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  • James Houser

January 5, 1477 - Battle of Nancy & Death of Charles the Bold

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

Oh I could have said so much more about this. It's honestly one of the wildest "what-ifs" in history: what if Charles the Bold hadn't caught a Swiss pike with his face on a winter morning in eastern France?

January 5, 1477. Some dude you’ve never heard of catches a pointy object in the face and history is forever altered.

Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, was a solid contender for late medieval Europe’s “big man on campus.” He controlled the vast lands of Burgundy, which included most of eastern France, as well as the incredibly rich domains that we now call the Low Countries: the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg. Even though he technically bent the knee to the King of France, Charles was so powerful that he pretty much did whatever he wanted, and warred with France often. His dream was to turn his power bloc of scattered lands into a new super-Kingdom that could dominate the lands between France and Germany.

"Charles the Bold" by Rogier van der Wyden (1460)

This wasn’t just a pipe dream. When Charlemagne’s great Frankish kingdom had been divided in three in the very dark ages of Europe, two of those kingdoms had been West Francia (France) and East Francia (Germany.) The Middle Kingdom, Lotharingia, had gradually fallen apart, but most of its lands were now united under the iron fist of Charles. If anyone could rebuild the Middle Kingdom, he could.

Burgundian Lands c. 1477. Between France & Germany

Charles was a daring, brilliant and…well, bold military leader. He aggressively expanded his territory whether by conquest, subterfuge, or outright purchase in some cases. He bought most of Alsace from its ailing Prince, beat French King Louis XI on the battlefield and forced him to hand over chunks of northern France, and bought big chunks of Alsace on the Rhine river. He almost convinced the Holy Roman Emperor to grant him the much-coveted crown of Lothringia in 1473, but two obstacles stood in the way.

One was the Duke of Lorraine. Lorraine represented the territories that kept Charles’ Burgundian realm separated; if Lorraine was his, Charles would control all the territory from the English Channel and the North Sea to the Alps. The second were the troublesome little towns in those Alps, ruled by peasants with no lords at all – a scandalous arrangement in medieval Europe. They had joined an alliance at the town of Schwyz long ago, and had taken to calling themselves the Schwyz Confederation – the Swiss. Both had grown wary of Charles’ power, and they had allied against him.

Charles, furious that his crown had been denied, overran Lorraine in 1475, capturing all the major cities. The Duke of Lorraine fled to Switzerland and Charles, with an army of 30,000 men, marched into the mountains. Twice he marched in, and twice the Swiss and their legendary pikemen beat his previously unstoppable army. Enclosed on all sides, Charles raised a new army. In 1477, he learned that the Duke had come back to Lorraine to retake his lost lands, with a Swiss army at his back. Even though it was the dead of winter, Charles pushed on, determined to destroy all his foes in one final gambit.

Eugene Delacroix, "The Battle of Nancy", 1831

On January 5, 1477, Charles’ struggling, half-frozen army arrived at the gates of Nancy, the capital of Lorraine. With only a few thousand men remaining, the Swiss caught him off-balance and exposed. In the harrowing blizzard, the Swiss peasants led their forces to Charles’ rear. His musketeers fired, cannons blazed, and cavalry charged, but it was not enough to stem the tide. As Charles bellowed “I struggle against a spider who is everywhere at once!” his army disintegrated in the snow. As he struggled to fight on with a tiny staff, the snow and the Swiss enclosed around him.

A few days later, the corpse of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, was hauled from the river. His face had been cleft in two by a Swiss halberd, lance points were lodged in his torso, and his face had been picked apart by carrion fowl and wolves. With his royal rings and symbols lost in the current – symbols intended for a kingdom that was lost forever – his body was only identified by his old battle scars.

With Charles’ death, the possibility of a “Middle Kingdom” between France and Germany drifted down the waters to the sea along with his royal symbols. Charles left no sons, only an unwed daughter, the 19-year old Anne. Not eager for a crown herself – your father’s grisly death trying to get one will do that – Anne, now the Duchess of Burgundy, seems to have been happy to tie herself to an ambitious young nobleman from a land called Austria. This was Maximilian I, head of the House of Habsburg.

The lands of Burgundy that Charles the Bold intended for a kingdom would instead become the base for a new powerful dynasty. Soon the Habsburgs, as well, would seek to dominate not only Europe, but the New World as well.

Anne’s grandson, Charles, was named for his famous great-grandfather - and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, unlike his unlucky ancestor, became the most powerful man in Europe. Like his ancestor, though, he lost it all.

But that’s a story for another time.

For more on Burgundy and other vanished European states, Norman Davies' Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe (New York: Penguin, 2011) is a great read.

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