The Formation of the Valois Burgundian Empire – Philip the Bold

Philip the Bold, the first Valois Duke of Burgundy

Origins of the Burgundian Kingdom

Long ago, in the mists of time, there was an island, called in Old Norse, Burgundarholm. The island’s inhabitants were primitive tribes of Scandinavian origin who were extremely mobile and considered nomads and migrants. These tribes first settled on the island of Bornholm before moving on to the mainland in what is today known as East Pomerania and slowly, over centuries, progressing towards the Upper Rhine.

They experienced several misadventures, most notably a bloody defeat by the Huns in 437, before settling down in the vicinity of Lake Geneva. From there, they shifted out along the Rhone River, on either side of the Saône, over the mountain slopes of the Jura and the Alps, to the upper reaches of the Seine River. During the major invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries, a race of Burgundi or Burgundiones occupied the province. Norman Davies, in his “Vanished Kingdoms”, states it is not established fact the immigrants from Bjornholm launched the Burgundian kingdom, but evidence makes it difficult to rule it out entirely. They must have persisted in the region long enough because early geographers began to call the area Burgundy.

By the time of their greatest king, Gundobad (473-516), son of Gondioc and a contemporary of Clovis, King of the Franks, the name of Burgundia or Burgundy had appeared in writing as the regnum Burdondionum – the Kingdom of Burgundy, a province ruled by its own kings who expanded the frontiers in all directions, ruling and retaining considerable autonomy. The boundaries would expand, contract and expand again, with the borders of the kingdom shifting many times. Initially, it centered in the region of Dijon, Chalon-sur-Saône, Mâcon, Autun and Châtillon-sur-Seine.

In the fifth century, the Burgundians emigrated into what is now southeastern France. At one point, the kingdom reached Provence and the port of Marseille. This iteration of the Kingdom of Burgundy would last a little over a hundred years before finally becoming politically incorporated with the Merovingian Frankish monarchy. In the sixth century, Neustria or ‘New West Lands’ would consist of three kingdoms, one of which was Burgundy. This kingdom comprised the old kingdom of the Burgundians along with a large expanse of Gaul, reaching to the capital of Orléans with a population of Burgundians, Franks and Romans.

Within a short span of time, these three cultural groups blended together with the Roman tradition remaining the strongest. Burgundy would stand out as one of the liveliest regions of Gaul during the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries. Blood feuding in the royal family held sway in this era. The Gallo-Burgundian inhabitants pursued many activities, especially agriculture and warfare, including cultivating vineyards and fields and fighting off attacks by the Lombards.

This would change when looming danger arrived from the south. The Saracens pillaged Mâcon, Chalon, the Autun, Sens and Langres. The Merovingian king Charles Martel conquered the Muslims at Poitiers in 732 and then established his authority over the whole of Burgundy. The old kingdom was divided into four parts: the Arles-Burgundy area, the Vienne-Burgundy area, Alemannic (German) Burgundy and Frankish Burgundy.

This developed into the institution of the various medieval kingdoms: the Kingdom of Burgundy or Arles which was comprised of Provence, Dauphiné and Savoy; ducal Burgundy; and the Burgundy ruled by the counts, otherwise known as Franche-Comté. From here Burgundy played a part in the empire of Charlemagne, founded circa 800 A.D., and would further transition from a kingdom to a duchy. During a period of prosperity, Charlemagne worked to achieve centralization and the building of a State.

The geographical area of Burgundia or regnum Burdundiae mostly consisted of ‘counties’ or administrative divisions, overseen by counts. It remains a great mystery how, in the ninth and tenth centuries, these counties united and assembled around one great family. Some of the principal reasons given are the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, the decline of the royal house, and the rise of feudalism and economic self-sufficiency during the period. Into this void, strong personalities emerged with shifting loyalties between the French and the Germans.

With the Treaty of Verdun in the summer of 843, a partition of the territory occurred between the descendants of Charlemagne. By 870, French Burgundy was established along the French border of Charles the Bald’s empire (grandson of Charlemagne) and an Imperial Burgundy merging with Lothair II’s kingdom (great-great-grandson of Charlemagne). Charles the Bald’s share became the duchy of Burgundy which consisted of parts of the Carolingian subkingdoms including the counties of Autun, Beaunes, Avallon, Auxerre and Nevers. These areas would remain the part of old Burgundy most ascribed to the ensuing ruling family of the Capetians, laying down the future dual pattern of the duchy of Burgundy and the county of Burgundy (the Franche-Comté).

A series of powerful men ruled these territories, establishing law and order, fighting off the Normans and protecting the monastic centers founded in the counties under their power. In the tenth century, the family of the Robertonians or dukes of France, who contended with the last of the Carolingians for control of the kingdom, sought to subject Burgundy to the suzerainty of the dukes of France. However, they did not achieve this goal, and a separate duchy endured .

