When you think of French kings, you probably think of a Louis: Maybe Louis XIV, the Sun King of Versailles, or Louis XVI, the king who lost his head. But you need to add Charles VII to that list. From his mad father giving away his throne, to his partnership with Joan of Arc, to his scandalous affairs and treacherous son, Charles VII sounds like a Game of Thrones character, yet he was real—and he was wild.
Before he was done, Charles VII would become Charles the Victorious, one of the most legendary kings France has ever seen. But he started off as pretty much nothing. He was the 11th child and fifth son of Charles VI and Isabeau of Bavaria. Not exactly high in the line of succession. But here's the thing—the Hundred Years' War was raging, and that left a lot of room for...let's call it "upward mobility."
Charles might have had four older brothers—but they wouldn't survive for long.
Each of Charles's older brothers held the title of Dauphin, heir to their father's throne—and each of them croaked before they could do anything with it. One by one, Charles's brothers got picked off, until he was the only boy left. Suddenly, this forgotten 11th child was in line to become the King of France—and that day couldn't come soon enough.
While people would eventually call our boy Charles the Victorious, his father had a much darker nickname...
Charles VI is mostly remembered as Charles the Mad, and boy did he earn that moniker. Famous for suffering from the Glass Delusion, in which he thought he was made of glass and might shatter at any instant, that's just the tip of the iceberg with this disastrous king. Charles VI's reign was so catastrophic, he lost half of France to England's King Henry V.
In fact, our Charles VII didn't even get to enjoy becoming the Dauphin—because he immediately found himself running for his life.
There was no pomp and circumstance when Charles VII became the Dauphin—just humiliation. The man who would become his first mortal enemy, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, stormed Paris, forcing Charles to flee for his life. Sure, he was going to be king one day, but for now, his rival forced him to abandon his own capital. Not a great look.
But Charles VII was nothing like his father. He might have lost this round, but he was far from finished...
Charles knew better than anyone that his father was utterly useless, so he set up his own court in Bourges, where he bided his time and planned his next move. John the Fearless held Paris and Henry V ravaged the countryside—Charles had to do something quick or he risked losing all of France before the crown even touched his head.
It was time to make a deal.
Charles was still just a teenager, but he still played the game of thrones with the best of them. He met with John the Fearless on a bridge in the French countryside and they signed a treaty together. At first glance, it looked absolutely humiliating for Charles. He was the Dauphin, the next ruler of France by divine right, and here he was signing a deal that gave some duke half of his power.
John the Fearless left that meeting feeling pretty good about himself, I'm sure—but that's because he didn't know the grim fate that awaited him.
After the ink was dry, Charles and John agreed to a similar meeting a few months after, then went their separate ways. The next time they met, on a similar bridge in Montereau, John arrived feeling pretty darn sure of himself. He only brought a small escort with him, confident that he had the young Dauphin right in the palm of his hand.
That turned out to be a fatal mistake.
Diplomacy is great and all, but during the Hundred Years' War, sometimes you just need to get your hands dirty. Charles, not quite so trusting as John, brought a large contingent of armed men with him to that bridge. His men took on look at John's meager entourage...and charged straight at them. John the Fearless was a huge problem, after all, and his death would work out better than any treaty.
The scene was absolutely brutal.
Charles's men utterly slaughtered John's entire entourage on that bridge—the outnumbered Burgundians didn't stand a chance. Did John the Fearless finally feel fear in those final moments? Who can say, but it didn't matter in the end. Charles's forces wiped out every last member of John's escort and washed their hands of the treacherous duke for good.
But the question remains—how much of a role did Charles VII play on that gruesome day?
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Charles always claimed that he had no idea his men planned to attack John the Fearless. He was just a meek teenager, after all, and his men simply acted of their own volition! Of course, no one actually believed that, but what's he going to do, admit it? Charles never admitted guilt, and never paid any sort of price for the assassination—not that people didn't try to make him.
John the Fearless was a popular guy, and plenty of people wanted blood when they heard of his dark end—chief among them his son, Philip the Good. Though the constant threat of Henry V likely stopped them from entering open conflict, Philip at least forced Charles to sign a treaty requiring him to pay a hefty penance for the murder.
