Any nicknames followed by “AKA” are not historically accurate, but trust me you will thank me later.
Marmousets – Councilors to King Charles V, and then King Charles VI
Armagnacs – Faction aligned with the House of Orleans
Burgundians – Faction aligned with the House of Burgundy
The story of how King Charles VI of France went from “The Beloved” to “The Mad” has many of the same elements that made “Game of Thrones” a hit: murder, family feuds, war, mad kings, and backstabbing. Fortunately for us, there’s no incest. If that’s why you are here, feel free to turn back now. Sorry to disappoint.
Charles was merely 11 years old— and heir to the throne—when his father, King Charles V, died in 1380. Even in the 14th century people knew it was foolish to let a child rule a country (note to America…). Thus a regency—a group of people appointed to serve in the King’s place—was created until young Charles VI was deemed old enough to rule alone. In addition to several members of the nobility, the regency included Charles’ three uncles – Philip “The Bold”, Duke of Burgundy; Louis, Duke of Anjou; and John, Duke of Berry. Let’s call them Uncle Phil, Uncle Louis, and Uncle John. One big happy family, pitching in to help make sure France was safe and prosperous by the time Charles VI took the throne…not.
In 1384, Uncle Louis passed away. Uncle Phil and Uncle John saw their chance to rule the kingdom and make some extra profit. For the remaining years of Charles’ childhood, that’s exactly what they did. With the authority of the crown, Uncle Phil began buying up vast amounts of land and Uncle John became a collector of valuable objects. Nine years after his father passed, Charles finally took control of the crown at age 20, and it would take a lot of work to undo the problems his family had created.
During the first years of his rule, Charles VI earned the title Charles the Beloved with a series of favorable policies. He reinstated the group of councilors—the Marmousets—that had served his popular father. The Marmousets “sought to reform royal government by making it “more rational and efficient” (Wagner). We stan a king who knows when to ask for help. And so, it appeared that Charles VI was poised to follow in the footsteps of Charles “The Wise” and leave a legacy his dad would be proud of. Until disaster struck.
There is some confusion among historians surrounding the exact events on the day in August 1392 when the course of Charles’ reign changed forever. The consensus seems to be that Charles was attacked by a stranger while riding through the forest with a number of his knights. At some point in the confusion and panic, Charles snapped and began to attack anyone within striking distance, supposedly shouting: “Forward against the traitors! They want to deliver me to the enemy!” (Norwich). Swords clashed, blood spilled and the sun beat down on a chaotic scene. By the time his entourage was able to restrain him, the King had killed a number of his own men, and had been reduced to a stupor in which he was unable to speak coherently or recognize anyone. What led to this fit of madness and extreme paranoia is something that we will explore later in this series, but what was immediately clear was that there was no way Charles could rule France in this condition. He was sent away to rest in an area of France with a pleasant climate (it’s amazing how many things doctors once believed could be cured by some good old fashioned Vitamin D). By September he seemed to have made a full recovery; however, within a year’s time, Charles VI experienced another episode. And so it continued for the remainder of his life, with the periods of coherence fewer and farther between.
Charles VI’s inability to rule during these episodes left the monarchy vulnerable. Without the king’s influence, the Marmousets fell apart and the hounds were quick to descend. Some of the original cast of characters resurfaced, like Uncle Phil. While new players, like Charles’ brother Louis, Duke of Orleans, emerged. We will call him Brother Louis. (Also I lied about the incest – Brother Louis was married to his cousin. But honestly who wasn’t back then?) The rivalry between Uncle Phil and Brother Louis created a massive amount of tension and teams began to form. It got ugly. Any rules that you think would apply to quarreling family members did not exist. Remember, these were “Game of Thrones” rules. So, no rules. In 1404, Uncle Phil died and his son, known as John the Fearless, became the new Duke of Burgundy. Now the main contenders in this battle for power were cousins, and they were about to escalate the fight to a point of no return.
The Legend…ary Fallout
Are you still with me?
As Potter points out, the French royal family “had always placed a greater premium on ties of blood than any other”. Apparently John the Fearless did not receive this memo. In a savage move he orchestrated the assassination of his cousin Louis in 1407. Louis, as in Brother Louis. King Charles VI’s brother.
A loss of that magnitude would weigh heavily on even the healthiest of men, so imagine the toll that it took on someone already under immense emotional and psychological stress. Charles VI was distraught— he couldn’t make decisions, or think clearly. Sides formed once again. Those that sided with the new Duke of Orleans— Brother Louis’ son Charles, AKA Charlie —were dubbed Armagnacs (named after Bernard the Count of Armagnac, the Duke’s father-in-law who helped drive the movement). Those who aligned with the John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, were referred to as the Burgundians.
