Joan of Arc, Trial

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The trial of Joan of Arc, which took place before an English-backed church court in Rouen, France, in the first half of the year 1431 was, by general consensus, one of the most significant and moving trials ever conducted in human history. It culminated in the burning at the stake of the person known to history as Joan of Arc, the young French peasant girl who was the defendant in the case. Later, the trial verdict would be reversed, completely exonerating her. She is now a French national heroine and saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

Background and context

Joan of Arc burst onto the scene of world history in spectacular fashion in the Spring of the year 1429, at which time she, in obedience to what she identified as the command of God, led the Dauphin's armies in a series of stunning military victories which resulted in reversing the course of the Hundred Years' War.

Military success on this scale was denied her following her initial triumphs. First, there was a reversal before the gates of Paris in September of that same year and then, in the Spring of 1430, she fell captive, in a minor action near Compiegne, to the French Burgundian allies of the English.

The French King, Charles VII, refused to ransom her from the Burgundians who then delivered her to the English in exchange for a large sum of money. In December of that same year, she was transferred to Rouen, the military headquarters and administrative capital in France of King Henry VI of England, and placed on trial for heresy before a Church court headed by Bishop Pierre Cauchon.

The Documentary record

The life of Joan of Arc is one of the best documented of her era. This is especially remarkable when one considers that she was not of noble birth, but instead was a very young peasant girl. In one of history's true ironies, a large part of the thanks for this fact is owed to the records kept by those very same individuals who attempted to eradicate her name from memory. The reference, of course, is to the trial record kept during her Trial of Condemnation in Rouen in 1431.

During the investigation and trial itself, a trio of notaries, headed by chief notary Guillaume Manchon, took notes in French which were then collated each day following the trial session. Four years later (at the earliest), these records were translated into Latin by Manchon and University of Paris master Thomas de Courcelles. Five copies were produced, three of which are still in existence.

Jules Quicherat published the first unabridged version of the trial record in the first volume of his 5 volume Proces de condamnation et de rehabilitation de Jeanne d'Arc in Paris in the 1840s. But it was not until 1932 that the first unabridged English translation became available when W.P. Barrett published his Trial of Joan of Arc [1] in New York.

Prometheus bound - Joan in prison

The procedures of an Inquisitorial trial called for a preliminary inquest into the life of the accused. This investigation consisted of the collection of any evidence, including hearsay testimony, into the character of the subject. This could then be followed by an interrogation of the suspect, in which he or she was compelled to provide testimony which could then be used against them in a subsequent trial.

Preliminary inquest

With the words "Here begin the proceedings in matter of faith against a dead woman, Jeanne, commonly known as the Maid", the trial records announce the start, on January 9, 1431, of the judicial inquiry into the case of Joan of Arc (Jeanne D'Arc as her name appears at the head of said records).

The first order of business was a preliminary inquiry into Joan's character and habits. An examination as to Joan's virginity was conducted sometime prior to January 13, overseen by the Duchess of Bedford (the wife of John, Duke of Bedford, and regent in France of the boy-king Henry VI of England). At the same time, representatives of Pierre Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais and the man who would preside over the Trial, were sent to Domremy and vicinity to inquire further into Joan's life, her habits, and virtue, with several witnesses being interviewed.

The result of these inquiries was that nothing could be found against Joan to support any charges against her. Clerical notary Nicolas Bailly, commissioned to collect testimony against Joan of Arc, could find no adverse evidence.

The Interrogation of Joan of Arc

In a letter of February 20, 1431, to the assessors and others summoning them to appear the morning of the following day for the first public interrogation session of Jeanne, Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, cited the grant of territory within the city of Rouen by the chapter of the cathedral of Rouen for the purpose of conducting the proces against Jeanne. Without such a grant, he would have been unable to conduct the hearings as he was not in his native diocese. He also affirmed that Jeanne was "vehemently suspected of heresy" and that "rumors of her acts and sayings wounding our faith had notoriously spread". This was the basis for the diffamatio, a necessary ingredient in the bringing of charges against a suspect. He also alluded to the expected absence of the Vice-Inquisitor for Rouen, Jean Le Maistre, whose presence was required by canon law in order to validate the proceedings. On all three points, the Rehabilitation Trial would declare the proceedings to be at fault and would set aside the verdict.

