At school I have learned that the English had upper hand in the war until Joan of Arc convinced the French king to give an army under her command to besiege Orléans and since then, the French forced their enemies to withdraw up to Calais.

How did an illiterate girl with no military experience do that according to the modern point of view? What is her significance?

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    H:SE is about history. Personal beliefs about "immature illiterate girls" are not a valid historiographic perspective.
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 11:50

9 Answers 9


Joan of Arc

Or rather, God. Before her arrival on the scene, it had appeared to English and French alike that God was on England's side. Her contribution to the lifting of the siege of Orleans gave some hope to the Dauphinist cause, and for a while, a belief that God was on their side. The emphatic victory at Patay and the coronation of Charles VII further enhanced this view. Desmond Seward wrote that:

It is impossible to know whether Joan's inspiration was restricted to a small circle of court soldiers or if - as today's social romantics would like to think - she spoke to the rank and file as one peasant to another. What is undeniable is that for a few months many Frenchmen thought they were fighting a holy war, and the English went in terror of the Maid and her sorceries.


The coronation of Charles VII, as we must now call him, did wonders for Dauphinist morale; according to Monstrelet, a Burgundian: 'The French believed that God was against the English.'

While she raised French spirits and that in turn slowed the English advance, she didn't immediately turn fortunes towards the French. After her capture and execution in 1431, many of the gains made in her time were reversed, allowing Henry VI to be crowned at Paris.


The power struggle between the Burgundians and Armagnacs had weakened France internally for much of the early 15th century. Their rivalry was what allowed Henry V to make sweeping gains on his second campaign. Burgundy was also important to England in terms of the military support that it could provide. A number of things tested the alliance over the years. Anne, sister of the Duke of Burgundy and wife of the English regent Duke of Bedford, played a major role in holding the alliance together through her relationships with its two leading men, so her death in 1432 was a blow to the alliance, further aggravated by Bedford's subsequent remarriage, which riled Burgundy both for its speed and because he had not been consulted given the new wife was his vassal. Also, as with any ally, Burgundy expected to be paid for his deeds and he wrote to complain after the failed siege of Compiègne when his payments had been two months in arrears and he had had to bear the cost of his artillery when English payments had not been forthcoming.

Over time, Burgundy edged away from England and towards a reconciliation with Charles VII. In 1431, he announced a 6 year truce. In 1435, around the time of Bedford's death, he made peace with Charles VII in the Treaty of Arras. Losing Burgundian manpower and freeing up French forces previously arrayed against Burgundy made the task of the English significantly more difficult. They had also owed much of their support in some of their occupied territory to Burgundian influence and once Burgundy switched allegiances, the people of these regions did too. In 1436, Paris, under Burgundian influence, opened its gates to the troops of Charles VII.


According to Seward, areas controlled by the Armagnacs could command three to five times the amount in taxation as English-occupied France, though it wasn't effectively marshalled due to lax collection and embezzlement. The essential difference was due to the different levels of devastation in these areas. The people of England were also beginning to tire of the war that they were continually being asked to fund and economic circumstances also led to a decrease in tax revenue. In 1433, Bedford's investigation of the finances showed an overall debt amounting to almost 3 years worth of revenue. In spite of his success and popularity, he was unable to procure extra taxes. Seward wrote that:

The agricultural depression and a decline in overseas trade had lessened the yield from taxation, and diminished revenues were a far greater threat to the Lancastrian dual monarchy than any Joan of Arc.

As a result, England struggle to pay its men and its allies. Some soldiers returned home early, leaving important strongholds understaffed. Others turned to brigandage, diminishing local support for the English cause. The shortage of money also meant that it was difficult to fund armies to recapture places lost to the French. Also, since Cardinal Beaufort was both a significant political player and a primary source of funding for campaigns, it meant that funding was sometimes given to causes that were more political than military in nature. This was why in 1443, Beaufort's nephew the Earl of Somerset was allowed to embark on an indulgent and futile expedition independent of the Lieutenant-General Duke of York's command and against his advice that the money could be better spent.

Popular support

While there had been popular local support for the English while they were steamrolling the French, that gradually dissipated due to a combination of factors. One was the gradual withdrawal of Burgundian support. Weather problems led to a greatly reduced crop yield and food shortages, exacerbated by Armagnac raids that prevented supplies from being delivered, thus leaving many unhappy with their English rulers. Many in Paris were also upset with the parsimony of Henry VI's coronation. English deserters took to brigandage as they were left unpaid by their army. Some, such as Richard Venables, banded together with other deserters, setting themselves up in fortresses and terrorising neighbouring villages. The loss of popular support was significant in that it made towns and cities difficult to hold. A Norman revolt in 1436 threatened the security of Rouen and ultimately had to be put down by force. Paris itself was to fall when the citizens changed sides.

