Charles VI’s insanity would plunge France into chaos. Charles was born on December 3, 1368 in Paris. His father, the Valois King Charles V, was a sickly, yet competent ruler. At the time of Charles’s birth, France fought against England in the Hundred Years War. The king’s leadership gave France an advantage, but he didn’t live long enough to end the conflict. Upon Charles V’s death, the prince became King Charles VI on October 25, 1380.
The Ruling Council
Charles VI was 11 years old when he became king. Since he was underage, Charles’s uncles ruled as a council in his place. The king’s uncles were greedy and ambitious men. Out of these uncles, Philip II, Duke of Burgundy, was the most influential. Philip arranged a political marriage for his nephew to Isabeau of Bavaria. Philip did this to gain German allies against the English and to increase his wealth.
On November 2, 1388, Charles VI decided to rule independently. His uncles were dismissed, and Charles V’s former officials were reinstated. With his uncles gone, governmental reforms were initiated, and new laws were passed. The king even met with antipope Clement VII in Avignon, France to discuss church affairs. However, this promising start to Charles’s reign would soon end abruptly.
Charles VI’s Madness
During the summer of 1392, Charles VI suffered his first bout of insanity. As he rode with his knights, the king inexplicably went mad and attacked them. Four were killed before Charles was restrained. The king then collapsed. Charles would eventually regain his senses, but this incident would be the first of many.
As Charles VI experienced more bouts of madness throughout the 1390s, his uncle Philip re-emerged. The Duke of Burgundy once again assumed control of the king’s council. Philip originally planned on continuing the war with England. However, he instead arranged a peace treaty between Richard II and Charles in 1396. The treaty was to last for twenty-eight years and temporarily halted the conflict between both nations.
As France entered the 15th century, Charles VI’s madness only worsen. His insanity regularly incapacitated Charles for months at a time. During his periods of madness, the king didn’t recognize his wife, believed that he was made of glass, and refused personal hygiene. When Charles regained his senses, he attempted to rule independently. However, these periods of lucidity were brief.
French Civil War
During the 1410s, Charles VI’s periods of madness became so frequent that he rarely ruled. Since the kingship was untouchable, no one deposed Charles in favor of a sane relative. With an incapacitated king in charge, the infighting between Charles’s uncles increased. By 1415, the Valois royal family had split into two rival factions: the Armagnacs and the Burgundians.
Formation of Factions
Until his death in 1404, Philip held control of the French government. After his passing, the mad king’s brother, Louis I, Duke of Orleans, seized power. With the support of Queen Isabeau, Louis quickly consolidated his control over the government. Despite his power, Louis was an unpopular regent.
After Philip’s death, his son John I became the new duke of Burgundy. John was unimpressed with his relative’s actions. When Louis proposed a new tax, John strongly opposed him. The duke’s efforts made him a popular figure amongst French citizens. There were even hopes that John would replace Louis as regent.
As the years went by, tensions between both men grew. Louis had complete control over the monarchy’s finances and refused to share with John. Louis also prevented John from expanding Burgundy’s boundaries. It was even rumored that Louis had attempted to make John’s wife his mistress. By 1407, John’s hatred of Louis became murderous.
Death of Orleans
On November 23, 1407, Louis was assassinated by John’s men. Shortly after his funeral, the duke openly admitted to Louis’s murder. Since John was a powerful and popular noble, he faced no immediate consequences. During a period of lucidity, Charles VI would condemn John, and he would lose his position on the king’s council.
In February 1408, John would return to Paris with an armed escort. He had come to clear his name and justify the murder of Louis. The duke accused Louis of treason and other charges. By March, Charles VI would pardon him. However, Louis’s supporters wouldn’t forgive John.
Rise of the Armagnacs
By December 1409, John was in charge of the government. He had gained control over Queen Isabeau and was granted custody of the heir apparent. The duke had finally consolidated his power in Paris. Despite his success, certain nobles envied his control. One such noble was Bernard VII, Count of Armagnac.
