This Mad French King Thought He Was Made of Glass

Charles VI, who became known to his subjects as “Charles the Mad,” ruled France from 1380 until his death in 1422. He inherited the throne at age 11, and for many years the handsome young king was quite popular. His royal uncles handled the everyday business of the country while he spent his time winning jousting tournaments, and he soon earned the nickname “Charles the Beloved.” Everyone expected that when he took over the business of ruling he would put an end to the country’s problems, which included constant war, food shortages, and plague, among other things. Unfortunately, they were wrong.

Things started to go downhill for Charles at age 23, after a brief illness during which he suffered seizures and a fever. Even though he was still recovering, he decided that he needed to go on a revenge mission against a man who had allegedly tried to assassinate one of his close friends. No one thought to question the king’s decision, and he soon set off with a group of loyal knights to find the perpetrator. As the group rode along, one of the party dropped his lance on the ground, which startled the king with its sudden noise. But instead of just moving on, Charles drew his sword and managed to kill four of his own knights and injure several others before he could be brought under control. After he was pulled from his horse, he suddenly fell into a coma. Although he recovered after several days, he was never the same again.

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Throughout his life, Charles would alternate periods of sanity with months of increasingly outrageous behavior. He suffered delusions, during which he believed he was St. George, denied being the King of France, and tried to have the royal coat of arms changed to those of the saint. He went through periods when he did not recognize or acknowledge his own wife and children. Insisting that he was being chased by his enemies, he would run through his palaces screaming in terror until he collapsed. He frequently attacked anyone who sought to help him as he fled his imaginary pursuers. Sometimes, he would rip his clothes off and flee to the royal gardens, where he would either hide or sit in the dirt. Fearing that the king would run away or escape the palace during these episodes and hurt himself, royal advisors had many of the palace entrances walled in.

During one bout of madness, he refused to groom himself at all. He would not bathe or change his clothes, and he constantly urinated on himself. Living in this filth caused him to develop terrible skin lesions and rashes, and his hair became infested with lice. This behavior lasted several months, until his doctor decided to try an improvised form of shock treatment to bring him back to his senses. This “treatment” consisted of men hiding in his bedroom and then jumping out and somehow scaring him when he entered the room. Silly as this sounds, it apparently worked, as Charles then allowed himself to be bathed and groomed. He even experienced a period of sanity following this intervention, though it only lasted a few weeks.

The most interesting aspect of the king’s mental illness was the belief he developed that he was made of glass. Afraid that he would break, he would hide from people in cabinets and behind furniture so that no one could touch him. He refused to allow anyone near him, including his long-suffering wife. He would also wrap his lower body in blankets so that his rear end wouldn’t break when he sat down. At one point, he ordered that clothes be made for him that were fitted with iron rods. These rods were meant to protect him from breaking should he accidentally bump into anyone or anything. Called the “glass delusion,” this symptom of mental illness is now relatively well-known to psychological professionals, though it has rarely been diagnosed since the 1800s. Charles was the first recorded person to have suffered from it.

Since monarchs ruled for life in that era, King Charles VI continued to rule the country even though severely mentally ill, with predictably bad results for France. Members of the royal family fought for power over the king when he was at his most delusional. The resulting power vacuum resulted in a situation of lawlessness reigning over the country, where groups of roving bandits terrorized the common people and political murder was a regular feature of court life. The royal treasury was drained in a disastrous war with England that ended in French defeat at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. An unstable and demoralized Charles then signed a peace treaty with the English that disinherited his own sons in favor of the English king’s son (who was also Charles’ grandson by his daughter, Catherine). This treaty resulted in more war when Charles died, as his son and the new English king fought each other for the throne of France.

Historians today still debate the cause of Charles VI’s symptoms. Several of his ancestors and descendants exhibited similar symptoms, including his grandson, Henry VI of England. He was the product of several generations of intermarriage between closely related family members, which tends to increase the likelihood of inheriting many illnesses. Many believe that he suffered from schizophrenia, as his delusions and behavior fit with this diagnosis. There are some who believe he may have had an extreme form of bipolar disorder that includes schizophrenic-like behavior. It is also possible that the fever and convulsions he suffered before his first period of madness caused permanent brain damage. The mental health field was virtually non-existent at the time, so doctors did not know what they were dealing with, and the historical record reflects that lack of knowledge. It is probable that we will never know the true cause of Charles’s madness. But the destruction it wrought should make us all thankful that we have a better understanding of mental illness today.

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