In response to the summons of Bishop Cauchon, priest and usher Jean Massieu, on this same date, reported that Joan had agreed to appear, but that she requested that ecclesiastics of the French side be summoned equal in number to those of the English party, and that she be allowed to hear mass. In response, promoter Jean d'Estivet forbid Joan to attend the divine offices, citing "especially the impropriety of the garments to which she clung" according to the Trial transcript (Barrett translation).

First session - Wednesday, February 21, 1431

After being brought before the court, the proceedings were explained to Joan and an exhortation was delivered to her by Bishop Cauchon, following which she was required to take an oath concerning her testimony.

Question: Do you swear to speak the truth in answer to such questions as are put to you?
Joan: I do not know what you wish to examine me on. Perhaps you might ask such things that I would not tell.
Question: Will you swear to speak the truth upon those things which are asked you concerning the faith, which you know?
Joan: Concerning my father and my mother, and what I have done since I took the road to France, I will gladly swear to tell the truth. But concerning my revelations from God, these I have never told or revealed to anyone, save only to Charles, my King. And I will not reveal them to save my head.[1]

The court would return to the matter of the oath in subsequent sessions.

She was then asked concerning matters such as her name, her birth, her parents and godparents, her baptism, and her religious upbringing. When she reported that her mother had taught her the Pater Noster, Ave Maria, and Credo, Cauchon asked her to repeat her Pater Noster. She replied that she would do so only if she were allowed to be heard in confession.

Finally, reminding her of her previous escape attempts, Joan was admonished against escaping, being told that if she were to do so, she would automatically be convicted of heresy. She rejected this, saying that she had given no oath regarding this matter to anyone and adding, "It is true that I wished and still wish to escape, as is lawful for any captive or prisoner".

Second session - Thursday, February 22, 1431

At this session Jean Le Maistre, the Vice Inquisitor, was present, having been absent the previous day when he plead that he was appointed to the city and diocese of Rouen whereas the Trial was being held in ceded territory in which he had no jurisdiction. He would not be present at any of the following sessions until March 13.[2]

After some further sparring over the oath, Joan was questioned about her youth and activities in Domremy. She replied that she learned to "spin and to sew", that she "confessed her sins once a year", sometimes more often, and "received the sacrament of the Eucharist at Easter". Then the questioning took a more serious turn as the issue of her voices was taken up.

She stated that at the age of thirteen, she "had a voice from God to help and guide me", but that at first she "was much afraid". She added that the voice was "seldom heard without a light" and that she "often heard the voice" when she came to France. She then related details of her journey from Domremy to Chinon, first applying to Robert de Baudricourt in Vaucouleurs for an escort and leaving from that city wearing male attire and equipped with a sword supplied by Sir Robert.

Third session - Saturday, February 24, 1431

Again the session began with skirmishing over the oath, after which Jean Beaupere began with extensive questioning concerning Joan's voices. She was asked, inter alia, what she was doing when the voice came to her, where was the voice, was there any tactile interaction, what it said, etc. Joan reported that she asked the voice for counsel regarding the questioning and was told to "answer boldly and God would comfort [her]". She further stated that she "never found [the voice] to utter two contrary opinions" and she affirmed her belief that "this voice comes from God, and by His command".

Several questions of a theological nature followed, including this one:

Question: Do you know whether or no you are in God's grace?
Joan: If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest creature in the world if I knew I were not in His grace." She added, if she were in a state of sin, she did not think that the voice would come to her; and she wished everyone could hear the voice as well as she did. She thought she was about thirteen when the voice came to her for the first time.[3]

From there, the questioning turned again to Joan's childhood in Domremy, with questions about the Ladies tree and the customs surrounding it. The session ended with Joan being asked whether she would wear women's clothing if such were supplied her. "Give me [a dress] and I will take it and go; otherwise, I am content with this [referring to her male attire - ed.], since it pleases God that I wear it."

