Burgundy in the later Middle Ages was a quasi-state that developed under the Valois dukes Philip the Bold (1363-1404), John the Fearless (1404-1419), Philip the Good (1419-1467), and Charles the Bold (1467-1477). It consisted of diverse possessions in southern and northern territorial blocs, both of which belonged partly to the kingdom of France and partly to the Holy Roman Empire: in the south, the duchy of Burgundy and the originally separate county of Burgundy (also known as Franche-Comté), and in the north the Burgundian Netherlands, comprising Flanders, Artois, Holland, Zeeland, Hainaut, Namur, Brabant, and Luxembourg.
Duke Philip the Bold (Fr. Philippe le Hardi) came late to the idea of crusade. The chronicler Jean Froissart said of him that he was very imaginative and farsighted in his business; to understand this judgment, one must appreciate that Philip the Bold’s involvement in the crusade may have been driven by the desire to control the crusading aspirations of his nephews Charles VI, king of France, and Louis, duke of Orléans. He may also have been motivated by piety, as he wanted to take part personally in an expedition. Signs of his interest in the crusade appear in 1392, when he was fifty. He had two options: to participate in a reyse (campaign) of the Teutonic Order against the pagan Lithuanians in 1395 or to answer the calls of King Sigismund of Hungary for assistance against the Turks. When the grand master of the Teutonic Order informed him at the end of 1394 there would be no reyse the following year, he turned his interests toward Hungary. The grandiose scheme was to lead a passagium particulare (an advance expedition) along with Louis, duke of Orléans, and John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster; the kings of France and England would then lead a passagium generale (general crusade). When the dukes of Lancaster and Orléans withdrew from the project, Philip the Bold named his eldest son, John, count of Nevers (later known as “the Fearless”), to lead the Burgundian forces in the ill-fated Crusade of Nikopolis, which ended in disaster in battle against the Turks in 1396. After securing the release of his son and organizing a triumphal return for him, Philip had no further involvement in crusading; nor did John the Fearless (Fr. Jean sans Peur) when he became duke. The Nikopolis expedition was Philip the Bold’s biggest political mistake: it led to the deaths of the constable and the admiral of France, of his two nephews of royal blood from the Bar family, and of the important noblemen Enguerrand of Coucy and William of La Trémoille, as well as numerous other losses of those who were killed or enslaved.
Philip the Good (Fr. Philippe le Bon) was born while his father, John of Nevers, was on his way to Hungary. If he had any feelings of vengeance against the Turks, these did not emerge until late in his life. In 1420, following the Treaty of Troyes, King Henry V of England and the duke promised to go on crusade to Jerusalem (which was a renewal of the dream of 1396), and the following year they sent Gilbert de Lannoy to the Levant to report on the possibilities for landing forces to recover the Holy Land. Ten years later, Bertran- don de La Broquière completed Lannoy’s mission by visiting the Ottoman Empire. However, Philip’s ambitions lay in all directions. His crusading policy was part of a more general policy of the defense of the Roman Catholic faith and of the Holy Church, as stated in the statutes of his new order of chivalry, the Golden Fleece. Thus in the 1420s and 1430s, he was involved in diplomatic activities against the Hussites of Bohemia. In 1429, he sent a carrack to Rhodes. In 1437, he dreamed of conquering Greece from the Morea. At an unknown date, he studied how he might conquer Muslim Granada. In 1441 Geoffroy de Thoisy led a small squadron of Portuguese ships built in Flanders and Brabant to bring assistance to the Hospitallers at Rhodes against an expected Mamlûk attack. Following this small expedition, the Burgundians were able to use naval facilities at Nice and Ville- franche, and received help from the Genoese. Thoisy returned to Rhodes when the attack actually took place in 1444. The same year, Philip the Good took part in an expedition to assist the Greeks that had been promised by Pope Eugenius IV after the union of Greek and Latin churches at the Council of Florence. He had hired galleys at Venice. The head of the Burgundian corps was Waleran de Wavrin, who was later joined by Geoffroy de Thoisy. In 1445 Thoisy roved through the Black Sea, attacking all sorts of ships, but was eventually taken prisoner, while Wavrin went up the Danube with the Venetians in order to take part in a concerted attack with John Hunyadi, the voivode of Transylvania. However, as it was late in the season, nothing came of this effort, and Wavrin came home. On their homeward journey, the other Burgundian ships carried on privateering as far as Beirut and North Africa in 1446-1447. Meanwhile, Philip the Good had galleys built in Antwerp, still dreaming of recovering the Holy Land.
