Since the age of thirteen Joan of Arc had heard heavenly voices, as a result of which she regarded herself as a messenger from God, sent to save the French from their English enemies. She went on to have a brief but spectacular military career, winning many remarkable victories in the space of a year. But in the end Joan was captured by the English, tried as a witch and on 30 May 1431 was burnt at the stake at the age of just nineteen. But that, oddly enough, was apparently not quite the end of the Maid of Orleans.
On 30 May 1436, exactly five years after Joan had died at the stake, there appeared in the French town of Metz a certain damsel of twenty-five who identified herself as ‘Joan’. Although it appears obvious that it was simply the case that some impostor had decided to pose as Joan of Arc, there is some astonishing evidence that suggests this was not so. Joan’s two younger brothers, Petit-Jean and Pierre, hastened to Metz as soon as they heard that a woman claiming to be their sister had expressed a wish to see them. Joan’s brothers recognized her immediately and they were not the only ones – she was also accepted by several other people whom she had encountered the last time she had been in Metz, seven years earlier, including Nicole Lowe, the king’s chamberlain. She went on to stay with many of the original Joan’s staunchest supporters, including the Duchess of Luxembourg and Count Ulrich of Wurttemberg. Eventually she met and married a nobleman named Robert des Armoires – no doubt to the astonishment of her followers, since the original Joan had sworn a vow of perpetual chastity – thus earning herself the title ‘The Dame des Armoires’.
But was the Dame des Armoires really Joan of Arc? She never gave an official explanation of how she escaped from the flames but it is easy to see how this could have come about. Joan was an extraordinarily persuasive young lady, who many people believed was being guided by divine voices – a claim which would surely have invited only ridicule for most. Even at her trial she had certain friends, like the Earl of Warwick and a priest called Loyseleur. It would therefore not be at all surprising if there was a successful plot to rescue her. It is notable that when Joan was apparently burnt at the stake in Rouen the crowd was kept at a distance by hundreds of English soldiers, which would obviously prevent anyone coming close enough to recognize her. Furthermore, all later evidence of Joan’s execution was entirely secondhand. Whilst it is conceivable that the original Joan’s brothers may have decided that it would be to their advantage to have their famous sister alive, explaining why they condoned the Dame des Armoires’ story, this does not explain why so many others agreed to support the story, including many people who had no interest in doing so, like the French king and the Church authorities.
So what happened to the Dame des Armoires? Bowing to immense public pressure, the Church and Crown allowed ‘Joan’ to attend a trial for her rehabilitation in 1456 and following this she lived out the rest of her days in relative anonymity, never entirely escaping the suspicion of imposture. Joan’s rehabilitation was a success if nothing else – she was canonized in 1922 and was forever afterwards known as Saint Joan of Arc.