Burgundian Wars

Orfeas Katsoulis | Feb 28, 2023

Table of Content


The Burgundian Wars are the military conflicts between 1474 and 1477 between the Duchy of Burgundy on one side and the Confederation and the Low Union on the other.

The House of Burgundy

In 1363, the French king John the Good of the House of Valois enfeoffed the Duchy of Burgundy to his youngest son, Philip the Bold. Philip fell out with his father and began to pursue an independent power policy. He enlarged his domain by acquiring Flanders and the Free County of Burgundy. His successors, Johann Ohnefurcht and Philip III, expanded the Burgundian land complex to include Brabant, Holland, Limburg, Picardy and Luxembourg. In this way, the Burgundian collateral line of the House of Valois created a powerful feudal entity that was officially beholden partly to the French crown and partly to the Holy Roman Empire, but in fact operated as an independent state. With Brabant and Flanders, the Dukes of Burgundy controlled the economically strongest regions of Europe at the time. Burgundian tax revenues were many times higher than those of the politically and economically weak Holy Roman Empire. The House of Burgundy pursued an expansionist policy aimed at establishing a territorial link between the northern and southern territories. The dissolution of Burgundian feudal dependence on France came with the Treaty of Arras (1435). In the same year, Burgundy also refused to swear an oath of fealty to the emperor.

Particularly ambitious goals were pursued by Duke Charles the Bold, who had ruled since 1465 and wanted to transform the Burgundian lands into a kingdom. Charles was even said to have ambitions for the title of emperor. Before that, however, he wanted to create a closed Burgundian land complex by conquering the Duchy of Lorraine. Charles the Bold had no son, which is why the extinction of the House of Burgundy in the direct line was imminent.

The opponents of Burgundy

The power-political intentions of Charles the Bold were opposed by the neighbors and those directly affected by the expansion, especially the King of France and the Roman-German Emperor, as well as the imperial cities and the ecclesiastical feudal lords of the Upper and Lower Rhine. However, the Confederation was on good terms with Burgundy for a long time and obtained most of its salt from the Salins salt works. Most recently, on May 22, 1467, a treaty of friendship was concluded with Duke Philip the Good and his son Charles the Bold. However, the good understanding was severely disturbed when, on May 9, 1469, in the Treaty of Saint-Omer, Charles undertook to support Duke Siegmund of Austria, regent of Tyrol and Anterior Austria, in his struggle against the Confederates in exchange for the pledge of the Habsburg possessions in Alsace and Breisgau. Siegmund hoped to regain the lost territories in Aargau and Thurgau in this way. The Confederation therefore concluded a neutrality pact with the French king Louis XI, who was one of Charles the Bold's main opponents, in Tours on September 23, 1470.

The Roman-German Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg recognized the high probability of the Burgundian dynasty dying out in the male line, which is why he demanded Charles' daughter Mary of Burgundy for his son Maximilian. In return, Frederick promised to confer the title of king on Charles. However, a meeting between the two sides in Trier ended inconclusively in 1473. Charles subsequently undertook a campaign against the archbishopric of Cologne in 1474, which failed at the siege of Neuss. The emperor and Duke Siegmund were worried about their Alsatian possessions and watched Charles' military rise with concern. Through the mediation of the French King Louis XI, they finally achieved a rapprochement with the Confederation.


The French king Louis XI, who until 1468 was

The reason for the outbreak of hostilities was the execution of the Burgundian bailiff Peter von Hagenbach in Breisach on May 9, 1474. In retaliation, Hagenbach's brother devastated Upper Alsace with Burgundian and Lombard mercenaries in August of the same year. The Low Union therefore moved with an army to the Free County of Burgundy and defeated the Burgundian commander Henry of Neuchâtel-Blamont in the Battle of Héricourt. Charles the Bold was still busy with the siege of Neuss at the same time.