Of course, Charles VII never actually paid the penance, but whatever, maybe it made Philip feel better. For now, Charles had offed his greatest enemy. However, his life was going to get a lot worse before it got any better.
Charles spent his teenage years (he was still a teenager through all this by the way!) trying to distance himself from his deranged father as possible. He dressed flamboyantly and he tried to prove himself on the field of battle whenever he could. Unfortunately, that did lead to him doing some pretty stupid things.
Ahh, the confidence of youth. Charles VII once led his forces against the English while dressed vibrantly in the red, white, and blue of his family. On the medieval battlefield, he had essentially just painted a gigantic target on his chest, but Charles wanted to show his men that he wasn't afraid. Well, it worked out; Charles won the battle and inspired his men.
But all the fancy clothes in the world weren't going to save him from the devastating betrayal his father had in the works...
Through all this, Charles VII wasn't yet king; he was still just the Dauphin. The Mad King Charles VI still held the throne, and his mind was deteriorating with each passing day. The fact that Henry V was gaining more and more ground in the North definitely didn't help matters either. Charles VII was walking a razor's edge—then one day, his unhinged father went and stabbed him right in the back.
Nobody likes talking about treaties, but if there's one you should know about in this story, it's the Treaty of Troyes. In it, the Mad King Charles VI disinherited his son and made, get this, Henry V the heir to the throne! That's right, the King of England was the new Dauphin. You know the whole "France and England: Mortal Enemies" thing? Well, if the Treaty of Troyes played out as it was meant to, that would be over forever, because France would be little more than an English territory.
The French were absolutely furious; no one more so than Charles VII—and he wasn't going to take this sitting down.
Charles VII had one thing going for him: The people of France hated the Treaty of Troyes almost as much as he did. Henry V, the guy who'd been slaughtering their men and pillaging their countryside, was going to be the next king? No thank you. Plus, everyone knew that Charles VI's mind had gone years ago, and they didn't recognize his authority to sign such a treaty.
Charles was ready to fight for the throne that was rightfully his, but he was going to need some help. He was also getting older and needed a wife—so why not nab two birds with one stone?
For all Charles VII talked a big game, he was still no match for Henry V—at least, not yet. He made some gains in the North, but when he heard that Henry was headed his way with a massive army, he turned and ran with his tail between his legs. He fled south of the Loire river to the city of Bourges and the protection of Yolande of Aragon, one of the most powerful women in Europe.
Yolande also happened to be the mother of Marie of Anjou, Charles's betrothed. Unfortunately, their relationship thus far had been a complete and total train wreck.
OK, we'll cut Charles a little bit of slack; he's clearly been a pretty busy guy. But still, he wasn't the type of man who made a girl feel wanted. When he fled Paris all those years ago, he completely abandoned his wife-to-be. Then, when he was supposed to meet up with her again, he didn't even bother to show up!
After all that, it must have been pretty awkward when they finally tied the knot—and it only got worse from there.
If Marie of Anjou expected a loving and vivacious husband, she was in for a rude awakening. Around the time of their wedding, Charles might have been the most miserable man in France. Though he claimed the title of King of France (even though his father was still alive), he had absolutely nothing to back it up. He couldn't repel the English from the North; he couldn't even cross the Loire.
Charles VII felt more and more hopeless as the months passed—and the fact that he was a laughingstock didn't help matters either.
From the outside, you can understand why everyone thought Charles VII was a total fool. He called himself the King of France while his father was still alive, even though he'd lost control of half the kingdom. People started derisively calling him the "King of Bourges," because he was basically trapped in that town while his enemies ran wild throughout Northern France.
But, just as the situation seemed beyond hopeless, two shocking deaths suddenly changed everything.
OK, no one was that surprised when the feeble King Charles VI kicked the bucket, but there's one extremely important wrinkle—Henry V also croaked mere weeks earlier. The warrior king who was supposed to conquer all of France never even got the chance! Technically, that made Henry V's son, Henry VI, the infant King of France.
