English raid of 1415
Joan's journey from Domrémy to Chinon
Raid of Jeanne d'Arc to Reims
The Hundred Years' War had begun in 1337 as an inheritance dispute over the French throne, interspersed with occasional periods of relative peace. Nearly all the fighting had taken place in France, and the English army's use of chevauchée tactics (destructive "scorched earth" raids) had devastated the economy. The French population had not regained its former size prior to the Black Death of the mid-14th century, and its merchants were isolated from foreign markets. Prior to the appearance of Joan of Arc, the English had nearly achieved their goal of a dual monarchy under English control and the French army had not achieved any major victories for a generation. In the words of DeVries, "The kingdom of France was not even a shadow of its thirteenth-century prototype."
The French king at the time of Joan's birth, Charles VI, suffered from bouts of insanity and was often unable to rule. The king's brother Louis, Duke of Orléans, and the king's cousin John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, quarreled over the regency of France and the guardianship of the royal children. This dispute included accusations that Louis was having an extramarital affair with the queen, Isabeau of Bavaria, and allegations that John the Fearless kidnapped the royal children. The conflict climaxed with the assassination of the Duke of Orléans in 1407 on the orders of the Duke of Burgundy.
The young Charles of Orléans succeeded his father as duke and was placed in the custody of his father-in-law, the Count of Armagnac. Their faction became known as the "Armagnac" faction, and the opposing party led by the Duke of Burgundy was called the "Burgundian faction". Henry V of England took advantage of these internal divisions when he invaded the kingdom in 1415, winning a dramatic victory at Agincourt on 25 October and subsequently capturing many northern French towns. In 1418 Paris was taken by the Burgundians, who massacred the Count of Armagnac and about 2,500 of his followers. The future French king, Charles VII, assumed the title of Dauphin—the heir to the throne—at the age of fourteen, after all four of his older brothers had died in succession. His first significant official act was to conclude a peace treaty with the Duke of Burgundy in 1419. This ended in disaster when Armagnac partisans assassinated John the Fearless during a meeting under Charles's guarantee of protection. The new duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, blamed Charles for the murder and entered into an alliance with the English. The allied forces conquered large sections of France.
In 1420 the queen of France, Isabeau of Bavaria, signed the Treaty of Troyes, which granted the succession of the French throne to Henry V and his heirs instead of her son Charles. This agreement revived suspicions that the Dauphin may have been the illegitimate product of Isabeau's rumored affair with the late duke of Orléans rather than the son of King Charles VI. Henry V and Charles VI died within two months of each other in 1422, leaving an infant, Henry VI of England, the nominal monarch of both kingdoms. Henry V's brother, John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, acted as regent.
By the time Joan of Arc began to influence events in 1429, nearly all of northern France and some parts of the southwest were under Anglo-Burgundian control. The English controlled Paris and Rouen while the Burgundian faction controlled Reims, which had served as the traditional coronation site for French kings since 816. This was an important consideration since neither claimant to the throne of France had been officially crowned yet. In 1428 the English had begun the siege of Orléans, one of the few remaining cities still loyal to Charles VII and an important objective since it held a strategic position along the Loire River, which made it the last obstacle to an assault on the remainder of the French heartland. In the words of one modern historian, "On the fate of Orléans hung that of the entire kingdom." No one was optimistic that the city could long withstand the siege. For generations, there had been prophecies in France which promised France would be saved by a virgin from the "borders of Lorraine" "who would work miracles" and "that France will be lost by a woman and shall thereafter be restored by a virgin". The second prophecy predicating France would be "lost" by a woman was taken to refer to Isabeau's role in signing the Treaty of Troyes.