The Formation of the Valois Burgundian Empire – Philip the Good

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy

Philip the Good, third Valois Duke of Burgundy, was born to Margaret of Bavaria on July 31, 1396, at Dijon. He married Michelle de Valois, daughter of King Charles VI of France in 1409. The assassination of his father in 1419 left him devastated but after sufficient mourning, he went to work expanding his territories through purchase and diplomacy, marriages, and mainly with effective military action.

Philip recognized prolonging the quarrel between the Valois of France and the Lancastrians of England was the best way to ensure the success of establishing an independent state between France and Germany. The most effective way to achieve this agenda was to prolong the uncertainty caused by the rivalry between the two French camps, the Burgundians and the Armagnacs. Philip would maintain the English alliance by supporting his brother-in-law and ally, John Duke of Bedford, an agreement that cost him very little monetarily.

Once King Charles VI of France died in 1422, the Duke of Bedford, brother of King Henry V of England, functioned as regent for his nephew King Henry VI, who upon the death of his father that same year, was now king of both England and France, according to the terms of the Treaty of Troyes. Bedford was married to Philip’s sister Anne. Charles VI’s last remaining son, the man responsible for the death of Philip’s father, upheld his claim to the French throne as Charles VII. Bedford maintained control of France while his lieutenants, the earls of Suffolk and Warwick, harassed King Charles VII’s troops, who for all intents and purposes were in retreat. In reality, Charles VII only ruled in Bourges and was on the verge of disaster with his siege of the city of Orléans.

Charles may have abandoned his struggle for the crown of France if not for the miraculous appearance of a young woman from Dorémy-la-Pucelle, known down through history as Joan of Arc. Her epic adventures played out at Orléans, Patay, the anointing of Charles as king of France at Rheims, the setbacks outside the walls of Paris and La-Charité-sur-Loire, where her momentum finally met resistance and was broken. Captured at Compeiègne, she was sold to the English, imprisoned in Rouen, put on trial and burned at the stake.

Marketplace in Rouen where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake (Photo copyright of The Freelance History Writer)

Philip’s limited participation in the Anglo-French war left him free to devote his time and energy to his affairs in the Low Countries. So as the drama in France played out, Philip began acquiring principalities on a regular basis. He cashed in on his grandfather’s marriage alliances and placed Burgundian power on a par with that of any kingdom in Europe. In 1421, Philip purchased the country of Béthune.

He considered the county of Namur of great strategic importance because it bordered Hainaut, Brabant and Liège. In 1420, the childless John III, Marquis of Namur of the house of Dampierre, had many debts and offered to sell Namur to the duke of Burgundy for the enormous sum of 132,000 golden crowns. Philip obtained assurance from the Estates of Namur they would accept him as the new count upon the death of John III. Philip peacefully gained possession of the county when John III died in 1429. That same year he concluded a treaty of friendship with the Bishop of Utrecht.

Philip’s first wife, Michelle died in the summer of 1422. Following a short-lived marriage to Bonne of Artois, Philip made a brilliant alliance with John I, King of Portugal and married his daughter Isabel. The wedding celebrations in January 1430 were extravagant, allowing Philip to signify his new direction in foreign policy: neutrality with respect to France and England, as well as his ambition to demonstrate to the rest of Europe the Burgundian state had reached the status of a great power.

Philip turned his attentions to consolidating his own territories throughout the Low Countries through gradual change, building up good will and laying down imperceptible structural foundations. He used diplomacy and charm with the occasional show of military power. Holland, Zeeland and Hainaut were added to the Burgundian collection in 1433, at the expense of his cousin Jacqueline of Bavaria.

The duchy of Brabant had passed to Philip the Good’s uncle Anthony in 1406 upon the death of Joan of Brabant. Following Anthony’s death, Brabant would pass consecutively to his two sons John IV and Philip of St. Pol. Philip the Good pressed his cousin to name him as his heir if he died childless. St. Pol acknowledged the Duke of Burgundy as his successor, but opposition remained, and others had a claim to the title. With the unexpected death of Philip of St. Pol from stomach ulcers on August 4, 1430, Philip the Good entered negotiations with the Estates of Brabant to transfer power to himself, over the objections of Sigismund, King of the Romans, who had feudal rights to the duchy.

Sigismund lacked any power or an army. Louis of Hesse challenged the decision of the Estates and raised troops in order to take it by force. He was driven back at Aachen and after this, no one dared to challenge the authority of Philip the Good in Brabant. Philip ceded a few concessions and the Estates of Brabant accepted him as successor. He gained three ducal titles: that of Brabant, Limbourg and the purely theoretical title of Duke of Lotharingia and transferred his main residence from Dijon to Brussels.

By 1435, it was clear Philip needed to negotiate some kind of peace with England and France. King Charles VII had won several victories over the English in the Hundred Years War. Despite Philip’s hostility toward the French king for his part in the death of his father, he agreed to talks and he met with Valois officials for the first time since his father’s assassination. No English representative was present during this meeting, so Philip remained reluctant to push for any peace.

