Charles V (21 January 1338 – 16 September 1380), called the Wise was a monarch of the House of Valois who ruled as King of France from 1364 to his death.
In 1349, as a young prince, Charles received from his grandfather King Philip VI the province of Dauphiné to rule. This allowed him to bear the title “Dauphin” until his coronation, which led to the integration of the Dauphiné into the crown lands of France. After 1350, all heirs apparent of France bore the title of Dauphin until their coronation.
Charles became regent of France when his father John II was captured by the English at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. To pay the ransom, Charles had to raise taxes and deal with the hostility of the nobility, led by Charles the Bad, King of Navarre; the opposition of the French bourgeoisie, which was channeled through the Estates-General led by Etienne Marcel; and with peasant revolts known as Jacqueries. Charles overcame all of these rebellions, but in order to liberate his father, he had to conclude the Treaty of Brétigny in 1360, in which he abandoned large portions of south-western France to Edward III of England and agreed to pay a huge ransom.
Charles became king in 1364. With the help of talented advisers known as the Marmousets, his skillful management of the kingdom allowed him to replenish the royal treasury and to restore the prestige of the House of Valois. He established the first permanent army paid with regular wages, which liberated the French populace from the companies of routiers who regularly plundered the country when not employed. Led by Bertrand du Guesclin, the French Army was able to turn the tide of the Hundred Years’ War to Charles’ advantage, and by the end of Charles’ reign, they had reconquered almost all the territories ceded to the English in 1360. Furthermore, the French Navy, led by Jean de Vienne, managed to attack the English coast for the first time since the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War.
Charles V died in 1380. He was succeeded by his son Charles VI the Mad, whose disastrous reign allowed the English to regain control of large parts of France.
Charles was born at the Château de Vincennes outside of Paris, the son of Prince John and Princess Bonne of France. He was educated at court with other boys of his age with whom he would remain close throughout his life: his uncle Philip, Duke of Orléans (only two years older than himself), his three brothers Louis, John, and Philip, Louis of Bourbon, Edward and Robert of Bar, Godfrey of Brabant, Louis I, Count of Étampes, Louis of Évreux, brother of Charles the Bad, John and Charles of Artois, Charles of Alençon, and Philip of Rouvres.
The future king was highly intelligent but physically weak, with pale skin and a thin, ill-proportioned body. This made a sharp contrast to his father, who was tall, strong and sandy-haired.
Humbert II, Dauphin of Viennois, ruined due to his inability to raise taxes after a crusade in Palestine, and childless after the death of his only son, decided to sell the Dauphiné, which was a fief of the Holy Roman Empire. As neither the pope nor the emperor wanted to buy, the transaction was concluded with Philip VI.
Under the Treaty of Romans, the Dauphiné of Viennois was to be held by a son of the future king John the Good. So it was Charles, the eldest son of the latter, who became the first Dauphin. At the age of twelve, he was immediately confronted with the exercise of power while staying in Grenoble (10 December 1349 to March 1350). A few days after his arrival, the people of Grenoble were invited to the Place Notre-Dame, where a platform was erected. Young Charles took his place next to Bishop John of Chissé and received the oath of allegiance of the people. In exchange, he publicly promised to respect the community charter and confirmed the liberties and franchises of Humbert II, which were summed up in a solemn statute before he signed his abdication and granted a last amnesty to all prisoners, except those facing the penalty of death.
On April 8, 1350 at Tain-l’Hermitage, the Dauphin married his cousin Joanna of Bourbon at the age of 12. The prior approval of the pope was obtained for this consanguineous marriage (both were descended from Charles of Valois). The marriage was delayed by the death of his mother Bonne of Luxembourg and his grandmother Joan the Lame, swept away by the plague (he no longer saw them after he left for the Dauphiné). The dauphin himself had been seriously ill from August to December 1349. Gatherings were limited to slow the spread of the plague then raging in Europe, so the marriage took place in private.
The control of Dauphiné was valuable to the Kingdom of France, because it occupied the Rhone Valley, a major trade route between the Mediterranean and northern Europe since ancient times, putting them in direct contact with Avignon, a papal territory and diplomatic center of medieval Europe. Despite his young age, the dauphin applied to be recognized by his subjects, interceding to stop a war raging between two vassal families, and gaining experience that was very useful to him.
