Charles VI

The French king Charles VI (1368-1422), who ruled from 1380 to 1422, is also known as Charles the Mad. His reign was marked by political disorder and a series of defeats by the English that culminated in their overwhelming victory at Agincourt in 1415.

The son of Charles V, Charles VI was born in Paris on Dec. 3, 1368. On his father's untimely death in 1380, he ascended the troubled throne of France. Charles's minority was marked by the rivalry and struggles for power of his uncles, the dukes of Berry, Burgundy, and Bourbon.

In 1385 Charles married Isabelle of Bavaria, and in 1389 he finally assumed personal control of his kingdom. French court life in the 14th century was a joyous world of public revelry and grandiose diplomatic designs. It was brusquely shattered in August 1392, when Charles was stricken with the first of the spells of insanity which afflicted him—and France—for the rest of his life.

The King's madness did not immediately have a disastrous effect on French foreign policy. France and England were observing one of their many truces during the Hundred Years War, and the continuation of their armistice was aided by the marriage of Charles's daughter Isabelle to Richard II of England in 1396. England was then weakened by the struggles which accompanied Henry IV's deposition of Richard II in 1399.

The most important consequence of the King's in-capacity was internal political strife. The governance of France again became the object of princely dispute, and two major groups sought control. The Burgundian faction was led by the dukes of Berry and Burgundy, while the Orleanist faction was headed by the King's brother Louis, Duke of Orléans. The King's uncle Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, gradually asserted his ascendancy over Charles. After Philip's death in 1404, his son and successor, John the Fearless, became leader of the Burgundians and continued their feud with the Duke of Orléans. With the duke's murder in 1407, his son Charles inherited his title. The Orleanist partisans then became known as Armagnacs because they were led by the duke's father-in-law Bernard VII, Duke of Armagnac. A series of murders and disputes between 1407 and 1410 caused both the Burgundian and Armagnac factions to seek the aid of the English.

When the English invaded France in 1415, the Burgundians allied with the invaders, and the Armagnacs became the nationalist party. The English king, Henry V, defeated the French at Agincourt and in 1420 forced the Treaty of Troyes upon Charles VI. By the terms of this treaty Henry was to marry Charles's daughter Catherine, act as regent for his mad father-in-law, and eventually succeed to the French throne.

When Charles VI died on Oct. 21, 1422, his legacy was discord and chaos. France was divided internally and faced with the prospect of being ruled by an English king. Although Charles VI's son was crowned Charles VII in 1429, strife continued until 1453, when the French expelled the English and ended the Hundred Years War.

Further Reading on Charles VI

The best account of the reign of Charles VI is in French. Although there is no biography in English, the period is well covered in Jean Froissart's 14th-century Chronicles (many English translations); Édouard Perroy, The Hundred Years War (trans. 1951); and Kenneth Fowler, The Age of Plantagenet and Valois: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1328-1498 (1967).

Additional Biography Sources

Famiglietti, R. C., Royal intrigue: crisis at the court of Charles VI, 1392-1420, New York: AMS Press, 1986.

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