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Joan of Arc

Execution

Imprisonment and Trial

Study Questions

Summary

On May 24, 1431, Joan's sentence was read. After her trial at the ecclesiastic hands of the Bishop Pierre Cauchon, Joan was to be turned over to the secular power of the Burgundians and English. Joan begged for an appeal to Pope, but her judges refused. Afraid of what would happen to her in English and Burgundian hands, Joan relented and signed an abjuration in which she admitted her crimes. This infuriated the English. Joan had foiled their plan by admitting her guilt, so now she would remain under ecclesiastical authority and not be killed. The English desperately wanted her dead and did not know what to do. Joan, however, did not stand by her abjuration long: after signing the document, Joan was returned to prison to remain there indefinitely; in prison, Joan said she was visited by her voices, condemning her capitulation. Joan now said her abjuration was a mistake, that she had not meant it. (After signing her abjuration, Joan put a cross next to her name [the signature still survives]. Some hypothesize that this was a signal that she did not seriously mean what she signed.) The Church judges called this a "relapse," and on May 29 they handed her over to the secular authorities that she so feared.

When Joan learned of the method of her execution, she was distraught, telling her jailers that she would much rather be beheaded than burned, but no one was listening. Before her death, a guard of English soldiers, who laughed at her as she made her frantic, last minute prayers, surrounded the weeping Joan. One English soldier took pity on the nineteen-year-old girl and handed her a hastily made wooden cross moments before she was tied to the stake. She kissed it and put it into her bosom. During her burning, a Dominican friar consoled her by holding up a crucifix for her to gaze upon as she died. Even as she was burned, Joan did not recant. To the end, she continued to claim that the voices she had heard all her life were divine in nature. She called on her three favorite saints for help as she burned. Right before she lost consciousness, she yelled out: "Jesus!"

Commentary

Although most of the authorities involved in Joan's case seemed more politically than religiously motivated, Bishop Pierre Cauchon did display a concern for Joan's soul. For all his cruelty to Joan, he did allow her to make confession and receive communion after the abjuration and even after the relapse, and he spent considerable effort trying to get her to admit that she made up the voices that she heard. It seems that unlike the conniving English and Burgundian leaders, Cauchon genuinely believed Joan to be guilty of heresy and her soul to be in danger.

In later years, as Joan's legend grew, the executioner would claim that Joan's heart had resisted the flames, and had been found intact among the ashes. The same executioner was said to have confessed to his friends and family that he feared he was eternally damned for burning a holy woman. Even in death, Joan continued to maintain a powerful hold over people's imaginations. In 1450, Charles VII came to Rouen and demanded an investigation into Joan's tragic execution, resulting in the immense amount of source material now available on Joan's life and death. Later, Pope Calixtus III annulled Cauchon's 1431 verdict declaring Joan a heretic, and on May 16, 1920, Pope Benedict XV made Joan of Arc a saint. In June of that year, the French Parliament declared a national holiday in Joan's honor.

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