Charles was recalled to Paris at the death of his grandfather Philip VI and participated at the coronation of his father John the Good on 26 September 1350 in Reims. The legitimacy of John the Good, and that of the Valois in general, was not unanimous. His father, Philip VI, had lost all credibility with the disasters of Crecy, Calais, the ravages of the plague, and the monetary changes needed to support the royal finances. The royal clan had to cope with opposition from all sides in the kingdom.
The first of these was led by Charles II of Navarre, called “the Bad”, whose mother Joan II of Navarre had renounced the crown of France for that of Navarre in 1328. Charles II of Navarre was the eldest of a powerful lineage. Ambitious of attaining the crown of France, he managed to gather around him the malcontents. He was supported by his relatives and allies: the House of Boulogne (and their kin in Auvergne), the barons of Champagne loyal to Joan II of Navarre (heir of Champagne, had it not merged into the crown of France), and by the followers of Robert of Artois, driven from the kingdom by Philip VI. He also had the support of the University of Paris and the northwestern merchants where the cross-Channel trade was vital.
A brilliant orator, and accustomed to a monarchy controlled by the Cortes of Navarre (the equivalent of the States General), Charles the Bad championed the reform of a state considered too arbitrary, leaving no voice to the nobility or the cities (John the Good governed with a circle of favorites and officers sometimes of humble extraction). Unlike his father, Charles V thought that a king must have the approval of his subjects and must listen to their advice. This view allowed him to approach the Norman nobles and the reformists, and thus Charles of Navarre.
The power of Navarre was such that, on 8 January 1354, he murdered with impunity his rival Charles de la Cerda (the king’s favourite), and openly avowed this crime. He even obtained, through the Treaty of Mantes, territorial concessions and sovereignty by threatening to make an alliance with the English. But in Avignon, the English and French were negotiating a peace that would prevent Charles of Navarre from counting on the support of Edward III. He therefore concluded a treaty with the English in which the Kingdom of France would be partitioned between them. An English landing was planned for the end of the truce, which would expire on 24 June 1355.
King John ordered the Dauphin in March 1355 to organize the defense of Normandy, which required raising the necessary taxes. The task was difficult because of the growing influence of Charles the Bad, who had acquired a status similar to that of a “Duke” under the Treaty of Mantes. He was likely to ally with Edward III and could at any time open the gateway to Normandy to the English. The Dauphin avoided war by reconciling Navarre with the king, which was sealed with a ceremony at the court on 24 September 1355. Edward III was offended at the latest betrayal of Charles of Navarre, and the promised landing did not occur.
King John was a brave warrior but poor ruler who alienated his nobles through arbitrary justice and the elevation of associates considered unworthy. After a three-year break, the Hundred Years’ War with England resumed in 1355, with Edward, The Black Prince, leading an English-Gascon army in a violent raid across southwestern France. After checking an English incursion into Normandy, John led an army of about 16,000 men to the south, crossing the Loire in September 1356 with the goal of outflanking the Prince’s 8,000 soldiers at Poitiers. Rejecting advice from one captain to surround and starve the Prince, a tactic Edward feared, John attacked the strong enemy position. In the subsequent Battle of Maupertuis (Poitiers), English archery all but annihilated the French cavalry, and John was captured. Charles led a battalion at Poitiers that withdrew early in the struggle; whether the order came from John (as he later claimed), or whether Charles himself ordered the withdrawal, is unclear.
The outcome of the battle left many embittered with the nobility. Popular opinion accused the nobles of betraying the king, while Charles and his brothers escaped blame — he was received with honor upon his return to Paris. The Dauphin summoned the Estates-General in October to seek money for the defense of the country. Furious at what they saw as poor management, many of those assembled organized into a body led by Etienne Marcel, the Provost of Merchants (a title roughly equivalent to Mayor of Paris today). Marcel demanded the dismissal of seven royal ministers, their replacement by a Council of 28 made up of nobles, clergy and bourgeois, and the release of Charles the Bad, who had been imprisoned by John for the murder of his constable. The Dauphin refused the demands, dismissed the Estates-General, and left Paris.
