Friday 6 July 2012

Did Joan of Arc hear the voice of God? – Katherine Roberts

When Mary Hoffman asked us to pick a favourite historical character for the History Girls’ birthday month, two famous characters immediately charged out of time on their warhorses yelling “ME, PICK ME!” (They both rode horses, of course - that's one of the things I love about history.)

My first candidate was Alexander the Great. Six years ago I wrote my most historical novel so far, telling his story through the eyes of his famous black stallion Bucephalas in I am the Great Horse. The other was Joan of Arc, who has not yet appeared in a novel of mine, but who has a surprising amount in common with the young heroine of my new children’s series… and since this is a History Girls blog, and I’m writing about a sword-wielding maiden at the moment, Joan's hired. (Sorry, Alexander... you're fired. Always wanted to say that!)

So, without further ado, let’s meet Joan… or Jeanne, to use her native French name. And lest you think I am being horribly unpatriotic in this Jubilee year, I happen to believe Joan/Jeanne’s nationality is not really important to her story. Yes, I know she fought to defend her homeland against the English invaders... that’s historical fact and it casts us in the UK as the baddies, and I suppose if you're just looking at the historical plot then that's true. But to me history is all about the characters. So my chosen heroine being French and fighting the English doesn’t really matter to her story, since the war between the French and the English is just a dramatic backdrop that helped make her who she was.

Joan of Arc was born in the small French town of Domremy in 1412. Believing she heard the voice of God calling her to help her king in his war against the English, she left her childhood home to meet Charles VII, who was afraid to take up his crown. She persuaded him to give her a horse and armour, and then led his army of 5,000 men to a famous victory against the English at Orleans. In battle, Jeanne carried an ancient sword she found in the tomb of a saint and a white banner embroidered with lilies, which she used to give courage to the soldiers and the besieged townspeople. Following several more victories over the English, she attended King Charles’ coronation at Rheims, after which she wanted to return home. But the king, eager for France to be entirely free of the English, persuaded Jeanne to fight one last battle against the Duke of Burgundy, who took her prisoner and sold her to the English. Because she refused to deny her “voices” (which they claimed came from the devil, not God) she stood trial for witchcraft, and was eventually burned at the stake in Rouen. Taking pity on her, a solider lifted a crucifix through the flames to her lips, and so she died a martyr. In 1920, Joan of Arc was made a saint.

All brilliant material for the historical novelist, of course, and my unicorn tells me at least one History Girl is writing a book about Joan of Arc even as I write this blog (now that’s got you all guessing, hasn't it...?!) I'm eagerly awaiting that book. But in the meantime, for today only on this blog, she's all mine and so I'd like to tell you why Jeanne's story resonates with me on a spiritual level.

Joan of Arc was born in a backwater, an innocent, believing she could change the course of history - and she was brave enough to do it. Did she hear the voice of God, as she claimed? Or was it simply her own voice, telling her to do this thing in the way voices speak sometimes on the edge of dreams? Whatever voice Jeanne heard, she obviously believed in it deeply enough to put herself in personal danger - and, more importantly, she believed that voice was urging her to do good. Therefore, in Jeanne's eyes, it must be the voice of God, because that was what she had been brought up to believe.

I see this kind of blind faith as being more important than any fact, historical or otherwise. Without it, no author would ever embark on the long and perilous journey of writing a book. No publisher would ever publish an author’s words in the hope someone out there might want to buy them. No bank would ever make a loan… oh, wait a minute, they're not at the moment are they?! But so often in life it’s faith and belief – the things you cannot measure – that win wars, whether they're obvious battles of the kind fought by Joan of Arc and Alexander the Great, profits in a bank, or smaller battles fought on more personal ground.

The King of France could count his soldiers. He probably had spies in the enemy camp so he knew the odds against him and could plan his tactics, maybe even estimate how many men would die in the coming battle. But he could not measure the effect of a single maid on a white horse carrying a lily-flower banner... the effect she had on men’s minds, both on the French army at her back, and on the invading English who watched her approach with bemusement. Jeanne was undoubtedly brave, but bravery alone would not have been enough to do what she did. Would an equally brave young man riding a horse with a sword in his hand have had the same effect, without the same innocence and faith and vulnerability? Jeanne had the magic ingredient that everyone claims to be looking for, but actually I think most people are scared of - precisely because it cannot be controlled or measured.

