King Charles VI was born on December 3, 1368, to the House of Valois. He ruled France for an astounding 42 years, from 1380 until his death in 1422. Merely 11 years old when he was crowned king, his reign was initially well-favored, earning him the nickname Charles the Beloved. Things started to go south in 1392 when he was suddenly struck by a bout of insanity. As his periods of delusion grew longer and longer, he eventually gained the chilling moniker Charles the Mad. Read on to find out what went wrong with this once-beloved monarch.
Charles VI Facts
1. Born in War
King Charles VI’s birth came in the midst of the Hundred Years War, fought between France and England over the right to rule France. By the time he came of age and was able to fully rule, both countries had more or less exhausted their resources and were fighting through proxy wars (wars fought by third parties on behalf of the warring nations).
2. Heir by Default
Charles VI was actually the third born son in his family, but his oldest brother died at age five. Then, his next brother died at just six months. This all happened before he was even born, so he became heir to the throne by default the moment he came into the world.
3. King’s Council
When Charles assumed the throne at age 11, he wasn’t yet old enough to rule alone, so France was mainly ruled by his four uncles (the Dukes of Anjou, Berry, Burgundy, and Bourbon) and the administrative Conseil du Roi. The council served as advisors to the king (or in this case, the king’s regents) and consulted on all matters relating to the government in war and peace, though the final decision still technically laid with the king.
Most importantly, they were a useful scapegoat for any ruler, who could just blame his councilors for any actions that ended up being unpopular. Handy!
4. Corruption and Greed
Unfortunately for Charles, his regent uncles proved to be totally corrupt. By the time he managed to end the regency and take full power, they’d raised taxes several times (which led to rebellion among the peasants) and totally looted the treasury for personal profit, leaving the country in a pretty bad financial state. It also didn’t help matters that the country had been ravaged by the Black Death less than a half-century before and still hadn’t recovered.
5. Setting Things Right
Technically, the regency should have ended when Charles turned 14, but it took him six years and the help of his younger brother, Louis I of Orléans, to drive them out. When he finally took sole control of the throne, he replaced the Dukes and the council with some of his father’s old advisors, a group known as the Marmousets. With his new council in place and his greedy uncles gone, he set about trying to restore order and end the conflict with England.
6. Forming Alliances
At age 16, Charles was married to Princess Isabeau of Bavaria, through an arrangement set up by his uncle and regent, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. The match came at the suggestion of Isabeau’s uncle, Duke Frederick of Bavaria-Landshut. Philip, whose every decision was made for his own benefit, thought this was a great idea. He had just inherited Flanders and needed a German ally to keep the English from trying to take it.
Since Bavaria was one of the most powerful German states, it was a win-win situation (at least for Philip).
7. Clothes Stay On
At the time of Charles and Isabeau’s meeting, it was a custom in France for prospective brides to be examined in the nude. Isabeau’s father, however, hadn’t told her she was heading to France to get married. He lied and said that she was only accompanying her uncle on a pilgrimage to Amiens, so he refused the tradition on the basis of not wanting her to know why she was really there.
8. On the Upswing
In the beginning, Charles was a pretty good leader. He made mostly thoughtful decisions, was kind to the commoners, and made good strides in bringing France back to a good place economically and politically. This was the start of a period of high regard for the king and the crown, earning him the nickname Charles the Beloved.
9. Marrying Kings
Despite his mental illness, Charles and Isabeau managed to have 12 children (though many would not survive their youth), and two of their daughters married Kings of England. Isabella, their third child and the first to survive past age two, married King Richard II at age six, but had no children before his death in 1400. Their 10th child, Catherine, married Henry V of England in 1420, and she eventually gave birth to the future King Henry VI of England.
10. Partial Power
During one of his periods of lucidity in the 1390s, Charles had the sense to make Isabeau the principal guardian of their son, the Dauphin, until his 13th birthday. This gave her power on the regency council. In 1393, he also made her co-guardian of their other children, which she shared with her brother, Louis of Bavaria, and the dukes. This act gave Isabeau full power to protect and educate the heir, but not the power of the regency. That, Charles gave to his brother, Louis I of Orleans.
