Any king who starts out as Charles the Beloved and ends up as Charles the Mad had something go seriously wrong along the way. Charles VI inherited one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe—but as his mind grew more and more unhinged, his reign grew darker and darker, until he very nearly wiped France off the map. So what happened to King Charles VI of France? Let's find out.
Charles VI was born into a chaotic time. The Hundred Years War with England was raging, but his father, the formidable Charles the Wise, was up to the task. He and his wife, the brilliant Joanna of Bourbon, were the definition of a power couple. The two of them managed to outfox the English at every turn, and it looked like they were close to winning the whole war (Spoiler Alert: Their son would screw up everything).
But while Charles and Joanna saw success on the battlefield, they faced horrible tragedy at home.
Charles and Joanna had horrific luck when it came to parenthood. They struggled to produce a child for seven years after their wedding—and even when they succeeded, only heartbreak lay ahead. The couple had two daughters, Joanna and Bonne, yet both of them passed within two months of each other. They were three and two, respectively. Another child, a son, came a few years later—but he lasted less than a year.
When Joanna gave birth to their fourth child, our pal Charles VI, the parents must have been terrified they might lose another. Little did they know, the boy would survive—and he'd destroy everything they'd worked so hard for.
Charles VI didn't get to enjoy his childhood for long. He lost his mother when he was just nine, then two years later, his father passed as well. That made our Charles the King of France at the ripe old age of 11. A preteen ruling one of the most powerful kingdoms on the continent in the midst of a decades-long conflict? What could possibly go wrong?
They didn't give Charles VI the keys to the castle right away. He was only 11 after all. Thankfully, he had several uncles, powerful dukes, who were kind enough to rule in his stead, as his regents. Ok, maybe they weren't exactly "kind." More like "selfish, power-hungry despots." And how do you think that went?
Charles V's steady hand helped France make major gains against the English—but his brothers were a different story. Each of them looked out only for themselves, seeking personal profit above all else. Their brother had painstakingly built up massive financial resources during his reign—and they blew through it by chasing their own petty schemes.
It wasn't long before the Dukes had wasted nearly every livre their brother had left for his son Charles. Then, to make a bad situation even worse, they did something stupid.
The Dukes squandered the money that Charles V had built up for France, so they did what most selfish despots would do: They raised taxes. The only problem was, Charles V had promised to repeal taxes on his deathbed, and the people knew it. When the Dukes announced their new taxes—all just to pay for their petty squabbles—the people revolted.
Whenever our guy Charles VI took over, he was going to have a serious mess on his hands—but for now, he had something else on his mind: Women.
While Charles's uncles were busy running France into the ground, Charles grew into a young man, and a total hunk at that. By 17, he was fit, attractive, and athletic; a total catch. Not to mention he was technically the King of France. Talk about an eligible bachelor—but not for long. A king needs a queen, and Charles was about to find his.
May god have mercy on whichever poor woman ended up wearing his ring.
At 17 years old, Charles VI attended the wedding of some important French nobles, but he wasn't just there for fun: He was there to find a wife. He spent the wedding showing off, even riding in the tourney himself. But honestly, he could have been sickly and weak and it wouldn't have mattered. He was the King of France, and everyone wanted a piece of him. At least, they thought they did...
A Bavarian Duke ended up winning the Charles VI sweepstakes. He suggested a match between Charles and his daughter, Isabeau of Bavaria. Charles's advisors agreed, and the Duke sent Isabeau to France to be "presented" to Charles. If only she'd known what was coming, she'd never have left home.
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The Duke sent Isabeau to his aunt and uncle to prepare her to meet Charles VI and make a good impression. There, they quickly realized that Isabeau was no fragile princess. She was quick-witted and intelligent, and she absorbed her lessons on the French court with ease. Pretty soon, she had all new clothes in the French style, she knew the ins and outs of French etiquette, and she was ready to meet her soon-to-be husband.
Boy, was she in for a surprise when she did.
The moment Charles VI laid eyes on his Isabeau, he fell head over heels. He couldn't believe his luck; the woman his advisors had selected for him was beautiful, young, and brilliant. He couldn't take his eyes off of her. From there, their romance was a whirlwind. Unfortunately, that didn't give Isabeau time to change her mind...