Before, our boy Charles VII had to go up against one of the most ruthless and capable rulers in European history—now he only had to face a baby! But if Charles started celebrating, it was too soon. He might not have known it, but he was in serious trouble.
The ends of both Henry V and Charles VI might make it seem like France's throne was ripe for the taking, but then you'd be underestimating just how badly the Mad King had screwed things up. Try as he might, Charles simply couldn't drive the English out of Northern France—he couldn't even reclaim Paris! The years went by, and the once flamboyant and confident Dauphin disappeared. A paranoid, depressed, and hopeless man replaced him.
Charles, it seems, just didn't have it in him to take back his rightful crown. Things got so dire, in fact, that he hatched a desperate plot that might have changed history forever.
Charles grew so hopeless that he very nearly abandoned France entirely. He planned to flee to Spain to save his own skin, giving the English free rein over France. Had he done it, there might not even be a France today. But that didn't happen. You see, Charles needed a miracle if he had any hope of regaining his kingdom—and that's just what he got.
In a backwater French village, a teenage girl stalked up to her local garrison, found the commander, and demanded that he gather his men and escort her straight to Charles VII. She claimed that she'd had visions of angels and saints, and they had given her a mission from God to save France and put Charles on the throne.
Her name was Joan of Arc, and Charles VII owes her everything.
Joan of Arc was nothing if not persuasive. She convinced the commander to escort her to Chinon, where Charles VII was waiting. But to Charles, this was just some crazy young girl he was dealing with. Plenty of people claimed to have visions from God, and they usually weren't the most "sane" folks out there. He needed all the help he could get, but he wasn't about to trust some lunatic!
So, Charles VII came up with a devious plan...
If Joan of Arc was the real deal, surely she'd be able to recognize Charles on sight, right? So Charles disguised himself as one of his courtiers and hid amongst them when she arrived. To his utter shock, Joan walked straight up to him, bowed low, grabbed his legs, and cried, "God give you a happy life, sweet King!" Charles must have been really wary, because even then he tried to claim he wasn't the king.
Joan wouldn't be deterred, though, and she won Charles over. He could never imagine how much that young woman would change his life.
After she recognized him, Charles pulled this strange young woman aside for a private conversation, and she didn't disappoint. He later claimed she knew things about him that he had never said aloud before; things that only God could have told her. That was enough for him—he was sold! He gave Joan command of his armies, filled with confidence that his luck was about to turn.
And wouldn't you know it, it was!
In the span of a few months, Joan of Arc managed to win an unwinnable conflict. After decades of fighting, right when the French cause seemed the most lost, she led Charles's forces to victory after victory. With Joan leading from the front, the French crushed the English in battle, drove them back for the first time in years, and got Charles officially crowned the King of France in 1429.
Listening to Joan of Arc was the best thing Charles ever did—but that doesn't mean he could save her from her horrific fate.
So what did Joan of Arc get for saving Charles VII's bacon? Charles's enemies captured her and handed her over to the English, who tried her for heresy and burned her at the stake. It didn't matter too much to Charles, though. He was finally the king! His troubles were finally over, right? Of course not. He still had a scandalous romantic life, a bitter feud, and a painful death ahead of him. Buckle up.
Joan of Arc gets basically all the credit for putting Charles VII on the throne—heck, we just gave her full credit ourselves. But there's someone we can't forget about: Charles's mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon. Joan of Arc wouldn't have gotten anywhere without Yolande's gold financing her armies. Marrying Marie d'Anjou ended up being an amazing decision...but that wasn't enough to keep Charles faithful to her.
Marie d'Anjou didn't only give Charles VII the French throne, she also gave him 14 children to boot! And how did he show his gratitude? By spending all of his time with his scandalous mistress, Agnes Sorel. Charles had spent his entire life to this point fighting for his throne—now it was time to kick back and do some old-fashioned philandering.
And, we must say, if you're going to choose a mistress, Agnes Sorel was one heck of a choice.