Bern and Fribourg now turned against the Duchy of Savoy. Since the death of Duke Amadeus XI in 1472, his widow Jolanda, a sister of Louis XI of France, led the Duchy of Savoy as regent for the minor Philibert I. In 1473, at the instigation of her confidant Jacob of Savoy, Count of Romont, Jolanda renewed the alliance with Burgundy, thus bringing herself into opposition with Bern and Fribourg. Bern therefore occupied the lordship of Erlach on Lake Biel at the end of October 1474, Fribourg the lordship of Illens on the Saane in the spring of 1475. Since Jolanda did not respond to an ultimatum to declare war on Burgundy, a Bernese-Fributish army under Nicholas of Diesbach invaded the Savoyard Vaud in April and conquered 16 towns and 43 castles by October. The Bishop of Sion, Walter Supersaxo, allied with Bern, occupied the Savoy governorate of Saint-Maurice in Lower Valais after the Battle of the Planta on November 13.

After the outbreak of hostilities in the Free County and Savoy and the unsuccessful siege of Neuss, Charles had the Duchy of Lorraine occupied in 1475. When the English, allied with Burgundy, landed in Calais in 1475, Charles the Bold failed to provide support, as he was too busy with his Lorraine territorial acquisition. On August 29, Louis XI was therefore able to buy peace with England in the Treaty of Picquigny, which again weakened Charles' position in Lorraine.

The following year, from the Free County of Burgundy, Charles undertook a campaign against the territory of the Confederates. Charles' contingent included numerous archers, and his army also had hundreds of cannons. In addition, there were crossbowmen, heavy cavalry and some soldiers equipped with early arquebuses. At first Charles planned to act against Bern, which he rightly recognized as the driving force behind the anti-Burgundian league. On February 28, 1476, after a brief siege, he captured the small town of Grandson, which was occupied by Bern and Fribourg, and had the garrison of 412 men executed to the last man after unconditional surrender. Bern used the short time of the siege to assemble a larger contingent with accessions from the Confederation and to march against Charles. On March 2, 1476, the first major encounter took place at the Battle of Grandson. Charles' troops suffered a defeat in the battle against the Confederate infantry. The Bernese and their allies managed to capture over 400 Burgundian guns. However, lacking cavalry, they could not pursue the Burgundians, which allowed Charles to get out of this battle with low losses. The rich booty of the Confederates from the Burgundian camp at Grandson became proverbial for an exceptional war booty. Politically, the Confederates did not take advantage of the victory at Grandson either, as the eastern cities and country towns did not want to support Bern in a territorial expansion in the west and retreated again.

A few months later, Charles had assembled a new army in Lausanne and again advanced towards Bern. He first closed on 10.

An episode in the context of the Burgundian Wars is the first Saubannerzug of about 2000 people from Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug and Lucerne on the occasion of the carnival in February 1477. This raid under a field sign showing a sow on a blue background led through Vaud to Geneva, where an allegedly outstanding war tribute was to be collected. The city of Geneva actually had to ransom itself from the wild Central Swiss on March 4, 1477, with the payment of 8000 florins to the towns of Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug and Lucerne. In order to speed up the departure of the ravenous and destructive fighters, it also paid all 1700 remaining participants of the Saubannerzug two guilders in the hand and distributed alcohol for the way home.

Charles the Bold returned to Burgundy and in the fall of 1476 turned against the Duchy of Lorraine with a new army. Once again he embarked on an elaborate siege, this time of Nancy, the capital of Lorraine. On January 5, 1477, an army of 8,000 Confederate mercenaries recruited by Duke René of Lorraine under Hans Waldmann reached the plain near the city with the array of the Low Union and crushed the Burgundian army. In the confusion of the Battle of Nancy, Duke Charles the Bold lost his life.

An old mocking rhyme sums up Charles' failure of the Confederate war power thus:

"Duke Charles of Burgundy lost his estate at Grandson, his courage at Murten, his blood at Nancy."

Hans Erhart Tüsch from Strasbourg described the events in a rhyming chronicle (Burgundian History). Diebold Schilling the Elder recorded numerous events of the Burgundian Wars in his Great Burgundian Chronicle.

