As the year 1429 began, the Hundred Years’ War, the defining conflict of the Late Middle Ages, raged at its height of ferocity. The outcome wasn’t much in doubt, though. Outnumbered though they usually were, the English, flush with recent victories under their great warrior king, Henry V, brimmed with confidence. Their allies, the Burgundians, devastated eastern France, and the alliance was gradually beating the entire country into submission. The previous French king, Charles VI, was forced to assent to the Treaty of Troyes, where Henry and his heirs would become king of France after his own death. Both kings died within months of each other, thus making the infant Henry VI King of England and France, but Charles’ son also claimed the throne as Charles VII of France, and the war continued…for then.
The English won victory after victory in the name of their child sovereign, and Charles’ supporters, flanked by the Anglo-Burgundian forces, steadily lost ground. To add to their military woes, Charles’ court was embroiled in factionalism, and his ability to govern was in some doubt.
One last important fortress remained in the hands of the French supporters of Charles VII: Orleans on the Loire. The English and Burgundians dominated the north and east of France. Controlling the Loire would allow their areas of operations to link up with one another far more easily. It would also allow the English to project power into the south of France and dominate the entire country. Orleans was the last stronghold preventing this outcome. If it fell, the Anglo-Burgundian alliance could rapidly overrun France, continuing to box it in like a game of Go, and beat it into submission. This outcome was never seriously doubted by the people at the time. It was regarded by most as only a matter of time.
And so in October, 1428 the English laid siege to Orleans.
It is notable that the siege of Orleans was among the first major military operations that saw the use of artillery, though it wouldn’t be the dominant arm. That didn’t come until later in the century.
The most important point on the map was a gatehouse with two towers called Les Tourelles. Les Tourelles was situated on an island in the Loire beneath the southern end of Orleans, and a drawbridge connected the city with the gatehouse. Both sides recognized its importance quickly, and the English assaulted it and took it by storm. The French damaged the bridge to prevent the English from assaulting Orleans itself and fell back.
The French met with some good fortune early on, as the English commander, Lord Salisbury, was mortally wounded while inspecting the recently-captured Tourelles. He was one of the first notable casualties caused by artillery in warfare. Yet, his death only seemed to delay the inevitable success of the siege. Salisbury’s capable subordinate, Lord Suffolk, took over, and he began steady work to surround Orleans with strongholds that would cut off all supplies.
A French relief attempt was humiliated and destroyed at the Battle of the Herrings. As defeat followed defeat and the siege dragged on, morale plummeted to a dramatic nadir. Things got so bad that the defenders of Orleans offered to surrender the city to the Burgundians. Yet, the English saw no reason to accept such an offer. The siege of Orleans seemed certain to succeed, so why give up the fortress to their allies?
It looked as if only a miracle could lift the siege and save Orleans, and by extension, France, from the English and their Burgundian allies. As fate would have it, a miracle came.
The Maid of Orleans
While the English were running roughshod over the French at the Battle of the Herrings, a peasant girl from the small village of Domremy in eastern France, Joan, was persuading a local captain to take her to the court of Charles VII at Chinon. Reportedly, Joan of Arc is supposed to have said to her captain that, on the day of the Battle of the Herrings, French arms suffered “a dramatic reversal near Orleans” (see the La Chronique de la Pucelle). Such a statement is prone to confirmation bias, as there was a lot of fighting near Orleans and something would inevitably come up that resembled a defeat, but the captain, Robert de Baudricourt, reportedly became convinced of Joan’s powers when he got news of the Battle of the Herrings, and agreed to take her to Charles’ court.
The story goes that at Chinon, the future Joan of Arc picked out Charles from a crowded room of courtiers. Boldly, she assured him that he was chosen by God to be King of France, and that she was to deliver him to his rightful station, first by lifting the siege of Orleans. This is reputed to have helped to convince him of Joan’s gifts (or at least her enthusiasm). There was a prophecy at the time, believed in by both sides, that a maiden from Lorraine, where Domremy is situated, would save France (see 20 Decisive Battles of the World). Joan of Arc fit the bill. Rumors of her spread and were exaggerated.
After a thorough examination by the theological authorities, Joan of Arc was declared a true and virtuous daughter of the Holy Church. Another force to relieve the siege of Orleans was assembled with Joan assigned to it. She was given a magnificent black war horse, a spectacular suit of white armor, arms, and a banner which read “JHESUS MARIA.”
Before embarking for Orleans, Joan famously sent a message to the English: “Begone, or I will make you go.”
Joan of Arc arrived in Orleans with supplies and reinforcements on the night of April 29th by way of the Loire river, where, it was said, the winds reversed themselves suddenly, allowing Joan of Arc and her convoy to enter the city smoothly. The rumors of her powers grew.
