History’s Worst Kings: King Charles The Mad

Published June 7, 2015
Updated January 9, 2022

Say what you will about democracy, at least we have the option to kick crazies like King Charles VI out of office via a vote.

Unlike republics, which are theoretically run by popular consent, absolute monarchies are sanctioned by God, and you don’t get a vote. Since God never makes mistakes, that means monarchies usually don’t have a mechanism for removing bad kings the way republics do for bad presidents.

This holds true even when the king is crazy, starts a civil war in the middle of another war, and regularly hides in cupboards because he believes his body is made out of glass and he’ll break if anybody touches him.

King Charles VI Of France

Source: Wikimedia

Permit us to introduce you to King Charles VI of France.

Early Life Of King Charles VI

King Charles VI Hunting

Source: Wikipedia

Charles was born into the House of Valois on December 3, 1368. Unfortunately for him, that was a bad time, and a bad house, to be born into. The general prosperity of the previous century had collapsed in shrieking disaster for France with repeated weather-induced crop failures a few decades earlier, which provoked a struggle over land that became the Hundred Years’ War, which was nicely accented by the 1346 arrival of the Black Death and the attendant loss of around one-third to half of the population.

The world Charles was born into had spent the previous 50 years falling apart, and most of the horrible things we today associate with the Middle Ages – plague, famine, ignorance, bandits roaming the countryside, constant war – really date to this period alone.

In this context, with plague stalking the starving peasantry and an English invasion threatening to gobble up what little was left under the Crown’s authority, France needed a great leader. Charles VI was bred to be that hero, and as a child he was given the best education a Medieval prince could expect.

On his father’s death, the 11-year-old Charles became king, with a regency shared among his four uncles. Officially, Charles was eligible to become king in his own right at 14, but the regency lasted until he was 21, letting him finish his education and fully prepare to lead France out of the darkness.

Training And High Hopes

Charles With Scribe

Source: Pinterest

On coming to power, in 1380, Charles had a few nasty surprises waiting for him. For one thing, his uncles turned out to be thieves who looted the treasury Charles’ father had painstakingly built up. The only way to keep the government running was with increasingly extortionate taxes, which provoked open revolt in the provinces.

It took Charles six years to oust his uncles, while they continued to suck the treasury dry. By 1386, Charles had brought back his father’s advisors and driven his uncles far from Paris. Finally ready to face the English threat, Charles began his rise to the greatness France expected from him.

And then he went insane.

Things Start Going Bad

King Charles VI Crazy

Source: Kazeo

Growing up, Charles had never shown signs of mental or emotional instability, though we know now that schizophrenia usually manifests for the first time during people’s teens and early 20s. In 1392, at the age of 23, Charles went completely berserk during a hunting trip with his retinue.

Seizing a sword, he suddenly cut down one of his knights, killing him on the spot, and threw himself onto the rest of the hunting party.

The king managed to kill three more knights before he could be restrained. The trip was cut short, and Charles was returned to Paris in fetters for his own safety. No explanation was ever discovered for the outburst, though it is fun to point out that the first man he killed was known as “The Bastard of Polignac.”

Things Get Worse For King Charles VI Of France

Things went from bad to worse during the rest of Charles’ reign. While sources all agree that he was a fine leader during his lucid periods, those moments became increasingly rare over the years. In 1393, one year after the hunting trip, Charles appeared to forget his own name and didn’t recognize his wife when she was brought to him, which was about the only mental health treatment anyone could think to try, apart from the enemas, of course.

By the way, don’t feel bad for the queen – that same year, she authored a decree forcing French Jews to sell their belongings and leave the country, mostly for Poland (fun fact: she was German).

Charles spent much of the winter of 1395-96 claiming to be Saint George and insisting that his family crest be redesigned to reflect that. To control the king’s wild sprints around the palace, which often ended in the Royal Gardens, where the Royal Person was found in his Royal Nudity squatting in the Royal Dirt, and court attendants had the corridors walled up.

According to Pope Pius II, King Charles VI of France spent several months in 1405 refusing to bathe and threatened to kill anyone who touched him, as he was made of glass and might break. Interestingly, this isn’t an uncommon delusion, and Charles may have been the first person known to have harbored it.

And Worse

King Charles VI Medieval

Source: IMG Kid

During Charles’ reign, the affairs of France unsurprisingly went to hell. The treasury was empty, despite the crushing taxes, the war was going as badly as it possibly could, and forces were gathering to pull the plug on the king.

Medieval politics have a way of being absurdly complicated. To get a reasonably accurate picture of the maneuvering going on all around Charles, try binge-watching Game of Thrones dubbed in French. Basically, Charles’ weakness encouraged every ambitious murderer in what was left of the country to wring the other murderers’ necks, actually starting a full-scale civil war, while the English laughed and occupied whichever parts of France looked worth invading.

King Charles VI, once known as Charles the Beloved, later known as Charles the Mad, died of what were probably natural causes in 1422, at the age of 61. Fittingly, given the general chaos, two of his descendants were crowned to replace him, as was – of all people – the infant King of England. At the time, Joan of Arc was 10 years old, so France got its hero after all.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Stockton, Richard. "History’s Worst Kings: King Charles The Mad." AllThatsInteresting.com, June 7, 2015, https://allthatsinteresting.com/charles-vi. Accessed June 14, 2024.