“I humbly beg pardon from all those I harmed” – Charles VI after trying to kill his brother and several of his knights in a fit of madness
By the fall of 1407, Charles VI had suffered no fewer than thirty-five spells of derangement, many of them lasting for weeks or even months, and some for almost a year. A strong, vigorous man, Charles loved to be outdoors and in the saddle, hunting or jousting. During his spells he sat inside, keeping perfectly still for hours, claiming that he was made of glass and that any loud noise or sudden movement might shatter him into a thousand pieces. At other times he would shake and scream, shouting at invisible enemies and running so wildly through his palace that the doors had to be walled up to hide his antics from his curious subjects and prevent him from escaping.
In his mad fits, Charles hurled objects, smashed furniture, and struck anyone around him. He also refused to change his clothes or bathe, wearing his royal clothes to rags until his body became so foul and his presence so odious that his servants had to overpower him, cut him out of his filthy, tattered garments, and forcibly wash him.
These fits of madness created a strain on the royal family. Many had to assume roles they were ill suited for and as a result were vilified by the people. Some could not resist taking advantage of the huge power vacuum that Charles’ illness left. This absence of a king would spell the death or exile of many of his closest family members and a living nightmare for his son, Charles VII, who would need the grace of God in the form of a maiden to right the kingdom.
5. Madness on the road to Le Mans
On a hot August day in 1392, Charles was riding at the head of a great army— five thousand strong— on a road through a large forest near Le Mans on the border of Brittany. By noon the sun had reached its full height and the hot and sweating army marched on wearily amid the dust, some of the troops half asleep on their feet. Suddenly, a man leaped out from behind some trees and into the king’s path. Bareheaded and barefoot, he had a long, scraggly beard and wore a dirty white smock. Some said later that he was a leper or a madman. Seizing the bridle of the king’s horse, he shouted: “King, ride no further! Turn back, for you are betrayed!” In seconds, the king’s infuriated attendants confronted the man and began beating and kicking him to make him release the king’s horse. He then ran back into the woods, where he continued shouting “King, turn back! You are betrayed!”
As the army rode on, the man kept up, running through the forest alongside the road and continuing to shout his warnings: “Turn back, King! You are betrayed!” He eventually disappeared. In the early afternoon, the army finally emerged from the forest and began crossing a sandy plain under the hot sun. No longer confined to the narrow forest road, the great lords rode far apart to avoid the dust raised by thousands of marching feet, the king and his brother on one side of the army, their uncle Duke Philip of Burgundy and his son John on the other.
The king soon became extremely hot in his “black velvet jerkin” and “plain scarlet hat.” Two royal pages rode behind Charles, one carrying his polished steel helmet and the other holding up the king’s lance, which had a broad steel head. At some point, the second page dozed off in the saddle and accidentally dropped the lance, which fell and struck the helmet of the page in front of him. There was a loud clang, and Charles started in his saddle. As if still paranoid by the strange man and his warning, he spurred his horse forward, then drew his sword and turned towards the two pages. His face was contorted; he seemed to recognize no one. Raising his sword over his head, he shouted wildly: “Attack! Attack the traitors!”
The terrified pages managed to escape Charles’ sword but a nearby knight was struck dead in the saddle. “Everyone now fled from him as though from thunder and lightning.” Charles saw his brother, Louis of Orleans, and suddenly began to pursue him yelling, “Attack! Attack!” Duke Philip and his son John heard the commotion and looked over to see Charles chasing his brother with a sword. “Whoa!” Philip shouted. “Disaster has overtaken us. The king’s gone mad! After him, in God’s name! Catch him!” And then, to warn Louis: “Fly, nephew, fly! The king means to kill you!”
Louis was able to outride Charles, and the knights finally caught up with him. They cornered him as he continued swinging his sword. The king eventually became exhausted and one of the knights came up behind the king and grabbed him around the waist while another took his sword. Placing him on a litter, they noticed “his eyes were rolling strangely in his head, and he did not speak, failing to recognize even his uncle or his brother.”
