The future king was highly intelligent but physically weak, with pale skin and a thin, ill-proportioned body. He made a sharp contrast to his father — who was tall, strong and sandy-haired — and gossip at the time suggested he was not John's son. Similar rumors would pursue Charles' grandson, Charles VII.
A contest of wills followed. 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 Jean, 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. Marcel, meanwhile, enlisted Charles of Navarre, who asserted that his claim to the throne was at least as good as that of Edward III's. The Dauphin, re-entering Paris, won the city back.
Marcel, meanwhile, used the murder of a citizen seeking sanctuary 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 the Third Estate's support among the nobles, and the Provost's subsequent support for the Jacquerie undermined his support from the towns; he was murdered by a mob on July 31, 1358. Charles was able to recover Paris the following month; he later issued a general amnesty for all, except close associates of Marcel.
Jean's capture gave the English the edge in peace negotiations. 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 ecus 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, trusting on improved municipal defenses, forbade his soldiers from direct confrontation with the English. Charles relied on improved fortifications made to Paris by Marcel, and would later rebuild the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) wall and built a new wall on the Right Bank 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, and eventually agreed to reduce his terms. This non-confrontational strategy would prove extremely beneficial to France during Charles' reign.
The Treaty of Bretigny, signed on May 8, 1360, ceded a third of western France — mostly in Aquitaine and Gascony — to the English, and lowered the King's ransom to 3 million ecus. Jean was released the following October, his second son, Louis I of Anjou, taking his place as a hostage.
Though his father had regained his freedom, Charles suffered a personal tragedy. His three-year-old daughter, Jeanne, and his infant daughter Bonne died within two weeks of each other; the Dauphin was said at their double funeral 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.
Jean proved as ineffective at ruling upon his return to France as he had before his capture. When Louis of Anjou escaped from English custody, Jean announced he had no choice but to return to captivity himself — an action that, despite the cult of chivalry, seemed extreme to 14th century minds. Jean arrived in London in January 1364, became ill, and died the following April.
Charles was crowned King of France in 1364 at the cathedral at Reims, France. The new king was highly intelligent but close-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. "Not surprisingly," said historian Barbara Tuchman, "the King lived under a sense of urgency." His manner may have concealed a more emotional side; his marriage to Jeanne de 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 Bretigny, 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. Referred to as a "hog in armor," du Guesclin had fought in that province's bitter civil wars, and learned to fight guerrilla warfare. Du Guesclin defeated Charles II of Navarre in Normandy in 1364 and eliminated the noble's threat to Paris; he was captured in battle in Brittany the following year but quickly ransomed.
To attempt to rid the land of the Tard-Venus, 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 Pedro the Cruel and his brother, Don Enrique of Trastamare. Pedro had English backing, while Enrique was supported by the French.
Du Guesclin and his men were able to drive Pedro out of Castile in 1365, but The Black Prince, now serving as his father's viceroy in southwestern France, took up Pedro's cause. At the Battle of Nájera in April 1367, the English defeated Du Guesclin's army and took the Breton prisoner a second time. Despite the defeat, the campaign had destroyed several companies of Tard-Venus and given France a temporary respite from their depredations.
Of great importance to Charles V cultural program was his vast library, housed in his expanded Louvre, and described in great detail by the 19th century French historian Leopold Delisle. Containing over 1,200 volumes it was symbolic of the authority and magnificence of the royal person, but also of his concern with government for the common good. Charles was concerned to possess copies of works in French, in order that his councellors had access to them. Perhaps the most significant works commissioned for the library were those of Nicholas Oresme, who translated Aristotle's Politics, Ethics and Economics into eloquent French for the first time (an earlier attempt had been made at the Politics, but the manuscript is now lost). If the Politics and Economics served as a manual for government, then the Ethics advised the king on how to be a good man.
Other important works commissioned for the royal library were the anonymous legal treatise the Songe du Vergier, greatly inspired by the debates of Philip IV's jurists with Boniface VIII, the translations of Raol de Presles, which included St. Augustine's City of God, and the production of the Grandes Chroniques de France edited in 1377 to emphasise the vassalage of Edward III.
Charles' kingship placed great emphasis on both royal ceremony and scientific political theory, and to contemporaries and posterity his lifestyle at once embodied the reflective life advised by Aristotle and the model of French kingship derived from St Louis, Charlemagne, and Clovis which he had illustrated in his Coronation Book of 1364, now in the British Library.
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 were aided by the navy of Castile (Du Guesclin had captured Pedro the Cruel by deceit in 1369 and turned him over to Enrique, who promptly killed his brother with a dagger) and by the declining health of the Black Prince, who had developed dropsy and quickly become an invalid. Where Charles could, he negotiated with towns and cities to bring them back into the French fold. Bertrand du Guesclin, appointed Constable of France in 1370, beat back a major English offensive in northern France with a combination of hit-and-run raids and bribery.
The English were crippled by the loss of major leaders and their own tendency to raid the countryside instead of embarking on major offensives. By 1374, Charles had recovered all of France except Calais and Aquitaine, effectively nullifying the Treaty of Bretigny. Peace, however, remained elusive; treaty negotiations began in 1374 but were never able to come up with more than extended truces, owing to Charles' determination to have the English recognize his sovereignty over their lands.
The Pope died in March, 1378. When cardinals gathered to elect a successor, a Roman mob, concerned that the predominantly French college would elect a French pope who would bring the papacy back to Avignon, surrounded the Vatican and demanded the election of a Roman. On April 9, 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 criticizing 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's support. The theology faculty of the University of Paris advised Charles not to make a hasty decision, but he recognized Clement as Pope in November and forbade any obedience to Urban. Charles's support allowed Clement to survive — he would not have been able to maintain his position without the aid of the King — and led to the Papal Schism, which would divide Europe for nearly 40 years. Historians have severely criticized Charles for allowing the division to take place.
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.
His successes, however, proved ephemeral. Charles's brothers, who dominated the regency council that ruled in the king's name until 1388, quarreled amongst themselves and divided the government. Charles VI, meanwhile, preferred tournaments to the duties of kingship, and his descent into madness in 1392 put his uncles back in power. By 1419, the country was divided between Armagnac and Burgundian factions and Henry V was conquering the northern part of France. The hard-won victories of Charles V had been lost through the venality of his successors.