The trials of Joan of Arc By Carrie Pennington



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The trials of Joan of Arc

By Carrie Pennington

Joan of Arc was put on a series of trials in the year of 1431 by the English. Joan of Arc was a devout catholic peasant girl, born in the French village of Domremy. When she heard, what she thought were the voices of Angels sent by God, she believed and obeyed what they told her to do. She led the French in battle to win back land held under English occupation and helped to crown Charles VII, king in Reves. The English were not happy with the victories Joan helped the French achieve. When she was captured and sold to the English, they put her on trial for heresy. Joan’s trials, presided over by biased or coerced church officials were a travesty and dishonored the ideals of justice. In my first part I will examine how Bishop of Beauvais and his fellow church officials set the stage for Joan to fail in the preliminary trial. In my second part I will focus of the ordinary trial and the trial for relapse. Finally, in my last part I will consider the motives and tactics the English used to manipulate these trials to their favor.


Joan of Arc was tried in an Inquisitorial trial, standard practice for those being tried for heresy. In an Inquisitorial trial the procedure called for a preliminary inquest into the life and character of the accused. The inquest consisted of a collection of background information on the life of the accused. Hearsay and slanderous gossip were often considered fact and used as evidence against the accused. Following the inquest, could be sessions of interrogation of the accused who, would be compelled to give testimony which would then be used against them in the trial.

The inquest was headed by the Bishop of Beauvais, Pierre Cauchon, who would preside over the trials of Joan of Arc. Cauchon was a supporter the Anglo-Burgundian regime. Since Joan was captured in Cauchon’s diocese he had jurisdiction over her trial. However Cauchon’s territory had been lost to the French, so the trial was moved to Rouen. As a general rule, a person accused of heresy is judged by the bishop of their birth place or they would be judged in the diocese where the heresy was committed. This presented a problem for Cauchon. With the trial being moved, he no longer had the jurisdictional right to be the judge in Joan’s trial. The Duke of Bedford put pressure on the diocese chapter of Rouen to grant Cauchon a commission of territory. This effectively allowed the English to side step the jurisdiction rule.

On January 9, 1431, the judicial inquiry into the case against Joan of Arc began in earnest. The investigation in to Joan’s started with a background check ordered by Cauchon. He sent scouts to her village in Domremy and other surrounding villages to collect character statements about Joan. He wanted information on Joan about her life, habits, and virtue. He hoped to find some flaw, anything to disprove the rumors about her that told of her being a fine upstanding and virtuous girl. Cauchon was sorely disappointed when the reports came back. Not one disparaging or defamatory bit of gossip could be found to help his case. The reports all came back saying she was in every respect, the girl she claimed to be. She was devout and pious, always kind and helpful. In fact, according to the reports, up to the time that she left to go on her holy mission, she’d never once disobeyed her parents. It took the word of God in her mind to cause her to disobey. She was the epitome of what a young woman of that time was supposed to be. Cauchon, upon hearing this news was enraged. When one scout said that he saw not one thing about Joan which he would not be proud to see in his sister, Cauchon scream at him and accused the scout of being a traitor.

The reports from the scouts did not dissuade Cauchon from his preconceived decision about Joan’s fate however. He suppressed any evidence that might help Joan, by not putting it in the trial record. Banking on Joan’s reputation among the Burgundians and the English for her evil doings he thought that would be sufficient as evidence to her character. He also sought to capitalize on the information gathered about her childhood activities as they related to her village’s customs. Belief in fairy’s trees and healing waters, not to mention the wise women who used herbs and meditation to aid in healing, were the norm for backward rural areas. The folk religion of the country side was often the key in the fears of the Church and used as evidence against an accused heretic in an Inquisitional trial. Cauchon could claim that she was raised among these beliefs and she must practice witchcraft as a result. How else, he supposed, could she have achieved the victories in battle with out the aid of the evil supernatural.

Cauchon was, in main, in charge of the trials but he was not alone in working the trials. He gathered together a sizable crew of educated church men to assist in the trials. Some of these men believed as Cauchon and were all too eager to serve. While others were too frightened, knowing what might happen to them if they refused to serve or worse speak out against any under handed actions against Joan. Jean d’Estivet, a Cauchon’s good friend would serve as prosecutor he was harsh and cruel, perfect qualities for a prosecutor in this type of trial. Cauchon also requested the Grand Inquisitor, Jean Graverent serve as a judge; to give the trial the prestige Cauchon believed was appropriate for so serious a charge as heresy. Unfortunately for Cauchon, he was previously engaged in another trial so Graverent appointed Jean Le Maitre as his deputy. Le Maitre attended the trial but did so minimally. Actually he only attended at all because he was under threats from the English.

