Joan of Arc: Helen Castor

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I mentioned a while ago that I had been to the Buxton Literary festival and seen an amazing talk by Helen Castor, the famous historian, about Joan of Arc.
She explained how Joan of Arc is used so often as a figurehead of everything from feminist movements to canned foods but most people don't know the real person.
They don't know how as a young girl she was filled with religious conviction and heard the voices of Saints Michael, Catherine and Margaret.  She was born in the the middle of a great war between the British and Burgundians against the Dauphin Prince Charles supporters. Many people think that everyone in France wanted the British out, but in fact a large percentage of the population believed it was their right to be there.

There is only one drawing of her,  a sketch made by the stenographer, who wrote the minutes of her trial, although it is factually incorrect as she cut her hair short and wore men's clothes - the man had never actually seen her. The outline of the story (fleshed out in Helen Castor's book) is that the young Joan went to the Dauphin and told him she would make him king,  the Dauphin's test to see if she was angelic and not sent from the devil was if they won the battle in Orleans - they did.

After many victories, they began to lose and so came the trial of condemnation - as Joan began to paint more realistic pictures of her saints what she didn't know was that that made them seem more demonic. Eventually her confidence was broken, she agreed to live out her life in exile but the betrayal of agreeing that she hadn't seen God's angels was too much so she took back her confession and was burnt at the stake.

I still had a few questions though which Helen Castor kindly answered:

1. Joan of Arc was an important person for the French resistance.  Would you say that there has been anyone in English History who has had the same effect on the public and monarchy?

Joan was a heroine to the French Resistance in World War II, as a historical figure who had resisted a previous invasion of France – but she was also a heroine to the collaborationist Vichy Regime, as a historical figure who had resisted specifically the English. When the Allies bombed occupied Rouen – where Joan had been executed in 1431 – a Vichy poster showed Joan amid the burning rubble of the city, beneath a caption declaring that ‘Murderers always return to the scene of their crimes’.

That’s the thing about Joan: she’s never simple.  Her iconic image is recognised all over the world, but it’s capable of being used to mean almost anything we want it to.

So, no: for all sorts of reasons, I don’t think we have an equivalent figure in English history.

2. What controversies surrounding Joan of Arc have you approached in the research for your book?

I didn’t consciously set out to address controversies.  What I wanted to do was immerse myself in the world of fifteenth-century France in order to find the living, breathing Joan, a human being in three dimensions.  It’s her story I’m telling, as much as possible from the perspectives of the people who were there.

3. Is there any subject or person you would like to investigate in the future?

Next I’m writing about Elizabeth I – a short book about a long and remarkable life.

4. In some accounts Joan was put up for ransom, why do you think King Charles VII did not pay that ransom?

In the middle ages, almost all important prisoners of war were put up for ransom – they were a valuable commodity, and soldiers who were lucky enough to bag a big prize on the battlefield could make their fortune that way.  The usual situation was that these prisoners were noblemen, who could raise their own ransom from their estates back home in order to buy their freedom.

But Joan’s situation was different.  She – a young peasant girl – was only on the battlefield in the first place because she claimed she’d been sent by God to fight.  And, if God had allowed her to be captured, what did that say about her mission?

The truth was that her moment of miracles had already passed by the time she was captured, so it was most convenient (as well as, they thought, most theologically plausible) for King Charles and his advisers to say that God had chosen to punish Joan for becoming too wilful and proud.  God still, they believed, supported their cause – but heaven’s message was that they should now move on without her.

Instead, it was the English and their French supporters – the Burgundian side in the French civil war – who wanted possession of Joan in order to put her on trial, so they were the ones who paid her ransom.

5. What has been the reaction to your book in France and over here in the UK?

My book hasn’t yet been published in France, but I do know I’m treading – with great care! – on hallowed ground, as an English historian writing about France’s national heroine and saint.

Here in the UK, the reaction has been wonderful.  I think most of us know Joan’s name and the hazy outline of her story, but the detail, for many people, isn’t clear – partly because almost 600 years is a long time, and partly because of the layers of myth and legend that have grown up around her.  So people seem as keen as I was when I started my research to find out about the real Joan, and to understand her extraordinary life in the context of her own world.

Back to me now, have a wonderful week.
I read something once that when Joan of arc died her spirit rose up in a dove out of the ashes - I hope that was true.

The Clumsy word shaker

Photo of Helen Castor courtesy of

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