Agnes Sorel was one serious social climber. Born a nobody, she managed to land herself a job as Queen Marie d'Anjou's lady in waiting. Marie didn't know it yet, but she had just made a terrible mistake. Her latest companion would soon tear her husband away from her. Before long, no one held as much sway over Charles VII as Agnes Sorel—but their relationship was utterly twisted.
Charles wasn't a child any longer. By now, he was approaching his 40s, but he still had an obsession with younger women. Agnes Sorel was nearly 20 years his junior, but that didn't stop the Victorious King. Soon after first laying eyes on her beauty, he made her his mistress. Everyone in France knew that she had him wrapped around her finger—and that made some powerful enemies.
French kings have had some of the most infamous mistresses in history: Madame de Montespan, Diane de Poitiers, and the Countess of Castiglione, to name just a few. But Agnes Sorel was the first—at least, she was the first officially recognized "Royal Mistress" to a King of France. That's right, Charles VII was so into his side piece that he made it official.
But Charles's wife wasn't the only one who hated having Agnes around. Her influence on the king raised eyebrows; her extravagant tastes even more so. But the most scandalous of all was her..."daring" fashion choices.
Agnes Sorel wasn't one for modesty. Maybe that's what Charles found so mesmerizing about her. As the king's mistress, court fashion went where Agnes did—and that meant it went low. Agnes loved shocking the court with her jaw-droppingly low-cut gowns, and she attracted imitators and detractors in equal parts. And don't go thinking her gowns would be tame by today's standards.
When Agnes Sorel wanted to show off, she really showed off.
Agnes's gowns became so infamous that the Archbishop of Reims felt he had to confront the king about it directly. He allegedly told Charles to stop his mistress from wearing dresses with "front openings through which one sees the teats, nipples, and breasts of women." Ok, fine, that does sound pretty scandalous—but Charles was the last person in the world to complain about it.
If Charles VII was good at one thing, it was procreating. On top of the 14 children he had with his wife, he fathered another three with Agnes Sorel. In a bizarre twist, one of those children, a girl named Charlotte, became a favorite of Charles's wife, Marie. Evidently, she was able to look the other way in regards to her husband's extra-marital activities. That, or Charlotte was just so adorable she made up for it.
But not all of Charles's kids were so delightful. Some were downright monstrous.
Charles VII should have been able to spend the last years of his reign kicking back and enjoying all of his success—but his eldest son, Louis, had something to say about that. Louis demanded to receive more power as the Dauphin. Charles, who'd fought tooth and nail for his crown, refused to give his son an inch. Oh well, they were father and son. I'm sure they could figure it out...right?
Spoiler alert: They could not figure it out.
Charles had faced up against John the Fearless and Henry V, yet his own son turned out to be his greatest enemy in the end. Louis did everything in his power to turn the nobles against Charles and destabilize his reign. But that was just the beginning. As Louis grew older, his rebelliousness grew more and more unhinged.
Louis despised his father's mistress, Agnes Sorel. Ok, that's a little understandable—they were almost the same age, after all—but Louis took his hatred to disturbing levels. According to one contemporary source, after one of their many fiery arguments, Louis drew his sword and drove her into Charles's bed. Maybe Agnes did actually love Charles, but his son was making this relationship a total nightmare.
Something had to give—and Charles was the one to make the first move.
After the birth of his final son, Charles decided enough was enough with Louis. He banished the Dauphin to Southern France to teach him a lesson—but he underestimated just how much his son despised him. When Charles felt like Louis had been gone long enough, he told him to return to court, but Louis refused. Charles grew more and more annoyed, but no matter how much he demanded Louis come back to Paris, the Dauphin stayed put.
The two of them never saw each other again—but that doesn't mean that Louis was done messing with his dad just yet. For now, though, Charles had bigger problems...
In 1450, Agnes Sorel, pregnant with their fourth child, traveled across France in the middle of winter to join Charles on campaign. She wanted to be with him for moral support, but this turned out to be a fatal mistake. In what felt like the blink of an eye, she grew horribly sick. She delivered her child, but both mother and daughter perished soon after. Sorel was only 28 years old.