England held the ascendancy for a long time in France because it had two very capable leaders in Henry V and the Duke of Bedford at a time when France was wracked by internal strife. But a successful occupation required a lot of factors to continue in their favour. Whatever England's successes on the battlefield, the Burgundian alliance, French disunity and particularly the English financial situation could not have been expected to hold forever.


  • The Hundred Years War, Desmond Seward
  • Conquest, Juliet Barker

There were many reasons the English lost the 100 year's war, with Joan of Arc being one of them. The chief factor for their success upto the 1430's was Burgundy's involvement in the war. Burgundy at that time was a massive duchy under the court in Dijon and tied down a significant portion of French troops. When Burgundy switched sides, the war went decisively against England's favour.

A second important issue is the increasing adoption of Full Plate and Gothic Plate armor by the French nobility. These evolutions in armor made the knight impervious to Longbows, which were instrumental to the successes at Crecy (where modern tests using a piece of partial plate from the battlefield and a 100lb draw machine successfully shot clean through the plate - I have unfortunately lost the link to this, but it was a discovery channel or history channel program IIRC). As English armies at the time are composed mainly of longbowmen, this increasingly negates their effectiveness (it should be noted that Agincourt was won by LongbowMEN, not Longbows).

Lastly, the completely demoralized French needed a big rally after Agincourt. Orleans and Joan of Arc provided that.

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    +1. I'm especially intrigued about the armor part - it sounds sensible but a proper reference would be nice... Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 20:37
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    I question that any armor was impervious to longbows, ever. France won by no longer bashing its forces against prepared positions held by longbowmen. England could not hold every town and city once France quit messing up. Remember, between Crecy and Agincourt France nearly ejected the English from the country as well.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 1:13
  • @Oldcat: You mean under Bertand du Guesclin? history.stackexchange.com/questions/11125/…
    – Tom Au
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 23:20
  • Yes, like Joan, once he started a 'small war' of taking the ground and harrying the English, they wilted rapidly. The English longbow forces needed perfect conditions to win that the enemy has no need to provide.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 23:30

Jean d'Arc understood the strategic situation better than the nobility, and used her influence with the commoners to force the issue. She understood that aggressive offense could make significant gains, where cautious and defensive concentration of massed forces would hopelessly slow them down and lose more than it defended.

The combination of aggressive offense and political mobilization of the commoners and nobility to the French cause changed the tide of the war. This was the work of an immature, illiterate girl, who's last action as a military commander managed to save her entire host with an exceptionally well executed retreat in the face of overwhelming opposition. Betrayal and bad luck meant she could not join them in safety.

In addition to her battlefield and political genius, the Pious and Pure Jean d'Arc had some right bastards working for her, and she unleashed them mercilessly. (e.g.: Bluebeard)

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    She also understood the political/moral situation that France needed to clear up the muddy situation of an uncrowned king and have a clear figurehead atop the country. And this was worth some risks.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Feb 20, 2014 at 23:31

You forget the fact that Joan was not claiming to act on her own impulse - but to have had angelic visions. In the Middle Ages, when people set much store by such things this was a strong claim to attention and authority. If modern terms are really necessary, you may say she had huge charisma.

Another important point is that for the Dauphin, who gave Joan an army, this was a no lose situation. If she won, he would take the credit (as happened in actual history). If she lost, it'd be just "an immature, illiterate girl" who took the blame. Standard managerial trick.

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    and he'd no doubt lined up some monks and priests to serve as scapegoats for the failure who'd incorrectly corroborated her story...
    – jwenting
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 12:24

A failed Missouri habidasher a few years later was the man who led the US in the nuclear obliteration of two major Japanese cities.

Or consider a man who had finished near the bottom of his class at West Point and was forced out of the Army for drunkenness, left scraping together a living as destitute saddle salesclerk. Four years later he went on to defeat first the Confederate armies guarding the Mississippi in the west, then their armies guarding the capitol in the East, effectively winning the bloodiest war in American history.

So I wouldn't be so quick to use cold biographical facts to dismiss the leadership qualities of someone you've never met. In the right situation, some otherwise very flawed people are the perfect leader for the moment. In a big enough group, such people will naturally rise to the top.

And yes, it is a recorded fact that, even in less enlightened ages, men would follow a female, if she had good enough leadership abilities, and was leading a direction they felt was the right one. For examples, look at the lives of Boudica and Ching Shih.

