Siege of Orléans
The relief of the siege of Orléans by a French army under Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) was the decisive event of the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) between the French and the English. The course of the war had to that point constantly shifted. On October 25, 1415, King Henry V of England defeated the French in the Battle of Agincourt. Five years later French king Charles VI agreed to the Treaty of Troyes whereby his daughter Catherine was to marry Henry V. Charles VI also repudiated the dauphin, his son Charles, as illegitimate and acknowledged Henry as his heir. Henry V then campaigned successfully against French forces loyal to the dauphin until his untimely death in August 1422 reopened the matter of succession. The English named Henry’s nine-month-old son as king of France and England. Charles VI died that October, and many French supported his son Charles, the former dauphin, as the rightful king. Charles, however, was weak, degenerate, vacillating, and utterly incapable of leadership.
In these circumstances the regent for the young Henry VI, the Duke of Bedford, allied England with the powerful Duchy of Burgundy and on July 21, 1423, defeated the French at Cravant, establishing English rule over all of France north of the Loire River. On August 17, 1524, Bedford annihilated a French force at Verneuil. In the autumn of 1428 English-Burgundian forces launched an offensive to secure the crossing of the Loire River at Orléans to campaign in Armagnac, the heart of Charles’s territory.
Orléans was a large city and one of the strongest fortresses in France. Three of its four sides were strongly walled and moated, and its southern side rested on the Loire. The city walls were well defended by numerous catapults and 71 large cannon, and stocks of food had been gathered. Jean Dunois, Comte de Longueville, commanded the city’s garrison of about 2,400 soldiers and 3,000 armed citizens.
English troops under the Earl of Salisbury arrived at Orléans on October 12, 1428. Because he had only about 5,000 men, Salisbury was not able to invest Orléans completely. Nonetheless, on October 24 the English seized the fortified bridge across the Loire, although Salisbury was mortally wounded in the attack. In December William Pole, Earl of Suffolk, took over command of siege operations. The English constructed a number of small forts to protect the bridge as well as their encampments.
Although the French in Orléans mounted several forays and were able to secure limited supplies, by early 1429 the situation in the city was desperate, with the defenders close to starvation. Orléans was now the symbol of French resistance and nationalism. Charles was considering flight abroad, but the situation was not as bleak as it appeared. French peasants were rising against the English, and only a leader was lacking.
That person appeared in the young illiterate peasant girl, Jeanne d’Arc. She informed Charles that she had been sent by God to raise the siege of Orléans and to lead him to Reims to be crowned king of France. Charles allowed Jeanne, dressed in full armor, to lead (as chef de guerre) a relief army of up to 4,000 men and a convoy of supplies to Orléans. The Duc d’Alençon had actual command.
Jeanne’s fame quickly spread far and wide, and her faith in her divine mission inspired the French. As the relief force approached Orléans, Jeanne sent a letter to Suffolk demanding surrender. Not surprisingly, he refused. Jeanne then demanded that the army circle around and approach the city from the north. The other leaders agreed; the French army was ferried to the north bank of the Loire and entered the city through a north gate on April 29.
Jeanne urged an attack on the English from the city, assuring the men of God’s protection. On May 1 Jeanne awoke to learn that a French attack against the English at Fort St. Loup had begun without her and was not going well. She rode out in full armor and rallied the attackers, who were then victorious. All the English defenders were killed, while the French lost only two dead. Jeanne then insisted that the soldiers confess their sins and ban all prostitutes from the army and promised the men that they would be victorious in five days. Another appeal to the English to surrender met with derisive shouts.
On May 5 Jeanne led an attack out of the south gate of the city. The French avoided the bridge over the Loire, which the English had captured at the beginning of the siege. The French crossed through shallow water to an island in the middle of the river and from there used a boat bridge to gain the south bank. The French captured the English fort at St. Jean le Blanc and then moved against a large fort at Les Augustins, close to the bridge. The battle was costly to both sides, but Jeanne led a charge that left the French in possession of the fort.
The next day, May 6, Jeanne’s troops assaulted Les Tournelles, the towers at the southern end of the bridge. Jeanne was hit by an arrow and carried from the field, but the wound was not major; by late afternoon she had rejoined the battle. On May 7 a French knight took Jeanne’s banner to lead an attack on the towers. She tried to stop him, but the mere sight of the banner caused the French soldiers to follow it. Jeanne then joined the battle.
Using scaling ladders, the French assaulted the walls, with Jeanne in the thick of the fight. The 400–500 English defenders attempted to flee on the bridge, but it was soon on fire and collapsed. On May 8 the remaining English forces abandoned the siege and departed.
In his official pronouncements Charles took full credit for the victory, but the French people attributed it to Jeanne and flocked to join her. In successive battles, most notably at Patay on June 19, the French routed the English from their Loire strongholds. In July the French took Reims from the Burgundians, and there, on July 16, Charles was anointed king, with Jeanne in attendance in full armor and with banner in hand. The moral effect of this coronation was vast. Given the circumstances, few could doubt that Charles VII was the legitimate ruler of France.
Jeanne called for an immediate advance on Paris. Charles, however, wanted only to return to the Loire. Jeanne’s attempt to capture Paris failed, and Charles signed a truce with the Duke of Burgundy. Charles ordered Jeanne to cease fighting and had her army disbanded. In May 1430 Jeanne was taken prisoner by the Burgundians. When Charles refused to ransom her, Duke Philip of Burgundy sold Jeanne to the English, who put her on trial at Rouen for heresy and sorcery and executed her in May 1431.
Although the Hundred Years’ War continued for another two decades, the relief of the siege of Orléans was the turning point in the long war. Jeanne’s death checked for a time the uprising of French nationality, but peace between France and Burgundy in 1435, Charles VII’s effective advisers (he became known as “Charles the Well-Served”), and military reforms in France that provided for a standing army and infantry militia finally brought the expulsion of the English. The Hundred Years’ War ended with the fall of Bordeaux to the French in 1453.
Gies, Frances. Jean of Arc: The Legend and the Reality. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.
Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years’ War: The English in France, 1337–1453. New York: Atheneum, 1978.
Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years’ War: Trial by Battle. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988.
Warner, Marina. Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism. New York: Knopf, 1981.