Charles the Bold (Burgundy) (1433–1477)

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CHARLES THE BOLD (BURGUNDY) (14331477), duke of Burgundy. Charles was the last of the Valois dukes of Burgundy. The son of Duke Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal, he was born in 1433. As a youngster he had a reputation for unbounded energy, a fierce temper, and a determination to win glory in battle. His impetuous nature in politics and battle led to his designation as Charles le Teméraire, "the Bold" but equally "the Rash." Because Charles was more absorbed in war than his father, Charles's court was less important as a center of art, but he had a fondness for music that helped create the Flemish School of Music. Two years before his father's death in 1467 he took control of the vast territories of the House of Burgundythe duchy of Burgundy, Flanders, and Artois, lands in the kingdom of France; and the county of Burgundy (the Franche-Comté), Brabant, Friesland, Hainaut, Holland, Luxembourg, and Zeeland, units of the Holy Roman Empire. The two Burgundies were separated from his provinces in the Netherlands by Alsace and Lorraine, and one of his goals was uniting his lands by gaining control of the last two territories. Another was gaining the title of king so he would be the equal of his rival, Louis XI of France.

As one of the peers of France, Charles involved himself in plots against Louis. He and his French allies in the League of the Public Weal were victorious over Louis in the Battle of Montlhéry in July 1465, but as they failed in a subsequent attack on Paris, little came of their victory. Charles began negotiations with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III (ruled 14401493) to marry Mary, Charles's daughter with his first wife Isabelle de Bourbon, to Frederick's son Maximilian and to gain from him the title of king. In 1473 negotiations with Frederick over Charles's coronation broke down at the last minute, and Charles decided to win by arms what he could not by bargaining.

After arranging for Edward IV of England to invade France, Charles began a campaign to conquer Alsace and the Rhine Valley in 1474. The Swiss, frightened by Charles's pretensions of reestablishing the old kingdom of Burgundy that included much of western Switzerland, allied with Louis XI. The French paid the Swiss Confederation a substantial sum to wage war on Charles. Involved in Alsace, he was forced to leave the Swiss unpunished after they ravaged the county of Burgundy in 1474. When in 1475 Edward agreed to a truce with Louis instead of undertaking the joint campaign to divide up France with Charles, the latter turned his attention to the Swiss. Assembling the heavy lancers of Burgundy, regarded as the best cavalry in Europe; the cream of Europe's foot soldiers, who included Italian crossbowmen, English archers, and pikemen from the Low Countries; and the best artillery train yet seen, Charles led his forces into Switzerland in February 1476. A brief siege took the town of Grandson, and Charles hanged every defender as an example to the Swiss. As his army moved eastward, it ran into the Swiss forces that, as was their practice, were marching in battle order. Charles had little time to form his lines before the Swiss phalanxes were on top of his men. Desperately trying to rally them, the duke had to be dragged from the battlefield.

Undaunted by this defeat, Charles rebuilt his army with his usual energy. By June he was back in the field. While laying siege to Morat, Charles came under attack from the Swiss, who had rapidly reassembled. The ability of the Swiss to move quickly across a field of artillery fire allowed them to reach the Burgundian lines and rout them. While Charles got away, most of his men were slaughtered. Yet he once again assembled an army, although smaller than his previous ones. His wrath was especially directed at the duke of Lorraine, who had joined the Swiss at Morat. In late 1476 he moved into Lorraine and laid siege to Nancy. The Swiss arrived in early January and as usual moved immediately into battle. Badly outnumbering the Burgundians, the Swiss routed them on 5 January 1477 and killed Charles. His frozen body with its head cleaved "from crown to chin" by a halberd was found two days later.

Charles's lands passed to Mary, his only child. Louis XI, who took advantage of Charles's death to recover the duchy of Burgundy and Artois for the French crown, pressed her to marry his young son Charles. Being a Burgundian, however, she refused with disdain and married Maximilian of Austria (Holy Roman emperor; ruled 14931519). This was the first in the series of marriages that passed much of Europe to Charles's great-grandson Charles V (ruled 15191556), who was named for him.

See also Burgundy ; France ; Switzerland ; Valois Dynasty (France) .


Kendall, Paul Murray. Louis XI, the Universal Spider. New York, 1970. Detailed political biography of Charles's bitter antagonist.

Vaughan, Richard. Charles the Bold: The Last Valois Duke of Burgundy. London, 1973. Fine biography of the duke and the only one in English.

Frederic J. Baumgartner

Charles the Bold

views updated May 23 2018

Charles the Bold

The French nobleman Charles the Bold (1433-1477) was Duke of Burgundy from 1467 to 1477. During his life the Burgundian state reached the height of its political, economic, and cultural power.