I may never write my novel about Joan of Arc - after I am the Great Horse's rocky road to publication, I have been rather put off writing another historical novel for a children's publisher. Anyway, there have been children's books written about Jeanne already (if you have a young reader in the family, they might like to try Michael Morpurgo's recently reissued Sparrow.) But because Jeanne's story speaks to me, and she's all mine for today, here’s a little poem I wrote about her with the help of my unicorn muse:

A voice whispers my name on the wind
I hear you, Lord, I hear!
My home is invaded by men who have sinned
I am here, my lord, I am here!
Orleans is under enemy attack
I hear you, Lord, I hear!
Our soldiers have courage, it’s faith they lack
I am here, my lord, I am here!
Where a maid does lead, the enemy will yield
I hear you, Lord, I hear!
With saintly sword and a lily-flower shield
I am here, my lord, I am here!
After the battle our king will be crowned
I hear you, Lord, I hear!
And victory carried to every town.
I am here, my lord, I am here!

The Duke of Burgundy knocks at our gate
I can't hear, Lord, I can't hear!
To please my king I must ride to my fate.
You're not here, my lord, you're not here!
Why do my people betray me for gold?
I can’t hear, Lord, I can’t hear!
And deliver me into the enemy hold?
You're not here, my lord, you're not here!
Accused of witchcraft and bound on a pyre
I can’t hear, Lord, I can’t hear!
They will burn me in their hottest fire.
You're not here, my lord, You're not here!

A soldier offers me his crucifix
I hear you, Lord, I hear!
I will die with Jesus’ name on my lips.
I am here, oh Lord, I am HERE!

For me, Joan of Arc is so much more than a character from history. She’s a symbol of what it is to be a woman carrying a banner of faith and self-belief through a man's world. I  hope the History Girls (and Joan herself) will forgive me for borrowing a little bit of her story for my current heroine Rhianna Pendragon. Because no matter which army stands at the gate, a warrior maid on a white horse with a sword shining in her hand will always seek to find a way through...

Katherine Roberts is a children’s author.

Sword of Light, the first book in her Pendragon Legacy quartet about King Arthur’s daughter Rhianna Pendragon on a quest to bring her father back from the dead, has been chosen for this year’s Summer Reading Challenge in UK libraries.

Book 2 Lance of Truth publishes in October.

Meanwhile, you can find out much more about the series and Katherine's other books at


adele said...

Super post! I have a soft spot for of the highlights of my school career was playing de Stogumber in Shaw's St. Joan. Have been interested in her and that time ever since. Thanks!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yay! A FEMALE hero! I love it and the poem.

BTW, have you ever read Mark Twain's Joan of Arc? I haven't, but he once claimed it was the best book he ever wrote. Howeve, I suspect that was because his wife and daughter twisted his arm to say that...

Susan Price said...

Loved the post, Kath - but whenever I read about Joan, I start seeing the political machinations of men behind her story... Did she fulfill a prophecy by any chance? Who started that 'age-old' prophecy on its rounds? And the miraculous sword that just turned up, pat...
I can't help thinking that some very clever men used a peasant girl.
It's also depressing that a lot of her glamour - though it was certainly effective - came from her being a virgin. The English, to destroy it, simply called her a whore. (Her story survived, of course, but that was later.)
Sorry if I seem a bit trollish. However you interprete her story, she is fascinating, and I really enjoyed the post.

Katherine Roberts said...

Maybe the men thought they were using Jeanne... and once they saw the effect she was having, they obviously did so, forcing her to continue against her instincts towards the end... but that does not in any way take away from the fact that Jeanne herself had an unwavering belief in her "voices" and her higher purpose. So maybe she was an innocent and suffered for it at the hands of men, but she still had - has - the real power.

Do you remember much about the men in her story, however rich and powerful they became? I don't... I remember Joan of Arc!

Mary Hoffman said...