Charles lay in bed for two days in a trance like state. His doctors were not sure if he would live. On the third day, he opened his eyes and began to get out of bed. He asked all of those he had harmed to please forgive him.
4. A fire sparks madness
Charles held a wedding feast and dance at the royal palace to celebrate one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting that was to be married. A friend of the king’s came up with an idea to add some excitement to the ball. He and the king, with a few friends, would put on linen costumes covered with pitch and stuck full of fine yellow flax that looked like the hair of beasts. Sewn into these tight fitting garments and completely disguised as savages, the king and his friends would burst into the ballroom during the dancing to surprise and amuse the guests.
On the evening of the ball, the six men were sewn into their costumes. One of them said to the king, “Sire, command that no one come near us with torches, for if a spark should fall on our coats, the flax will instantly take fire, and we will be burned.” The king had a sergeant at arms make sure that all the torches were placed on one side of the room and that no one came near the costumed men when they entered.
Soon afterward, the king’s brother, Louis, entered the ballroom with four knights holding torches, unaware of what was going on. Charles and the other costumed pranksters burst in with Charles leading the other five by a cord that tied them together. As knights laughed and ladies appeared frightened, the five men linked by the cord joined in the dancing. Louis walked towards the men to find out who they were and grabbed a torch and held it close to one of them to see their face. The flame touched the flax, which caught fire, and in seconds the man was on fire. Being tied together, all of the disguised men were turned into living torches. As the crowd fell back in horror, one of the five had the presence of mind to snap the cord that linked him to the others and run to an adjacent room where the butlers kept the wine in great vats. By throwing himself into one of the vats, he saved himself, although he was badly burned.
Many of the screaming and crying guests fled the room. The smell of burning flesh filled the air, and— in the words of a disapproving monk “as the fire consumed the private parts of the revelers, their genitals fell in pieces to the floor and covered it with blood.” Interesting in my mind that a 14th century monk should reveal that, of all things. Perhaps the sexual repression of the times. Anyway, when Charles saw what was happening he started towards the men to render aid. Luckily, the quick thinking Duchess of Berry threw her long gown around him. “Where are you going?” she cried. “Don’t you see they’re burning? Now, who are you? “I’m the king!” cried Charles. “Then go, change your clothes, and show yourself to the queen. She’s mad with fear that you’ve burned to death!”
Charles found the queen who then promptly collapsed and had to be carried to her chamber. Two of the pranksters died on the spot, while two others who were carried alive from the room died from their burns a few days later.
3. The fits of madness gather steam
The loss of his friends at the ball plunged the king into a deep “melancholy,” and within a few months he began uttering strange phrases and making obscene gestures “unworthy of a king.” This time Charles did not turn violent but sank slowly into a state of dementia: “His mind descended into such dense shadows that he completely forgot even the things that otherwise he would have normally recalled,” such as his own name or the fact that he was king. His name was not Charles, he insisted, but Georges; he seemed to be confusing himself with Saint George, the dragon slayer. He even claimed “not to be married and never to have had any children.” Whenever he saw the royal fleur-de-lis engraved on an object, he would furiously try to scratch it off.
This second spell of madness would last for nearly seven months. The king’s strange symptoms, including his deep fear and suspicion of others, would be seen today as signs of paranoid schizophrenia, which Charles may have inherited from his mother’s side of the family. The physicians of Charles’ era knew almost nothing about mental illness and could do little for their patient except bleed him, change his diet, and distract him with amusements.
Ultimately, Charles had to be confined to his palace. It went from a proud royal seat where the popular young king had ruled over his realm to a somber royal asylum where he was now kept away from his people. Swords, knives, and other sharp objects were carefully kept away from the king, so as not to do harm to himself or others.
