Military Saints

Saint Barbara

Many religions have reserved a special place in the afterlife for warriors who have fallen in battle. This remains true of modern Islam and provided motivation for the Iranian armies during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-8). However, within the Christian religion, the notion of sainthood now seems incompatible with the profession of arms.

Together with the Book of Revelation, which introduces St Michael as the first warrior against evil, the Gospels did not exclude soldiers from religious experience, as in the cases of the centurion who described himself as unworthy to receive the Lord and the soldier on Calvary who declared that Jesus was the son of God. The Early Church counted among its numbers a great many soldiers martyred for their faith; St Sebastian and St Maurice of the Theban Legion are perhaps the most famous. Others, such as St Martin of Tours, also preached the gospel. Their conversion did, however, generally result in the abandonment of the military life. They were not specially invoked in the West to guarantee success on the battlefield, except where they became the patron saints of nations like St George in England or St Maurice in Piedmont, a privilege they shared with non-military saints such as St James (Santiago) in Spain or St Denis in France. Their names were emblazoned on the soldiers’ banners and shouted in rallying cries. St George replaced Edward the Confessor as the patron saint of England during the reign of Edward III, who founded the Order of the Garter under his patronage in c. 1349. Quasi-professional qualifications have been attributed to saints in certain armies – St Barbara is generally regarded as the patron saint of the engineers and the artillery whilst the Virgin Mary is the patron saint of the Italian carabinieri.

Some saints, usually monarchs, earned their status through converting enemies of the faith by force of arms. Among their number are Constantine, Clovis and Charlemagne. The instances of Joan of Arc and Alexander Nevsky are more exceptional. They did not spread the gospel but their missions were regarded as divine within the context of a just war. Joan of Arc (1412-31) aroused sufficient enthusiasm in Charles VII to be entrusted with a role in his armies but also sufficient scepticism for him to abandon her once events began to turn to her disfavour. Joan’s enemies feared her to the extent that they burned her as a witch but she was later rehabilitated by the Church. Joan is of interest to military historians on two counts. First of all, for her campaigns. It seems that, acting on the advice of Jean d’Aulon, she not only exercised a moral influence on the French troops but also suggested a number of strategic initiatives, which were often contested, but which usually advocated a constant offensive to take advantage of the disarray and weariness of the enemy. After her martyrdom, she became the symbol of the defence of France and emphasized the importance of morale. The legend of Joan of Arc was partially eclipsed from the time of the French Wars of Religion until the eighteenth century. This was probably because she was too closely associated with the Valois kings. It was not until the writings of Voltaire and, more especially, of Michelet, who saw her as a child of the common people, and the national disaster of 1870 that France once again came to revere her memory. She was beatified in 1909 and canonized in 1920.

Joan of Arc (1412-31)


In 1429, France and England had been at war for almost a hundred years. The French position looked bleak. Seven years after the death of his father, King Charles VI, the Dauphin (also Charles) remained uncrowned while the British fought to hold France in the name of the infant son of Henry V. The English army and its Burgundian allies occupied much of northern France, including Reims, the city where French kings were traditionally crowned. Charles had taken refuge at the castle of Chinon, one hundred fifty miles southwest of Paris. The city of Orleans was under siege. If it fell, England’s armies would have open access to Chinon, and to Charles—who, from the English perspective, was a rebel, not the heir to France.

Then a seventeen-year-old peasant girl from a village near the border of the Duchy of Lorraine appeared on the historical stage, claiming the voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine, and St. Margaret had told her it was her mission to put the Dauphin on the throne and save France from the English. Joan convinced the local commander at Vaucouleurs, Robert de Baudricourt, to send her to the Dauphin’s court at Chinon, accompanied by six of his knights. With Baudricourt’s help, Joan transformed herself from a peasant girl in a homespun red dress into a knight, complete with the expensive accoutrements of horse, retinue, standard, and armor. And not only into a knight—the epitome of male nobility—but a knight with a sacred mission. A crusader.