Fantastic post, Katherine! I have sung in Honegger's piece Joan of Arc at the stake. It was semi-staged and I had to wear a sheep's head!

And Yvonne Loriod played the Ondes Martenot. Magic.

Pauline Chandler said...

Love this piece and completely agree with your choice of Joan of Arc, Katherine! My YA novel 'Warrior Girl' (OUP and Harper Collins - Greenwillow US 2005)tells Joan's story.I was awarded an Arts council grant to complete the book and used it to fund a fabulous research trip to Lorraine, where I spent time in Domremy, in the house where Joan was born and the church next door, where she worshipped. Unforgettable. For all the nitty gritty, the best biographies are still Edwin Lucie Smith's Penguin classic and the one written by Vita Sackville-West. I'm in the process of re-publishing Warrior Girl on Kindle. It should be ready at the end of July. More info a pics on

Katherine Roberts said...

Very good to hear about the reissue of your Warrior Girl, Pauline - I felt sure Morpurgo's could not be the only Joan of Arc book written for young readers!
I'll look out for yours on Kindle.

Anybody else out there written a book/novel/children's story about Joan of Arc? I'd love to know about it!

And since Adele and Mary have acted and sung in the Joan of Arc story, we might even be able to stage our own History Girls production one day...

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

And a fabulous book it is too, Pauline. I thoroughly recommend it to everyone!
Thanks for the post, Katherine.

Anonymous said...

I never get tired of reading people's comments about Jehanne d'Arc. What does surprise me is how much they get wrong about me. Yes, I was her in a past life. Interesting when you see hundreds of ststues dedicated to you, and see only one (one!) that actually looks like you. Lol!!! Go figure.

I'll tell you who I talked to, Michael!! He told me what to do, all I did was obey. It was pure logic, in my case. I was not very educated at the time, being basically a homebody, trained to do 'female' jobs. So doing as he said just made sense. Right?

I had lots of help. And then history rewrote what happened, mostly because the English needed to cover their arses, collectively. I'll tell you this, they killed me because the Vatican wanted my sword. Yes, it is a very special sword, a great one in fact, the 'sister sword' to Excalibur. That's what I'm told.

They questioned me for months, tortured me, and abused me. All because they wanted that sword. Only I knew they were going to capture me, so I gave it back to Michael. He took it to the ship, where it is safe. The Vatican has no chance of getting their hands on it there.

One other point. I was not burnt at the stake, just my body was. Michael removed me from my body when I passed out from breathing too much smoke. My body burned, not me.

How can I say all this stuff? Because it's the truth. I've got the sword. It is proof that I was her.

In another past life, I was also Catherine the Great.


Katherine Roberts said...

Thank you Tianca... interesting! I have no trouble believing that the English burned Jeanne/you because they wanted her sword - I'm actually writing a series about King Arthur's daughter at the moment, so I know all about the lengths people will go to to get their hands on powerful swords.

As for whether Jeanne heard God, or (the Angel?) Michael... or even the Devil as the English claimed, who can say? She heard voices, though, didn't she? That's part of her story.

How many past lives have you had?

Anonymous said...

Oh, although you are english, respect Joan of Arc. wasn't she your ancestor's enemy? of course, just kidding.
I am an amateur internet novelist in Korea, writes a novel about her. (in fact, it is just avocation.)

I think she didn't hate English itself.
According to a biography about her, she comforts wounded english prisoners. that is why she can be a saint.
Although Shakespeare and Margaret Murray thoughts her as a witch or an evil girl, but may the view is thrown out now even in english, right?
I have an english friend, she love Joan of Arc more than the French do.

May I ask you a question?
When her canonization, wasn't there dissent? for example, the devil's advocate claims her faults.....(have she any faults in moral?)

I'll be looking forward to your reply.

Melly said...

This was an excellent post and I loved the poem!

To the person claiming to be Joan of Arc in another life- what a bunch of malarky! Joan of Arc was a true saint. Even if there was such a thing as reincarnation, she died a martyr and would not have come back. I think it very interesting how whenever someone claims to have been reincarnated, that they were also someone or several someones who were famous.