The Robertonians were succeeded by a couple of Capet brothers who ruled the duchy and resisted incorporation into the royal domain of France. The Capetian dukes established their power on a firm basis and created an efficient administration. Robert the Pious, the second Capetian king of the Franks, succeeded in acquiring the duchy of Burgundy, naming his son Henry as Duke in 1017. The duchy remained a strong base for Capetian support. The Capetian dukes enjoyed the protection of the French crown and benefited greatly from political stability and prosperity which emanated from an undisputed succession.  

From 1031 to 1361, the House of Capet was succeeded by the House of Burgundy with an unbroken succession of male heirs. The last duke of the Burgundian house was Philip of Rouvres. Along with the duchy of Burgundy, Philip inherited from his paternal grandfather the county of Burgundy, the county of Artois and the Champagne lands. Going back in the line of inheritance of these three fiefs, we come to a princess of royal blood, Margaret of France, the daughter of King Philip V. She inherited these lands from her mother Joan and was the widow of the late Louis, Count of Flanders and Nevers, who died during the battle of Crécy. Their son, Louis of Male, governed Flanders with the help of his mother Margaret of France. And now we enter the part of the story where the Valois Dukes of Burgundy begin to amass their empire.

Philip the Bold Becomes the First Valois Duke of Burgundy

The genetic relationships of the many parties under discussion are bewildering in the extreme. Add the duchy of Burgundy versus the county of Burgundy and things get really complicated. In order to keep on the topic of the ancestors of the Valois dukes of Burgundy, we will begin with Margaret of France. The second daughter of King Philip V of France, she married Count Louis I of Flanders, also count of Nevers and Rethel, in 1320. Flanders had long been entwined with the French monarchy and the match, while not brilliant, made sense.

Margaret and Louis had a son, also named Louis in 1330. The elder Louis died while fighting at the Battle of Crécy on August 26, 1346, and when their young son succeeded his father, Margaret, in the beginning of his reign, acted as his regent. In 1361, Margaret inherited the titles of Countess of Burgundy and of Artois from the grandson of her sister Joan, Philip of Rouvres, Duke of Burgundy (as you can see, this is complicated).

Louis II of Male, Count of Flanders, Nevers and Rethel married Margaret of Brabant, the middle of three daughters of Duke John III of Brabant. Together they had one child, a daughter also named after her mother and known down through history as Margaret of Male. While Margaret of Male was still a young girl, a wedding took place with her cousin, Philip of Rouvres, Duke of Burgundy. Because both parties were children, they never lived together or consummated the marriage. Unfortunately, Duke Philip died at the age of fifteen.

In the fourteenth century, apanages were fiefs usually given to French royal male children, upon the condition they revert to the crown if the family died out in the male line. So with the death of Philip of Rouvres, the patrimony and title of Duke of Burgundy reverted to the French crown and was in the purview of the Valois King John II to bestow on whoever he chose. John’s youngest son Philip had demonstrated his courage and tenacity while fighting next to his father at the Battle of Poitiers and earned his nickname of Philip the Bold. They were both taken prisoner and remained in England until a ransom could be paid.   

For his bravery during the Hundred Years War, King John rewarded his son Philip with the duchy of Touraine. But when Philip of Rouvres died on November 21, 1361, a better opportunity opened up. Two years later, Philip exchanged his small duchy of Touraine for the lieutenant-generalship of Burgundy. Philip the Bold’s first ambition was to combine the Franche-Comté with his newly acquired duchy, just as they had been united in the ancient kingdom of Burgundy. Throughout history, marriage has proven to be a ruler’s most productive means of political advancement and negotiations began between Philip the Bold and Louis, Count of Flanders to marry Margaret of Male, heir to the Franche-Comté.

Louis found himself in the midst of negotiations to marry his daughter to either an English prince or a French prince. His mother, Margaret of France carried a grudge against the English due to the death of her husband at the Battle of Crécy and threatened to disinherit her son from the counties of Artois and the Franche-Comté. But when Philip’s brother, King Charles IV offered Louis a large cash payment the cities of Lille, Orchies and Douai, the deal was sealed, despite his mother’s objections, and Margaret of Male married Philip the Bold on June 19, 1369.

The wheeling and dealing of Philip commenced when he promised his father-in-law that he and his successors would retain these territories while on the other hand, promising his brother King Charles he would return them to France when his father-in-law died. With this marriage, Philip became the prospective Count of Flanders, count of Artois and the Franche-Comté, and of Rethel, Nevers and prospective ruler of the towns of Malines (Mechelen), Antwerp and the barony of Donzy.

Upon his accession to the dukedom of Burgundy in 1363, the duchy, as well as France, were in a state of disorder, principally due to the chaos caused by the English campaigns before and during 1360. Unemployed soldiers were actively looting and pillaging the countryside. Since the death of Eudes IV, Duke of Burgundy in 1349, there had been no serious ducal authority and, other than during the short reign of Philip of Rouvres, Burgundy had been governed by the French crown. Philip the Bold appointed a lieutenant on June 27, 1363, and later that same year, he gained the ducal title of the apanage of Burgundy, which was obviously more prestigious than that of Touraine. He visited the duchy but left soon afterwards, leaving a governor in place and resuming his extravagant life at the French court, playing tennis and ordering expensive clothing.

