Charles VI, The Mad King of France, was born to rule in a period of war, famine and disease. He did his best, until a disturbing delusion overtook him.
Oh, the Middle Ages! That sweet period full of bloody conflicts, deadly sickness, blind superstition, and a gross misunderstanding of mental and physical health. How privileged are we to be able to look back into the abyss that was the Black Death, for example, from the comfortable safety of our clean[ish] computer monitors! How lucky to live at a time where mental illness is not deemed a matter of demonic possession or witchcraft to be solved through magical spells and, if there’s any difference, prayers. But then there were those who weren’t so fortunate. King Charles VI of France was born during a troublesome period, and his fascinating story—almost out of legend and fantasy—is now but a tale of warning against the dangers of psychological ignorance (and probably inbreeding).
A Time Of War
Back in the time of kings and knights, there was a wise French ruler by the name of Charles V. The land was struck with the terrors of war during his rule, marked by one of the most famous and complex conflicts in the medieval history of Europe: the Hundred Years’ War. The French and the English fought relentlessly from 1337 to 1453 over the right to govern the Kingdom of France, and Charles V, known as “the Wise,” managed 30 years into the conflict to tilt the balance in favor of the French after the disastrous misfortunes that plagued his grandfather, King John II.
And truly, Charles V’s father was not a lucky King. During his rule, England nearly succeeded in annexing France into its domain, as John II himself was captured by the Black Prince of England in the Battle of Poitiers. The English, though seemingly with smaller numbers and a worse army, were rapidly gaining ground and accumulating loot and victories one battle after another. All seemed terrifyingly precarious for the French then. It was therefore only fortunate that Charles V took charge and handled the situation with good administration and careful strategy.
Long Live A New King
So you can imagine how the realm must have felt when, in 1380, Charles V died from an abscess in his left arm, when he was only 42 years old. France was on every level unprepared for its king’s passing, starting with the fact that the rightful heir, Charles VI, was merely 11. Therefore, a regency was necessary, and the young king’s uncles happily moved to take control of the kingdom while the kid grew up. The new king was supposed to inherit the throne at age 14, but the uncles hogged power until he was 21.
During the regency, the selfish rulers emptied France's coffers and almost destroyed Charles V’s legacy and progress during the war, leaving the kingdom in a dire state. When he finally took control away from his uncles in 1388, Charles VI set out to restore order and prosperity among his people and to defeat the English once and for all. He almost succeeded, too. Almost.
The Tragedy of Mans Forest
For a while, things improved dramatically after the young king rose to power. The political and economic situation was turned around, prosperity returned to the land and suddenly everything seemed possible. Charles VI was proving to be the king France needed, an extraordinary ruler worthy of his father’s name. But then something happened. Something broke.
After Charles VI’s friend and advisor, Olivier de Clisson, who served him as Constable of France, was nearly killed by a man by the name of Pierre de Craon during a cowardly ambush, the King sought revenge. Craon had just attempted a politically-motivated assassination and Charles would not have it. Disgraced and hunted, Craon found asylum with the Duke of Brittany, who refused the King’s request to hand the would-be assassin over. Thus, Charles planned an invasion.
People close to the King claimed he was feverish and disconnected just as he was leaving for the campaign against the unruly Duke. Around mid-August Charles’ army began the march from Le Mans, near the borders of Brittany. Dressed in an embroidered black velvet jacket and a royal scarlet hat, the King and his party soon passed through the forest of Mans. Suddenly, out of the bushes jumped a barefoot man in tattered clothes, and upon seizing the King’s bridle, he desperately yelled, “Ride no further, noble King! Turn back! You are betrayed!” Alarmed, the King's guard beat the poor man and the army continued forth out the forest.
When the party came to an open plain, the noon sun suffocated man and horse alike. A drowsy page, tired from the incessant march, left a lance loudly drop against the steel helmet of his companion, startling Charles with the sudden racket. “Forward against the traitors!,” the King swiftly shouted as he spurred his horse and drew his sword, “they wish to deliver me to the enemy!” Yelling, rushing and plowing, he directed his outburst against his own men and attacked anyone at hand.
No one dared touch the King’s person and thus the soldiers could do nothing but try and stay out of his reach. Stunned and horrified, the men struggled to find a way to stop the chaos. But Charles seemed overcome with the ire of desperation and was unstoppable in his delusion, so he continued slashing and banging until he was too exhausted. As the King dropped his guard, panting and sweating, his chamberlain restrained him from behind and others took away his sword. He was laid on the ground where he remained motionless and in utter silence, failing to recognize or even acknowledge any of his most trusted men who surrounded him, after which he fell into a four-day coma. He had killed at least one knight and several soldiers.
A Descent Into Madness
And that was that. Just four years into Charles VI’s rule, the beloved king went mad. From then on, the King’s mind progressively deteriorated and his insanity bouts increased in frequency and intensity. At one point, he couldn’t recall his own name and didn’t know he was king. At another, he failed to recognize his wife and son, and claimed to be Saint George. “Who is that woman the sight of whom torments me?” he asked when she approached. He sometimes ran in a frenzy across his castle’s halls, frightening everyone who could hear his screams at night. Finally, the King is reported to have believed on several occasions that he was made of glass, fragile as a fine and flimsy cup which would break at the slightest touch. He supposedly even had special measures taken to ensure this would not happen, such as having iron rods sewn to his clothes.
Ball des Ardents
Thus, the King was no longer fit to rule. Even if there were times during which his sanity temporarily returned, the risk of him succumbing to another bout of insanity was always there. So, his focus centered, for a while, on diversions such as balls and celebrations. One of these was tragically noteworthy.
In January, 1393, Charles’ wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, organized a masked ball for which the King and four other lords were persuaded by a man named Huguet de Guisay, favored in the royal circle for his “funny” schemes, to disguise themselves as “wild savages” in costumes of linen cloth and dance at the party. The guests were unaware that the King was among the disguised dancers and, at some point during the evening, Charles’ brother approached the performers with a lit torch and accidentally set them aflame. The king barely survived and four other men perished. The ball became known as Ball des Ardents, or The Ball of the Burning Men.
Of Witches and Witchcraft
The tragedy of that fateful ball served to highlight the misfortunes that had recently befallen to the kingdom—and the world as a whole. Disease and war raged. This was the century of both the Black Death and the great war between France and England, and the atmosphere took a somber and dark turn when French prosperity was stopped in its tracks because of the King’s illness and the conflicting factions that emerged from within the court.
Though medieval society was no stranger to madness, no physician could cure Charles’ ailment. Several treatments were suggested, including magic incantations and powdered pearls. Two monks even went as far as to propose incisions be made in the King’s head. The whole affair was suspected to be caused by the sorcery of witches, among them the King’s sister-in-law, seeing as she was was, much to her misfortune, the only person whom Charles tolerated during his fits. The mad King himself believed his illness to be caused by dark powers. “If there is any one of you who is an accomplice in this evil I suffer, I beg him to torture me no longer but let me die!”
A New Hope Is Kindled
King Charles VI, the promising young ruler who had risen to be the hope of all the French people against the threats of war and poverty and sickness, never recovered. Initially called “the Beloved,” he became known as “the Mad.” Charles died desperately infirm at the age of 53 in 1422, as the English were advancing towards complete victory after the Battle of Agincourt.
Upon Charles’ death, England’s claim to the throne of France had never been stronger, so the English invaded and occupied much of the realm. The French were now without hope, until a certain young maid from Órleans ignited the spirit of the kingdom. The girl claimed to have been sent by God, and said her name was Joan. But that is a story for another time.
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