Everything changed in 1451. Up to that date, Philip’s involvement in the crusade was personal. Now, aged fifty- five, at a chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece, he vowed to go on a crusade, without specifying an objective. He urged his fellow knights to accompany him and decided to hold a great feast to attract the nobility of Burgundy. Philip also sent four embassies to call for other sovereigns to join him in a crusade: to France, to England, to Rome and Naples, and to Germany and Poland. As the Polish chronicler John Dllugosz put it: “the Burgundian embassy was grandiloquent, vain, destitute of any sense, full only of specious words, but deprived of any courage, and very far from any effect or fulfillment” [Joannes Dlugossius, Opera omnia, ed. AleksanderPrzezdiecki, 15 vols. (Cracoviae: Czas, 18631887), 14:98]. These embassies were dispatched without any knowledge of the actual state of affairs in these countries. The feast itself was delayed by an uprising in the town of Ghent, which at least meant that an objective could be defined for the crusade: the recovery of Constantinople (mod. Istanbul, Turkey), which in the meantime had been captured by Mehmed II, the Ottoman sultan, in 1453.
The Feast of the Pheasant took place at Lille on 17 February 1454. It was organized after the model of a chivalric romance, in this case, Jacques de Longuyon’s Voeux du Paon, a sequel to the Romance of Alexander. Philip planned to leave in the spring of 1455, but was unable to come to an agreement with Emperor Frederick III, and so no expedition was arranged. However, the duke sent embassies to successive German diets and a large one to the congress convened at Mantua by Pope Pius II. In 1456, he managed to marry his wife’s nephew John of Coimbra to the heiress of the kingdom of Cyprus.
It was only in 1463 that the pope succeeded in setting up a league with Venice and Burgundy. At the beginning of 1464, Philip delayed his departure at the behest of King Louis XI of France and sent in his place his illegitimate son Anthony, the Grand Bastard of Burgundy, whose fleet, which left from Sluis in Flanders, did not proceed beyond Marseilles. The duke never realized his dream of going on crusade, as he became senile, and government passed to his legitimate son Charles the Bold (Fr. Charles le Téméraire) as early as 1465. Several Western powers, notably Venice, Naples, and the papacy, expected the latter to pursue his father’s crusading policy against the ever increasing Turkish menace. However, the symbolic capital gained by his father’s plans was only ever used by Charles to advance his political aims in western Europe, even if he did dream of conquering the East like his hero Alexander.
Without doubt, the dukes of Burgundy used the crusade as a means to gain a place among the leading western European powers. This can be seen from the diplomatic activity deployed in connection with Prussia and Hungary by Philip the Bold, or Rome, Naples, Germany, and Hungary by Philip the Good. Without being a kingdom, Burgundy succeeded in being recognized as a major power. Yet the rhetorical discourse concerning the crusade was feeble. Its major exponents were the successive chancellors of the Order of the Golden Fleece, Jean Germain and Guillaume Fillastre. Jean Germain clung to the old theory of the temporal sword (the use of force against the infidels) in contrast to other theorists such as John of Segovia and Nicholas of Cues, who held to the idea of the spiritual sword, that is, mission and conversion. Guillaume Fillastre saw the crusade as a means to gain power in the Burgundian government.
The failure of the Crusade of Nikopolis in 1396 effectively put an end to any future great expedition. In the period 1420 to 1450, grandiose and unrealizable schemes were conceived, yet small operations and expeditions could have made Burgundy a power to be reckoned with in the context of the crusade and the Christian East. From 1451, however, the matter of the crusade became increasingly embroiled in diplomatic schemes and ideas of chivalric romance. Yet even if it was too often turned toward the past, the court of Burgundy was a fount of crusading activity that can be compared among contemporary lay powers only with the Aragonese court of Naples.