The Swiss-Burgundian Wars (1475-1477)
The year 1467 marked the accession of Charles the Bold. The Burgundian state at the time consisted of the two Burgundies, Flanders, Brabant, Hainault, Holland, and Limburg. The territories were split in two with the duchies of Lorraine and Alsace separating the two Burgundies from the other lands in the north. Charles the Bold wanted a single, unified and connected Burgundian state, and to achieve this he required a high quality army to effect the conquest of Lorraine and possibly Alsace, in case diplomatic means came to nought. Politics failed, indeed, and in 1473 Charles the Bold conquered the duchy of Guelders, in a short and simple military campaign. This gave him extra financial income and as the men of Guelders were excellent soldiers, also provided a boost to his armies. Simultaneously, Charles was turning Savoy into a vassal state, expanded his influence in the northern Rhine region by aiding the archbishop of Cologne against rebellious subjects, and acquired Alsace as a loan from its owner, Sigmund of Austria. Charles the Bold seemed to have the world in his hands, but his position was not as strong as he thought: the resulting conflicts would end in no less than the utter defeat of Burgundy.
The League of Constance
Charles the Bold had grand views of creating a kingdom for himself. This move would turn out to be provocative, although it was only natural for the duchy of Burgundy, which, after nearly a century of practical independence, deserved some political recognition for its achievements. However, not the major political powers – England, France, the Holy Roman Empire – would turn out to be Charles’ worst enemies, but rather the people living on the river Rhine.
Not being a unity, they still had a certain independent behaviour to them. The Rhine river was dotted with many important cities along or near its shores: Bern, Basel, Zurich, Strasbourg, Fribourg, Cologne; the list goes on. These cities were independent of dukes and counts, and even the emperor held little sway in their lands. The conquest of Guelders, a duchy located on the Rhine river, was seen as a threat, and the further Burgundian intervention in the affairs of Cologne, as well as the acquisition of Alsace, also on the Rhine, frightened the Rhenish.
In some cases, the cities – like Cologne and Strasbourg – feared becoming a part of the Burgundian realm; others were afraid a powerful Burgundian realm controlling the majority of the Rhine would set punishing tariffs for their trade and ruin, or at least control, their economy. Then there was Bern, which didn’t fear being incorporated into Burgundy, but rather that her own chances of expansion were being limited. Bern was an aggressive power, constantly looking to extend its influence. Burgundy becoming the protector of Savoy and Alsace limited Swiss (if you can speak of such a thing at the time) expansion to the north, south, and west. Diplomatic negotiations leading to nothing, the Swiss gathered a large host of allies, including the duke of Austria, the duke of Lorraine, the emperor, and the king of France. Together, they formed the League of Constance, intent on destroying Burgundian power along the Rhine. As Alsace revolted successfully at about the same time (1475), one of the League’s objectives was quickly met. But the Swiss still pushed for war.
The Conquest of Lorraine
Many of the powers in the League declared war on Burgundy, but the two largest – France and the Holy Roman Empire – remained remarkably absent. Seeing a golden opportunity, duke Charles knew that Lorraine was isolated from its allies and couldn’t expect any help from France. Personally leading a large force from the north, and his brother the bastard Anthony in charge of the troops advancing from the south, the Burgundians overran Lorraine. The army melted away and duke René fled the country. Sending out his forces in small yet effective groups over the entire duchy, most of Lorraine’s towns were captured quickly. The campaign began in September 1475, and in October 1475 the capital and only city left unconquered, Nancy, fell to the Burgundians. Charles had himself proclaimed duke of Lorraine by the provincial Estates, and then had to move south immediately: the Swiss were attacking his ally, Savoy, as well as Burgundy itself.
War in the Vaud
Savoy, as vassal of Burgundy, had a vital part in the ensuing struggle, and both sides were aware of this. So while Burgundy invaded Lorraine, the Swiss came to the aid of their ally indirectly, by invading the Vaud. The Vaud was a region in north-eastern Savoy, bordering the Swiss, and it was the corridor to Bern, the most important Swiss city. Invading the Vaud not only served to protect Swiss borders, but also was a direct affront to Charles the Bold, as his vassal was being attacked. As the conquest of Lorraine was practically finished, he quickly assembled all his troops and marched south, first to Savoy, then to the Vaud. He was looking to destroy the Swiss army, and the Swiss army was looking to destroy him. A battle was inevitable.
As Charles the Bold entered the Vaud, he sent a number of detachments out to capture the various castles, and personally headed for Grandson. His powerful collection of artillery bombarded the castle without end, and eventually the garrison surrendered. They were all hanged. Most of the Vaud was now in Burgundian hands, including the castle of Vaumarcus, north of Grandson. Hearing of the siege of Grandson, the Bernese and their allies quickly gathered together an army, and marched south. But before long they heard the news of the capitulation and subsequent execution of the garrison, and they decided to besiege Vaumarcus instead, which was nearby.
Now it was the turn for Charles to come to the relief, but he had other plans. His camp was originally near Grandson, but this was still a considerable distance from Vaumarcus. He marched north to establish his camp more closely to the Swiss, on a raised plateau. It was his intent to lure the Swiss to attack him. The Burgundian army made a considerable march but, having insufficient scouts, they marched right into troops from Basel. These had not received their orders and, having little to do at Vaumarcus, had wandered south, perhaps in search of Burgundian foragers.