Fourth session - Tuesday, February 27, 1431

Again Joan took a limited form of the oath and again Beaupere took the principal lead in the questioning, first turning to the subject of her voices. Joan stated that she had heard the voices many times since the previous session and that it was St. Catherine and St. Margaret, whose voices had guided her for 7 years, but that the first time she heard voices (when she was about 13), it was that of St. Michael. She refused to answer some of the questions, and referred others to the record of the Poitiers investigation.

There was further questioning about her assumption of male attire to which she responded: "Everything I have done is at God's command". As to her first meeting with Charles VII, she referred the most substantive questions to the records of the Poitiers investigation but did state that the "King had a sign touching of my mission before he believed in me" and that "the clergy of my party [i.e., the Armagnacs] held that there was nothing but good in my mission".

Questions followed concerning her sword and her standard, which the assessors had her describe in particular detail. The session concluded with questioning about the siege at Orleans and the assault on Jargeau. Regarding the former, she stated that "she did indeed" know beforehand that she would be wounded, and that she "had told her king so". She was in fact wounded in the neck with a crossbolt as she raised the ladder against the fortress of Les Tourelles.

Fifth session - Thursday, March 1, 1431

Following the usual sparring over the oath, the session then turned to certain letters exchanged between herself and the Count d'Armagnac concerning the question as to who was the true Pope. Joan stated that she "believed in our Holy Father the Pope at Rome" and that she "had never written nor caused to be written anything concerning the three sovereign Pontiffs".

Other letters which she had written were then brought up. In the course of this exchange, she stated that "before seven years are past the English will lose a greater stake than they did at Orlèans, for they will lose everything in France" and that she knew this by revelation.

Joan was then asked many detailed questions concerning the saints (called "apparitions" by the questioner, Pierre Cauchon) whom she believed visited her, for instance, were they male or female, did they have hair, what language they spoke, etc. Asked whether St. Margaret spoke English, she replied: "Why should she speak English when she is not on the English side?"

She was then asked about her rings and whether she attempted to effect cures thereby ("I never cured anyone with any of my rings"), as well as whether she had a mandrake ("I have no mandrake, and never had one.").

And finally she was asked again about the sign which was given to her King whereby he recognized her and her mission and again she refused to answer any questions on this subject, saying "Go and ask him.".

Sixth session - Saturday, March 3, 1431

After taking the oath in the same form as before, the questioning turned once again to the appearance of the Saints whom she claimed to see. She stated: "I saw them with my two eyes, and I believe it was they I saw as firmly as I believe in the existence of God" and that God had created them in the form and fashion that she saw.

About her escape attempt from the tower of Beaurevoir, she said that her voices "told me that I shall be delivered, but I do not know the day or the hour."

Turning again to the question of her adoption of male attire, she was asked if she had put on male attire "by revelation". She referred to the record of Poitiers, but did add that she had begun wearing men's dress at Vaucouleurs. Many other questions about this matter were put to her which she refused to answer. But it did transpire that on several occasions, she had been offered women's clothing and asked to put off her male attire, but she replied that she "would not put it off without God's leave".

She then described her standard ("white satin, and on some there were fleur-de-lis"). Many other questions about her standard and pennons and those of her followers ensued.[4]

After briefly describing her meeting with brother Richard at Troyes, the questioning turned to the issue of likenesses of Joan ("At Arras, I saw a painting of myself done by the hands of a Scot") and the response of the common people to her - the kissing of her rings, hands, garments, and the like.[5] ("many women touched my hands and my rings; but I do not know with what thought or intention".)

Joan was then asked about her meeting with Catherine de la Rochelle, a French mystic who likewise claimed to have revelations from God. After consulting with her Saints, Joan described Catherine as "folly and nothing more".