Joan had an influence on both of those events. After all, had she not desired to mend the rift between Philip the Good, who switched sides from the English to the French at the Congress of Arras?1 It could be argued that her victories influenced the peace process both because they showed the weakness of English troops and because they gave hope to the Burgundians that their French cousins were more capable warriors than they had previously believed. Yet, having established that link, it must be noted that if Joan did influence Philip to switch sides, this did not occur immediately, as the Congress did not even meet until six years after her capture. It also appears that the conference and the new alliance formed after it were prompted more by the diplomatic efforts of men like Georges de la Trémoïlle, than military efforts by generals like Joan. Finally, it must be recognized that even having both the French and Burgundians together against the undermanned English, thus turning all the resources of ‘France’ to the purpose of ridding the continent of English control, did not bring a quick end to the war. It was fourteen years after the Congress of Arras before Normandy was free from English control and seventeen years before Gascony was returned to the French. Not only did the Franco-Burgundian alliance not bring about a quick end to the war, but the Burgundians could not even conquer the town of Calais in the wake of the Arras congress in 1436. Besieging the English town, Philip discovered what the English had found out at Orléans, the French at Paris, and even the Burgundians at Compiègne – that well-fortified sites during the Middle Ages were difficult to defeat, even in an age of gunpowder weapons.

As for Joan’s influence on the turmoil of Henry VI’s reign, she must be given some credit for destabilizing the English military leadership. Simply capturing and holding for ransom the likes of John Talbot, Thomas Scales, and William de la Pole, while, at the same time, discrediting John Fastolf, meant that the English had very few other military leaders to call upon. That John of Lancaster, the duke of Bedford, regent of the boy-king, and head of the English forces in France, had to take the field himself against Joan at Paris certainly indicates this. But the curious feature of medieval ransoms was that captured generals were eventually released, and, once freed, were able to continue their previous military leadership without legal or chivalric hindrance. (The French, too, had profited from such a system, with Arthur de Richemont, Jean, duke of Alençon, Jean, the Bastard of Orléans, and others able to fight beside Joan, despite previously having been captured by the English.) Thus, by the beginning of 1430 Pole had been set free, by the middle of 1430 Scales had, and by 1433 Talbot had also gained his freedom. All returned to military leadership positions, and all fought with some success against the French until the end of the war. Moreover, it does not seem that the weakness of military leadership in France solely effected the political turmoil in England, for the resulting conflict there – what would later be called the Wars of the Roses – did not begin until close to the end of the Hundred Years War. And while loss of English lands, titles, and authority in France certainly affected what occurred in England between 1450 and 1485, there is justifiable suspicion over whether Joan, who had burned nearly twenty years previously, could have, even indirectly, caused Henry VI’s problems then and there.

Joan’s career as warrior was brief. It lasted less than two years—thirteen months of which were spent in captivity.

Siege of Orléans, (1428-9)

Adverse reaction to the Treaty of Troyes (1420) sparked off partisan warfare in those areas of France occupied by the English, especially Normandy. However, the French field forces were heavily defeated by the English and the Burgundians at Cravant in 1423 and by the Duke of Bedford at Verneuil in 1424. In desperation, Charles VII of France (1422-61) allied with Duke John V of Brittany, but John was routed by Bedford at St James, near Avranches, in 1426. The English and Burgundians then proceeded to attack the heart of Charles VII’s remaining lands. The Earl of Shrewsbury took Laval in Maine in 1426 and, in 1428, the Earl of Salisbury laid siege to Orléans in order to gain a crossing of the Loire before advancing on Berry.

Orléans was a large, populous and well-fortified city. The English first attacked the Bastille des Tourelles, a twin-towered masonry work which protected the southern end of the bridge over the Loire. Salisbury was mortally wounded during the successful storming of the Bastille, the Earl of Suffolk succeeding to the command. Suffolk invested Orléans with seven wooden forts on the northern side and a further four to the south. However, Suffolk had insufficient men to blockade the eastern side of the city and a trickle of supplies continued to enter Orléans although never enough to eliminate the danger of starvation. The field army of Charles VII attempted to interrupt the food and supply convoys of the English. On 12 February 1429, a convoy of 300 waggons under the command of Sir John Fastolf was attacked at Rouvray to the north of Orléans. He formed his waggons into a laager in the Hussite manner and defeated his assailants in the `Battle of the Herrings’. Orléans had now become a symbol of French resistance and nationalism as manifested by numerous peasant risings in the English occupied territories. The arrival of Joan of Arc at Chinon provided the leadership and inspiration for a French revival. On 27 April 1429, she set out for Orléans with a convoy of supplies escorted by between 3,000 and 4,000 armed men. Receiving considerable assistance and advice from professional soldiers, Joan entered Orléans on 29 April. The English besiegers were now so reduced in number that they were locked inside their forts and the French were able to enter and leave Orléans virtually at will. Between 4 and 7 May, Joan and the French attacked and captured a number of the English forts causing the siege to be lifted on 8 May. Under Joan’s guidance, the French retook the line of the Loire before recapturing Chalons and Rheims, where Charles VII was formally crowned on 18 July 1429.


Leave a Reply