The Secret History of Joan of Arc

Such a seductive title ‘The Maid and the Queen’ – The Secret History of Joan of Arc and it is indeed an intriguing story, wrapped in faith, hope, superstition, manipulation, cruelty and ultimately the exoneration and beatification of a heroine (Joan of Arc was canonised in 1920).

 Joan of Arc is testimony to the transcendence of the human spirit….She remains an inspiration, not only to the citizens of France, but to oppressed people everywhere.

Ironically, it is due to the inquisition of Joan of Arc that much of the history of the era was documented and preserved, her testimony and the numerous depositions from the many eyewitnesses who knew her and who were in some way involved in the events of the Hundred Years war, that period of conflict between the Kingdoms of England and France and various other alliances from 1337 to 1453, as each sought to claim control of the French throne.

One of the insights that astounded me was the prolific negotiation of the female offspring of nobility to secure territorial alliances or peace between the realms. Daughters were auctioned off as young as 4 years, though depending on how power shifted and who survived into adulthood, those promises could alter.

Nancy Goldstone’s thoroughly researched oeuvre, takes a step back to look at the events, beliefs and susceptibilities of characters leading up the prominence of Joan of Arc, none more so than Charles VII, Yolande of Aragon’s (Queen of Sicily) son-in-law and the man who as a sensitive 11-year-old boy, she had taken into her home, nurturing and caring for him as her own, at a time when he was not destined for the throne (he had two older brothers). His propulsion into the role of King while the English were making inroads into the territory, King Henry having proclaimed himself King of England and France, and his reluctance to engage in battle, were significant risks to the Kingdom of France that required intervention.

Drawing inspiration from ‘The Story of Melusine’, commissioned in 1393 and written by Jean d’Arras (when Yolande was 12-years-old) a propaganda devised to address the political controversy surrounding the Duke of Berry’s appropriation of an ancient and imposing castle belonging to the aristocrat Lusignan family, Yolande of Aragon was able to usher Joan into an audience with the young King.

To Yolande of Aragon, the parallels to the story line of Melusine were obvious… there was just one element missing to turn this fiction into reality. The Queen of Sicily actively sought a Melusine as part of her strategy for reinstating the dauphin as the legitimate heir to the French throne.

That Joan was effectively recruited, is reinforced by a French historian who reported that in 1428 alone, twenty people, mostly women, claimed to have been chosen by God to deliver a message to the King. None of them were given the opportunity unique to Joan, whose faith and convictions aligned with what Yolande wanted to hear and would result in her leading an army to relinquish the city of Orleans. By speaking passionately to Charles inner most fears, in particular an obsession with his possible illegitimacy and by her knowledge of ‘his secret prayer’ to God which he cried out in his sleep, Joan materialised as a sign and a saviour.

Gentle dauphin, I am Joan the Maid, and the King of Heaven commands that through me you be anointed and crowned in the city of Reims as a lieutenant of the King of Heaven, who is King of France.

Having succeeded in turning the English back, Joan was eventually captured and no longer considered useful by her King or sponsor, was sold to the English who sought vengeance, and submitted her to a long inquisition hoping to rid themselves of her and the fervent following she inspired among the people. Though their interrogations were inconclusive, and their hopes to condemn her destroyed by a signed recantation, she was tricked into heresy and sentenced to be executed.

I found the book full of interesting facts and connected events surrounding Joan herself, but I admit it was not an easy read and slow going at times –perhaps by necessity– to comprehend all the characters, families, alliances and influences. I did find myself wishing at times that the author might have used more creative tools to inhabit the emotional life of some of the characters, something that makes reading well-researched historical fiction a real pleasure and certainly adds pace.

But for a factual account of how The Maid came to represent a significant turning point in France’s history, I can think of none better.

If it is accepted, as it is often said, that without Joan of Arc there would be no France, it is also true that without Yolande of Aragon, there would have been no Joan.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.


27 thoughts on “The Secret History of Joan of Arc

  1. This book is a historical record of some personages I would tend to overlook. I know little about women’s contributions to French history. Perhaps this book would be a good start!