When agents from all three parties arrived for peace negotiations, the Congress of Arras convened on August 5, 1435, in the Abbey of St. Vaast. The Valois and the Lancastrians could not even agree who was King of France. In spite of the efforts of Cardinal Henry Beaufort of England, talks between the French and English were suspended by the 19th and broken off altogether on the 31st. Philip the Good hosted a magnificent banquet in the Burgundian tradition in honor of the English on September 1. It would ultimately be impossible to find common ground between the French, the Burgundians and the English.

Because a definitive, overall peace was not within reach, the Congress had to establish separate peace treaties between the various factions. The English departed Arras on September 6th, but discussions were ongoing. The issue revolved around a Franco-Burgundian reconciliation. John, Duke of Bedford died at Rouen on September 14th, creating an opening for an agreement. The treaty of Arras was signed on September 20 and made public the next day. Prior treaties of 1417 and 1420 were erased. The terms of the Congress of Arras personally released Philip the Good from all obligations as a vassal of the French king.

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and his third wife, Isabel of Portugal

Not content with peace between himself and France, Philip the Good sought alliances with many other leaders, both in nearby regions and further afield. Many of these alliances came through dynastic marriages with his children, nieces and nephews and other family relations. One of the most interesting marriages was between Philip’s grandniece, Mary of Guelders to the Stuart King of Scots, James II.

That same year, Philip extended his rule southwards into France, to Auxerre, Bar-Sur-Seine and Mâcon. His last significant acquisition was the duchy of Luxembourg. In 1441, he badgered the aging and childless duchess, Elizabeth of Görlitz into designating him as her heir. When she died two years later, Philip invaded Luxembourg to drive out the German claimant, William of Saxony. By 1451, he was undisputed master of Luxembourg. Following this significant expansion of the Burgundian empire during the decade of 1425-1435, the conclusion of a lasting peace with a recovering France, and the institution of repeated truces following the Hundred Years War with England, Philip the Good could focus his attention primarily on the internal consolidation and governmental organization of his possessions.

Philip and his son Charles would energetically develop a monarchic authority. By 1448, Philip the Good had become one of the most powerful princes in Europe. At the end of his life, he was Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Limbourg and Luxembourg, count of Flanders, Artois, the county of Burgundy (Franche-Comté), Hainault, Holland, Zeeland, Namur, Auxerre, Mâcon, and Ponthieu; seigneur of West Friesland, Salins and Mechelen. He held Picardy as a redeemable pledge until 1463. These holdings represented two blocs of land. One formed the heartland of Burgundy, the neighboring county of Burgundy and several smaller seigneuries. The second included the principalities of the Low Countries. The dukes would refer to these two blocs as the ‘lands over here’ and the ‘lands over there’, depending on where they were at the time.

During the years of prosperity from 1440-1470, artistic creativity in the Low Countries flourished. The Burgundian dukes could call on a virtually inexhaustible supply of artists of the highest quality who had the ability to portray the duke’s preeminent political position. Architecture in the building of churches, town halls and luxurious private residences as well as paintings on the walls, sculptures, panels and in book illumination were highly evident. Commissions from the dukes and other prosperous persons allowed art to reach new heights. The various celebrations of the Burgundian court were of the highest quality and extravagance, surpassing all others in Europe.  

Philip the Good found he owed fealty to the German ruler for the majority of his titles, and he accentuated his independence from France. Relations between Burgundy and her adjoining neighbors were, of necessity, acrimonious. Burgundy must have appeared to be a rival, even an upstart, who had usurped territory at their expense. The relationships between these three entities would sometimes be friendly, sometimes hostile but for the most part would normally remain pacific.

Neither King Charles VII or his son and successor Louis XI of France were the least bit interested in allowing Burgundian power to grow along the eastern frontier. They believed the dukes of Burgundy were usurpers. Charles VII attempted to wrest Luxembourg from Philip the Good, and Louis succeeded in recovering the strategically invaluable Somme towns. This loss of the Somme towns caused a rift between Philip the Good and his son and heir Charles, Count of Charolais.

Following a family fight between the duke and his son, along with the now noticeable cognitive decline of Philip, the Duke withdrew from governance. Into the vacuum, the Croy family from a house of Picardy aristocrats stepped in and began fighting wars of their own and manipulating the Burgundian bureaucratic machine in their own interests. Before long, they had encroached on the will of the Count of Charolais, and the Burgundian court deteriorated into factional struggles and family quarrels.

Philip’s wife Isabel and his long-serving chancellor Nicholas Rolin retired in disgust and disgrace after loyally serving the duke for many years. Eventually, Charles withdrew as well. All this coincided with pressure from France. It is entirely possible King Louis XI exchanged ideas with the Croys concerning dismantling the Burgundian state and dividing parts of it amongst themselves as soon as Philip the Good died. Louis would be known as the ‘Spider King’ for the webs of diplomacy he wove over Europe during his reign.

The Burgundian state was assembled between 1363, when Philip the Bold became Duke of Burgundy and 1443 when Philip the Good became ruler of Luxembourg. In area, Valois Burgundy was comparable in size to the kingdom of England (including Wales). After a long and adventurous life, Philip the Good died on June 15, 1467, leaving his son Charles the ruler of this vast empire. Any subsequent additions of territory by Charles could be considered temporary or of slight consequence.

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, “The House of Beaufort: The Bastard Line that Captured the Throne of England” by Nathen Amin