11. Finding a Surrogate
Charles’ frequent bouts with insanity had Isabeau fearing for her life. During his insane periods, he apparently developed a major hate-on for his queen, and he’d throw anything within reach at her while screaming obscenities. She was also subject to frequent beatings and other abuses, leading her to take the extreme step of allowing the king to find a mistress.
According to some sources, she even went as far as to arrange her for him. How generous of her.
12. Seeking a Cure
One of the ways in which doctors attempted to cure Charles of what is now believed to be schizophrenia was by drilling small holes into his skull to relieve pressure on his brain. That didn’t help (other than maybe to give him a headache), so the desperate doctors tried something different. They called in officials from the Catholic Church to perform an exorcism, but, unsurprisingly, that failed as well.
Hey, at least no one can say they didn’t try everything they could!
13. The Madness Continues
For most of the winter of 1395-1396, Charles’ delusions led him to believe that he was St. George. During this time, he was unable to even recognize his wife or his family. He was also prone to running wildly around his residence in Paris, often ending up nude in the Royal Garden. In order to keep him safe (and probably from escaping the palace), his court attendants walled up the corridors.
14. The Little Queen
The king’s mistress, Odette de Champdivers, was described as a beautiful and gentle woman who, against all odds, really seemed to love the king. She gave him a daughter, Marguerite de Valois, and she stayed by his side until he died. For his part, the king was quite taken with his mistress, nicknaming her the Little Queen.
15. Cut Off
After the king’s death, Odette, Marguerite, and Marguerite’s daughter lost the pension that he had granted them when the royal treasury was seized by the English. They were left up the creek with no money and nowhere to go except back to Odette’s homeland, Burgundy, hoping to find help from Philip III, the Duke of Burgundy and a distant relation of Charles.
16. The Prince’s Spy
In April 1424, a new opportunity arose for Charles’ former mistress. As the story goes, Odette was approached by a monk named Étienne Chariot, who approached her on the Dauphin Charles’ behalf, asking her to spy on the movements of the Duke of Burgundy. She might have been the one to warn Charles of an imminent attack on his supporters in Lyon, which you’d think would have gotten her something—but nope!
If she did indeed spy for the prince, all she got for her trouble was an interrogation and a narrow escape by her and her daughter after being captured and charged with plotting against the Duke.
For her part, Charles’ bastard daughter Marguerite landed better than her mother, being recognized officially by her half-brother Charles VII in 1428 (further supporting the belief that her mother may have been his spy). He was even generous enough to give her a decent dowry and arrange a decent marriage, so she did alright.
18. Get Out!
The Jewish people in France were no strangers to being disliked by French Kings, or to being blamed for the woes of the nation, so it shouldn’t have been that much of a shock in 1394 when Charles VI published an ordinance claiming that they had violated their agreement with him and expelling them once again from the country.
19. Taking Advantage
Charles’ Uncle Philip the Bold was a total opportunist, and he wasted no time making a power grab when Charles suffered his first mental breakdown in 1392. Philip, who was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time, immediately took command and declared himself regent. He remained the principal ruler of France for the next decade, much to the anger of his nephew, Charles’ brother Louis I, Duke of Orleans.
20. God’s Punishment
Being that there was no scientific explanation for mental illness at the time, several clergymen and some of the king’s enemies decided that God was punishing him for his support of Antipope Clement VII…and for having too much sex. To try and quell God’s anger, one of Charles’ daughters became a nun. Several masses, prayers, and processions were also held to aid in his recovery, and wax figures of his image were sent to religious places that were known for the miraculous powers of their saints.
Sadly, the religious angle also failed, and Charles remained insane for most of his reign.
21. Power Struggle
Louis I, Duke of Orleans, Charles’s younger brother, was a member of the king’s council. Both highly ambitious and a huge pleasure seeker, he was pretty ticked off when his uncle Philip the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, declared himself regent for the newly mad king. This led to a major power struggle between the two, which continued beyond Philip’s death in 1404 with his son John the Fearless.
22. Continuing the Battle
In 1404, John the Fearless succeeded his father as Duke of Burgundy, and he immediately kicked the feud with his cousin Louis up a notch. The two men started threatening each other out in the open. It was only thanks to the mediation of their uncle, John of Valois, Duke of Berry, that an all-out civil war was avoided.
