Today on April 29, 1429, Joan of Arc, a seventeen-year-old girl with no military experience, relieved the siege of Orleans and triumphantly marched through the city.
The Siege of Orleans was one of the most significant events of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. The epic war between Europe's two greatest rivals began with Edward III's invasion of Normandy. The kings of England long laid claim to the French crown and were prepared to take it by force. For nearly a century, the English army wreaked havoc on France. They won countless victories such as the legendary battles of Crecy, Poitiers, and Agincourt. France, quite literally on the brink of destruction, needed a hero to save them.
At this point in the war, Orleans was one of the last major cities to fall into enemy hands. Located along the Loire river, the English planned to use Orleans as a staging point for the invasion of southern France. Throughout the autumn of 1428, the English army under the command of Thomas Montagu, Earl of Salisbury, began systematically capturing all of surrounding towns and castles. After leaving garrisons at all of his new conquests, Salisbury assembled an army of 4,000 men and formally besieged Orleans on October 12.
However, the city's commander, Jean d'Orleans, had watched the noose being tightened for months and was well-prepared for a prolonged attack. Orleans itself was located on the north side of the Loire and protected a massive 19-arch bridge spanning the river. The French had built a fort on the southern bank to protect the crucial river crossing. Known as Les Tourelles, it consisted of a stone barbican (a fortified outpost) with a twin-towered gatehouse.
The English focused their initial attacks on these outer defenses and captured the Les Tourelles less than two weeks later. The surviving French soldiers fled across the bridge into Orleans. The next day, Salisbury was mortally wounded by debris from a cannon shot while surveying the river crossing. His immediate replacement, the Earl of Suffolk, failed to capitalize on the momentum and the siege of Orleans lay dormant for several weeks.
In early December 1428, the more experienced and competent Earl of Shrewsbury relieved Suffolk and took command. He sent soldiers north of the river and constructed a series of fortifications around the city, effectively cutting off all of its supply routes. But the English lines were porous and lacked sufficient troops to fully blockade the city. Slowly, but surely, French reinforcements had trickled into the city. By the spring, the garrison had swelled to 7,000-strong with the support of armed citizens. On February 14, 1429, Charles VII sent a relief force to attack the English but was defeated at the Battle of the Herrings.
The stalemate at the siege of Orleans continued for several more months. But the defenders were running dangerously low on supplies and were contemplating terms of surrender. Meanwhile, Joan of Arc — an obscure peasant from the village of Doremy — convinced Charles, the Dauphin of France, to give her command of a new relief force. Joan insisted that it was her divine mission from God to help Charles expel the English and see him crowned in Rouen. So in early April, after being examined by clerics in Poitiers, the dauphin remarkably granted Joan her wish.
A few weeks later, the French forces reached the city after marching through the dangerous countryside. With the English soldiers briefly distracted, Joan seized the opportunity and entered through the city's eastern gates completely unopposed. On April 29, the citizens of Orleans celebrated as she entered with new troops and fresh supplies. Nicknamed the Maid of Orleans, she inspired the people to continue fighting and passionately reassured them of victory. Over the next week, she bravely led the soldiers into a number of successful skirmishes against the English. Joan was even struck by an arrow during one of the battles but quickly returned to action.
Ten days later, the English formally called off the siege of Orleans and retreated from the region. The French victory at Orleans was undoubtedly a watershed moment of the Hundred Years’ War. It served as an important catalyst for renewed hope and determination. Joan of Arc continued fighting during the Loire Campaign and quickly became a beloved national hero. She was captured by the English less than two years and burned at the stake for witchcraft and heresy.