In 1416, the Armagnac Party imposes itself in France’s capital, where it exercises pitiless terror. In 1417, the Bourguignon, Jean the Fearless, regains control. He allies himself with Queen Isabeau, who has been sent away to Tours, and succeeds in gaining control of Paris in May 1418, where he stages a great massacre of the people in the opposing Party. On 30 October, there is another surprise: while the King appears to be siding with the victors, the Dauphin promulgates an interdiction to obey his father “during his detention and illness”. The rupture between Charles and his son is total in 1419, while the English pursue the conquest of the kingdom. On 10 September that same year, the Dauphin’s men assassinate the Duke de Bourgogne, Jean the Fearless, who had come to Montereau to negotiate. Charles VI firmly condemns this crime of lese-majeste and denounces his son as a destroyer and enemy of public affairs… By the Treaty of Troyes, concluded on 21 May 1420, he banishes and disinherits him. The King of England, husband of Catherine de France, is therefore to succeed his father-in-law, uniting the two crowns of England and France. At this time, the kingdom has hit rock bottom. Its very existence is now in question. Charles VI, who is still concerned with reconciliation and scandalised by his son’s betrayal of chivalry’s code of honour, is unable to perceive this.
It all seems over. The King’s “folly” evidently appears as one of the principal causes of the catastrophes that are showering down upon a kingdom which his father, Charles V, had so patiently restored after the first disasters of the Hundred Years War.
However, there is a side to the sovereign’s personality which remains surprising, and incompatible with the image of a demented man sinking into total decline. It is revealed to us by a collection of alchemical texts published in 1629 in Paris: L’Oeuvre royale de Charles VI, roi de France. It is difficult to enter into the treatise’s details, which are strictly alchemical, but one thing strikes all who study it: this text is not the work of a man whose mental faculties are the least bit affected… However, the author of this treatise is precisely Charles VI, the mad King. Let us take note of something written on one of the pages:
“Deceived and betrayed, I wanted to forge ahead with it: but the old man held me tightly by the hand…”
Perhaps a key to the tragic, incomprehensible destiny of Charles VI is hidden there? A key which remains to be found…
A few questions still need to be asked about this “madness” which leaves the door wide open to the worst ambitions. In whose interest is this half-death, ceaselessly lived and relived? Firstly, in that of the English. Their pretensions to France’s throne go back to Edward III, grandson of Philippe le Bel [the Beautiful] through his mother. They hope to profit from the defective mental health of the Valois sovereign. Curiously, the English propaganda, so prompt to insist on Charles VI’s incapacity to govern, will be discrete after 1420 and the conclusion of the Treaty of Troyes which removes the Dauphin from the succession and gives France in heritage to England. From then on, surrounding the patient with all the respect due to a monarch naturally inserts itself into the concern to guarantee sufficient legitimacy to Henry V, his son-in-law, and above all, to Henry VI, his grandson, later on. On this subject, it is significant that Bedford, the Regent of the kingdom of England, is present at Charles VI’s funeral, in the absence of all the great peers of the kingdom of France.
Then, there are the Armagnacs. They reproach Charles VI his desire for compromise and reconciliation. They, too, want the throne, and present themselves as the political heirs of Louis d’Orleans, assassinated by Bourgogne in 1407. As for the Dauphin, Charles VII, disavowed after the Montereau murder and disinherited, he can only preserve the idea of his legitimacy by arguing his father’s “madness”.
More reserved at first than their adversaries in the Armagnac Party, the Bourguignons start attacking the unfortunate King in 1416. In this way they can justify the crimes committed during the Cabochian insurrection in 1413 or during their reconquest of Paris in 1418. The sovereign’s madness also allows them to legitimize their alliance with the King of England, the only one capable of governing the kingdom…
We have already measured the weakness of most of the “clinical” explanations given by some for Charles VI’s illness. The historian, Dominique Revel, returns, however, to one of them: the poisoning hypothesis. Could these apparently unpredictable, brutal attacks have been provoked, in connection with secret, unidentifiable interests?
Of the diverse toxic substances available in XIVth Century Europe, let us retain three. The first is arsenic, which can cause headaches, nauseas, falls in blood pressure, tachycardia, cold hands and feet. The second is atropine, which provokes hallucinations, visions, memory problems, a violent negation of self, fears, rolling of the eyes, obscene words and gestures, all this followed by heavy torpor… The third is the rye ergot whose active constituent is lysergic acid, our modern LSD, which can provoke hallucinations and deliriums, convulsions and blood pressure problems…
The investigation is rendered difficult by the fact that the texts of the time remain imprecise on the King’s symptoms. It is even troubling to note that the word “folie” [madness] is rarely used. It could be thought that this abstention emanates from respect for royal majesty but the expressions employed remain curious, nonetheless. Enguerrand de Monstrelet says, about the episode of Le Mans, that it “made the King lose a great part of his good memory” and that he had ” throughout his whole life, several times similar occupations to those above”. Throughout his Histoire, he speaks of “usual illness” without saying anything else. Froissart also expresses himself in unusual terms:
“You know, if as it is here above contained in our History, how the King of France, every year, was always falling into feverish illness…”
To be continued.