When Charles knew what he wanted, he acted fast—well, at least, he did before he went hopelessly insane, but that comes later. He married Isabeau of Bavaria just three days after their first meeting. The wedding was was an extravagant and salacious affair. One attendee wrote of the event, describing Charles and Isabeau as the "hot young couple" who seemingly couldn't keep their hands off of one another.
It truly was like a fairy tale—but little did the "hot young couple" know, this isn't a fairy tale. It's a horror story.
Though Isabeau of Bavaria would soon learn that the ring on her finger was more like an anchor, her marriage couldn't have gotten off to a better start. Charles was absolutely obsessed with her, and he lavished her with expensive gifts. They were a young couple in love, and they made the most of it—but it couldn't last forever. Though Charles's uncles still ruled France in his stead, he wasn't a boy any longer.
It was time for Charles to take the reins and become the king he was meant to be—for better or for worse.
Charles VI ended up being one of the worst kings in France's history—but to his credit, he didn't really seem to want to be king in the first place. Charles could have taken his rightful place as king when he was 14 years old, but he didn't. He'd rather hunt and joust and enjoy life than be a boring old king. He let his uncles keep on running France into the ground while he galivanted about.
Finally, when he was 21, enough was enough. He terminated the regency and took over the kingdom himself—and he made a surprising decision right out of the gate.
Believe it or not, Charles started his reign by doing something...good? After a decade of selfish dukes treating running the kingdom like a game, Charles brought back all of his father's old advisors. His father who, you'll remember, was actually a great king. With these keen old political minds, Charles actually improved life in France for the first time in years.
It was this period when Charles earned his nickname—well, his first nickname. "Charles the Mad" came later.
It's funny how much a man's reputation can change over the course of a lifetime. Early in his reign, Charles's people dubbed him "Charles the Beloved" for getting rid of his greedy uncles and bringing stability back to France. If Charles had a heart attack right then and there, history would remember him as a great king. But he didn't.
After his early successes, those around Charles the beloved started to notice something was...changing about him.
There was a dark side to Charles VI's family history. Through his mother's side, there was a long history of serious mental illness. Charles' grandfather was infamous for his debilitating mental breakdowns. His mother, Joanna, suffered the same condition. Those who knew the family watched Charles VI closely for some sign that he might have inherited the same madness.
Up to this point, he seemed to have avoided his dark genes—but not long after he became king, the darkness started to creep in.
As the years went by, the people who had once called him Charles the Beloved started whispering another name: Charles the Mad. His mental illness came and went, so that you could never quite tell what kind of king you were going to get. During one period, he couldn't even remember his own name, and had no idea he was king. The glory days of his early reign quickly faded into the rearview. When Charles VI fell, he fell fast.
For a time, people called Charles both "The Beloved" and "The Mad," but eventually, they used the former less and less and the latter more and more. He infamously began running wildly through the hallways of his Parisian palace in various states of dress/undress. At a certain point, his advisors had to wall up the entrances to the palace, lest the king run straight out into the streets.
His erratic behavior grew nearly impossible to contain—and that's not to even mention the smell.
This was the Middle Ages, so it's not like everyone was walking around smelling like roses, but Charles took "lack of hygiene" to a whole new level. Once, he refused to bathe—or even change his clothes—for five whole months. Picture the King of France, wearing soiled, disheveled robes, stinking to high heaven. Not exactly the most inspiring leader, is he?
Each new episode made it seem like Charles' madness couldn't possibly grow any worse, and yet each time, it did. In fact, his most infamous psychosis was yet to come.
Many Medieval kings were paranoid, but with Charles the Mad, it was different. He didn't see would-be assassins around every corner; he believed he would simply shatter at any moment. Literally. At one point, Charles came to believe that he was made of glass. He grew obsessed with protecting his delicate person, lest he might break. He even reportedly had his tailors sew iron rods into his clothing to reinforce his fragile frame.
Meanwhile, through all of this, the Hundred Years War was still raging, and France was losing more of the ground Charles's father had fought for with each passing day. Someone had to do something before it was too late.
