The Medieval Woman Who Made a Living Pretending to be Joan of Arc
It didn’t take long after Joan of Arc was executed in May 1431 for the rumors to start. Although plenty of witnesses watched as she was burned at the stake in the marketplace in Rouen, France, Joan’s status as a revered military and religious figure seemingly encouraged people to believe that she hadn’t actually died.
Joan’s executioners anticipated this. After her body was burned, they raked back the coals to prove that she was dead, then set her remains aflame twice more. Finally, they threw the charred results in the Seine to prevent relics from being collected.
But in a country grieving a national heroine, the idea that Joan had escaped death persisted.
At first, a story circulated among the populace that someone else had been burned in her place and that the real Joan had fled. Others said it was Joan in the flames, but she’d been spared by God and escaped. Within a few years, women began to appear around France pretending to be Joan, or at the very least acting as if they were "inspired" by her. They claimed prophecies and visions, and collected gifts and attention, though in most cases their ruse didn't last long.
By far the most famous, and successful, was a woman whose real name was Claude des Armoises. Her ploy would last four years. It earned her a great deal of cash—and almost ensnared the King of France himself.
The False Maid
Claude is said to have begun her career in deception by posing as a male solider in Pope Eugene IV’s army, where she killed two men in fighting around 1435 during a rebellion in Rome. The next year, she started laying the groundwork for her Joan of Arc scheme.
She began with the real Joan’s family: In May 1436, she met Joan’s brothers, Pierre and Jean, and convinced them that she was their departed sister—or at least, got them to publicly agree to the idea. Claude is said to have strongly resembled Joan, and it's possible the men were blinded enough by grief to think that Claude was really their kin. As the 19th-century French writer Anatole France described the scenario, "They believed, because they wished to believe." But other scholars note the brothers may also have agreed to the deceit because they knew there was money to be made.
Claude did her research: She cut her hair short and frequently wore men’s clothes, like the real Joan. She almost always spoke in Christian parables, which lent a mystical, legendary quality to her image—and also effectively clouded facts. After all, you wouldn’t want to disturb a poetic, holy anecdote by asking for clarification.
All of this worked. When the brothers d’Arc brought their so-called sister to meet some noblemen, the men were so impressed they provided her with a horse, a hooded cloak, and a sword. The 19th-century French historian Jules Quicherat noted that she rode the horse expertly, lending even more credence to her story (not just any peasant girl could ride a horse, while Joan had relied on hers during battle). The group then visited towns across the northeast of France, collecting horses and jewels along the way. Upon arriving in Arlon, the party was deluged with more gifts by the Duchess of Luxembourg, and the group set up camp there.
In this way, Claude and her supposed siblings traveled around the continent living the good life at other people’s expense during the summer of 1436. Princess Elizabeth de Luxembourg and Duchess Elisabeth von Görlitz in particular were great benefactors of the three, while the Comte de Virnenbourg was said to have fallen in love with Claude (as Joan). He even made her the head of a military unit he sent to Cologne to provide support for a candidate for the bishopric of Trier.
But in Cologne, things turned sour. The 15th-century Dominican friar Johannes Nider described her activities: "There was a young woman, who from time to time took on the behavior of a male, and who was running around armed and with wildly flowing clothes, as soldiers in the pay of a nobleman do." What's worse, Nider said, "She also let herself be seen dancing with men. And she used to drink and to carouse."
In other words, her behavior was beginning to attract the wrong kind of attention.
It didn't help that Claude sometimes performed minor feats of magic: tearing a large cloth and then making it whole again, or smashing a glass against the wall and somehow restoring it to one piece. An inquisitor in Cologne, suspecting witchcraft, began an investigation and sent men to fetch her, but she escaped with help from the Comte de Virnenbourg. The inquisitor responded by excommunicating her—for witchcraft, wearing men's clothes, and supporting the wrong candidate for the bishopric.
But Claude, or Joan, was relatively safe in France—at least for the time being. She married a knight, Robert des Armoises, and is said to have born him two sons. In 1439 she turned up in Orléans, the site of Joan’s renowned siege, where she was celebrated with a series of lavish suppers and a gift of cash, in honor of "the good she had done for the city during the siege," according to the town's records.
But by then, Claude must have been getting nervous. She left early from a dinner in Orléans, one source notes, "As the wine drawn for her was drunk, in her absence, by Jean Luilier, the very tailor who had made clothes for the true Maid [Joan of Arc] in 1429. Possibly the false Maid fled from a misgiving as to an encounter with her tailor, who of all men would have been able to detect an imposture."
The net was starting to close in. A few months after her lavish dinner in Orléans, Claude was finally called to meet King Charles VII himself.
The Secret Sign
The French king had heard about this alleged Joan, but he was suspicious. So he decided to set up a test for her.
At the palace, Claude was met by a man claiming to be the king, while the real Charles watched from afar. But Claude knew—perhaps from royal gossip—that the real king wore a soft boot on his ulcerated leg, which this man did not. She called his bluff, going to the true king instead.
Charles was astounded. Saluting her, he said, “You are welcome back, in the name of God, who knows the secret that is between us.”
At this, Claude fell to her knees. She knew that she didn't know the king's secret, and confessed to being an imposter.
We don’t know what the secret was either, except that it was a reference to a clandestine sign that Joan of Arc and Charles shared when they first met in 1429, and which had to do with his legitimacy to the throne. Historians have long debated what this sign may have been; little seems clear except that whatever it was, it helped the real Joan earn the king's trust.
Claude was exposed at last. But she and Joan's brothers weren't punished for their lies; instead, Claude was sent back to her husband in Jaulny to live out the rest of her life.
Claude was not the first false Joan, and she wouldn't be the last. Years after Claude confessed, a woman named Jeanne la Féronne appeared and began claiming to be the Maid of Orléans. She didn't last long as long as Claude, and was soon sent to the pillory for false revelations.
As for how all these women managed to pull the wool over a gullible public's eyes, the scholar Dick Berents writes, "it was apparently extremely difficult to obtain certainty about anything in 15th-century society, even about a person's death." Furthermore, he theorizes, when a popular figure dies violently, it can be hard for their followers to adjust. "People would rather believe that a person continues to live," he notes.
About 15 years later, in July 1456—a few years after the Hundred Years’ War finally ended—a retrial declared the real Joan of Arc innocent and annulled her sentence. She would be made a saint in 1920, and remains the only person in history to be both condemned and canonized by the Catholic Church.