Charles VII

The French king Charles VII (1403-1461) ruled from 1422 to 1461. His reign witnessed the expulsion of the English from France and the reestablishment of a strong French monarchy after the disasters of the Hundred Years War, 1337-1453.

Charles VII was born on Feb. 22, 1403, the son of Charles VI. His father, who suffered from recurrent madness, implied that Charles was illegitimate since his mother, Isabelle of Bavaria, was known to be a woman of loose morals. Nevertheless Charles was regarded as heir to the throne until the English victory over the French at Agincourt. By the Treaty of Troyes (1420) his father was forced to disinherit him in favor of the English king, Henry V. After Charles VI's death in 1422, Charles VII was scornfully called the "king of Bourges," since that city was the capital of the small part of France that still recognized Valois royal legitimacy.

Rise to Power

At the beginning of his reign Charles was impoverished, threatened by English armies, and without a loyal nobility. He was also opposed by the powerful nobleman Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, and his followers. At first Charles was not equal to his task; he was not warlike and was sickly, physically weak, and personally unattractive. At Bourges he was ruled by powerful and ruthless favorites, particularly Georges de la Trémoïlle.

From 1422 to 1428 English armies moved toward Bourges through Maine and Anjou, often with the cooperation of the Duke of Burgundy. Popular resentment of English rule, however, remained strong in some places and lacked only a focus, which Charles was as yet unable to become. Such a focus, however, was provided in part by the heroic defense of Orléans during the English siege of 1428-1429. But more important was the appearance of Joan of Arc, who was thought by many to personify French resistance. She succeeded in raising the siege of Orléans in 1429, and Charles was crowned at Reims in the same year. Joan was captured by the English in 1430. Since Charles was unable and unwilling to mount a counteroffensive, in 1431 she was tried and executed as a heretic in the Norman city of Rouen.

Political Accomplishments

Not until 1433 did Charles actively assume personal control of the war with England. In 1434 the Church recognized his legitimacy, and in 1435 he was officially reconciled with Philip the Good. Also by 1435 Charles had freed himself from the control of favorites, and his personal finances had been improved by his financial adviser, Jacques Coeur. Thus the period of his reign characterized by indifference, ingratitude, poverty, and fear came to an end. He began a period of vigorous personal rule characterized by intense legislative activity and close attention to the economy. He was especially concerned with sweeping governmental reforms. In 1444 Charles secured a 5-year truce with England and turned even greater attention to the rebuilding of France.

Charles's political skill was also reflected in his policies. Encouraged by the higher French clergy, who had become increasingly independent of the papacy, he issued the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges in 1438, which sharply limited papal control of the French Church. The Church in France therefore enjoyed greater freedom than any other national body of clergy, and more important to Charles, the papacy's role in French politics was severely curtailed.

But Charles's reign was not free of internal troubles. In 1437, 1440, and 1442, he suppressed internal revolts. His son (later Louis XI) participated in a number of these uprisings and was forced to take refuge with Philip the Good from 1456 until Charles's death.

By 1449 Charles had created a standing army, and in 1449-1450 this force won back Normandy for the Crown. By the end of 1453 Charles had also recovered Gascony, the strongest English possession in France, and for all practical purposes the Hundred Years War had ended. With the return of Normandy, Charles was able to survey the records of Joan of Arc's trial, and in 1456 he had her officially rehabilitated through the annulment of her sentence by the Church.

The last years of Charles's reign were spent in consolidating and strengthening royal authority. At the end of his reign, France was more stable than it had been in more than a century. Charles died on July 22, 1461, leaving a restored kingdom to his rebellious but efficient son, Louis XI.

Further Reading on Charles VII

The standard biography of Charles VII is in French. Although there is no biography in English, useful works include 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

Vale, M. G. A. (Malcolm Graham Allan), Charles VII, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974.

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