because today, May 30th, is the 590th anniversary of her death (1431) and her official feast day.
Mark Twain, who loved Joan, once wrote that “It took six thousand years to produce her; her like will not be seen in the earth again in fifty thousand.” Quite high praise from a man who was known more for sarcastic humor than for his religious sentiment.
Joan still has that effect on people because she is seen by history as a kind of whirlwind of righteous anger and divine judgment that knocked some sense into the men who had wrecked the patrimony of two great nations. No one ever did what she did.
That little woman was like a colossus marching through a long dark period of history to mark the end of an age:
- She raised the Siege of Orléans (in May of 1430), liberating the most strategically important city in the whole conflict between the two nations;
- She went on to drive the English out of the Loire River Valley (165 miles of territory) that they had controlled since the Battle of Crecy in 1346;
- She launched the “beginning of the end” for the longest war in history, the Hundred Years War (which ended 25 years after Joan’s death)
- She made it possible for Charles VII to be crowned King of France and to take his rightful place in the history of the French monarchy.
Oh, and there’s also this: she accomplished all this in less than one year.
Her victories could be called the “great reset” of the Middle Ages because they reshuffled the deck of international politics at the time and clarified God’s will for the entire Christian world.
In essence, Joan herself was the message that Christ wanted France to be free and clear of the English, who, through politics and intrigue, had infiltrated a good portion of the country. At the time Joan comes on the scene, they were poised to conquer what was left of the Kingdom of France and subjugate the entire country to the British monarchy.
Everything that came before Joan of Arc was a millennium of organically-grown and carefully cultivated Christian civilization, which the warring (Catholic) kings and royalty had all but undermined by their political intrigues.
When Joan arrived with her purity and conviction – as an envoy of Christ Himself – she reminded all the warring Christians that Christ was the King of Heaven to whom all, weak and mighty alike, owed obedience.
Her Greatest Legacy
The story of her martyrdom is too long and sad a tale to recount here, but the Internet is full of books on her life and death. I would just like to point out one final detail of history that may escape even the most avid lovers of Joan of Arc. In fact, it is her greatest accomplishment.
The solidarity of Christian civilization that had been achieved in medieval Europe was called by a single name – Christendom – but it was not to last after Joan’s death, despite ending the Hundred Years’ War. Joan had done her job, but the arrogant politicians and clerics didn’t follow suit.
Enter Martin Luther in 1517. His Protestant rebellion shattered the unity of Christendom and infused doctrinal chaos into the Christian world in its long wake.
Henry VIII of England followed Luther’s rampage, and we all know about that king’s homicidal marital ethics. We sometimes forget, however, that Henry proclaimed himself the head of the Church in England (in 1535) – usurping the role of the pope – and dealt the death blow to any hope of maintaining a united Christian Church in Europe.
Joan of Arc’s France was one of the countries that stood as a bastion of Catholicism against the Germanic and English rebellions of that time. If France had fallen into the hands of England during Joan’s time, only God knows how deeply Christianity would have been wounded in its mission.
But the opposite happened. In the centuries that followed Joan, there was an astounding rebirth of spiritual vigor and faith that issued from France. Not all is due directly to the influence of Joan of Arc, by any means, but we can certainly say that without Joan, the rebirth would not have happened.
You can see the implications as well as I can just by looking at a number of the Catholic saints who were products of future ages. An English-dominated, Protestant France would likely not have produced these saints:
St. Peter Faber (co-founder of the Jesuits)
St. Frances de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal (founders, Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary)
St. Isaac Jogues and the North American Martyrs
St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Maurillac (founders Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul and Congregation of the Mission)
St. John Eudes (founder, Order of Our Lady of Charity)
St. Claude de la Colombiere and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque – visionary of the Sacred Heart apparitions and her spiritual director
St. Louis-Marie de Montfort (founder, the Company of Mary, the Daughters of Wisdom, and the Brothers of Saint Gabriel)
St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle (founder, Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools)
St. Benedict Joseph Labré
The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne and countless other martyrs of the French Revolution
St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier (founder, Congregation of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepherd)
St. John Vianney – patron saint of priests
St. Bernadette Soubirous – visionary of Lourdes
Ven. Basil Moreau – (founder, Congregation of the Holy Cross)
St. Julian Peter Eymard – (founder, Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament and Servants of the Blessed Sacrament)
St. Catherine Labouré – visionary of the Miraculous Medal Apparitions
St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower
St. Peter Chanel – Apostle to Oceania.
Note that a good number of these French saints were founders of religious orders, which had a force multiplying effect on the evangelization of the world and the salvation of souls.
Because of these countless, selfless French missionaries, entire continents and remote parts of the world now have the Christian faith, including great swaths of our own North America. Other areas of French evangelization include West Africa, Asia (particularly Vietnam and Korea), Oceania, parts of the Caribbean, and elsewhere.
What a debt of gratitude the entire Catholic world owes to them – and to one feisty medieval maiden named Joan.
Please take time to visit Peter Darcy’s award-winning website, Sacred Windows, at www.sacredwindows.com and sign up for his newsletter. You can also learn more about Joan of Arc from his 2020 book, The Seven Leadership Virtues of Joan of Arc.