Cauchon’s preparations for his ‘beau proces’, beautiful trial, in the pretrial phase were long and drawn out. While Joan was locked in a dungeon, shackled to the wall Cauchon had begun a series of meetings with his assistants. In these meetings he plotted out the diffamatio, necessary to bring charges against Joan. He read aloud the accusations against Joan he had drawn up from the evidence his fact finding missions provided. He then read the letters from University of Paris, The English, the Inquisition and some of his own. With these letters, Cauchon showed the wide spread concern of Joan’s evil action. By mid February it had finally all come together and he was ready to start the interrogation phase of the pretrial.

The first interrogation session began with Joan being ushered to the court and being seated before all the men Cauchon had assembled to hear her case. She was required to take an oath to speak the truth to any question presented to her. But Joan had taken an oath of her own long ago. There were things to which she had vowed to her self never speak of, namely the revaluations from God and his messengers. She had told only one other person and that was the King of France, Charles VII. She told all assembled as much and that other than that she would speak true. They accepted this for the time being but would return to the question of her oath time and time again. They asked her about her name and family, about her baptism and religious upbringing. When she told them about how her mother had taught her certain Catholic prayers like Our Father and Ave Maria, Cauchon requested her to repeat the Out Father. She said that she wouldn’t do it unless they let her go to confession. Then they cautioned her not to try to escape again and that if she did, she’d be automatically convicted of Heresy. She basically told them to forget it because she had taken no oath agreeing to this and added that she did and continued to wish to escape.

In the sessions from February 21st to March 3rd the participants would continue to convene in public. During this time the deputy Inquisitor Jean Le Maistre attended only one session on February 22nd and would not be present again until March 13th. In these interrogation sessions they would constantly try to trip her up in a lie or contradiction. Joan may have been uneducated and illiterate peasant girl but she was not stupid. She held true and consistent to her claims of hearing the voices and her devotion to God and France. She would often tell them that she was doing God’s commands. At each of these sessions the matter of the oath was brought up in varying fashions.


There were sparing matches over Joan’s cooperation with the oath and a few times Joan took a limited for of the oath again. They repeatedly questioned her about the voices. Jean Beaupere a noted theologian never believed her claims about the voices, even years later after her death when political tides had turned in her favor. He often took a principal lead in questioning her. She was questioned about everything from her past as a child in a rural village where folk customs still exist, trying to evoke an appearance of Joan as a witch to her actions in battles and the fact that she still was wearing men’s clothes. When they asked if she would wear a dress, she told them she would and then she’d leave. That was never going to happen and both sides knew it.

Starting on March 10th, the first of the prison sessions took place in Joan’s prison cell. The prison sessions lasted until March 17th. The head judges and assessors had decided that they would no longer hold public interrogation sessions. The handful of assessors gathered in her cell and conducted the interrogation which would be transcribed and copies of which would be given to those assessors not in attendance. The assessors were to review the transcripts and make their conclusions from it. They were also forbidden to leave Rouen with out permission until the end of the trial.

The questioning resumed and she described her actions outside of Compiegne when she was taken prisoner by the Burgundians. She told them that she was told by the voices, she would be captured. When she was asked if God had forsaken her in letting her be captured she told them that it was God’s will and she had faith that it was right. During the prison sessions they continued to press Joan to reveal what she had told her King. She did not relent. She did give some details about what the voices had told her like when she was thirteen and they told her to vow to stay a virgin, which she did. But in the main she would tell them that the revelations she could not speak about was between her and God, so it was not relevant to the interrogation.

On and on it went they could not seem to trap her in a lie. She did give one warning to Cauchon which she was questions about later. She repeated what she had said which was basically telling him that if he judged her with malice that God would punish him and that she was only warning him as was her duty. Like usual they ignored the meaning behind what she said and dismissed it. They asked Joan if she thought she was in mortal sin for allegedly having a man put to death after one of her battles she said she didn’t think so but if she was it was for God and a priest in confession to decide.