No one in France had a harder job than Pierre Salmon, Charles VI's secretary. Salmon never knew what kind of king he was going to wake up to. Still, it fell to him to manage Charles's mood swings, try to keep the nobles in line, and save his own neck in the process. Fortunately, Salmon was pretty darn good at his job, and he managed to fight off the worst crises for years. He even produced two stunning illuminated manuscripts on good kingship, known as Pierre Salmon's Dialogues.
But not even an advisor like Salmon could stop Charles VI's reign from going up in flames—literally.
In 1393, Charles's wife Isabeau planned a lavish masked ball to celebrate the wedding of one of her ladies-in-waiting. Charles's madness had already begun seeping into her life, and no doubt she wanted a party to take her mind off of it. Unfortunately, the event turned into an utter disaster.
Someone had the brilliant idea that Charles and five other lords should dress as "wild men," mythical figures who lived in the woods. To perfect the illusion, Charles and the other lords wore very...unique costumes. They clad themselves in swaths of linen cloth that they had soaked in resin and covered in thin wisps of hemp. The outfits made them appear shaggy and wild, just like the wild men from the stories.
But, any forest rangers reading might have come to a different conclusion. Linen, resin, fine fibers of hemp...Charles and the five other lords were essentially ready-made firestarters. And, believe it or not, Charles VI's palace did not feature nice, safe, LED lighting...
At least one person at the ball had a head on his shoulders. One advisor noted that maybe it wouldn't be a good idea to keep the torches near the six tinderboxes dancing at the center of the room. Unfortunately, Charles's own brother Louis arrived late and didn't get the memo. The results were catastrophic.
Louis showed up to the ball fashionably late and found six shaggy creatures dancing in the center of the room. The costumes were so thick with hemp that Louis couldn't even see who the men underneath were. With the assuredness that only royals possess, Louis grabbed a torch from the side of the room and approached the dancers to get a closer look.
I bet you can guess what happened next.
It only took seconds for Louis to realize he'd made a horrible mistake. By then, it was too late. The flames jumped from his torch to one of the dancers and quickly spread across the dancefloor. One moment, the party-goers were having the time of their lives, watching their king and five lords traipse about in their ridiculous costumes. The next, panic filled the hall, as the screams of burning men and terrified onlookers filled the air.
The Bal des Ardents, or the Ball of the Burning Men, was like a nightmare come to life. Four of the costumed lords perished in the flames. One managed to save himself—by jumping into a dishwasher tub. Several knights who sprang into action to try and put out the fires ended up severely burned. But what of the king himself? Charles VI ended up surviving the ball, all thanks to the heroic efforts of one woman.
As the flames started to spread, the Duchess of Berry acted fast. She gathered up the voluminous folds of her skirt and threw them over the king to shield him from the fire. Her quick thinking paid off, and Charles VI survived the disaster relatively unscathed. Well, physically, at least. He still paid a terrible price for it.
Charles the Mad already had a tough enough time inspiring confidence, but the Ball of the Burning Men was a catastrophe unlike any other he'd endured thus far. Even if the Ball had gone off without a hitch, the people would have been disgusted by the display of extravagance. However, the fire seemed like a bad omen, and the citizens of Paris prepared to revolt.
Charles and his dimwitted brother Louis had to offer public penance to get the people to settle down. It was humiliating, but they had no other choice. And the worst part? The whole scandal had basically nothing to do with Charles' madness—though it definitely made it a lot worse.
After the Ball of the Burning Men, Charles' mental state completely deteriorated. Mere months later, insanity struck once more. Charles was completely useless for six long months. His doctors were powerless; as one wrote, "No medicine could help him." All anyone could do was wait and hope his mind returned. It eventually did, but this was the beginning of a pattern.
For the next three decades of Charles the Mad's life, he would suffer similar mental breakdowns that would take him out of commission for months at a time. Pretty soon, it began to take a toll on his wife.
The first few years of Charles and Isabeau's relationship were mostly wonderful. They were madly in love, and they welcomed three children—though it wasn't all marital bliss. She lost two children in infancy, but at least she had her beloved husband to comfort her. However, as the madness began to creep in, Charles grew increasingly distant. Suddenly, Isabeau was 22 years old, had three children to look after, and a husband who grew more insane with each passing day.