23. Killing his Rival
On November 23, 1407, Louis was riding back from a visit with the queen when he was ambushed by a group of seven or eight masked and armed men. They chopped off his hands, cut his head in two, beat him, and allegedly took his heart. John the Fearless didn’t even try to deny that he’d ordered the murder, claiming that it was a justified killing for “the good of the realm.”
I guess that more or less qualifies as “fearless.”
24. Political Pawn
Charles VI had two sons named Charles. The first one died in infancy, the second at age nine. Louis, Charles VI and Isabeau’s third son (they apparently decided the name Charles was bad luck), became the heir apparent to his father’s throne, and an important political pawn. The queen, the Duke of Burgundy, and the Duke of Orleans were all vying for power and control of the throne, and gaining control over Louis was key.
By the summer of 1405, young Louis was married to Margaret of Nevers, who was the daughter of none other than John the Fearless. This led to a rather bizarre incident which may or may not have been kidnapping. Upon hearing that the royal children had departed to meet their mother in Melun, John intercepted the kids and “asked” Louis if he wanted to go back to his father in Paris.
He then brought the kids back to the capital, without the Queen’s permission. This technically constituted kidnapping, but historians are divided on whether or not it was, since they were immediately returned to their father.
26. Good Riddance
To the surprise of many, Charles wasn’t too broken up about the assassination of his brother Louis of Orleans, possibly because the king believed John’s story that his brother was trying to kill him using black magic. It’s also worth noting that the torch that nearly burnt Charles to death at the Ball des Ardents was held by his brother.
To be fair, Louis was drunk and claimed not to know that they weren’t supposed to bring naked flames into the hall, but considering that at least one account says he threw the torch at the dancers, it’s possible that John wasn’t so far off.
27. Tipping Point
His brother’s assassination may not have bothered the king, but it did result in a civil war between two branches of the family—the branch stemming from Louis (House of Valois-Orleans) and the branch stemming from Philip the Bold (House of Valois-Burgundy). Prior to Louis’ assassination, the power struggle between the two factions was at a boiling point, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The war lasted almost 30 years, ending only in 1435 with the signing of the Treaty of Arras between Charles VII and Philip the Good, John the Fearless’s son.
28. Claiming the Crown
While France was in total chaos (thanks to a civil war and a mad king), the newly crowned Henry V of England decided to take advantage of his rival’s weakness and reassert his claim to the French Crown. After a series of English military victories in France between 1415 and 1419, the French had no choice but to agree to the infamous Treaty of Troyes in May of 1420.
29. Terms of Agreement
The terms of Treaty of Troyes were totally slanted in favor of Henry V. He was to be given Charles IV’s daughter Catherine of Valois’ hand in marriage, and Henry and his future sons were made the heirs to the French throne. This left the Dauphin out in the cold—but we’re not talking about the Louis we mentioned earlier.
The Dauphin Louis died of an illness at age 18. His brother, the Dauphin John, also died at 18, though the cause of his death is disputed. That left Charles #3, his parents’ fifth son and eleventh child, as the unlikely Dauphin, though the Treaty saw his inheritance taken away. His mother Isabeau actually supported the treaty, however. She hoped the marriage between her daughter and the English king would unite the two kingdoms and end the war.
She also figured that Henry would be a good ruler for France, which was definitely a step up from her crazy husband.
30. Two Heirs
Ironically, Henry V died two months before Charles VI, making Henry’s infant son Henry VI the new king of France and England. As per the Treaty of Troyes, Henry did technically inherit the French crown, but Dauphin Charles wasn’t about to go away quietly. He quickly claimed the crown for himself, treaty or no treaty.
31. Under No Circumstances!
In 1419, John the Fearless was assassinated by the men-at-arms of Charles, Dauphin of France. This did not go over well with daddy, who promptly issued an ordinance taking away the Dauphin’s right to the crown and forbidding the French people from helping him in any way. By this point, King Charles was pretty insane and under the John the Fearless’ influence, which probably explains why he made his own son the villain of the piece.
