History’s Worst Kings: Charles The Mad

Published June 7, 2015
Updated July 20, 2017
King Charles VI Gallery

Source: Wikimedia

Unlike republics, which 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 shithouse-rat 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. Permit us to introduce you to Charles VI of France.

Early Life

King Charles VI Hunting

Source: Wikipedia

Charles was born to the House of Valois in 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.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.