But Isabeau of Bavaria was no trophy wife. She was up to the challenge.
Everyone close to Charles VI could tell that he was in no shape to rule most of the time. Isabeau set up a regency council to run the kingdom while Charles was incapacitated. The queen became one of the most influential people in all of France, holding on for dear life as her husband's mind withered away. She held onto hope that one day, he might return to the vivacious man she'd met just a few years earlier.
Then one day, she visited him at his palace, and discovered a stranger waiting for her.
The strapping young man who'd fallen in love with Isabeau was gone, leaving only a husk. Isabeau rode the choppy waters of Charles's madness as best she could, but once, when she came to visit, she made a horrifying discovery. Her own husband didn't even recognize her. After a long time apart, she entered his chamber, only for him to lean to an advisor and whisper: "Who is this woman obstructing my view? Find out what she wants and stop her from annoying and bothering me."
It must have devastated Isabeau—but little did she know, her nightmare was only beginning.
Not only did Charles not recognize Isabeau, but she seemed to utterly repulse him. Yet Charles still craved female companionship, so his advisors provided him with a mistress: Odette de Champdivers. The daughter of a horse-trader one day, Odette suddenly found herself sharing a bed with the most powerful man in France. People in the palace took to calling her "the little queen," much to Isabeau's dismay.
Charles's madness not only drove a wedge between them, but it also sent him into the arms of another woman. It's only fitting, then, that she repay her king in kind.
As Isabeau presided over the regency council, Charles's brother Louis, the Duke of Orleans (remember, the guy who started the fire?) gained more and more influence. The queen and the duke began to dominate affairs, and people noticed. Pretty soon, a scandalous rumor was being whispered in every corner of the court...
Could the queen and the king's brother be having an affair? It would make perfect sense, after all. Charles didn't even recognize Isabeau and couldn't bear her presence. Louis was a power-hungry duke who watched his brother squander his crown. They both had everything to gain from working together—and why not mix a little bit of business with pleasure?
Though many suspected it, no concrete evidence of the affair ever came to light—probably because Louis met his grim fate before it ever could.
Louis must have felt like he was on top of the world. His power grew as his brother's insanity worsened, and he was sharing his bed with the queen herself (allegedly). But things can change in an instant. One night in 1407, some poor Parisian stumbled upon Louis' corpse on the rue Vieille du Temple. Someone had slain the king's own brother in the streets of Paris—and as a sign of just how little power Charles held, the man responsible didn't even deny it.
John the Fearless, the Duke of Burgundy, basically admitted to the crime, saying that Louis was a tyrant who squandered France's money. More likely, John just wanted the throne for himself, and Louis was in the way. If Charles the Mad's reign had been chaotic before, it was about to turn into full-blown anarchy.
Now, you can question John the Fearless's methods, but you can't really blame him for wanting to take Charles's throne. Charles was useless on his best days, and a danger to himself and others on his worst. France was also still in the middle of the Hundred Years War which, as you might have guessed, was going pretty poorly after the halcyon days of Charles's father.
John the Fearless offed Louis and started a whole new civil war in the middle of all that—and it meant utter disaster for France.
I guess there's something about the letter "V" that makes for an effective king. Charles VI's father, Charles V, had nearly pushed the English out of France entirely. Next, England's King Henry V took advantage of Charles VI's madness and invaded. He pushed back the French forces until he finally defeated Charles at the disastrous Battle of Agincourt.
Despite having half as many men, Henry absolutely crushed the French forces. The battle was a catastrophe on every level for Charles VI—but what came next was even worse.
Henry V spent the years after Agincourt winning battle after battle in France, taking back all the territory that Charles's father had conquered years earlier. Henry's success culminated in 1420, when he forced Charles VI to sign the Treaty of Troyes. Even Charles the Mad knew he had no choice but to fall in line—even though the terms of the treaty were absolutely brutal.
The Treaty of Troyes might have changed European history forever. In it, Charles disinherited his own son and made Henry V his heir. That meant, as soon as Charles croaked—and let's be honest, he didn't seem like he was long for this world—Henry would become the king of England and France, uniting them as one kingdom.
You can bet lots of people weren't happy about it—chief among them Charles's son, the Dauphin.
