Joan of Arc was 13 when she first heard voices commanding her to "go forth and do God's command."
She heard the voices again six years later, when they ordered her to lead an army against English forces surrounding the French city of Orleans. The 19-year-old won battle after battle, driving the British from Orleans and clearing the way for Charles VII's coronation at Rheims in 1429.
But Joan was captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English for 10,000 francs. She was tried as a witch and burned at the stake in 1431.
So ended the short life of Joan of Arc, France's beloved heroine, who was canonized in 1922.
Or did it?
In 1436, there appeared in Lorraine a young woman who claimed to be the martyred maiden. According to French historian Anatole France, the stranger was about the same age as Joan and called herself Jeanne the Maid, a resident of Metz.
Joan's two brothers, Petit-Jean and Pierre, met the woman and swore she was their sister. Other family members and friends agreed. Even former comrades who had served with her on the battlefield believed Joan had miraculously been brought back to life.
But this Joan was different. Many who had known her before were shocked to learn that she now dabbled in black magic, danced with men until dawn and ate and drank more than was appropriate for a young woman.
Suspecting fraud, the inquisitor general of Cologne summoned Jeanne to appear before his council. When she refused, he excommunicated her from the church.
After her brush with the inquisitor general, Jeanne married a nobleman, Robert des Armoires. Once again, old friends were astonished: Joan had sworn never to marry and had taken a vow of perpetual chastity.
The newlyweds moved to Metz, where they bought a comfortable house in the country. Over the next three years she gave birth to two children.
In 1440, Jeanne went to Paris and met the king. The king, under pressure from the court, declared her an imposter and threw her in prison. In order to gain her freedom, Jeanne was forced to confess publicly that she was, indeed, an impostor.
Yet, her closest friends and relatives continued to believe she was the real thing. In 1443, her brother Pierre refers to her in letters as "Jeanne la Pucelle, my sister." Her cousin, Henry de Voulton, wrote that Petit-Jean, Pierre and their sister la Pucelle visited the village of Sermaise and feasted with relatives, all of whom accepted her.
Fourteen years later she visited the town of Saumur and was again accepted by town officials as Joan.
About this time she started to hear voices again -- St. Gabriel, St. Michael, St. Marguerite and St. Catherine -- the same voices Joan had heard as a child.
Some thought she was mad but ended up believing she was being guided by divine voices.
A few months later, she vanished from history -- "presumably living out the rest of her life quietly with her husband in Metz," according to researcher Colin Wilson.
While the upper classes generally doubted the story, the common people felt strongly that Joan of Arc had returned from her grave to lead and inspire them. Villagers throughout France continued to harbor hope that their beloved Joan would someday march on Paris and take the throne.
Assuming there is any truth to this remarkable story, scholars theorize that Joan was whisked away from the stake at the last moment while someone else died in her place, perhaps another "witch."
It is known that a large crowd had gathered to watch Joan's execution but were kept at a distance and shielded by soldiers. Some say this would have prevented anyone from coming close enough to recognize that the woman being burned at the stake was not Joan.
Given Joan's extraordinary persuasive powers, some say it would have been easy for her to talk some devoted follower into taking her place at the stake.
Author and syndicated columnist Randall Floyd can be reached at Rfloyd2@aol.com.