We know how Michelet recounted the famous episode which marks the beginning of the royal “madness”. Now, let us consult the King’s contemporaries. The Monk of Saint-Denis, the monarch’s official historian, attenuates that which could tarnish the sacred character of the royal function. Juvenal des Ursins remains very discrete on the unfolding of the facts out of fidelity to the memory of his father, one of the famous marmosets responsible for having encouraged the expedition. Froissart repeats public opinion, and the Italian de Prato, whom the King of France’s misfortunes do not concern, simply reports the facts brought to his knowledge. These different tales are the ones we need to study in an attempt to better understand what happened over the course of this fatal 1392 Summer day.
The identity of the mysterious tramp who came to speak to the King is unknown. Abjectissimum virum according to the Monk of Saint-Denis, “a nasty man, badly dressed, poor and vile person” if we are to believe Juvenal des Ursins, “a man with his head uncovered and bare feet, dressed in a poor tunic of white sackcloth and who better showed that he was mad than wise”, in Froissart’s opinion. A strange figure in any case, but doubtless fairly common in this XIVth Century. The tradition of Holy Hermits is still alive and the misfortunes of the times have thrown a mass of society’s rejects onto the roads. Care is taken not to push away the Illuminated, for they are often seen as prophets whose warnings should not be imprudently ignored. Did this curious person approach the King on his own initiative or is the incident a result of manipulation? Froissart remains perplexed. He is surprised that no-one thought to stop this individual, to interrogate him to find out “if he was naturally mad or wise, and who gave him such words to say, and where they came from”. The identity of this frightening, “disfigured” messenger remains a mystery. And what are we to think of the words addressed to the King: “Don’t go any farther, noble King, for you are betrayed.” That is how the Monk of Saint-Denis reports them, while Juvenal des Ursins transmits a slightly different version: “King, where are you going? Do not pass farther for you are betrayed.”
The formulation reported by Froissart is almost identical to the two preceding ones: “King, do not ride farther ahead, but return, for you are betrayed.” The Chronique des quatre premiers Valois remains more vague: “King, if you enter the forest, you will have a misadventure… if you go any farther ahead, you are dead.” For the Monk, this unforseen intervention “caused the King a strong terror, for the man whom we were unable to chase away by menaces or by terror… clamoured in a terrible voice”. For Froissart, these words “entered into the head of the King who was weak”. Then the chronicler of the Quatre premiers Valois says that “the King wanted to get rid of the madman by hitting him with his sword”, it is again Froissart who furnishes the most details about the following moments.
The group of riders arrives in a clearing at midday, when the sun is at its highest. There is no shade, just a vast open expanse, where the horses advance with difficulty on sandy soil, raising a lot of dust. A page dozes off, the lance that he is carrying goes to hit the helmet of one of his companions, “which made the steels ring loudly one upon the other”. This sudden metallic sound, evokes the rattling of weapons. Does Charles believe that he is the target of an attack? The one announced by the man whom he had met? In any case, it is at this moment that the “attack of fury” – according to the Monk – the “frenzy” – according to Juvenal des Ursins – is unleashed.
For the first of these two chroniclers, “the King lost his mind”. De Prato reports that “his brain turned”. All the texts which give an account of the event agree on the words then pronounced: “They want to deliver me to my enemies… I am betrayed.” The poor demented man believes himself to be encircled and attacked by adversaries who want to kill him, and it is to defend himself that he unsheaths his sword and rushes at the nearest riders; he kills four of his companions. The attack lasts nearly an hour, until the King’s horse, exhausted, finally stops. A knight then succeeds in grabbing the unfortunate man, who is disarmed, taken from his horse and lain down. He then loses consciousness.
Who then is this “enemy”, this “traitor”, against whom Charles thinks to defend himself? The Italian from Avignon, de Prato, makes no bones about designating Louis d’Orleans… The French chroniclers cannot write it, but Froissart suggests it when he insists on the fact that the sovereign doesn’t recognize anyone any more; it is in fact precisely at Louis that Charles rushes, crying out: “Attack these traitors!” The Duke de Bourgogne, himself, encourages his “beautiful nephew d’Orleans” to flee for his brother evidently “wants to kill him”. Louis effectively flees, and after an hour of the infernal skirmish, which sees the knights charged by the King let themselves fall successively to the ground to avoid his blows, the Norman, Guillaume Martel, manages to control the sick man. Lain on a cart which leaves in the direction of Le Mans, Charles does not recognize his uncles, or his brother who has come back beside him.
At the same time, messengers carry to the different contingents which make up the royal Host, the order to fall back. The Brittany expedition has just come to a surprising end. Four men have been killed, the Duke of Orleans’ life has been threatened by the King, who is suffering from a strange illness, and is perhaps going to die, to everyone’s consternation. While Charles is being transported to Le Mans Abbey, where he remains completely prostrated, it is the Duke de Bourgogne, Philippe the Hardy, who takes things in hand. The patient’s heart is beating normally but he remains for a long time unconscious and motionless. The doctors are quite incapable of formulating a diagnosis and, prudent, content themselves with reminding everyone that they had advised against this Brittany expedition, after the King’s fever in Spring.
To be continued.