Charles V of France was born on January 21, 1338 in Vincennes, France. In 1349, Charles’ father, King John II, purchased the region of Dauphine for his young son. Located on France’s southern border, the prince became known as the dauphin. As a result, a new royal tradition had begun. Subsequent heirs to the French throne would also be called dauphin until their coronations.
The Hundred Years’ War
In 1337, France started fighting against England in a conflict called the Hundred Years’ War. The war began as a succession dispute over the French throne between Philip VI of France and Edward III of England. When Charles IV of France died without an heir in 1328, Philip succeeded his cousin. However, Edward also had a claim through his mother, Isabella. Initially accepting Philip’s accession, Edward later decided to press his claim and declared war.
In 1350, Philip VI died, and his son, John II, became king. Throughout the 1350s, John and Edward III made multiple attempts at peace. Despite these attempts, the French king always broke their agreements. In response, Edward captured John in 1356. After his father’s capture at Poitiers, Charles assumed control of France as regent.
One of Charles’ first acts as regent was to raise money for John II’s ransom. The English had offered to return the French king for an exorbitant fee. Due to John’s unpopularity though, the prince faced heavy resistance. After convening an assembly in 1357, its members refused to offer any money unless reforms were introduced. In response, Charles departed Paris to gather his supporters and form an army.
During his captivity, John II and Edward III concluded two peace treaties. In January 1358, the first treaty of London was signed, and it heavily favored England. Edward III gained many French lands, yet remained unsatisfied. After threatening to invade, the two men signed the second treaty of London in March 1359. In the agreement, the French king gave up the entire Atlantic coast of France.
In May 1359, Charles learned of the second treaty’s terms. The prince urged the French to reject it. In response to Charles’ defiance, Edward III invaded in October. Understanding the strength of the English army, the prince avoided direct combat by withdrawing his troops. Instead, French ships began raiding along England’s southern coastline.
King of France
On April 8, 1364, Prince Charles became King Charles V. The king had been unable to pay his father’s ransom, and John II died in captivity. Although frail and sickly, Charles possessed a sharp mind. Due to his ill health, the king preferred to read over physical activity. However, Charles soon proved his capability as a military leader.
As the monarchy gained new tax revenue, Charles V began investing it in the French army. The army became more disciplined and recruitment more centralized. The king also financed the formation of a new navy. Throughout this modernization process, Charles continuously oversaw each step.
By the late 1360s, the French army had become more formidable. Charles V knew that the war would eventually resume with England. To this end, the king devised a new strategy: avoid pitched battles. Whenever the French had engaged in a pitched battle against the English, France lost. Charles and his commander-in-chief, Bertrand du Guesclin, understood this well.
In 1369, the war resumed. Under de Guesclin’s competent command, the French army began winning multiple victories. The navy also raided England’s southern coastline. With the English supply line disrupted, the French continued to press their advantage. As a result, France gradually began reclaiming its lost lands.
Despite Charles V’s success, the English still controlled many vital fortresses. From these fortresses, English troops conducted destructive raids to nearby towns. Consequently, peasants were killed, crops destroyed, and the countryside was ruined. During 1373-74, plague began to sweep throughout France. As the death toll rose, Charles left Paris to ensure his safety.
During the last five years of his life, Charles V continued to fight against the English. However, the king’s notoriously bad health began to cause him to be bedridden. As his illness progressed, Charles’ health permanently declined. On September 16, 1380, the king died at age 42. After his death, the deceased king’s 11-year-old son, Charles VI, succeeded him.
Charles V of France inherited the French throne at a turbulent time. England was dominating France in the Hundred Years’ War and gaining territory. Although suffering from ill health, Charles managed to turn the tide of the war. Under his wise leadership, the king modernized the French army and appointed competent generals. Although the war began to favor France, Charles’ premature death prevented a complete victory against the English. Unfortunately for France, Charles VI’s madness would prevent him from completing his father’s work.
Knecht, R. J. (2008). The Valois: Kings of France, 1328-1589. London: Hambledon Continuum.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, January 17). Charles V. Retrieved May 18, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-V-king-of-France