On March 18th the leaders of the interrogation met up at the bishop’s residence at Rouen. The gathered together with the priests, lords, and others involved to discuss the findings of the pretrial queries. They reviewed the records, reports and transcripts. They would continue to meet there, compiling a list of articles of accusations. These masterminds came up with 70 articles of accusation for the indictment against Joan.
On March 26, 1431, at the same residence where the articles were drawn up the lead trial participants once again met up. They decided that they had enough evidence to proceed to the ordinary or regular trial of Joan of Arc. It was there that they decided how the trial would proceed. It was to begin with the reading of all 70 articles by either d’Estivet or another worthy lawyer. Joan was going to be required to answer to all and if she refused to answer to an article, having been warned before hand, it would be considered as and acceptance and the lack of an answer would qualify as a confession. The following day they meet up in the court this time they have Joan with them. They all agree that Joan should, yet again, be made to give the oath but volley back and forth about the degree of severity which would be applied to Joan if she does not take the oath in the manner they wish. Some even call for excommunication, which would mean death if she refused.

Then Jean d’Estivet gives an oath of his own. He swears that the accusations and the trial against Joan come from a place of ‘zeal for the faith’ and not from any bias, hatred or vindictiveness. He tells Joan that all present were educated men, concerned with helping her get back on the path of truth and salvation. And that since she was not educated herself she could choose from anyone present to council her. Joan thanks them but says that she’ll keep her current councilor, God. She accepts their requirement of the oath and says she’ll answer every thing that ‘touches your trial’. She then took the oath by swearing on the Holy Gospels.


Prosecutor Jean d’Estivet began the trial with his Libellus d’Estivet; it sounds much like an opening statement in a modern trial. It starts out with officious flattery of the leaders of the trial and leads on to list the charges against Joan in summary. In it he calls Joan a witch, false prophetess, and basically a bad catholic; a blood thirsty whore who incites wars and in general is a disgrace of a person. He declared that for the crimes which she was charged with, she should be punished and corrected according to the divine church laws. He then states that nothing unnecessary will be addressed and that he reserved the right to add, correct, change and interpret anything else; law and deed. Jean d’Estivet then took on the task to carry out the reading of the 70 articles. Being one of Joan’s harshest judges it seemed like he enjoyed the monotonous job all the more. It took two days to read out the extensive and elaborately detailed articles.

The Articles vary in length and while some are easy to understand, others are so long-winded that even an educated mind has a hard time staying focused. But Joan persevered; she answered all though perhaps not to the satisfaction of the assembled court. In an attempt to trick her into a contradiction they would often have truth mixed in with their accusations. Article 4 stated; where she was from and how long she lived there, who her parents were and then goes on to claim that she learned witchcraft from women of the village and that her grandmother she was taught about visions, spells and fairies. It claims that she was not instructed in the Catholic faith and its basic principals. Joan acknowledged the first part was accurate but as for the witchcraft and fairies she stated that she knew nothing of the sort. She went on to tell them that she was brought up right and when they asked her to recite her creed she told them to ask her confessor, whom she’d said it to.

Joan often referred to previous answers to respond to each article. They were often slight variations of previous articles. This court room fight for her life must have seemed to be endless with all the repetitions. Articles 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 17, 19, 20, 23, 33, and 59 all have to do with Joan being accused of variations of witchcraft; spells, fortune telling, communing with evil spirits, divination, the use of herbs, and black art. In regards to all of these articles, she refers them to earlier statements and or denies it. Articles 1, 3, 30, 38, 61, 62, 66, 67, and 69 all accuse Joan of being a bad Catholic in one way or another. She either put herself above God or didn’t support the clergy or the church it’s self. Again here she will often refer back to earlier testimony. Some of the claims she did out right deny. In articles 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 40 Joan is accused of being a bad woman and Catholic because she wore men’s clothes. The repetition included other accusations having to do with her being blasphemous, idolatrous, wouldn’t swear to tell the truth and lied even when she did swear, she was intent on inciting war and in no less than 19 of the articles her visions come under scrutiny.

Once all of the articles were read and Joan had answered to each in kind, the judges adjourn the trial and the deliberations begin. The collated the trial, the 70 articles and Joan’s answers into a summary of12 articles which the distributed among the assessors. They decided that she her answers she gave to the articles were not good enough to save her. They offered to give her educated men to help her change her answers but she told them that she’d told them all she knew. She told them what ever outcome, it was in God’s hands and she held fast to that. At last Joan is told that she had been found guilty.

