In the midst of the Hundred Years War with England, the French government was suddenly paralyzed by a King who had gone insane.
"Hidden History" is a diary series that explores forgotten and little-known areas of history.
When Charles VI became King of France in 1380 at the age of eleven, the Hundred Years War with England had already been raging for decades. Through a convoluted line of intermarriages, the English Kings had staked a claim to the French throne and also asserted ownership of large portions of French territory. The war had drained the French treasury, and the Dukes of Anjou, Burgundy, Berry and Bourbon, Charles’ uncles who were serving as regents for the young King, had already raised taxes several times, provoking a rebellion amongst the peasantry. On top of that, the Black Death had devastated all of Europe just forty years before, and France had still not recovered.
France needed a strong leader, and young Charles VI was groomed to be that figure. In 1385, the Princess Isabeau of Bavaria was sent to France in an arranged marriage for Charles. He was 16, she was 14, and although she did not speak a word of French and they couldn’t even talk with each other, he was besotted with her. Three years later, having received the best education that medieval Europe could provide, Charles dismissed his regents and took over as King.
At first, all was well. Charles was graceful and polite and treated even the commoners with respect, and his decisions were well-thought out. He became known as Charles the Beloved.
But then things started to go wrong. In 1392 Charles fell ill with a fever that made his hair and nails fall out and brought on convulsions. It also seems to have affected his brain. (Modern scholars have attributed this illness to everything from encephalitis to porphyria to schizophrenia.) A short while later, as he was leading a band of knights to put down a rebellious nobleman, he was accosted by an old man who screamed at him that he was being betrayed. As they continued down the road, one of the men-at-arms accidentally dropped his lance, and Charles, perhaps shaken by the incident, seemed to go into some sort of trance. Drawing his sword and declaring that he was under attack by traitors, he suddenly turned and struck at his own men, killing four of them before being pulled from his horse. As his eyes rolled wildly, he went into a coma and was unconscious for two days.
When he recovered, all seemed well again. But then in January 1393, at a costume ball in the palace, Charles and several of his courtiers were accidentally set alight by a torch. Four of them burned to death: Charles was saved when a noblewoman smothered the flames with her skirts. The incident had a deep effect on the King: he became morose and withdrawn, and fell into periodic bouts of violence. His doctors attempted to treat him with trepanation, drilling holes into his skull to relieve pressure on the brain. When that didn’t work, Catholic Church officials were called in to perform exorcisms. Charles took to running around the palace yelling that enemies were pursuing him. His advisers confined him in a small darkened room, where he would attack anyone who entered. “Charles the Beloved” now became known as “Charles the Mad”.
Although he remained lucid most of the time, and was still considered to be a good king and an effective leader, over the years his bouts of insanity would become more frequent. He would urinate in his clothing and refuse to have his bed linens changed or to be washed or shaved. At one point, he declared himself to be St George, and he no longer recognized his wife. By 1400, he began having periods of time when he became convinced that he was made of glass and would shatter if he was touched: he would sit motionless for days at a time, with all the windows closed to prevent anything from being blown in on the wind that might hit him. He would also make his attendants walk on tiptoe when they entered the room, and forbid them from touching him or coming near him. Finally, he had iron rods sewn into all his clothing to prevent himself from breaking.
The kingdom descended into chaos. With the King increasingly unable to rule, political and military decisions were being made by a regency council containing Queen Isabeau, the King’s brother Louis, Duke of Orleans, and his uncle Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. Louis and Philip fought for power, and the French aristocracy soon divided into two opposing factions, the Orleanists and the Burgundians. (Queen Isabeau, it was rumored, took Louis of Orleans as her lover and bore several of his children.)
When Philip the Bold died in 1404, his son John the Fearless became Duke of Burgundy, and the political infighting reached a new level when John had Louis of Orleans assassinated. The result was full-scale civil war, in which the Orleanists and Burgundians would invade each other for the next thirty years.
Meanwhile, the Hundred Years War with England was still going on. In 1415, the English King Henry V landed a force of troops at Harfleur, then marched to Agincourt where he inflicted a crushing defeat that killed much of the French nobility. In an effort to unify France against the invaders, the Burgundian John the Fearless met with Charles the Dauphin, the Mad King’s son and heir to the throne, to arrange an alliance. But John was assassinated by an Orleanist court noble, and the new Duke of Burgundy, known as Philip the Good, openly allied with the Army of King Henry V. A short while later, it would be the Burgundians who captured the Orleanist Joan of Arc and turned her over to the English.
During his lucid periods, Charles VI was also trying to end the war through diplomacy. In 1396, he sent his 7-year old daughter Isabella to London to marry the 29-year old King Richard III of England. That led to increasing rebelliousness from the Dauphin, who finally in 1420 decided that the King was no longer fit to rule, declared himself as Regent and attempted to assume royal authority. The Mad King promptly disowned him and signed a treaty with England under which the French Princess Catherine would marry the English King Henry V, and their heir (who would become Henry VI in 1422) would inherit the thrones of both England and France.
By this time, Charles the Mad, though legally still the King of France, was living in a small villa outside of Paris, neglected and virtually ignored. He was struck by a fever in 1421 which he apparently cured by eating massive amounts of oranges, but fell sick again in 1422 and died.
Charles had hoped to end the war through the arranged marriage of his daughter, but when the Mad King finally died, chaos resulted. Supporters of the infant King Henry VI of England claimed the French throne on his behalf, and Charles the Dauphin also claimed the throne as Charles VII. As a result, the Hundred Years War would continue to drag on for decades.
NOTE: As some of you already know, all of my diaries here are draft chapters for a number of books I am working on. So I welcome any corrections you may have, whether it's typos or places that are unclear or factual errors. I think of y'all as my pre-publication editors and proofreaders. ;)