By 1389, England and France had been fighting for over half a century, and both countries were in pretty rough shape. England was totally tapped out financially and was politically divided, while over in France, Charles VI was looney toons. Neither side wanted to cave on what caused the conflict, but they knew that they had to do something or else both kingdoms would be irreparably damaged.
Representatives for both sides met and agreed to suspend fighting for three years, but when Charles and Richard II actually met in person at Leulinghem, they extended the truce to 27 years.
33. Path to Peace
As part of the new peace treaty, marriage was arranged between Charles VI’s six-year-old daughter Isabella and England’s King Richard II, along with a sizeable dowry. In exchange, Richard agreed to give up his holdings in Northern France, with the exception of Calais. Charles was lucid enough in 1396 to meet with the king on his own and make a bunch of other commitments, but most importantly, they agreed to continue working towards permanent peace.
If only it had held.
34. Who’s Your Daddy?
It’s a common story that Charles VII, Charles VI’s eleventh child and eventual successor, wasn’t actually the latter’s legitimate son. This claim was even perpetrated by Charles VI himself, since Isabeau didn’t exactly have a reputation for being faithful. Isabeau was also rumored to have confessed to his illegitimacy, but this was never recorded in any official document and has been debunked by recent historians. Either way, it totally messed with Charles VII’s head.
He spent a good chunk of his life wondering who his father was.
35. A Saintly Name
Michelle de Valois was the seventh child of Charles and Isabeau. She was named after St. Michael, the Patron Saint of France. Shortly before her birth, Charles had visited his shrine on a pilgrimage, after which he claimed to see an improvement in his health.
36. Mysterious Death
Charles IV and Isabeau’s fourth son (ninth child), John, became Dauphin in 1415 after the deaths of his three older brothers (Charles #1, Charles #2, and Louis, for anyone who lost track). When John joined his older brothers two years later, many suspected that the cause of death was murder by poison. His death had been similar to his sister Michelle’s, who also fell mysteriously ill and died of suspected poisoning.
Evidently, having a Mad King as your father is hazardous to your health!
37. Odette! Odette!
Charles’ mistress was at his side when he died, and the last words he allegedly spoke were her name. At the same time, wife Isabeau apparently did not even attend his funeral—but with everything he put her through, can you blame her?
38. Insane in the Membrane
As a young man, Charles seemed like a perfectly normal dude, never exhibiting any signs of mental or physical illness. That changed in 1392. That year, when he was 23, he contracted a fever that made his hair and nails fall out and caused convulsions. The illness also seemed to do something to his brain, because he was never the same after. He ended up suffering from various psychoses for the rest of his life.
39. Frightened in the Forest
In 1492, during a hunting trip in the forests near Le Mans, Charles was approached by a raving old man who warned him that he was being betrayed. A short while later, one of his men-at-arms dropped his lance, startling the king and sending the already unhinged monarch into an insane and tragic rage.
Without any warning at all, Charles suddenly grabbed a sword and started slicing and dicing, claiming that he was under attack by traitors. He managed to kill four of the knights in his hunting party before falling into a 48-hour coma. Needless to say, the trip ended right there, and Charles was brought back to France in chains for his own safety. Who knows what he might have done otherwise.
Beginning around 1400, Charles started suffering from an affliction known as the “glass delusion.” For whatever reason, the king thought he was made of glass and would shatter if anyone touched him. During these bouts, he would sit completely still for days at a time, kept the windows closed to keep the wind from blowing in something that might break him, and forbade anyone from touching him or coming near him.
At one point, he even had iron rods sewn into his clothes to keep himself from breaking.
41. Uncourtly Love
As Charles’ mental illness grew worse, his frequent failure to even recognize his wife drove her to seek companionship (and possibly sex) outside the marriage. The king’s brother, the Duke of Orleans, was a frequent companion and widely rumored to be her lover, though the latter was never proven.
42. Near Miss
On January 28, 1393, Charles VI was nearly killed at the Bal des Ardents (Ball of the Burning Men) in Paris. He was performing a dance with five other French nobles when they were accidentally lit on fire by a torch. Four of them burned to death, but a noblewoman saved Charles when she put out the flames with her skirts. That was close!