The clash came as a surprise to the Burgundians, who had not yet taken their positions, and only a small number of troops was present. But Charles, his army deployed in three wings, was on his way. More and more Swiss troops poured in, and Charles, trying to lure them and surround them, slightly pulled back his centre. As this happened, a large force of Swiss reinforcements appeared on top of the hill. Mistaking the feigned withdrawal for a rout, the main body of the Burgundians quit the field in confusion, and Charles, too, failing to rally his troops, had to leave. Although the Burgundians suffered relatively few casualties, a large part of the baggage was captured by the Swiss, including a golden hat belonging to Charles the Bold, decorated with precious gems.
Charles the Bold quit the Vaud for a while, but returned a few months later. This time, he was laying siege to Murten, a city even closer to Bern. The Swiss army stayed close for a number of days, while the Burgundians and their Savoyard allies were drawn up for battle. But after a number of days, Charles believed the Swiss had given up. In reality, they had just been delayed, as they were waiting for extra reinforcements (even though they already outnumbered Charles). These reinforcements included the Lorrainers under duke René. After a heavy downpour and a long wait, Charles decided to abandon the battle position. The army, preparing to abandon their position, was coincidentally attacked by the Swiss the following morning. The Burgundians were disorganised and seriously outnumbered. They could not put up much of a defence, and were soon dispersed.
Grandson was a setback, where the army remained mostly intact, but Murten was a horrific defeat where a considerable part of the Burgundian forces met their demise. The Burgundians received a severe beating, and, even worse, the loss of the battle meant that the Savoyards gave up hope in co-operation with Burgundy. Chasing the Burgundians out of their lands, now the Savoyards had dealt Charles the Bold yet another setback.
The Collapse of Burgundy
While Burgundian forces had been fighting against the Swiss, duke René had cleverly rallied the Lorrainers. Apart from a force of elite cavalry, most of his troops were local volunteers. Perhaps it was this that made them fight more enthusiastically; in any case, within the year they had recaptured most of the fortified positions in his country. Even Nancy had fallen to him, when the English mercenaries that were part of the garrison mutinied and forced a surrender. The castle fell much sooner than expected.
With a large part of his army dead on the field of Murten, Charles the Bold had to look hard to raise a new force. All his counties and duchies were ordered to send him new troops and money to pay for them. This was not without success, and as the winter of 1476 approached Charles once again attacked Lorraine, to regain all of it. Where his previous campaign had been well planned, the new one was a shambles. Charles concentrated only on Nancy, leaving all the other enemy garrisons, such as those at Mirecourt, Epinal and Luneville, free to harass the Burgundian supply lines. The Burgundians were not helped by the atrocious weather conditions, and as the army sat in camp outside Nancy for several months, desertion and death were frequent enough visitors to deplete Charles’ army.
The city of Bern was still eager to strike at the Burgundians, but as no agreement could be made with the other Swiss cities, the best it could do was send out an unofficial army consisting only of volunteers. This army was made up largely of the veterans of Grandson and Murten, the elite and experienced troops that would make Swiss pikemen famous throughout Europe. This force arrived in Lorraine in late December, and there met up with the force of duke René.
The camp around Nancy was in a sorry state. Time and time again his advisors warned duke Charles to pull out of Lorraine and take to the winter quarters; but time and again the duke refused. He was determined to capture the city, even though its defenders seemed to hold out without problems.
Because Charles had not interfered with other Lorrainer garrisons, by now all his lines of supply and communication had been virtually cut. Much needed money had failed to reach the camp, and many of the troops had not been paid in quite a while. Therefore it can come as no surprise to us that Burgundian morale was low. In fact, the count of Campobasso, one of Charles’ most important mercenary captains, secretly deserted him and began negotiations with duke René, who didn’t want a traitor in his army and therefore ordered him to stay north of Nancy, in a position to cut off the Burgundian retreat.
On the morning of 5 January the Lorrainers and their Swiss allies advanced. Charles the Bold had been expecting this assault, and his forces were arrayed to fend them off. A heavy blizzard however obscured any proper view, and one of the Burgundian lookouts was surprised when the Swiss entered his church tower and threw him down. The advance continued, and duke René decided to outflank Charles. This was entirely unnecessary, as René outnumbered Charles four to one, but it still proved highly effective. Coming on the Burgundian right flank, the main allied body simply overwhelmed it. There was no serious contest, and the Burgundian army – hungry, poor and cold – was routed almost instantly. Many of the men died, through wounds or frost. The route to the first safe city – Metz – was 50 kilometres away. That was where the refugees gathered: those who had not been killed or captured by the traitor Campobasso.
Charles the Bold was not so lucky. Only after two days of searching was his body found: stripped of its armour and jewellery, his face mangled, cut open and half eaten by wolves. He was identified by his battle scars.
The principal sources on the Valois dukes of Burgundy are still Richard Vaughan’s biographies of each duke; his work “Charles the Bold” in imperative for a proper understanding of the Burgundian side of the conflict. Other works I used for this article include “The Swiss at War 1300-1500” by Douglas Miller and Gerry Embleton, and “Armies of Medieval Burgundy 1364-1477” by Nicholas Michael and Gerry Embleton.