The Posthumous Declaration of Innocence

Joan of Arc's conviction was investigated nineteen years after her death, shortly after the English were driven out of Rouen in November of 1449. A second investigation by the Inquisitor-General followed in 1452, followed by a formal appeal in 1455. This appeal was the result of a petition by Joan of Arc's surviving family members - her mother Isabelle and two of her brothers, Jean and Pierre. The Inquisitor-General supported their petition and obtained permission from Pope Calixtus III to retry the case.

Click here for an article on the partisan nature of the original tribunal.
Unlike the thoroughly partisan nature of the original tribunal in 1431, whose members had been selected by the English government from their own supporters, the appeal involved a broader range of clergy including a number of Italians, an Inquisitor from Vienna, and clergymen who had been associated with both sides during the war. The appeal also involved a larger number of high-ranking clergy, including eight Bishops, an Archbishop, a Cardinal, and five Inquisitors.

The appellate court heard witness testimony at intervals from 16 December 1455 through 28 May 1456. In June the Inquisitor-General drew up his final judicial analysis of the case, the nearly 200-page "Recollectio F. Johannis Brehalli". In this detailed work containing some 900 citations from canon law and theology, he refuted the charges and condemned the falsification of evidence, secular English manipulation of the trial and English intimidation of dissenting tribunal members which had been described by the witnesses. In part I ch. VIII he denounced the judge (Bishop Cauchon) for "...manifest malice against the Roman [Catholic] Church and indeed heresy" after determining that the trial had been an illegal process designed to execute an innocent person on behalf of a secular government but nominally in the name of the Church. Consequently, in part I ch. IX he referred to Joan of Arc's death as a martyrdom.
Under the rules of the medieval Church, a trial which was overseen by partisan clergy or otherwise improperly conducted would be automatically null and void from its inception and the verdict also under suspicion of invalidity, with or without a formal appeal. Such cases were sometimes officially overturned after investigation, such as the twelve executions during the "Vauderie d'Arras" in 1459-1460 which were all declared invalid in 1491.

Joan of Arc's case received similar treatment. On 7 July 1456 the original verdict against her was overturned.
These proceedings took place in the Archbishop's palace in Rouen, beginning at nine o'clock in the morning. Seated at the head of the Great Hall were the judges and commissioners for the case: the Inquisitor-General of France, the Archbishop of Rheims, the Bishop of Paris, and the Bishop of Coutances. Joan's aged mother Isabelle, weak and ill during most of the appellate hearings, had lived long enough to see the conclusion, and her brothers Jean and Pierre were also in attendance along with the family's advocates Pierre Maugier and Guillaume Prévosteau, and the Promoter (prosecutor) Simon Chapitault. The rest of the hall was packed with clerks, spectators, and clergy including Martin Ladvenu, the Dominican friar who had received Joan of Arc's final confession before her death, and Guillaume Manchon, who had served as the chief notary during the original trial.
After the judges completed the preliminaries, the Archbishop declared the case ended and the original verdict annulled. His lengthy speech included the following brief excerpt:

"...And carefully considering each and all of the other points which must be considered and scrutinized in this matter; seated in judgment and with eyes fixed only upon God, by this our definitive verdict which we hand down in this rescript while seated in judgment:
We state and pronounce, decree and declare the aforesaid trial and sentence - being filled with fraud, false charges, injustice, contradiction, and manifest errors concerning both fact and law - together with the aforementioned abjuration, execution and all that resulted, to have been, to be, and will be null, without effect, void, and of no consequence.
And notwithstanding, [i.e., despite the obvious invalidity] if there is any need to do so, we, as reason demands, hereby nullify, void, and annul them [the results of the original trial] and entirely strip them of all effect, declaring that the aforesaid Joan and her family the plaintiffs did not contract or incur any mark or stain of disrepute as a result of the abovementioned matter; and [also declaring] that she is and will be freed and cleansed from the aforementioned; and if such should be necessary, also completely exonerating her." [Translated from the original language printed in DuParc's "Procès en Nullité..." vol II p. 610]

A copy of the accusations made against Joan of Arc in 1431 was then ritually torn up.

After the verdict was announced in Rouen, the Inquisitor-General set off to inform Charles VII and the Pope. As he passed through Orléans, the citizens treated him to a banquet on 27 July 1456 during celebrations in the city in honor of his court's decision. The moment was important to the people of this city, which had held Masses and processions commemorating Joan's death every year since her execution, and had sponsored a religious play in her honor since c. 1435.

The declaration of Joan of Arc's innocence and the Inquisitor-General's description of her death as a martyrdom echoed previous support for her in 1429 by many clergy such as the Archbishop of Embrun, the Inquisitor of Toulouse, several Bishops, and the prominent theologian Jean Gerson as well as by many of the laity. The annual religious play at Orléans had already been declared by the Church (in 1452) to be an event by which the faithful could earn an indulgence from the penalty of sin, as if it were a pilgrimage site connected with a saint.
The appellate verdict also foreshadowed later developments. In the 16th century Joan of Arc became an icon of the French Catholic League, although as with many other popular saints the formal beatification process was not initiated until a few centuries later, in 1869. She was declared a saint on 16 May 1920.

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Copyright © 2008, Allen Williamson. All rights reserved.

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