  2. History is a passion of mine and to find a non-fiction historical read that sounds enticing is not always easy. As we are often reminded, fact can be stranger than fiction and it seems to me this book will attest to that. I want to read it! Thanks for the comprehensive review.


    • Yes and fiction often follows or is inspired by fact, but here we have reality aping the fiction of ‘The Story of Mesuline’ which was in turn written to change people’s perception of a reality. Nothing is ever as it seems.


  3. I find her to be a compelling person in history, and managed to work Jeanne d’Arc into my novel, not as a character, but by use of her sainted name. 🙂


    • Yes, she is one of the first inspirational women and perhaps rare in that she lead men into battle, though lead by the word of her God and not by ambitions of power or greed. We need more historic women figures celebrated.


  4. You had me interested until you said it was slow going at times. I prefer reading historical novels when the writing pulls me into the thick of the past along whomever the story is written about .. I’ve always been curious about Joan (not idea why) but my reading about her is limited. I always appreciate your honesty about the books you’ve read and reviewed.


    • Thanks Brenda, yes, Joan of Arc is an interesting character, unique in that she was illiterate (though very well spoken) and from a humble background, yet made such advances on behalf of royalty and for her country, so a real role model to all humanity. I would love to read a book that really embraces her as a character and Yolande of Aragon and her daughter (who is curiously absent from this text), so while we receive all the necessary facts, the book doesn’t take us on an emotional journey, which I realise I do prefer and find more engaging, such as the extremely well researched trilogy of Josephine Bonaparte’s life which is very much based on fact, but creative licence has been taken (with great success) to delve into her emotional life. A dilemna I guess of writing non-fiction.


  5. I’m not a fan of historical novels, unless they are romanced a bit. Although having read your very well written post I’m intrigued and might be putting this book on on my TBR list. Now that I think I really don’t know much about Joan of Arc. thanks for this post. I’m so jealous how quickly you read. I wish I didn’t have so much teaching and course planning to do. Summer is around the corner and I have my summer reading list almost already lined up. 🙂


  6. Pingback: “testimony to the transcendence of the human spirit” | The Passionate Bibliophile

  7. Two of my favorite things put together, reading and history. Thanks for your review. The books sounds absolutely fascinating and Joan of Arc is one of my favorite historical women (along side Eleanor of Aquitaine and Elizabeth I ) . This book is now check marked on my list 🙂


    • I’m glad you liked the review, I do think this book uncovers much that isn’t written about in the history books about the influences that created the opportunity for her to come in and lead them towards victory. This focuses much less on battle strategy and more on female intuition and strategy.


  8. Claire, I’m going to add to the mix and say we need more stories about women in history! My mother told Joan of Arc’s story to my sister and me when we were children. I was always fascinated and horrified when I heard it. When I got older, of course, I was truly able to appreciated Joan’s sacrifice. This sounds like a very interesting read! 🙂


    • Thanks, it was a bit of a revelation to me as well, but it doesn’t surprise me that there were women strategists even in the 1400’s influencing history and events. It is wonderful to know that documentation still exists that tells the story and that authors like Nancy Goldstone are willing to put in the hard work and research to extract and condense it for us.


  9. A conicse and indepth review, piquing my interest in the Joan of Arc story I knew from childhood. I love historical novels and it is always good to read and know more about these heroines who shaped the world in more way than one. Thanks for sharing and for the likes on my blog


  10. I’ve always been fascinated by Joan of Arc, and am constantly on the lookout for new books about her – this sounds excellent. By the way, thank you for the likes on my blog posts. I look forward to reading more of yours!


  11. Pingback: A Letter to her Sister « Word by Word

  12. Reblogged this on Star in the Stone and commented:
    “If it is accepted, as it is often said, that without Joan of Arc there would be no France, it is also true that without Yolande of Aragon, there would have been no Joan.”

    This historical point was also stressed in the movie about Joan d’Arc, “The Messenger”.


  13. Since reading your book review, I have always been on the lookout for items about Joan of Arc. I just had to post this one for you. Winston Churchill famously reamarked about Charles de Gaulle: “he thinks he is Joan of Arc but I cannot get my bloody bishops to burn him.”


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