Bernard made it his mission to wrest the royal family from John’s control. He would gain the backing of Louis’s former supporters. Initially, both Armagnacs and Burgundians had an uneasy relationship. However, tensions between both sides would gradually erupt into open conflict. During the summer of 1411, the French civil war began.
In the late 1390s, the political situation in England changed. In September 1399, King Richard II was usurped by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. The newly crowned Henry IV established the Lancastrian branch of the Plantagenets as the new royal family. Disregarding his predecessor’s peace treaty, Henry sought to renew the war with France. However, domestic rebellions to his rule would prevent Henry from doing so.
After Henry IV’s death in 1413, Henry V continued his father’s cause. Henry understood France’s vulnerability and sought to capitalize on it. At first, the king demanded that the French return all former English lands in France to him. Henry also wanted to marry Charles VI’s daughter, Catherine, to solidify his claim. When the French countered with a smaller offer, the English ended the negotiations in June 1415.
Henry V began planning for an invasion of France. The king would unite his country to his nationalist cause. Henry’s citizens sought to reignite the conflict, and they readily rallied behind the king. Even Parliament was enthusiastic. They eagerly granted Henry the funds that he required. With his preparations complete, Henry and his army invaded France in August 1415.
Invasion of France
On August 14, 1415, Henry V’s army attacked Harfleur. In response, Charles VI raised an army but couldn’t lead it. In his place, John, Duke of Burgundy, took command. On October 25, 1415, French forces would engage the English at the Battle of Agincourt. Although the French outnumbered the English, they would be defeated. The muddy landscape, English tactics, and the deadly English longbow all contributed to the French army’s defeat.
The Civil War Continues
Although the Battle of Agincourt proved devastating to the French army, the factionalism remained. Bernard, Count of Armagnac, attempted to prevent John from regaining power. However, he would die on April 4, 1417. Shortly after, John allied himself with Henry V. The duke of Burgundy then began accusing the Armagnacs of various crimes.
In November 1417, the Armagnacs and Burgundians were once again at war. John had established a new government at Troyes with Queen Isabeau. However, Prince Charles remained with the Armagnacs in Paris. With the queen’s authority, the new Burgundian government was recognized throughout France in early 1418. John would later gain control of Paris in May 1418, forcing the prince to flee.
Upon his return to Paris, John’s forces slaughtered any Armagnac supporters they could find. By July, John was in control of Paris, the royal family (king and queen), and the French government. The remaining Armagnacs fled. They would set up an opposing government elsewhere in France. By the end of 1418, three men fought for control over France: John, Duke of Burgundy, Prince Charles, and Henry V of England.
Death of Burgundy
On September 10, 1419, Armagnac supporters murdered John. The duke was killed while meeting with Prince Charles. The backlash against the Armagnacs would cause the new Duke of Burgundy, Philip III, to ally with Henry V. In May 1420, the insane Charles VI signed the Treaty of Troyes with Henry. The old king gave up complete control of his government to the young English king. Charles was now only a symbolic ruler.
In the Treaty of Troyes, Henry V would inherit the French throne after Charles VI died. The English king consolidated his position by marrying Charles’s daughter Catherine. With Prince Charles disinherited, all Henry had to do was outlive the mad king. Fortunately for the French, Henry would die before Charles in August 1422. The old French king would follow suit on October 21, 1422.
Charles VI’s reign began with plenty of promise. However, his insanity prevented him from ruling independently. Instead, Charles had to rely on his uncles. Their greed started a civil war. Their infighting created political instability, which allowed the English to invade. By the end of Charles’s life, France was close to being conquered, his family was torn apart, and the government was in shambles.
Denton, C. S. (2006). Absolute Power: The Real Lives of Europe’s Most Infamous Rulers. Capella.
Knecht, R. J. (2008). The Valois: Kings of France, 1328-1589. London: Hambledon and London.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, December 2). Charles VI. Retrieved December 22, 2019, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-VI-king-of-France.