It was the middle of Summer, in the burning, heavy heat of August. The King was buried inside a black velvet outfit, with a scarlet hat, also in velvet, on his head. The princes slyly trailed behind, leaving him alone, so as not to cover him in dust, they said. Therefore, it was alone that he travelled through the boring forests of the Maine, small woods with little shade, the suffocating heat of the clearings, the blinding mirages of the sand at noon.
“As he traversed the forest in this way, a sick-looking man, wearing only a white tunic, suddenly threw himself at the bridle of the King’s horse, crying out in a terrible voice: “Stop, noble King, don’t go any farther, you are betrayed!”
“He was made to release the bridle, but they let him follow the King and cry out for half an hour.
“It was midday, and the King left the forest and entered a sandy plain where the sun was striking heavily. Everyone was suffering from the heat. A page who was carrying the royal lance went to sleep on his horse, and the lance, in falling, went to hit the helmet that another page was wearing. At this sound of steel, at this flash of light, the King starts, draws his sword, and, spurring his horse, he cries: “Attack! Attack the traitors! They want to deliver me!” He runs like this, with his naked sword, on the Duke of Orleans. The Duke escaped but the King had the time to kill four men before he could be stopped. They had to wait until he was tired; then one of his knights came and seized him from behind. He was disarmed, he was taken down from his horse, he was gently lain on the ground. His eyes were rolling strangely in his head, he recognized no-one and said nothing…”
It is in these terms that Michelet recounts the episode of Le Mans forest, an episode which has remained famous because it marks the beginning of the “madness” of King Charles VI of France. The History books say that after this fatal day, the sovereign would have attack upon attack, sometimes delirious and dangerous, sometimes prostrated and withdrawn. A tragic and mysterious illness, resurgence of hidden hereditary defects, the “madness” of Charles VI would haunt half a century of History, throw the kingdom into chaos for thirty years, and bring the country to the verge of complete disappearance.
Such is, at least, the version retained by generations of public school pupils. Forged by the historians and school teachers of the laic and positivist IIIrd Republic, it discredited obscurantist royalty and gave a simplistic interpretation of a strange reign, where the “marvellous” was inextricably mixed with politics.
Apart from the image of a poor, crowned madman, haggard, scruffy, manipulated by the evil souls of his entourage, who was the real Charles VI?
Charles is twelve years old when he is taken to Reims, in the middle of a cortege of princes and knights, to receive the crown. He is a beautiful, blond child whose face is strewn with freckles, and is tall for his age. He holds his place in the vast cathedral without weakness, at the centre of an imposing, even grandiose troup. The following Sunday, Charles makes his entry into Paris, transformed for the circumstance into a theatrical scene. Tapisteries are spread at the windows. Fountains of wine and of milk have been set up in the squares. Little scenes have been organized by the town’s middle-classes, along the young King’s route. The crowd acclaims the child, in whom it has placed its hopes of peace and prosperity: “Noel! Noel!”
Feasts, dances, jousts end this beautiful day, and doubtless Charles goes to sleep with a smile on his face – he has a reputation for having a happy character.
Charles is the son of Charles V the Wise and of Queen Jeanne de Bourbon. Born on 30 December 1368, he is called to succeed his father in 1380. He is then only twelve years old: his forty-two year reign will be one of the longest in France’s history and, if it has left the memory of unhappy times, it begins under quite reassuring auspices. The “repairing” reign of Charles V and reconquest brought about by Connetable Du Guesclin have in fact largely redressed the critical situation left by the first two Valois. The defeats suffered by the French knights at Crecy and Poitiers, the horrors of the Jacquerie, the revolt of the middle-classes and the people of Paris, the manoeuvres and treasons of the King of Navarre, Charles the Bad, are all in the past. Apart from Cherbourg, Calais and in Guyenne, the English have finally been kicked out of France.
After the “moult belle chose” (most beautiful thing) which was, according to Juvenal des Ursins, the Reims Coronation, on 11 November 1380, the King makes his entry into his capital where his subjects reserve an enthusiasic welcome for him. They have in fact been frustrated by not having seen him at his father’s funeral; the Dauphin and his young brother Louis, had been left at Melun, because of the plague which was affecting Paris. Only their uncles had followed the mortal remains of the dead King. Uncles called to play an important political role because of the new King’s youth, but ready to tear each other apart to acquire power at the heart of the Council. Who are they? There is the maternal uncle, Louis II de Bourbon, the brother of the dead Queen. He is the eldest and descends from Saint Louis [Louis IX] through Robert de Clermont, a faraway sprig of the royal House who, with Henri IV, will succeed the Valois branch, in a distant future. Meanwhile, his quality of maternal uncle obliges him to efface himself before the three brothers of Charles V. The eldest of these is Louis d’Anjou. He intends to impose himself, but the youngest, Philippe de Bourgogne, is the most powerful of the three: through his marriage he has received Flanders, Artois and Franche-Comte. Philippe is therefore the master of the imposing territorial principality of the Grand Dukes of the West, from the banks of the North Sea to Switzerland. Plus, the ancient Duchy of Bourgogne [Burgundy] traditionally gives its Duke the title of First Peer of the Realm. As well as that, he is reputed to have won his surname of “Hardy”, at the age of fourteen, fighting beside his father Jean the Good at the Battle of Poitiers… Jean, Duke of Berry, the second brother, is master of Berry, Auvergne, Poitou and Languedoc. He therefore has authority over almost one third of the kingdom.
To be continued.