Most people blamed the journey for Sorel's illness. However, centuries later, a forensic scientist suggested a much, much darker possibility.
The sudden nature of Sorel's end was just a little too suspicious. In 2005, Philippe Charlier examined the case and posited that mercury poisoning could very well have been the culprit. Sorel did have many enemies in court, after all. The journey would have been the perfect opportunity to cover up any attempt on her life.
But the question remains: Who? I think we all know the answer.
Charles VII's son Louis had one of the most twisted nicknames in history: The Universal Spider. He became infamous for his political plots and intrigue, and he was more than willing to get his hands dirty. Everyone in France knew he and Sorel despised one another, and many have speculated that he played a role in her sudden end.
Whatever the cause, losing Sorel absolutely devastated Charles VII—for about five minutes. Then he moved right on to an even more scandalous mistress.
Charles VII evidently didn't like being alone, and he clearly didn't consider his wife an option for companionship. Almost as soon as he'd buried Agnes Sorel, he shacked up with her cousin, Antoinette de Maignelais. Maignelais became the second official Royal Mistress of France—but if you think that Agnes Sorel courted controversy, just wait. Maignelais was a whole new level.
Charles VII was approaching 50, but he evidently subscribed to the McConaughey school of dating: He got older, they stayed the same age. Actually, that's not fair to McConaughey. Charles got older, and his mistresses got even younger. Antoinette de Maignelais was just 16 years old when she hooked up with the aging king.
And yet somehow, their relationship gets even more messed up from there.
To make sure his new mistress was always close at hand, Charles married Antoinette off to his first gentleman of the bedchamber, Andre, Baron de Villequier. Imagine if your boss made you marry his gal pal so that he could keep her around? If that's not a toxic work environment, I don't know what is. At least Charles was happy! Although, if he'd known the truth about Antoinette, maybe he wouldn't have been...
I'm sure everyone thought that Charles's bright-eyed, teenaged new mistress wasn't much of a threat—but they were seriously underestimating Antoinette de Maignelais. She may have shared the king's bed, but she was in the Dauphin's pocket. She secretly acted as a spy for Louis, keeping him informed of everything Charles did.
Everything was falling apart for Charles the Victorious. His new mistress was spying on him, his son was one step away from open rebellion, and his body finally started wasting away. In 1458, a mysterious sore appeared on his leg. No matter what the royal physicians did, the infection refused to heal. Soon, Charles came down with a horrible fever.
Charles was clearly not long for this world, and all he wanted was to see his son one more time. Louis had other ideas...
Even as Charles cried out for his eldest, Louis refused to go to him. He remained in the countryside, waiting for the moment his father finally drew his last breath. He even hired astrologers to determine the exact hour Charles would die. However, Louis underestimated his father's will to live. Charles VII was still a fighter, even after all these years.
Charles's illness refused to subside, yet he clung to life regardless. For two agonizing years, Charles lingered, praying for a reconciliation with his son. It would never come. Finally, as the end drew close, his mind simply...broke. He became completely unhinged, ranting and raving that he was surrounded by traitors loyal to his son.
But the madness was only the beginning—the pain came next.
As the infection ran its course, it spread to Charles's jaw, causing a gruesome abscess in his mouth. It swelled to such a size that for the final days of Charles's life, he couldn't even swallow food or water. After two long years of illness, the end was still somehow even more gruesome than anyone had ever imagined. But even as Charles lay there in agony, he still managed to murmur the same request over and over.
Even to the very end, Charles held out hope from some reconciliation with the Dauphin. On his deathbed, he cried out for his boy—but Louis was as coldhearted as they come. The Dauphin refused to budge, waiting in the North until he heard news of his father's passing before making his move. Well, he wouldn't have to wait much longer.
Charles was a complicated and controversial king, but few would say he deserved the horrific end he was dealt. Lying in bed, completely aware of his son's betrayal, Charles VII starved to death, unable to swallow the food that might have saved his life. He'd gone from being the 11th child of a Mad King, on the brink of losing France forever, to the ultimate victory of a century-long conflict.
Yet none of that could save him from in the end.
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