A contest of wills ensued. In an attempt to raise money, Charles tried to devalue the currency; Marcel ordered strikes, and the Dauphin was forced to cancel his plans and recall the Estates in February 1357. The Third Estate presented the Dauphin with a Grand Ordinance, a list of 61 articles that would have given the Estates-General the right to approve all future taxes, assemble at their own volition, and elect a Council of 36 (with 12 members from each Estate) to advise the king. Charles eventually signed the ordinance, but his dismissed councillors took news of the document to King John, imprisoned in Bordeaux. The King renounced the ordinance before being taken to England by Prince Edward.
Charles made a royal progress through the country that summer, winning support from the provinces, and he won Paris back. Marcel, meanwhile, enlisted Charles the Bad, who asserted that his claim to the throne of France was at least as good as that of King Edward III of England, who had used his claim as the pretext for initiating the Hundred Years’ War.
Marcel used the murder of a citizen seeking sanctuary in Paris to make an attack close to the Dauphin. Summoning a group of tradesmen, the Provost marched at the head of an army of 3,000, entered the royal palace, and had the crowd murder two of the Dauphin’s marshals before his eyes. Charles, horrified, momentarily pacified the crowd, but sent his family away and left the capital as quickly as he could. Marcel’s action destroyed support for the Third Estate among the nobles, and the Provost’s subsequent backing of the Jacquerie undermined his support from the towns. He was murdered by a mob on 31 July 1358. Charles was able to recover Paris the following month and later issued a general amnesty for all, except close associates of Marcel.
John’s capture gave the English the edge in peace negotiations following the Battle of Poitiers. The King signed a treaty in 1359 that would have ceded most of western France to England and imposed a ruinous ransom of 4 million écus on the country. The Dauphin (backed by his councillors and the Estates General) rejected the treaty, and King Edward used this as an excuse to invade France later that year. Edward reached Reims in December and Paris in March, but Charles forbade his soldiers from direct confrontation with the English, relying on improved municipal fortifications made to Paris by Marcel. He would later rebuild the wall on the Left Bank (Rive gauche), and he built a new wall on the Right Bank (Rive droite) that extended to a new fortification called the Bastille. Edward pillaged and raided the countryside but could not bring the French to a decisive battle, so he eventually agreed to reduce his terms. This non-confrontational strategy would prove extremely beneficial to France during Charles’ reign.
The Treaty of Brétigny, signed on 8 May 1360, ceded a third of western France (mostly in Aquitaine and Gascony) to the English and lowered the King’s ransom to 3 million écus. King John was released the following October. His second son, Louis I of Anjou, took his place as a hostage.
Though his father had regained his freedom, Charles suffered a great personal tragedy at nearly the same time. His three-year-old daughter Joan and infant daughter Bonne died within two months of each other late in 1360; at their double funeral, the Dauphin was said to be “so sorrowful as never before he had been.” Charles himself had been severely ill, with his hair and nails falling out; some suggest the symptoms are those of arsenic poisoning.
John proved as ineffective at ruling upon his return to France as he had before his capture. When Louis of Anjou escaped from English custody, John announced he had no choice but to return to captivity himself. He arrived in London in January 1364, became ill, and died the following April.
Charles was crowned King of France in 1364 at the Cathedral of Reims. The new king was highly intelligent, but closed-mouthed and secretive, with sharp eyes, a long nose and a pale, grave manner. He suffered from gout in the right hand and an abscess in his left arm, possibly a side-effect of an attempted poisoning in 1359. Doctors were able to treat the wound but told him that if it ever dried up, he would die within 15 days. His manner may have concealed a more emotional side; his marriage to Joan of Bourbon was considered very strong, and he made no attempt to hide his grief at her funeral or those of his children, five of whom predeceased him.
His reign was dominated by the war with the English and two major problems: recovering the territories ceded at Brétigny and ridding the land of the Tard-Venus (French for “latecomers”), mercenary companies that turned to robbery and pillage after the treaty was signed. In achieving these aims, Charles turned to a minor noble from Brittany named Bertrand du Guesclin. Nicknamed “the Black Dog of Brocéliande”, du Guesclin fought the English during the Breton War of Succession and was an expert in guerrilla warfare. Du Guesclin also defeated Charles II of Navarre at the Battle of Cocherel in 1364 and eliminated his threat to Paris.
In order to lure the Tard-Venus out of France, Charles first hired them for an attempted crusade into Hungary, but their reputation for brigandage preceded them, and the citizens of Strasbourg refused to let them cross the Rhine on their journey. Charles next sent the mercenary companies (under the leadership of du Guesclin) to fight in a civil war in Castile between King Peter the Cruel and his illegitimate half-brother Henry. Peter had English backing, while Henry was supported by the French.