Philip devoted himself over the next ten years to aiding his brother the king of France in fighting and negotiating with the English, with occasional visits to Flanders to keep an eye on developments. In the fall of 1379, the artisans of Ghent rebelled against the Count of Flanders, compelling him to turn to his son-in-law and the king of France for aid. They promptly sent a detachment of Burgundian soldiers to fight the Flemish rebels.

In 1382, Philip brought a French army to Flanders accompanied by his nephew, the new King of France, Charles VI who led the troops. They soundly beat the Flemish in November, but the Ghent revolt persisted with military assistance from England. Louis of Male died in 1384. His Flemish patrimony was merged with Burgundy proper, and Philip was now the proud ruler of Flanders, the Franche-Comté, Artois, Rethel and Nevers, together with dependencies of lesser importance, such as Mâconnais and Auxerrois, along with his original duchy of Burgundy. His administration and the institutions he incorporated in his government did not begin to take real effect until 1386.

From this point forward, the house of Burgundy gradually extended its influence in taking control. Philip used several methods, including the marriages of his daughters and other female relatives. Some principalities would surrender voluntarily to the protective wing of Burgundy while others fought to maintain their independence. Philip the Bold never used an army to acquire new territory. Burgundian propagandists celebrated the peacefulness of the Valois duke’s aggrandizement of territories through marriages, purchase and inheritance rather than conquest. But Philip and his successors’ claims always had to be backed up with the sword and siege gun.

After conclusively pacifying his rebellious Flemish subjects, he set his sights on acquiring more territory. Louis of Male had staked a claim to the duchy of Brabant through his wife, Margaret of Brabant and by March 1384, Philip the Bold was in the capital of Brussels, bargaining with the current ruler, Joan, Duchess of Brabant, who by that time was sixty years old and childless. It took Philip six years to coerce Joan into secretly making the duchy over to him and his wife Margaret and their heirs.

The terms of the agreement specified Joan would retain possession of the duchy as long as she lived. Philip further pressured Joan and in 1396, she traveled to Paris and ceded to him the ownership of the duchy of Limbourg. The Estates of Brabant retained their ability to have a say in the succession and they forbid Brabant to become incorporated into Philip’s new Burgundian state. In 1401, the Estates extracted an agreement from Philip for his younger son Anthony to succeed as Duke of Brabant. In addition, Philip had to promise to return Brabant, Limbourg and Antwerp which his father-in-law had annexed in 1357.

On May 11, 1390, Philip the Bold purchased the county of Charolais, a territory bordering on the duchy of Burgundy, from one of his vassals, John III, count of Armagnac for the sum of sixty thousand francs. Charolais would serve as the titular province of the duke’s heir. This would be the final territory garnered by Philip the Bold. He would appoint governors as his chief executives of his different territories in the Low Countries just as he had in the duchy and county of Franche-Comté. When Philip was not residing in the Low Countries, he appointed his wife Margaret as his regent. When she was unavailable, his eldest son, John of Nevers acted in his behalf.

Philip the Bold yearned for power in France. The mental illness of his nephew, King Charles VI left a vacuum in the government of which Philip took full advantage. He jockeyed for the premier position of power with other nobles, including Charles’ brother Louis, Duke of Orléans and their uncle, John, Duke of Berry. When he did manage to seize power, it had calamitous consequences for the unity of the House of Valois and for the government of France. Louis of Orléans harbored resentment of his uncle taking over as regent. The resulting feud between Philip and Louis would be continued by their families well after their own deaths.

King Charles would confirm his brother Louis as regent during one of his rational moments of sanity. But the two men argued over royal funds which each wanted to appropriate for their own purposes: Louis for his extravagant lifestyle and Philip to further enlarge his empire in the Low Countries. Philip did manage to regain control of the regency in France in 1404 but then died unexpectedly in April, leaving his son John as his successor.

Further reading: “Before France & Germany: The creation and transformation of the Merovingian World” by Patrick J. Geary, “Philip the Bold” by Richard Vaughan, “John the Fearless” by Richard Vaughan, “Philip the Good” by Richard Vaughan, “Charles the Bold” by Richard Vaughan, “The Capetians:  Kings of France 987-1328” by Jim Bradbury, “Vanished Kingdoms:  The Rise and Fall of States and Nations” by Norman Davies, “The Rise of the Feudal Monarchies” by Sidney Painter, “The Golden Age of Burgundy” by Joseph Calmette, “Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology” edited by Clifford J. Rogers, “The Promised Lands: The Low Countries Under Burgundian Rule 1369-1530” by Wim Blockmans and Walter Prevenier, “Valois Burgundy” by Richard Vaughan, “History of the Low Countries, Second Edition” by Paul Arblaster, “The Burgundians: A Vanished Empire – A History of 1111 Years and One Day” by Bart Van Loo