2. Charles’ madness and the Royal Family
As his madness grew worse, Charles began to push away his queen, Isabeau. When he first met her he had insisted on marrying her after just four days. “Who is this woman whose sight so annoys me?” Charles would now ask when he saw her. “See what she wants, and keep her from always following me around and bothering me with her constant importunities.” At the same time, Charles began to show affection for his brother’s wife, Valentina Visconti. Valentina was able to calm him during his fits and soothe his mind when others could not.
This relationship between Charles and Valentina led to rumors that she had bewitched him with sorcery. Valentina’s origin in Italy, a land associated by the French with “poison and sorcery,” encouraged gossip about her strange power over the king. Beautiful, intelligent, and well educated, she was also generous in spirit. When a bastard resulted from her husband Louis’ affair with Mariette de Chauny, she took the boy in and raised him.
The royal court and the French people began to view her with suspicion— as a foreigner, a possible spy, and an ambitious rival to the queen. Many said she was trying to have her husband crowned king by manipulating the mad Charles. Others thought her father, the Duke of Milan, had bewitched the king from afar in order to make his daughter the queen of France. And still others claimed that Louis, coveting the throne for himself, had turned to sorcery after his failed attempt to kill Charles at the Bal des Ardents in which the deadly fire occurred. Valentina was ultimately exiled from Paris for her close relationship with Charles.
In 1397, two Augustinian clerics arrived in Paris claiming to be magicians and offering to cure the king. They gained the court’s trust by pretending to find objects which they had secretly hidden around the royal palace in advance. With all their expenses paid, they prescribed a potion of pulverized pearls for the king and made incisions on his scalp. When Charles failed to improve, they began spreading rumors that Louis sabotaged their efforts with sorcery.
This was a fatal mistake. Louis had them arrested and under torture they confessed to making false charges and to being idolaters, apostates, and sorcerers in league with the Devil. They were excommunicated by the bishop of Paris and condemned to death. They were taken to the city’s marketplace and decapitated. Their severed heads were then stuck on spikes, their limbs chopped off and sliced up to be hung up over various city gates, and their dismembered trunks displayed at the Montfaucon gibbet.
1. The results of Charles’ madness
As Charles’ madness consumed him, his brother Louis of Orleans had to act in his place and run the kingdom. Louis abused his power and used it to continue enriching himself. Rumors began circulating that Louis and Isabeau, the Queen of France, were closer than brother and sister-in-law, and that her last child was Louis’ not the king’s. Many said this was only to be expected from a man who kept nude portraits of all of his conquests locked in a room. When Louis raised taxes to defend France against the English, people were convinced he was simply lining his own pockets.
Louis was eventually murdered in cold blood by John of Burgundy in the streets of Paris. This led to a civil war between John of Burgundy and Louis’ son, Charles of Orleans. The conflict carried on for many years and a certain Henry V of England decided to take advantage of it in 1414. The conflict between Orleans and Burgundy would help keep France divided at the worst time and unable to unite their forces to expel Henry from his conquest of France.
In 1420, the Treaty of Troyes was an agreement signed by Henry V of England and Charles VI , recognizing Henry as Charles’ successor, and stipulating that Henry’s heirs would succeed him on the throne of France. It disinherited the Dauphin Charles (with further claim, in 1421, that the young Charles was illegitimate). The treaty disinherited the Dauphin of France in favor of the English crown and was a blatant act against the interests of France. The Dauphin sealed his fate, in the eyes of the mad king, when he declared himself regent, seized royal authority, and refused to obey the king’s order to return to Paris.
When Charles VI died in 1422, it would take his son, Charles VII, another seven years to be crowned king of France. He would end up owing many of his miraculous victories to a maiden, who by all accounts even today, was sent from Heaven itself. Many worldly theories have been presented to explain Joan of Arc. However, none are as convincing as what she and those that knew her say she was. Perhaps Charles VI’s illness was set up for an unfolding drama that was to bring about a message for his people caught up in a brutal and unending war. And perhaps a future message to us who will listen, five hundred years later. Thanks to Joan of Arc’s influence and Charles VII’s perseverance, the English occupation of France and the Hundred Years War would end in 1453.