Du Guesclin and his men were able to drive Peter out of Castile in 1365 after the capture of the fortresses of Magallon and Briviesca and the capital Burgos. But the Black Prince, now serving as his father’s viceroy in southwestern France, took up Peter’s cause. At the Battle of Nájera in April 1367, the English defeated Henry’s army. Du Guesclin was captured after a memorable resistance and ransomed by Charles V, who considered him invaluable. The Black Prince, affected by dysentery, soon withdrew his support from Peter. The English army suffered badly during the retreat. Four English soldiers out of five died during the Castillan Campaign. In 1369, du Guesclin renewed the attack against Peter, defeating him at the decisive Battle of Montiel. Henry stabbed the captive Peter to death in du Guesclin’s tent, thereby gaining the throne of Castile. Bertrand was made Duke of Molina, and the Franco-Castillan alliance was sealed. Charles V could now resume the war against England under favorable conditions.
After the Castillan campaign, the Black Prince was invalid and heavily in debt. His rule in Gascony became increasingly autocratic. Nobles from Gascony petitioned Charles for aid, and when the Black Prince refused to answer a summons to Paris to answer the charges, Charles judged him disloyal and declared war in May 1369. Legally, Charles had every right to do this; the renunciation of sovereignty by Charles was never made and therefore Gascony was still legally held by the King.
Instead of seeking a major battle, as his predecessors had done, Charles chose a strategy of attrition, spreading the fighting at every point possible. The French and Castillan navies destroyed an English fleet at La Rochelle in 1372. Then, du Guesclin launched destructive raids against the coasts of England, naval reprisals to the English chevauchées. Bertrand du Guesclin, appointed Constable of France in 1370, beat back a major English offensive in northern France with an unnerving combination of raids, sieges, and pitch battles. He notably crushed Robert Knolles at the Battle of Pontvallain.
Most of the major English leaders were killed in a few months and the Black Prince fled to England, where he died in 1376. By 1374, Charles recovered all of France except Calais and Aquitaine, effectively nullifying the Treaty of Brétigny.
In 1376, Pope Gregory XI, fearing a loss of the Papal States, decided to move his court back to Rome after nearly 70 years in Avignon. Charles, hoping to maintain French influence over the papacy, tried to persuade Pope Gregory to remain in France, arguing that “Rome is wherever the Pope happens to be.” Gregory refused.
The Pope died in March 1378. When cardinals gathered to elect a successor, a Roman mob, concerned that the predominantly French College of Cardinals would elect a French pope who would bring the papacy back to Avignon, surrounded the Vatican and demanded the election of a Roman. On 9 April, the cardinals elected Bartolomeo Prigamo, Archbishop of Bari, and a commoner by birth, as Pope Urban VI. The new pope quickly alienated his cardinals by criticising their vices, limiting the areas where they could receive income and even rising to strike one cardinal before a second restrained him. The French cardinals left Rome that summer and declared Urban’s election invalid because of mob intimidation (a reason that had not been cited at the time of the election) and elected Cardinal Robert of Geneva as Pope Clement VII that September.
The French cardinals quickly moved to get Charles’ support. The theology faculty of the University of Paris advised Charles not to make a hasty decision, but he recognised Clement as Pope in November and forbade any obedience to Urban. Charles’ support allowed Clement to survive as pope and led to the Papal Schism, which would divide Europe for nearly 40 years.
Charles’ last years were spent in the consolidation of Normandy (and the neutralisation of Charles of Navarre). Peace negotiations with the English continued unsuccessfully. The taxes he had levied to support his wars against the English caused deep disaffection among the working classes.
The abscess on the King’s left arm dried up in early September 1380 and Charles prepared to die. On his deathbed, perhaps fearful for his soul, Charles announced the abolition of the hearth tax, the foundation of the government’s finances. The ordinance would have been impossible to carry out, but its terms were known, and the government’s refusal to reduce any of the other taxes on the people sparked the Maillotin revolt in 1381.
The King died on 16 September 1380 and was succeeded by his 12-year-old son, Charles VI. He is buried in the Basilica of St Denis, about five miles north of Paris.