Remember John the Fearless, who'd eliminated Charles's brother? Well, he saw the English as his ticket to power, so he joined forces with them and captured Paris, Charles included. His only mistake was letting Charles's young son, Charles VII, escape. After the Treaty of Troyes, Charles VII declared his father unfit to rule and named himself regent, establishing a rival court to the south at Bourges.
The whole situation in France was getting extremely messy. Then, two sudden deaths changed everything.
Charles VI of France and Henry V had almost nothing in common. Charles was feeble, insane, and ineffective, Henry V was bold, warlike, and formidable. But all of that meant nothing in the end, as the two of them ended up passing within mere weeks of each other. Henry had dysentery to blame, contracted after many long years on campaign. Charles, on the other hand, simply wasted away, a symptom of three decades of madness.
So, the question was...what happened now? Technically, according to the Treaty of Troyes, Henry V's son, the infant Henry VI, was the King of England and France. But you can bet that Charles's son, who now called himself Charles VII, had something to say about that.
If Henry V had survived, he likely would have claimed the French throne for himself, and who knows what Europe would look like today. But, he didn't, and little baby Henry VI wasn't going to stop Charles's son from taking back his birthright. Oh, and a woman by the name of Joan of Arc didn't hurt matters wither. Within a few years, Charles VI's son, now called Charles the Victorious, repelled the English and took back the throne, officially becoming Charles VII of France.
The French rejoiced at their new king and tried their best to pretend that the nightmarish rule of Charles the Mad had ever happened—but one incident from his reign was too disturbing to forget.
Charles the Beloved lasted about five years as a good king before the madness began to creep in. The first signs of his mental illness appeared after assailants attacked his close friend and advisor, Olivier de Clisson. Young Charles started to grow paranoid—but still, no one expected just how twisted his mind became.
The first thing on Charles VI's mind was vengeance. The assailant, Pierre de Craon, had escaped retribution and taken refuge in Brittany. The duke there refused to hand him over, so Charles gathered a small force and prepared to take de Craon back by force. However, not long after leaving Paris, those closest to Charles began to notice he was acting...strange.
Charles the Beloved just wasn't himself on that expedition. His advisors noted that he appeared to have some kind of fever. He spoke often, but sometimes the words just didn't make sense, or he'd simply trail off in the middle of a sentence. They probably just assumed the attempt on his friend's life had rattled him a little bit, but nothing more. This was Charles the Beloved, after all.
However, before they made it to Brittany, they'd soon realize this was something much, much worse.
As the army made its slow pace across the French countryside, Charles grew impatient and agitated, but again, no one thought too much of it. He just wanted revenge against de Craon. Then, a few days into the march, in a forest near Le Mans, a strange figure appeared out of the woods. The man, a leper, wore ragged clothes and didn't even have shoes, yet he managed to sneak up to the procession unnoticed.
He grabbed the bridle of the king's horse and, in a frantic and crazed voice, gave an ominous warning.
The leper cried out, "Ride no further, noble King! Turn back! You are betrayed!" Charles's guards pushed the man back, but he continued to follow the king from a distance, shouting the same warning over and over. Charles was already anxious, and the leper's cries seemed to push him over the ledge. When a sudden clang sounded to the king's side, his mind simply snapped.
The loud clang was nothing more than the king's lance banging against steel helmet after a page accidentally dropped it. To Charles VI, though, it was the betrayal that the leper had warned him about. The king panicked, drew his sword, and cried out, "Forward against the traitors! They wish to deliver me to the enemy!"
Now, we all get a little jumpy now and then. In that situation, we'd probably see that no enemies were around, sheath our swords, and feel a little embarrassed. But this was the birth of Charles the Mad—and the day was about to take an even darker turn.
Charles VI spurred his horse forward and began swinging his sword wildly at anyone within arm's reach. It took an entire group of soldiers to pull him off of his horse and hold him to the ground until he finally stopped resisting. He then fell into a coma that lasted days—which is probably a good thing. That way, he didn't need to see what he had done.
Once the king finally lay still, his companions looked around in horror. Charles the Beloved had just slain several men, including one knight. It was totally unlike their strapping young king. None of them yet realized that this was not some momentary aberration. It was the beginning of the end.
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