King Charles VI of France
Born: December 3, 1368
Died: October 21, 1422
Paris, France (Age 53)
Charles VI in History
The future Charles VI was born the eldest son and heir to King Charles V of France and from a young age showed two distinct characteristics: the preferment of warlike activities over education; and several seemingly harmless mental defects. It is the latter characteristic that would have the most effect on his life and reign. The crown of France would be thrust onto Charles at the age of twelve when his father died in September 1380. A regency was established consisting of the late king's three brothers and brother-in-law, and as usually happens in the case of minority reigns, there was much strife over who was to have the greatest influence over the young king. The kingdom was being severely mismanaged, and the common people ultimately rebelled due to the increasingly high taxes being forced upon them. Fortunately, the king and the royal army were able to decisively defeat the rebels at the Battle of Roosebeke in late 1382 to regain control. All other smaller risings were easily quenched with little or no bloodshed. However, the regents continued to rule the kingdom unwisely, until Charles was forced to dismiss them and take complete control of his government in 1387. He reinstated several of his father's former counselors, and affairs gradually became better in France.
1392 would be a crucial year in Charles's reign. While leading an army into Brittany to subdue rebellions in the region, the king became confused and out of control. He lashed out and killed four of his own attendants and was virtually incoherent for several weeks. When he recovered, other instances of this mental disorder continued to occur and would, indeed, last for the remainder of the king's life. With the king incapacitated for months at a time, political factions were bound to form. Charles VI's brother Louis of Orleans and the powerful Philip of Burgundy (the king and Louis' uncle) viciously fought for control of the government. Philip died in 1404 and was replaced by his son John, who, in turn, ordered the murder of Louis in 1407. The royal cause was then taken up by Louis' son of the same name (the king's nephew) and his father-in-law Count Bernard of Armagnac. It was at this point that the two factions would be formed that would dominate French politics for the next seventy years: The Burgundians and the Armagnacs.
If having a king only seldom in control of his wits and violent political factions vying for control of the government was not enough for a country to deal with, add to those troubles an imminent invasion from a powerful foreign enemy, and events are destined to deteriorate rapidly. The Hundred Years War between France and England (begun in 1337 when King Edward III decided to press his claim to the French crown) had been dormant (relatively speaking) since a truce had been agreed to in 1360. Edward III's successor, Richard II (who was no warrior), found it more beneficial to keep the peace with France and actually married Charles VI's young daughter in 1394 to continue the truce. Richard II was, in turn, deposed and murdered by his cousin, Henry IV, in 1399. Because of his unlawful seizure of the throne, Henry IV was forced to dedicate his time almost exclusively to civil rebellions for a majority of his reign. However, with his death; the accession of his son, Henry V, in 1413; and the end of civil rebellion, the English were free to concentrate on renewing their claim to the French throne.
Henry V made one attempt to make peace with France, presenting them with a treaty that was so unreasonable that he could not possibly have expected them to agree to it, before beginning his invasion in 1415. Firstly, the English laid siege to the city of Harfleur, which after nearly a year (and after the English forces were severely decimated) gave in to English control. Next, Henry V and his army moved deeper into France where they were accosted at Agincourt by a much larger French force. A bloody battle broke out which saw the French lose more than eight thousand men - compared to less than a thousand on the English side. For the next five years, the English would continue to conquer new territories, while relations between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs, who had done their best to put their differences aside up to this point, began to worsen.
In 1419, John of Burgundy was assassinated by the Armagnacs, causing the late duke's son and heir, Philip, to join forces with the English. Without the support of the Burgundians, the French did not stand a chance of survival and were forced to sign the Treaty of Troyes with the English in 1420. The conditions of the treaty were as follows: Henry V was to marry Charles VI's daughter Katherine and was to be named Charles's heir. The dauphin Charles, who had essentially taken over the Armagnac party, was to be disinherited, but he continued to hold out in southern France, which had not come under English control (outside of Gascony). When the English king left for a brief trip back to England, an army led by his brother Thomas of Clarence was defeated by a French and Scottish army under the dauphin's command at Bauge, with Clarence himself being killed in the battle. This defeat caused Henry to return to France, which was now attempting to unify itself under the dauphin. His return did not last long, though, and the king died suddenly of dysentery in the summer of 1422, leaving his kingdom to his nine-month-old son, Henry VI.
As for Charles VI, he was only able to outlive his rival by two months, finally expiring in October 1422 at the age of fifty-three. He had been King of France for over forty years but many contemporaries and historians alike will say that Charles's reign effectively ended that fateful day in 1392 when he first showed signs of the crippling mental illness that was to be in control of him for the rest of his life. Under the terms of the Treaty of Troyes, the French throne passed on to Henry VI. Many of the French, however, were already in the process of unifying under the man that they considered to be their true king: Charles VII. In the end, it was the younger Charles that was able to bring the country together and win back most of the territories that were lost during his father's "mad" reign.
Charles VI in Shakespeare
Appears in: Henry V
Charles VI is the French king within Henry V but is never referred to by name. Although he seems to occasionally be able to make decisions for himself, it appears he is firmly under the control of his lords (in particular, his son, the dauphin). After the Battle of Agincourt, he agrees to sign the Treaty of Troyes with the English. In reality, the treaty was not signed until five years after Agincourt, and it is unlikely that Charles played any significant role in its proceedings, considering the severity of his mental illness. Perhaps the king's indecisive behavior within the play is Shakespeare's way of showing his on and off mental illness - because it is never mentioned within the play.
Potter, Philip J. Kings of the Seine: The French Rulers from Pippin III to Jacques Chirac. Baltimore: Publish America, 2005.