Born as the fifth son to Charles VI of France and his queen, Isabeau de Bavière, the future Charles VII was not expected to become king. However, only two of his older brothers reached maturity, and both died before their father. Charles VII is an enigmatic character in history. Many authors find it difficult to grant him the glorified sobriquet 'the Victorious', used during the last part of his remarkable reign. Charles VII achieved this status from nearly impossible circumstances.
At only 19 years of age, he inherited a divided country, torn by civil war and foreign invasion, and without an organized royal army of any distinction. Most histories say little about him, and then usually to cast a negative description. There is a tone of resentment in many works that final victory in the Hundred Years' War was at the hands of a non-warrior king. It is not only English authors who resist giving Charles VII credit for the French victory. Most French historians have elected to credit Jeanne d'Arc's less than two years on the scene with all the triumphs that followed for over two decades after her death. Many who might be sympathetic with the French cause cannot forgive Charles VII for his so-called 'betrayal' of the Maid. These perceptions have been encouraged by the imaginative, unflatering portrayals of Charles VII in many novels and plays relating to Jeanne d'Arc's story. A few works break with the tradition, such as writings by the nineteenth-century French scholar Gaston de Beaucourt and modern English historian Malcolm Vale.
Upon inheriting the throne of France in 1422, Charles VII appeared helpless and even passive as the English and Burgundian military conquests continued against the inadequate response of the largely mercenary bands that served as 'the royal army'. His mentally demented father, Charles VI 'le Fou' (1368-1422) and mother, queen Isabeau, submitted to Burgundian and English demands in the Treaty of Troyes (1420) to disinherit Charles VII's claim to the French throne in favor of the English king, Henry V, and his heirs. The treaty called for Henry V to marry Catherine de Valois (b. 1401), the daughter of French king and queen. Henry V's death before that of Charles VI, left his young son, Henry VI of England to be the opposing claimant to his uncle, Charles VII. Henry VI's claim was championed by the English Regent in occupied France, the duke of Bedford, brother to the deceased Henry V. Bedford was a very capable military leader and commanded a large English army as well initially enjoying the continued alliance of the duchy of Burgundy. There were many in France and nearby countries that did not see a chance for Charles VII to prevail, and for a long time many derisively referred to him as 'the king of Bourges', for the primary city where he held his court, while the English and Burgundians occupied Paris and most of northern France.
Some authors have been influenced by Burgundian and English propaganda waged against Charles VII that insinuated he was not the legitimate son of Charles VI. It was alleged that his mother, Isabeau, had been the mistress of duc Louis d'Orléans, and that Charles VII was the son of the brother of Charles VI. Contrary to many erronous accounts, the Treaty of Troyes (1420) did not allude to Charles VII's legitmacy. The reason given for disinheriting him was his association with the 1419 murder of Jean the Fearless, duc de Bourgogne. It was not until after the victory of Charles VII's army at the battle of Baugé (1421) that Isabeau, who was now fully beholding to the English for support and was strongly intimidated by Philippe 'the Good', duc de Bourgogne, began to refer to her son as 'the so-called dauphin'. Isabeau obviously believed that her future lay with the English cause and her daughter, Catherine, now the English queen. However, the suggestion of Isabeau having illegitimate children could have compromised Catherine's reputation as well as that of her brother, Charles VII.
One of the most important factors that determined the ultimate fate of Charles VII was his bethroal, in 1413, to Marie d'Anjou in (1404-63), the daughter of Louis II duc d'Anjou and the strong willed Yolande d'Aragón, duchess d'Anjou. Yolande (widowed in 1417) took personal charge of her young, future son-in law and raised him with her own family. As such Charles was removed from the dangerous association his mother, Isabeau, made with the Burgundians. This relationship also made Charles VII an essential rallying symbol for many who sided with the Orléanst-Armagnac faction, which included the very influential house of Anjou. While this association placed him in considerable danger, it also provided him the support of the only large source of wealth and political power available to him. For much of his early reign, Yolande d'Aragón maneuvered to surround Charles VII with capable advisors and military leaders. She committed the considerable Angevin resources to support the royal armies; and she appears to have been the constant central figure in weaving a variety of alliances which eventually prevailed to undercut the English-Burgundian alliance with the Treaty of Arras between Charles VII and the duchy of Burgundy.
Another nickname given to Charles VII has been 'the Well-Served'. The title is often applied to allude to the sacrifices of some and service of many in his court. Charles VII was certainly self-serving. While it might be understood that he could not have saved Jeanne, his treatment of others, such as Jacques Coeur, is more condemning of his character. It could be argued that he was one of several of 'the first modern monarchs' as the criteria for such has not been uniformly accepted. However, he is arguably one of the first in terms of being an administrator, a realist politician, and a skillful judge of character in his close associates. Moralizing aside (which has to be done with many in history if one wants to understand their success) he did succeed in war, in mastering the Pope, and in improving the administration of a nation. Hardly any other leader has left a nation so much better improved than when he came on the scene. "Well served" yes, but he saw to it that he was 'well served'.