The Burgundian Wars ended with two separate peace treaties in Freiburg i. Ü. (1476) and in Zurich (1478):

On July 25, 1476, the Peace of Fribourg i. Ü. ended the feud of Bern, Fribourg and Valais with the Duchy of Savoy. Duchess Jolanda, regent of Savoy for the minor Duke Philibert I, had to cede the dominions of Aigle and Erlach to Bern in exchange for the peace, and the dominion of Illens to Freiburg; Murten, Grandson, Échallens and Orbe went to Freiburg and Bern as common dominions. The parts of Vaud occupied by Bern and Fribourg also remained a pledge of the two cities until the payment of 50,000 florins. The Bishop of Sion, Walter Supersaxo, who was allied with Bern, further annexed the governorate of St. Maurice in Lower Valais, which had been occupied by the Wallis in 1475. Fribourg was also formally released from the sovereignty of Savoy and, with the permission of Frederick III, was allowed to call itself a free imperial city from September 1477. In November 1477, Savoy also had to accept that the city and the bishop of Geneva concluded a treaty of castle rights with Bern and Fribourg - the city at the end of Lake Geneva had until then clearly belonged to the Savoy sphere of influence. Further conflicts between the westernmost Confederate towns and the Duchy of Savoy were thus programmed.

On January 24, 1478, Maximilian of Habsburg as heir of Charles the Bold, Duke René of Lorraine, Archduke Sigmund of Austria, the Confederation and the rest of the Low Countries signed the Peace of Zurich. The contracting parties assured themselves of mutual neutrality and the Confederation restored the Free County of Burgundy to Maximilian for 150,000 florins.

On August 19, 1477, Mary of Burgundy - the adult heiress daughter of Charles the Bold - married Maximilian of Habsburg, the son of the Roman-German Emperor Frederick III, to whom she had already been betrothed since 1475. As a result, the duchy, most of which had been occupied by France after Charles' death, became part of the Habsburg household, having already been partially under the feudal rule of the Holy Roman Empire. In the War of the Burgundian Succession (1477-1493), Maximilian initially asserted a large part of his claims to the inheritance of Charles the Bold with a victory at the Battle of Guinegate (1479), while France was able to hold only Picardy and the actual Duchy of Burgundy. When Mary of Burgundy died in 1482, the Burgundian inheritance finally passed to the Habsburgs. Maximilian, who was acting as guardian for his minor son Philip, was not able to finally assert his claim to Flanders until the end of the War of the Burgundian Succession with the Treaty of Senlis (1493). By gaining a large part of the former Burgundian state, the Habsburgs' position of power grew significantly, but a latent conflict with France arose, which broke out openly just a few years later during the Italian Wars and led to a Habsburg-French antagonism that lasted for centuries.

The Confederates' self-confidence had grown strongly due to their successes in the battle against the Burgundians. However, due to the internal disunity of the Confederation, no major territorial expansions occurred. Thus, the beneficiary of the Burgundian Wars was not the conflicted Confederate alliance, from which Savoy got back the lost territories in Vaud on the cheap and France temporarily acquired the Free County of Burgundy. The seven eastern towns did not want to be taken in for Bern's westward expansion and preferred to draw cash. But the Confederation, strengthened by its victories against Burgundy, was subsequently able to resist Maximilian I's imperial reform and assert its independence within the empire in the Swabian War of 1499. The strength of the Swiss infantry, consisting of pikemen and halberdiers, induced various European rulers to recruit mercenaries from Switzerland until the 19th century. The superiority of the infantry on the battlefield, established by the tactics of the Confederates' violent charging, continued until the further development of small arms in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The demise of the "Burgundian state" had shown that there was no longer room for another supranational feudal empire in Europe on the threshold of modern times. The Burgundian century had come to an early end.


  1. Burgundian Wars
  2. Burgunderkriege
  3. Laut dem Aargauer historischen Taschenbuch erstmals bezeugt in einem „alten Holzschnitt“ in der Fassung „Herzog Carolus verlor vor Elicurth den Muth (1474), vor Granson das Gut (1476), vor Murten den Hut (1476), vor Nancy das Blut.“, Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander, Deutsches Sprichwörter-Lexikon: Ein Hausschatz für das deutsche Volk, Brockhaus, 1870, 1143.
  4. Manfred Hollegger: Der Burgundische Erbfolgekrieg 1477–1493. In: (ders.): Maximilian I. (1459–1519) Herrscher und Mensch einer Zeitenwende. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-17-015557-1, S. 78 f.
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  14. ^ Housley, Norman (2004). Crusading in the Fifteenth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 70–94. ISBN 1-4039-0283-6.
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  16. ^ Blockmans, Wim (1999). The Promised Lands: The Low Countries Under Burgundian Rule, 1369-1530. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-1382-3.

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