The last of the four Valois dukes of Burgundy, Charles the Bold ruled a heterogeneous collection of territories running from the North Sea and the Netherlands around the eastern edge of the kingdom of France and terminating near the Mediterranean coast in Provence. The "Great Duchy of the West," as Burgundy was called, possessed the greatest strategic and diplomatic importance, wealth, and culture of any 15th-century principality. The independent policy of Charles's predecessors, Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, and Philip the Good, had made Burgundy the key power in resolving the Hundred Years War between England and France, as well as the most important influence on the political stability of the French kingdom. The life and career of Charles the Bold represented the greatest threat to the efforts of Louis XI to stabilize the kingdom of France by restoring royal authority over that of the great princes.

Charles was born at Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, on Nov. 11, 1433, the son of Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal. Made Count of Charolais while still an infant, he was from birth the only heir of the dukedom and was carefully educated for his role as arbiter of the fortunes of Burgundy. He read widely in history, became an effective administrator and speaker, and grew into a ruthless and ambitious ruler. The personality traits which he appears to have developed early—a strong will, obstinacy, and little control of his emotions, particularly when faced with personal or political setbacks—coincide well with his nickname, "le Téméraire" ("the Bold," or as some would have it, "the Rash"). Charles's political character was further shaped by his reluctance to consider himself a subject of the king of France and by his desire to follow an independent and dangerous diplomatic course in his relations with England and France, in French internal politics, and in the affairs of the German territories which bordered his own on the east.

Struggle with the King

Kept from exerting power in Burgundy by his father's long reign and by a persistent animosity which developed between the two, Charles continually intervened in the struggles between the French king Louis XI and his nobles, particularly during the rebellion known as the League of the Public Weal (1465-1466). After the first of his many truces with Louis, Charles married Margaret of York, sister of the English king Edward IV, and thereby reopened the threat of an Anglo-Burgundian alliance, a diplomatic maneuver which had effectively threatened France earlier in the century and still constituted the greatest danger to French royal power.

Charles's growing ambition caused Louis to take the unprecedented and dangerous step of forcing a personal interview by staging a surprise confrontation with Charles at Péronne in October 1468. But Charles learned of the King's attempts to foment rebellion in Burgundian territories precisely at the moment when Louis was his "guest." On this occasion Charles extracted a number of concessions from Louis which greatly strengthened the power of the rebellious French nobles and secured Charles's position as the leader of the nobility, and the chief rival—and threat—to the king.

Charles's overwhelming success at Péronne appears to have increased his ambition and to have either revived or generated his idea of separating Burgundy from France by negotiating with the emperor Frederick III to make Burgundy an independent kingdom. By the Treaty of St. Omer in 1469 Charles acquired a number of strategic territories linking his northern and southern holdings, even further establishing Burgundy as a power separate in all but name from France. With his German, English, French, and Aragonese allies, Charles attempted in 1471 and again in 1472 to assemble large military coalitions against Louis XI. Although these failed to materialize, by 1474 Charles was at the height of his power, a formidable threat to France and the single key force in the diplomatic arrangements of the West.

Defeat for Charles

In 1474, on the eve of yet another Anglo-Burgundian coalition against France, Charles's single-mindedness and obstinacy drew him into a sequence of diplomatic and military errors. Instead of supporting the invasion force of Edward IV, Charles pursued a fruitless military campaign in Germany, thus abandoning his ally and making it easier for Louis to induce Edward to make a final peace. The ensuing Treaty of Picquigny (1475) marks the final resolution of the Hundred Years War.

Humiliated at being outmaneuvered by Louis and faced with revolts in Alsace, Charles launched punitive attacks against the duchy of Lorraine and the Swiss, who had provided aid to Louis. In 1476 the Swiss defeated Charles at Grandson and again at Morat. Committed to a policy of punishing the allies of his enemies, Charles finally became the victim of his own temperament. "The more involved Charles became," wrote his contemporary Philippe de Comines, "the more confused he grew." Driven to a fury by his setbacks at the hands of the Swiss, Charles forced a third battle at Nancy in 1477, in which the Burgundian army was once again defeated and Charles killed. Charles's death left his 20-year-old daughter, Mary of Burgundy, as the only heir to the Burgundian wealth and territories.

Further Reading

There is no adequate biography of Charles the Bold in English. The standard work, in French, is J. Bartier, Charles le Téméraire (1944). A subsequent work, also in French, is Marcel Brion, Charles le Téméraire, grand duc d'Occident (1947). The life of Charles is adequately treated in Joseph Calmette, The Golden Age of Burgundy (1956; trans. 1963). A detailed picture of the rich court life of Burgundy is in Otto Cartellieri, The Court of Burgundy (1926; trans. 1929). The importance of Burgundian culture is described in the brilliant work of J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (1924). However, the most vivid account of Charles and Louis XI remains the Memoirs of Charles's contemporary Philippe de Comines (available in many editions and translations).

Additional Sources

Vaughan, Richard, Charles the Bold; the last Valois Duke of Burgundy, New York, Barnes & Noble Books 1974, 1973. □

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