Finally, the session closed with some questions about Joan's escape attempt from the castle at Beaurevoir, where she was held for a number of months by her Burgundian captors. She stated that though her voices forbade it, "from fear of the English, I leaped and commended myself to God" and "in leaping was wounded", further stating that she would "rather surrender her soul to God than fall into the hands of the English".

Court is adjourned

The Prison sessions

Seventh session (in prison) - Saturday, March 10, 1431

Questioning resumed, this time in her prison cell, with only a handful of assessors present. Joan described the action outside Compiegne when she was taken prisoner by the Burgundians. Asked about the role of her voices in this action, Joan reported that "Easter week last, when I was in the trenches at Melun, I was told by my voices . . . that I would be captured before St. John's Day" adding that "it had to be so" and that "I should not be distressed, but take it in good part, and God would aid me". However, although she had known that she would be captured, she did not know the date and time.

She was then asked about her banner and the meaning of the designs painted thereon. Finally, the session closed with questions about the sign she gave to Charles as proof of her mission.

Vice-Inquisitor is summoned

Eighth session (in prison) - Monday, March 12, 1431 (morning)

Joan was questioned concerning the first meeting with her King when he was shown a sign. Then attention turned to whether or not her voices / saints had ever failed her in any respect.

Question: Did not the angel fail you . . . when you were taken prisoner?
Joan: . . . since it pleased God, it was better for me to be taken prisoner.

She further stated that they (her saints) "often come without my calling, but sometimes if they did not come, I would pray God to send them", adding ". . . I have never needed them without having them."

Later, when commenting on when she first heard her voices, Joan said that she "vowed to keep her virginity as long as it should please God" adding that she was then "thirteen years old, or thereabouts". She said that she had not told anyone of her visions (neither her parents, nor her priest, nor any churchman), save Robert de Baudricourt.

Asked whether she thought it was right to leave her parents without permission, she responded that she did so at the command of God and therefore "it was right to do so" further stating that "afterwards, I wrote to them, and they forgave me."

Ninth session (in prison) - Monday, March 12, 1431 (afternoon)

Joan was asked concerning a dream which her father had prior to her leaving Domremy. She replied that she was "often told by my mother that my father spoke of having dreamed that I would go off with men-at-arms" and that she had heard her mother tell how "my father said to my brothers 'in truth, if I thought this thing would happen which I have dreamed about my daughter, I would want you to drown her; and if you would not, I would drown her myself'."

The questioning then turned again to her adoption of male attire. She answered that the decision to adopt same was ". . . of her own accord, and not at the request of any man alive." adding that "Everything I have done I have done at the instruction of my voices" this latter comment in response to a question as to whether or not her voices ordered her to wear a man's costume.

Tenth session (in prison) - Tuesday, March 13, 1431

The bulk of this session was taken up with a discussion of the "sign" shown to the King (Charles) when Joan first met him at Chinon. When asked whether she had sworn to St. Catherine not to tell the sign, Joan replied, "I have sworn and promised not to tell this sign, of my own accord, . . ."

Nevertheless, she then went on to describe the sign and the meeting in detail. She described an angel bringing the King a crown of pure gold, rich and precious, which was put in the King's treasure. She added that when she first came to the King accompanied by the angel, she told him, "Sire, this is your sign; take it." When asked why God had chosen her for this task, she replied simply, "it pleased God so to do, by a simple maid to drive back the King's enemies."

The questioning then turned to the assault on Paris. She stated that she went to Paris not at the behest of a revelation, but "at the request of nobles who wanted to make an attack" adding that "after it had been revealed to me . . . at Melun that I would be captured, I usually deferred to the captains on questions of war."

Eleventh session (in prison) - Wednesday, March 14, 1431 (morning)

The morning session of March 14 began with lengthy questioning concerning Joan's leap from the tower at Beaurevoir where she had been held captive prior to being delivered to the English. She gave as one of the reasons for the leap that she knew she "had been sold to the English, and I would have died rather than fall into the hands of my enemies the English."