According to Church law, once an accused is found guilty they are given the chance to admit the guilt. In doing so a person might save their eternal soul from damnation in the afterlife. In some cases the person might also escape earthly punishment or at lease receive a reduced sentence. In Joan’s case a confession might save her from being burnt at the stake as a heretic but she had no hope of anything better. Around this time during or after Easter, Joan fell ill. She thought maybe it was due to bad fish or that perhaps someone had tried to poison her. She was weak and feared she might die. She asked to be given the Holy Communion and to be buried in holy ground. Cauchon refused and continued to press her to give a confession. Although it was a common practice to torture a confession out of prisoners, it seems that Joan may have escaped this tradition. She continued to refuse admission of guilt.

Cauchon was under pressure from the English to finish the trial and bring the ultimate punishment of death. On May 24, 1431, Cauchon and the others brought Joan to a cemetery. On the ground before her were a stake and a pile of wood. Cauchon told her that if she did not confess that she would be burned at the stake. If she did confess, she would be taken from the English and sent to a Church prison where she would remain for the rest of her life. She would be required to wear women’s clothing and let her hair grow out as a sign of her obedience to the Church. It was a hard decision for Joan to make but life in prison was better than being burned and she would at last be out of English control. At such a prison she would be given the Holy Communion which had been denied to her.

At last Joan relented and she signed a confession called an Abjuration. There were some who questioned if she knew what she was signing. It also appears that there were two Abjuration statements. On which Joan signed and another that the judges put in the record. The statement that Joan signed was very short. It said only that she would hold all that the judges and the church said or pronounced, saying that in all she would obey. This meant that she would wear women’s clothing as a sign of obedience to the Church and that she wouldn’t argue about the voices. In the other statement which was much longer it stated that she had lied about receiving visions and messages from God. As soon as Joan signed the Abjuration, Cauchon had her sent back to the English prison, contradicting what he’d promised.

The English were not pleased with the out come of the trial. Joan was not convicted of being a witch and King Charles had not been discredited. If anything the grace with which she had conducted herself during the exhaustive trials had actually won people over to her cause. It’s not clear what happened to cause Joan to put the men’s clothes back on. There’s some speculation that the English took her dress and left men’s clothes in her cell. Some thought that she wore them again to prevent being raped as the wearing of men’s clothes was a deterrent to sexual assault. In either case, when they came back to check on Joan Monday May 28th they found her attired in men’s clothes again.

For Joan to take up this garb once more, it renounced her abjuration and the penance she had agreed to. The clothes were a symbol of her crime. Later she formally renounced the abjuration. She told them that she only signed it out of fear of the fire. Since this meant that she took back the confession, she effectively signed her death warrant. By taking back her confession she is seen as willfully going against the Church. Cauchon stood before her in the cell and said that on the previous Thursday she had admitted that she’d lied about the voices. That she’d lied when she claimed they were angels. She told them that she did not mean to do and say as much and she did not mean to revoke the voices. She said that she’d never done anything against God or against the faith. Cauchon left the cell triumphant, because he finally had the justification he needed to burn her as a heretic.

The trial for her relapse was so short it’s hard to consider it a trial. It lasted less than two days. Joan was already convicted, the moment she recanted. On Tuesday May 29th, the judges reviewed her previous statements and reminded the assessors about what had happened on the last Thursday. The lamented how once she had renounced her errors and signed the Abjuration only to recant three short days later. It seemed before she had truly given up her wicked ways and they cautioned her to be careful not to relapse.

On Wednesday May 30, 1431, Joan is summoned before them to hear her sentence; she is to be executed by being burnt at the stake. Later that morning 800 English soldiers armed with axes and swords lined the route from her prison to the market place where the pyre had been set up. Joan is taken in a wooden cart to the pyre and taken up to it where Cauchon and others await her. Cauchon reads her sentence out loud for the crowd, who came to watch Joan burn, to hear. He announces that she is a relapsed heretic and for this she is to be burned. The English were too impatient to wait for normal protocol and had already started the fire. They don’t wait for the procedures to be completed before their solders pull Joan directly to the pyre.

The funeral pyre was constructed so that it would take a long time to burn her. They knew how to construct pyres so that a victim would be burned quickly. They knew too how to build it so that one could be overcome by smoke inhalation but Joan was not afforded this kindness. Because she had made a confession and then revoked it a cruel death was the only fitting punishment in such a case as far as the English and Cauchon was concerned.

