Joan of Arc (1412–1431) was formally canonized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on 16 May 1920 by Pope Benedict XV in his bull Divina disponente, which concluded the canonization process that the Sacred Congregation of Rites instigated after a petition in 1869 from the French Catholic hierarchy. Although pro-English clergy had Joan burnt at the stake for heresy in 1431, she was rehabilitated in 1456 after a posthumous retrial. Subsequently, she became a folk saint among French Catholics and soldiers inspired by her story of being commanded by God to fight for France against England. Many French regimes encouraged her cult, and the Third Republic was sympathetic to the canonization petition prior to the 1905 separation of church and state.
As with other saints who were excommunicated or investigated by ecclesiastic courts, Joan was put on trial by an Inquisitorial court. In her case, the court was influenced by the English, who occupied northern France, leading to her execution in the marketplace of Rouen.
When the French retook Rouen in 1449, a series of investigations were launched. Her now-widowed mother Isabelle Romée and Joan’s brothers Jean and Pierre, who were with Joan at the Siege of Orléans, petitioned Pope Nicholas V to reopen her case. The formal appeal was conducted in 1455 by Jean Bréhal, Inquisitor-General of France, under the aegis of Pope Callixtus III. Isabelle addressed the opening session of the appellate trial at Notre Dame with an impassioned plea to clear her daughter’s name. Joan was exonerated on 7 July 1456, with Bréhal’s summary of case evidence describing her as a martyr who had been executed by a court which itself had violated Church law.
The city of Orléans had commemorated her death each year beginning in 1432, and from 1435 onward performed a religious play centred on the lifting of the siege. The play represented her as a divinely-sent saviour guided by angels.
Her canonization was held on 16 May 1920. Over 60,000 people attended the ceremony, including 140 descendants of Joan’s family.
The Maid of Orleans has inspired poetry, prose and music with:
- ‘The Maid of Orléans’ – a 1730 unfinished poem by Voltaire
- ‘The Maid of Orléans’ – an 1801 historical tragedy by Friedrich Schiller
- ‘The Maid of Orléans’ – a 1881 an opera by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky based on Schiller’s play
- ‘Maid of Orléans’ (The Waltz Joan of Arc) – a 1982 single by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), sequel to their earlier single “Joan of Arc”