In 1467, Charles, the thirty-four-year-old Count of Charlois, received the news he had secretly longed for: his father, the Duke of Burgundy–known as Philip the Good–had died, making Charles the new duke. Father and son had clashed over the years. Philip was patient and practical and during his reign had slowly managed to expand Burgundy’s already impressive holdings. Charles was more ambitious and more warlike. The empire he inherited was immense, including Flanders, Holland, Zeeland, and Luxembourg to the north of present-day France, and the important duchy of Burgundy itself in northeastern France. Now, as duke, Charles had the power and resources at his command to realize his dreams of conquest into Germany and beyond.
Two obstacles stood in his path. The first was the independent Swiss cantons to Burgundy’s east. Charles would have to incorporate this territory, by force, before moving into southern Germany. The Swiss were fierce warriors who would not take kindly to any invasion. But in the end they could hardly match the size and power of the duke’s army. The second obstacle was King Louis XI of France, Charles’s cousin and archrival since childhood. France then was still a feudal state, composed of several duchies like Burgundy, whose dukes owed allegiance to the king. But these duchies were in fact independent powers and could form their own league if the king dared provoke them. Burgundy was the most powerful duchy of them all, and everyone knew Louis dreamed of swallowing it up and making France a united power.
Charles, however, felt confident that he could best his older cousin in both diplomacy and warfare. After all, Louis was weak, even a little soft in the head. How else to explain his strange infatuation with the Swiss cantons? Almost from the beginning of his reign, Louis had courted them assiduously, treating them almost like equals to France. There were many more powerful states he could have allied himself with to increase France’s power, but he seemed obsessed with the Swiss. Perhaps he felt an affinity to their simple lifestyle; for a king, he himself had rather peasant tastes. Louis also had an aversion toward warfare, preferring to buy peace, even at a high price, than to fund an army.
It was imperative that Charles strike now, before Louis wised up and started acting more like a king. Charles formed a plan to realize his ambitions and then some: he would first move into Alsace, between France and Germany, and swallow up the weak kingdoms in the area. Then he would form an alliance with the great warrior king of England, Edward IV, whom he would persuade to land a large army at Calais. His own army would link up with the English at Reims, in central France, where Edward would be crowned the country’s new king. The duke and Edward would easily dispose of Louis’s weak army. The duke could then march east, across the Swiss cantons, while Edward would march south. Together they would form the dominant power in Europe.
By 1474 everything was in place. Edward had signed on to the plan. The duke began by marching on the upper Rhine, but just as he began his maneuvers, he learned that a large Swiss army had invaded his home territory of Burgundy. This army was funded by Louis XI himself. By this action Louis and the Swiss were clearly sending a warning to the duke that they would not look kindly on any future invasion of the cantons, but Charles had enough forces in Burgundy to drive the Swiss out. He was not a man to provoke in such a way; both parties would more than pay for their rash invasion.
In the summer of 1475, the English army–the largest yet assembled for an invasion of France-landed at Calais under the personal leadership of Edward IV. Charles went to meet Edward to finalize their plans and toast their imminent conquests. He then quickly returned to his own troops, which were marching south through Lorraine in preparation for the great linkup with the English forces at Reims.
Suddenly some disturbing news reached Charles in the field: his spies at the French court reported that Louis had opened up secret negotiations with Edward. Apparently Louis had persuaded the English king that Charles was using him and could not be trusted. Knowing that England’s finances were weak, Louis had offered generous terms of peace, amounting to a large annual pension paid directly to the king and his court. He had entertained the English with great feasts of food and ale. And then, to the duke’s utter disgust and amazement, Edward fell for it, signed the treaty, and took his forces home.
The duke had barely had time to get over this bitter news when Louis suddenly sent him envoys to broker a long-term truce between France and Burgundy. This was typical of the king–everything he did was inconsistent and contradictory. What was he thinking? Signing the truce would mean the duke could now confidently march against the Swiss, knowing that France would not interfere. Perhaps the king was guided by his great fear of war? Charles happily approved the truce.
The Swiss were outraged: Louis had been their friend, and now, at the moment of imminent peril, he had abandoned them. But the Swiss were used to fighting on their own; they would simply have to mobilize every man available.
In the dead of the winter of 1477, the duke, impatient for victory, crossed the Jura Mountains heading east. The Swiss were waiting for him near the town of Grandson. This was the first time the duke had done battle with the Swiss, and he was caught off guard by what confronted him. It began with the alarming bellow of Swiss battle horns, which echoed in the mountains, creating a frightening din. Next, thousands of Swiss soldiers advanced down the slope toward the Burgundians. They marched with perfect precision, packed tight in phalanxes from which their enormous pikes stuck out like the spines of a giant hedgehog in motion. Their flanks and rear were protected by halberdiers swinging spiked battleaxes. It was a terrifying sight. The duke ordered attack after attack with his cavalry to break up the phalanxes, only to watch them being slaughtered. His artillery was hard to maneuver in the mountainous terrain. The Swiss fought with incredible fierceness, and their phalanxes were impenetrable.
A reserve Swiss force, hidden in the woods on the Burgundian right, suddenly emerged and attacked. The duke’s army fell into a headlong retreat; the battle ended in a slaughter, from which the duke, however, escaped.
A few months later, it was the turn of the Swiss to go on the offensive by marching into Lorraine. In January 1478 the duke counterattacked with his now enfeebled forces; again the Burgundians were routed, and this time the duke did not escape. His body was finally identified on the field of battle, his head cloven in two by a Swiss halberd, his body pierced by pikes.
In the months after Charles’s death, Louis XI swallowed up Burgundy, eliminating the last great feudal threat to a unified France. The duke had unknowingly fallen prey to Louis’s elaborate plan to destroy him without wasting a single French soldier.