Her reputation preceded her, and French morale, which was at a nadir only two months earlier, was boosted considerably by her presence. With her in the streets of Orleans, the siege didn’t seem nearly so dreadful. The English, meanwhile, were getting restless and uneasy as the siege continued. They believed in Joan’s powers too, but thought them unholy, the work of black magic.
More men and supplies came to the city, and a number of assaults took place on the English forts and outposts. The eastern outpost at St. Loup was stormed and the siege of Orleans from the east halted. An attack on one of the forts south of the city saw Joan of Arc wounded and the French nearly retreat in a rout, but Joan is supposed to have stayed put, rallied the French soldiers, and taken the fort. This left only Les Tourelles as a bastion of English arms south of Orleans on the Loire.
Several of Joan’s companions advised her that Les Tourelles should be taken by siege. Joan of Arc argued vehemently that the fort should be taken by storm. After initial siege tactics proved fruitless, on May 7th, Joan of Arc led 2,000 men against Les Tourelles. In the initial phases of the assault, as Joan was climbing a ladder, she was wounded by an arrow that pierced her armor. The English troops swirled in a whirlwind in hope of capturing her, but she was carried away. Rumors of her death hit the lines, swelling English morale and wounding the French.
A short time later, Joan of Arc returned. This broke the stalemate that had developed. The English were taken completely by surprise at her reappearance, and when her banner touched the walls, Joan of Arc led the French into another fierce assault. In the meantime, the French troops in Orleans itself had made some repairs to the drawbridge and were now moving in to assault Les Tourelles from the north. The English were forced back into the towers of the gatehouse, but while he was crossing a drawbridge, William Gladsdale, the commander of the fort, fell into the Loire as the structure collapsed. He and several other high English officers drowned. The towers quickly fell to the French afterward.
With the Loire south of the city entirely under the control of the French, successfully laying siege to Orleans would be impossible. The English withdrew toward their other strongholds in the region.
Sir Edward Creasy, relayed by Joseph B. Mitchell in 20 Decisive Battles of the World, writes:
Joan made her triumphal reentry from Les Tourelles into the city over the bridge that had been so long closed. Every church bell in Orleans rang out; bonfires blazed; and throughout the night the sounds of rejoicing echoed. In the forts and bastilles which the besiegers retained on the northern shore there was despondent gloom. Never in history has morale played a more important part in warfare; never in a single campaign has there been such a sudden and complete reversal of morale. The English, who had been invincible, and knew it, were now sullen and full of helpless rage, while the French, who just ten days before had been desperate and ready to surrender, were now full of confidence, and eager to follow wherever Joan might lead them.
In the ensuing Loire Campaign, Joan of Arc took Jargeau (where she captured Lord Suffolk) and Beaugency. Her forces then crushed the English army at the Battle of Patay, leaving them unable to prevent her from laying siege to and capturing Troyes, Chalons, and finally, Reims, where Charles was formally crowned as Charles VII of France.
It would take some time still for the English to be driven from French soil and the Burgundians tamed, but France was never again in peril from Anglo-Burgundian arms. Henry VI’s claim to the French throne was now little more than a pretension. The ultimate fate of Joan of Arc is of course, well known, but her name is unforgettable. It will live forever. Joan’s lifting of the siege of Orleans was listed as one of the 15 (or 20) most decisive battles of the world for a reason: had the English triumphed, as they seemed destined to do, they would have almost certainly gone on to win the war. The two countries would have then come under the same rulers and from there, we have every reason to believe, the same government. The entire history of the world’s politics, philosophy, art, and economy would have been altered beyond recognition.
The story of Joan of arc is so powerful because it’s one of the most spectacular tales of triumph when the odds seem hopeless. It demonstrates the old Yogiism: “it ain’t over till it’s over.” It shows that you, too, can triumph, if you want it the most. Even if it seems hopeless. Even if you’re told you can’t win. If you haven’t been crushed beyond repair – fight! And if you have, bide your time until you can fight again.
They want you to be a defeated, broken loser, so they can exploit you. Fight them until your last breath. Never let them enjoy any rest.
— Quintus Curtius (@QuintusCurtius) May 6, 2017
The story of Joan of Arc and the siege of Orleans is also telling of the importance of human psychology on macrohistorical affairs. From her appearance to her manner of speaking, Joan of Arc cultivated a charismatic, persuasive character, and many of her “powers” can be explained by the psychological triggers that she handled so powerfully. If you want to add the powers of Joan of Arc to your toolbox, dive into Stumped, which shows you how to pull the same psychological triggers.