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    I can't resist adding a quote from my favorite philosopher, Chris Rock: "A black man couldn't integrate the Major Leagues... but Jackie Robinson could." The implication being that he wasn't just any random "black man", but someone with special personal capabilities that allowed him to do what normal people could not. By the same token, we have to admit that Joan of Arc was probably more than just a random "illiterate girl".
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 19, 2014 at 21:41

Following the death of Henry V (of Agincourt fame) in 1422, England was ruled (in name) until 1461 by Henry VI, who would be incompetent throughout his reign in turn by reason of minority, madness, imprisonment and abdication. During this period the English monarchy was in no position to enforce its claim to the French throne that was the underpinning of the Hundred Years' War, and in fact the Dukes of the realm spent much of Henry's realm squabbling over English spoils, with no time or interest in French ones.

The defection of the Dukes of Burgundy from being English allies to being French allies is listed elsewhere as the turning point, but I see this as the effect and not the cause. What sane Duke of Burgundy would stand alone against the French while the English were so focussed on internal squabble to be useless as allies? Far safer and more productive to split Continental spoils plundered from English possessions with the French monarchy, than to risk the dukedom by standing alone against it.

Following the madness of Henry Vi in 1453, and the concurrent reduction of English continental holding to Calais, the War of the Roses breaks out and the English nobility are distracted for another generation with the English succession. By the conclusion of that conflict at Bosworth Field in 1485, the French monarchy has succeeded in forming the first real continental nation state, and English claims to the French throne have been reduced to absurdity.

So, to return to the question asked - the turning point in the Hundred Years' War was the loss of interest (and ability) on the part of the English monarchy to enforce its claim to the French monarchy, in consequence of an extended period of internal instability during and following the death of Henry V in 1422 that lasted until 1485.

Yes, all my links are to Wikipedia - but this is an analysis question and I cannot think of any facts that are in dispute. The question is really about how best to interpret the accepted facts to deepen understanding of underlying causes and inter-relationships.

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    England reached the height of its power in France under the regency of Bedford. Burgundy completely changed sides by 1435, the year when Bedford died and when Henry VI was just 14. England may have had a few reverses but remained in a very strong position when Burgundy started moving. Gloucester was certainly a troublemaker back home, but his meddling was inconsequential to the war effort. If England were visibly in terminal decline, Burgundy would never have been able to extract the concessions from France that it did in the Treaty of Arras.
    – lins314159
    Commented Mar 9, 2014 at 23:10
  • @lins314159: I never implied that the regents were incompetent, just that when push came to shove ensuring the success in England of their own line and position took precedence over advancing the King's claim to the Monarchy of France. That is after all the nature of Regency. Several very good maps here: edmaps.com/html/france.html including this one for 1429: memoriallibrary.com/MAP/English/17.htm Commented Mar 9, 2014 at 23:41

The turning point in the Hundred Years' war came about when France regained its self confidence, thanks in large part to Joan of Arc.

France had a larger population, and fielded larger armies than England. French armies were outmaneuvered at famous battles like Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. But except for the long bow, French armament was not inferior to the English, either. France basically had to avoid battles of maneuver, and fight battles hand to hand.

Joan's victory at Orleans was a huge psychological victory, since Orleans was the gateway to the south. The battle was won because Joan led the required hand to hand fights, and then started others, including a march to hReims, the site of the coronation of French kings.

Joan's ignorance was not necessarily a disadvantage; and the fact that she was a shepherd in the fields may have given her essential fighting qualities. What the French needed at the time was not a strategist, but a "brawler," think of Ulysees S. Grant whose fellow officers complained that he "drank too much whiskey." President Lincoln's answer was, "Find out which kind and send a barrel to all the other generals."

Joan's "illiteracy" wasn't exactly a disadvantage when the French needed was a leader who could "dumb down" the war into one that the numerically superior French could fight "up close and personal." (The English won most of their victories by superior maneuvering in the open field.)

A young shepherd named David won a duel against a prominent warrior named Goliath, and went on to lead his country in a successful war against Goliath's Philistines.


France's population was roughly three times England's. This meant that while small but efficient English armies could defeat the French in pitched battles - at least when they could fight on their own terms - there simply weren't enough of them to win the war.

Political division at home (the warm-up phase for the wars of the roses) was the last straw.


Part of the Answer is that the French adopted 'fabain' tactics to some degree and generally stopped seeking to give battle to English forces, they dogged and harassed, but avoided major battles. The English forces of occasions marched from across France (Calais to Bordeaux).

I only recently read Jonathon Sumption "Divided Houses : The Hundred Years War III" and definitely true for the period covered by this book, but my general knowledge of the war and period is not great.

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