The True Story Behind Joan Of Arc — & Why She’s Still A Powerful Role Model

Photo: Dave Penman/REX/Shutterstock.
Today marks the Catholic feast day for Joan of Arc, the French teenager who heard the voices of saints, served in the 100 Years War, and was burned at the stake for her trouble. She may be one of the most well-known female saints in Catholicism, but you don't need to be a devout Catholic to find her story inspiring.
When she was only 13 years old, Joan (whose given name was Jeanne d'Arc) started receiving messages and visions from who she believed to be Saint Michael and Saint Catherine, calling upon her to save France from English rule. At the time (the 1420s), northern France was occupied by England and ruled by its king, Henry IV. Much of France hoped to see the crown returned to Charles VII, the French dauphin (and heir to the French throne) — and the Saints supposedly told Joan it was up to her to ensure this happened.
After gaining support from her fellow villagers, Joan cut her hair, donned men's armor, and traveled to offer her services to Charles. He wasn't sure if he could trust her — she was, after all, a young female peasant who claimed to have divine guidance — but, according to, Charles eventually granted her permission to lead an army to the city of Orléans, which had been under English siege for seven months. It's said she wore white armor and rode a white horse (and this is how she's usually depicted).
Joan and her troops saved the city and continued to fight against the English. She quickly became a rallying point for the French people, giving them a symbol to unite behind.
Of course, she had her fair share of skeptics, too, chief among them: Charles' advisors. Despite their repeated pleas not to follow her word, Charles continued to listen to Joan. She told him the Saints' voices said she'd see him take the French crown back, and in 1429, she and her army made sure he safely entered English territory to reclaim the throne.
The following year, Joan was captured in battle. She was charged with 70 crimes, including heresy, witchcraft, communicating with Satan, and dressing like a man. Leading up to her trial, Joan was denied attendance to mass and held in a secular prison (as opposed to a Church prison, where female attendants would have guarded her).
Nevertheless, Joan's faith endured. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, she's said to have faced a confusing and disorienting interrogation, accusations that she wasn't as pious (or virginal) as she claimed, and even threats of torture with total patience, reiterating her commitment to God. Yet, on May 30, 1431, having been completely abandoned by Charles and his forces, Joan was burned at the stake, which was the punishment for heresy at the time.
According to the Loyola Press, it would be over 20 years until she was declared innocent and a martyr by the Catholic Church. She was officially canonized in 1920 and is still one of the most popular Catholic saints. But, her significance isn't confined to any one religion.
Secular French soldiers looked to her for inspiration in the 19th century and throughout World War I. And, despite the fact that she spent her life fighting the English, Joan's strength of will resonated with British suffragettes, who used her image in magazines and on posters to promote their cause. Her enduring faith and unshakable courage make her a powerful figure — some might say a feminist icon — hundreds of years after her death.

More from Spirit

R29 Original Series