Aerys II Targaryen, the mad king who commanded his pyromancer to set King’s Landing ablaze (before Game of Thrones began), may be inspired by a couple of kings: Charles VI of France and his grandson, Henry VI of England. This article explores some nuances to their madness, possible hereditary sources, and how Charles VI’s madness worked its way into the CW drama Reign, which is about Mary Queen of Scots.
Like King Aerys, Charles VI of France’s reign began benevolently enough. In fact, the French king’s nickname was “Charles the Beloved.” Before the onset of Charles’ insanity, his subjects loved this handsome and athletic ruler. During his frequent breaks from reality, Charles came to believe he was made of glass and often ran howling like a wolf up and down the halls of the palace. His servants had to pad the doorways and walls to prevent him from hurting himself.
Charles sometimes became violent with his servants, so it was probably a relief to his wife Isabeau of Bavaria that he appointed an alternate “stand-in” queen for himself – a common girl – who was known as the Little Queen. The series Reign reenacts the Little Queen as an event in the life of Henry II – an ahistorical but admittedly tasty storyline.
As Charles VI’s bouts of madness increased, he became known like Aerys as “the mad king.” Charles VI’s madness hindered his ability to rule and, as was often the case in the Middle Ages, a weak king meant opportunity for the nobles. Civil war broke out as Louis of Orléans, the king’s brother, and John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, the son of Philip the Bold struggled for power. As we have discussed in these articles, these events have loose parallels in Game of Thrones.
Interestingly, although you can argue that Cersei has a little of Isabeau of Bavaria in her, she is more often seen as being similar to Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville. Likewise, because of the similarities between A Song of Ice and Fire and the Wars of the Roses, people tend to compare Aerys II to Henry VI of England, the grandson of Charles VI.
Henry VI also had issues with sanity, although they had a significantly different flavor than those of his grandfather. Whereas Charles became violent and delusional, the peaceful Henry primary symptom was withdrawal into a non-responsive state. Henry became what may have been catatonic for the first time after England finally lost Bordeaux in August 1453 – a huge blow to be sure when your father is the great Agincourt hero Henry V, whose French victories led to you being designated heir to the French throne.
Many historians have argued that Henry undoubtedly inherited his insanity, which some characterize as schizophrenia, from his grandfather via Catherine of Valois. Queen Catherine was both Henry VI’s mother and Charles VI’s daughter. Historian Nicholas Vincent argues against this theory: if Catherine had passed on her father’s insanity that Jasper and Edmund Tudor — her other sons with the low-born Owen Tudor – would also have been insane.1 This is is a good point, but it isn’t necessarily the case that Catherine’s Tudor sons would have inherited their grandfather’s mental health issues; many families have one child who suffers from schizophrenia while the others do not.
Instead, Vincent suggests that a more likely source of Henry VI’s possible schizophrenia was his paternal great grandfather, Henry IV. Henry IV, also known as Henry Bolingbroke, overthrew Richard II in 1399.
Towards the end of Henry’s reign, starting in roughly 1405, he suffered from a skin disease, possibly psoriasis or leprosy. However, he had flare ups of his disease during his performance as a ruler declined significantly in June 1405, April 1406, June 1408, the winter of 1408–09, and December 1412. Henry’ IV’s final illness came in March 1413 during which time he died.
According to Vincent, historians have long debated whether Henry IV was insane during those periods; however, no historian has ever proved it. If Henry had leprosy, it is curious that it could have affected his ability to rule for such relatively short periods. In its worst stages, leprosy certainly could have been debilitating. It causes severe pain, secondary infections, respiratory issues. However, I would think this would be a progressive decline and not a flare up.
To return to Henry VI, it seems possible that his madness may have been more akin to a severe “nervous breakdown” brought on by extreme stress (e.g., losing most of the country you inherited due to your own ineptitude).
Before “nervous breakdown” became a common catchphrase used to describe a stressful day at work, it implied a more severe condition – even though it was never a true clinical diagnosis. Wikipedia defines nervous breakdowns as a “severe stress-induced depression, anxiety or dissociation in a previously functional individual, to the extent that [the individual] is no longer able to function on a day-to-day basis until the disorder is resolved.” The key word, for our purposes, is dissociation.
At least according to this paper, catatonia is not necessarily a subtype of schizophrenia but rather a “non-specific syndrome”2. The paper proceeds to discuss three cases of dissociative disorders with catatonic symptoms. Bottom line: Henry may have suffered a nervous breakdown and not a bout of madness — and that’s actually kind of important.
Admittedly, I’m not a medical professional or a medical historian, but it seems possible that extreme stress and not necessarily inherited “madness” could have triggered Henry’s non-responsive state. (I might have a nervous breakdown too if I couldn’t stabilize a country that was being ripped apart by lawless feuding nobles and I squandered my dazzling father’s legacy.) The stress and pressure must have been unimaginable. Frankly, I’m misspeaking a little about Henry’s failures to make a point. It’s a tad unfair to lay all of the chaos and losses at Henry’s doorstep. There were larger multi-generational systemic problems that led to Henry’s failures. His reign’s disasters weren’t all his fault.
None of any of this really changes the possible historical basis for King Aerys II. Given that there were potentially three “mad kings” in less than a century, however, it isn’t surprising that George RR Martin created a mad-king character.