Now is about the time that I start wishing medieval French parents used more than just the names Charles, Louis, John and Philip!!
Perhaps the biggest indicator of the state of Charles VI’s mental health was the fact that he allowed John the Fearless and the Burgundians to seize power and influence over the government after they murdered his brother. It’s not even like he picked sides. His fragile emotional and mental state caused him to basically lie down and let the Burgundians roll right over him. In fact, for the next decade, the king was at the mercy of the Armagnacs and the Burgundians as they fought to maintain control.
So what was Charles VI’s immediate family doing during all of this? The king’s son and heir to the throne, Louis, Duke of Guyenne, AKA Son Louis, is one of the rare characters in this story who tried to end the conflict that was tearing the country apart. In 1413, he created a third party that was loyal to the crown. Unfortunately, within two years Son Louis was dead of an unconfirmed illness. Next in line to the throne was John, Duke of Touraine, who was also dead by 1417 (again, it’s not clear what happened but one of the theories is that he was poisoned). Charles VI’s last remaining son who (shocker) was also named Charles, suddenly found himself as the heir. For our purposes we will refer to his son as Chucky. At this point in the hostilities, it’s hard to imagine that this 14-year-old boy could make things worse. But just as his father Charles VI was a pawn of warring factions, Chucky was a pawn of the Armagnacs, and susceptible to influence at his young age. In 1419, men that served Chucky assassinated John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. As the cherry on top, Chucky then declared himself regent (Wagner).
Historians are rightly skeptical that Chucky just happened to come up with this idea to murder John the Fearless. What is more likely is that he was a puppet. Unfortunately for Pinnochio, the optics weren’t great and his dad was pissed. Like, imagine the angriest your father has ever been. With mine, it was that one time he found out I wanted to take a freshman to my senior prom. That was Charles VI. Charles VI disowned Chucky, his last remaining son and heir, and in 1420 signed a treaty that made perhaps the least acceptable man next in line: Henry V, King of England.
In case you are confused about why Charles VI would name the king of England as heir to the French throne, you are not alone! This was a less-than-ideal solution to France’s issues— given that France and England had been at war since 1337 in what is now known as the Hundred Years’ War. An underlying source of this conflict was England’s claim that the French throne actually belonged to them.
In addition to signing this treaty, Charles VI also had his daughter Catherine of Valois marry Henry, further bonding the two countries. At this point Charles VI was 52 years old (that is old for the Middle Ages), and with his deteriorating mental health no one expected him to outlive Henry, who was 20 years his junior. It seemed inevitable that an English king would ascend to the throne of France.
Well, Charles VI shocked everyone and outlived Henry V by two months. Both men died in 1422. Now France had two choices for their next king – Charles VI’s backstabbing disinherited son Chucky, or Henry V’s infant son who was less than a year old. What could go wrong with choices like these?
Before I tell you how things turned out for France, Riley will take us on a tour inside Charles VI’s brain to investigate just what turned him from Beloved to Mad. Come back next Friday for her breakdown, and comment below or tweet us with any theories about just what was wrong with Charles VI.
The following sources were referenced during the writing of this really, really complicated story:
Duby, G. (1991). France in the middle ages 987-1460. Oxford: Blackwell.
Horne, A. (2005). La Belle France: A Short History . New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Man of Glass – The Strange Disorder of Charles VI of France: History Channel on Foxtel. (2018, March 2). Retrieved from https://www.historychannel.com.au/articles/man-of-glass-the-strange-disorder-of-charles-vi-of-france/
Norwich, J. J. (2019). A history of France. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Perroy, E. (1959). The Hundred Years War. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Potter, D. (2006). France in the later Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sumption, J. (2009). Divided Houses. London: Faber and Faber.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, December 2). Charles VI. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Charles-VI-king-of-France
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, March 5). Hundred Years’ War. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/event/Hundred-Years-War
Wagner, J. A. (2006). Encyclopedia of the Hundred Years War. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
6 thoughts on “Charles VI: Game of Thrones”
Haha this is awesome, very well-written. If I could travel back in time w a DSM-5 in hand I’d probably guess Charles VI has bipolar I disorder. Look fwd to seeing the results of future Dr. Bannon’s investigation.
This was such a great escape and written with such wit! Can’t wait to get Riley’s neurological breakdown. I would say that he had schizophrenia although I am not sure how to explain periods of lucidity unless he had bipolar disorder. Can’t wait to read more!
Wonderfully written. Can’t wait for the next installment!
Great job! Looking forward to the next installment. And can’t wait to hear more about that freshman….
I’m so proud to be related to you two. Love the humor and looking forward to more. I say bi-polar with psychotic features. Xxoo. Cousin Linda