Asked directly whether, in leaping from the tower, she expected to kill herself, Joan replied, "No, for as I leaped I commended myself to God." By leaping she hoped to escape and avoid deliverance to the English.

The questioning then turned to her Saints and the light which accompanied them when they spoke to her. She stated that there was not a day when they did not come, and that they were always accompanied by a light. She asked three things of her voices: her deliverance (from imprisonment by the English), that God should aid the French, and, finally, she asked for the salvation of her soul.

The prisoner was asked about a warning which she had given to Bishop Cauchon. She reported her words as follows:

Joan: (to Cauchon) "You say that you are my judge; I do not know if you are: but take good heed not to judge me ill, because you would put yourself in great peril. And I warn you so that if God punish you for it, I shall have done my duty in telling you."

Asked what this meant, she reported that St. Catherine had told her she would have aid, that she would be delivered by a great victory, adding, "Take everything peacefully; have no care for thy martyrdom; in the end thou shalt come to the Kingdom of Paradise".

The questioning ended for this session with Joan being asked whether, after hearing this revelation, she felt she could no longer commit mortal sin. She replied, "I do not know; but in everything I commit myself to God."

Twelfth session (in prison) - Wednesday, March 14, 1431 (afternoon)

In the afternoon of the same day, the assessors convened again in Joan's prison cell, taking up where the morning session had left off, namely, with the question of Joan's salvation and the certainty she felt concerning same. Joan qualified her earlier reply by adding that her belief in her salvation was "provided that I kept my oath and promise to Our Lord to keep safe my virginity of body and of soul".

Asked about any need she felt to confess, she responded that she "did not know of having committed mortal sin" adding that "if I were in mortal sin, I think St. Catherine and St. Margaret would at once abandon me."

After a question was raised, and answered, concerning allegations that Joan had taken a man at ransom and subsequently had him put to death, the assessors read off a list of charges, all of which had been dealt with in previous examinations, and asked her, in reference thereto, whether or not she felt herself in mortal sin as a result. She replied:

Joan: "I do not think I am in mortal sin, and if I am, it is for God, and the priest in confession, to know it."

Apart from this, her replies to the charges (concerning the attack on Paris on a Feast Day, the allegation that she had stolen a horse from the Bishop of Senlis, her leap form the tower of Beaurevoir, her wearing of men's dress, and the aforesaid charge concerning prisoner who was put to death) were a recapitulation of earlier replies.

Thirteenth session (in prison) - Thursday, March 15, 1431

Fourteenth session (in prison) - Saturday, March 17, 1431 (morning)

Fifteenth session (in prison) - Saturday, March 17, 1431 (afternoon)

Prometheus on trial - the "ordinary" trial

The ordinary, or regular, trial of Joan began on March 26 with the reading of the 70 articles (later summarized in a 12 article indictment) and concluded on May 24 with the abjuration.

Prometheus unbound - the execution of Joan of Arc

Joan recanted her previous abjuration, donned men's apparel once more, was brought to trial as a relapsed heretic and burned at the stake on May 30, 1431 in the Old Marketplace in Rouen.

The judgement of history


  1. All Trial quotations are from the English translation of the Trial transcripts by W.P. Barrett. In places, the dialogue has been rendered into direct discourse where the Trial transcript recorded only indirect discourse.
  2. The Papal Commission appointed a quarter of a century later to examine the conduct of the original Trial would here too fault the proceedings of this Trial.
  3. According to one version of the Trial transcript, this question elicited a protest from one of the assessors, Jean Lefèvre, on grounds that it was too subtle. Joan's response, neatly avoiding the theological trap, left the court "stupefied" according to one of the notaries.
  4. The questioner and the assessors seemed to be interested, as evidenced by this line of questioning, in whether or not any magical significance was attached thereto.
  5. Here, the interest seemed to be whether or not she was venerated or worshipped in any way, and whether she encouraged such behavior.