The English wanted Joan dead the moment they realized what a threat she presented to their cause. They like all parties involved in a war believed that God was on their side, that they were the good guys. They couldn’t abide the actions of this peasant girl in men’s clothes. That she won victories for the French was enough but the fact that she claimed it was God telling her to do so was too much. The English had lost not only pride but the French soil they’d previously gained. They wanted to take back the control they’d lost while Joan had led the battles, starting with the seizing of Louviers but were afraid to do so while Joan was alive. She was too much a symbol and rallying point of the French. They simply had to find a way to get rid of this girl. If the English losses could be attributed to witchcraft however, they would have a sound reason for their losses. If they could get their hands on Joan they could prove that she’s a witch and she’d have to stand trial for heresy.

It’s clear that Cauchon was biased against Joan. He had risen to fame earlier for his support of the English and he was well paid for his help in drafting the Treat of Troyes, that gave the French crown to the them. He had a personal grudge against Joan and King Charles. He blamed them both for forcing him to leave Beauvais and taking over his dioceses. Once Joan was captured, he immediately started to negotiate on behalf of the English, to buy Joan. He thought himself the best one to run the trial, prove Joan a heretic and discredit Charles in the process. In running the trial in Rouen, he hoped to attain the recently vacated position, Arch bishop of Rouen. Though he was greedy and narcissistic, he was also a well an educated man who aimed to become a cardinal in the Catholic Church. He saw the trial of Joan of Arc and delivering the desired verdict to the English, as a stepping stone in attaining his goals.

Joan was never given a chance to bring witnesses of her own or event to speak at length in her own defense. She was given no lawyer and any one who was kind enough to offer council to her was quickly threatened with prison, beating, exile, or worse. According to the trial record that the English wrote, she was at times offered council from one of the assembled educated men. But this may have been another example of how they pampered the records to show the English in a better light. Even if this were true, she would be receiving council from and opposing side.
Cauchon often sent spies to watch her and listen for anything that could be used against her. They would sometimes act like a friend to gain her confidence. Sometimes they would come at her harshly to see how she would react. In her prison cell there was a little hole in the wall which Cauchon had posted a spy to sit at and watch her at all times. He hoped that since the other spy tactics produced nothing of use, that she might slip up when she thought no one was watching. This was to no avail; Joan was unwavering in her actions and her words.

Normal procedure for this trial was thrown out the window. In an ordinary Inquisitional trial the Articles would be read at the start of the pretrial and used as a basis for further questioning. In Joan’s case they questioned her first and then formed the Articles of accusation. Though they may have had them prepared before hand it is unlikely considering the reason Joan gave for why she was not sure about swearing the Oath at the start of the inquest. She said she was not sure what they meant to ask her and she was concerned they might ask her things which she could not talk about. The fact that Joan was examined numerous times by women overseen by the English Duchess of Bedford and was proven to be a virgin was of little help to her. Cauchon kept this suppressed from the record. Both he and his buddy the prosecutor d’Estivet repeatedly called her names and inferred that she was a whore and a witch. They had to ignore the proof of her virginity in order to proceed with the mockery of trial. It was commonly accepted that a virgin could not be a witch nor could she be possessed by the devil.



Another tactic the English used to ensure their desired outcome was the use of intimidation and coercion over the assessors or any one connected with the trial. Decades later during the postmortem appeal, information surfaced about these tactics. Many assessors of the trials felt safe enough by then to reveal their personal experiences. The common thread of the depositions were that someone was overheard making a disparaging remark about the trial and he would be threatened with beatings. Often the threat was more sever and their livelihood or their position in the church would be in jeopardy. If someone was bold enough to stand up and refuse to serve in the corrupt trial it was safer to flee in a self imposed exile rather than face the wrath of those in power. Even if an assessor was seen to show sympathy or kindness to Joan during the trial they could find themselves in a similar position as Joan. It was well know that if one displeased the powers that be, one would face imprisonment, exile or death.
The constant threat of imprisonment, bodily harm or even death of any unwilling participants, was a dark cloud over the trial of Joan of Arc. It was so pervasive that disposed good and decent men to ignore their consciences and go along with the abuses of her trial; the rampant suppression of evidence and out right fraud being placed in the records, the withholding of the usual ecclesiastic rights and the blatant deviation of standard trial procedure. If not for this threat enforced by the biased or greedy, lap dogs of the English running the show, perhaps Joan’s trial might have had a different outcome.





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