The Formation of the Valois Burgundian Empire – Charles the Bold

Portrait of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy by Peter Paul Rubens

Charles the Bold, the fourth and last Valois Duke of Burgundy, was born to Isabel of Portugal on November 10, 1433, at Dijon, Burgundy. For political reasons, he was married to Catherine of Valois, daughter of King Charles VII of France. Once widowed, his father arranged a marriage to Isabella of Bourbon, who also died after giving birth to a daughter, Mary. Once Charles became Duke, his mother arranged for him to marry Margaret of York, sister of the English King Edward IV. By the end of Charles’ reign, he had garnered the nickname of ‘the Bold’ or ‘the Rash’.

The character of Charles was distinctly different from his father in many ways. He was known for his strong sense of duty and had more abundant energy in addition to his great physical courage. Personally devout, moderate in his drinking and eating habits, he was far less sexually adventurous than his father, who possibly fathered around twenty-five illegitimate children. On the other hand, Charles was more impulsive and inflexible, less diplomatic, and inclined to great ostentation in both his court and his manners.

Charles frequently failed to consider the advice of his closest councilors. All of this led to a breach between Charles and his father that would never be entirely reconciled. His ambition involved rounding off his territory by the annexation of regions bordering on the two blocs of land he already owned. To be specific, he attempted to acquire a territorial link between the ‘lands over there’ and the ‘lands over here’. He reinforced Burgundy against her potentially hostile French and German neighbors and made a determined effort to continue the work of enlarging Burgundian territory.

In the north, Charles extended influence still further in Liège. He then set his sights on the duchy of Guelders and the county of Zutphen, where Arnold of Egmont, the old Duke of Guelders, was feuding with his son Adolf. Charles intervened to impose his will on Arnold. With the Treaty of Bruges, ratified on December 30, 1472, Charles forced Arnold to agree that Burgundy would inherit Guelders and Zutphen instead of the duke’s son Adolf. Arnold pawned his lands to Charles the Bold in his will although this would be contested. The only way Charles could impose his authority was to hold the duke’s son Adolf as a prisoner in Courtrai from 1471-7.

Adolf had been a widower since the death of Catherine of Bourbon in Nijmegen in 1469. She was the sister of Isabella of Bourbon, Charles the Bold’s second wife. Charles also took Adolf’s children, the twins Philippa and Charles into custody and brought them up at the Burgundian court, under the guidance of Margaret of York. Arnold of Egmont, Duke of Guelders, died on February 23, 1473, enabling Charles the Bold to take possession of the duchy and Zutphen. The Gueldrois, however, had other ideas and fought for their independence. Charles besieged Nijmegen for three weeks. After the fall of the city, he subdued the rest of the area.

Map of France in 1477 upon the death of Charles the Bold, displaying the territory owned by Mary of Burgundy. (Image by Zigeuner (original), Kaiser Torikka (translation) from Wikimedia Commons)

Other than the ecclesiastical principality of Liège, the Duke of Burgundy became the uncontested master of the Low Countries. In the fall of 1473, Charles conducted negotiations at Trier with the Emperor Frederick III concerning the status of his imperial fiefs. They only reached agreement on one possibility: the marriage of Charles daughter Mary to Frederick’s son Maximilian.

Charles now turned his efforts to connecting his two divided parcels of land. This meant gaining control of Alsace and Lorraine. In doing this, he faced the opposition of a reemerging French monarchy in the personality of King Louis XI, who had lived at the Burgundian court for several years and observed its administration from the inside. Louis was much more persistent, patient, and aware of his own limitations and used this knowledge to consistently undermine Charles’ ambitions

Charles managed to obtain Upper Alsace through a mortgage. He proceeded to appoint a lieutenant to govern the principality who was either exceptionally malicious or extremely incompetent or a combination of both. The inhabitants of Alsace wrangled the territory away from Charles five years later.

Lorraine, a key piece of Charles’ plans for eastward expansion was completely conquered in 1475. Following this, he negotiated an alliance with the bishop of Metz which allowed free passage of Burgundian troops through that bishop’s lands. He had centralized the Burgundian state but created hostilities in doing so. A year later, Duke René of Lorraine reconquered his duchy, leading Charles into a series of battles to regain it. In the meantime, the Lorraine campaign challenged the Swiss and Charles encountered resistance from the infantry of the formidable Eidgenossen, a confederation of Swiss Cantons.

Charles pressed his principalities in the Low Countries for more money to fund his wars and for uninterrupted military service from the holders of all property obliged to pay military dues. It became clear his endless wars and taxation were showing no positive results. The best equipped army of the fifteenth century was routed by the Swiss at Grandson in March of 1476 and at Murten in June 1476. Undeterred, Charles laid siege to Nancy, despite the impending winter. The siege weakened his army, and the Swiss and Lorraine troops were dispatched to Nancy, resulting in a bloody battle. They found Charles’ mangled, frozen body on January 5, 1477.

News of his death did not reach the Burgundian court until about two weeks later and the Low Countries were thrown into confusion. Louis XI of France annexed the duchy of Burgundy and his troops invaded the duchy as well as Mâcon, Picardy, and Artois. In addition, Franche-Comté, Hainault, and Flanders were threatened. Most of the territories recognized Charles’ daughter Mary as their sovereign and it was only with great difficulty that Mary and her step-mother Margaret of York, calling herself Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, managed to maintain some control. Recalling the talks at Trier by her father and the Emperor Frederick, negotiations for Mary’s marriage to Frederick’s son Maximilian were finally concluded. The marriage took place in Ghent on August 18, 1477.

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