IV. CHARLES THE BOLD: 1465–77

All this effervescence evaporated under the hot temper of Charles le Téméraire, the Rash, commonly miscalled the Bold. Rogier van der Weyden pictured him as the handsome, serious, black-haired young Count of Charolais, who led his father’s armies to bloody victories and champed the bit waiting for him to die. In 1465 Philip the Good, sensing his impatience, yielded the government to him, and relished the youth’s ambition and energy.

Charles resented the division of his duchy into northern and southern provinces severed in space and diverse in speech; he resented more the feudal fealty that he owed for some of these provinces to the French King, for others to the German Emperor. He longed to make Greater Burgundy, like the Lotharingia (Lorraine) of the ninth century, a middle kingdom between Germany and France, physically coherent and politically sovereign. Even, at times, he mused that the opportune deaths of a few intervening heirs would hand him the French, English, and Imperial crowns, and raise him to a pinnacle beside the loftiest figures in history.13 To realize these dreams he organized the best standing army in Europe, taxed his subjects beyond precedent, disciplined himself to every hardship and trial, and gave neither his mind nor his body, neither his friends nor his foes, any respite of ease or peace.

However, Louis XI thought of Burgundy as still an appanage of France, and fought his rich vassal with superior strategy and guile. Charles joined French nobles in war against Louis; he won some further towns, and the lasting enmity of an undiscourageable king. In that struggle Dinant and Liège revolted against Burgundy and declared for France, and some enthusiasts at Dinant labeled a hanged effigy of Charles as the bastard son of a careless priest. Charles shot down the walls of the city, gave it over to three days of pillage by his troops, enslaved all men, expelled all women and children, burned all buildings to the ground, and threw 800 of the rebels, bound hand and foot, into the Meuse (1466). Philip died in the following June, and the Count of Charolais became Charles the Bold. He renewed the war with Louis, and compelled his company and co-operation in the siege of repeatedly rebellious Liège. The starving citizens offered Charles all their goods in return for their lives; he rejected the bargain; the city was plundered down to the last dwelling and chapel; chalices were snatched from the hands of priests celebrating Mass; all captives who could not pay a heavy ransom were drowned (1468).14

The world, though long inured to violence, could not forgive Charles his severity, nor his unfeudal imprisonment and humiliation of his King. When he conquered Gelderland, acquired Alsace, and stepped on Imperial toes by interfering in Cologne and besieging Neuss, all his neighbors took steps to check him. Peter van Hagenbach, whom he had appointed to govern Alsace, so provoked the citizens with his insolence, rapacity, and cruelty, that they hanged him; and as Swiss merchants had been among Peter’s victims, and French gold was strategically distributed in Switzerland, and the cantons felt their liberties imperiled by the spread of Charles’s power, the Swiss Confederation declared war on him to the death (1474). Charles left Neuss, turned south, conquered Lorraine—so for the first time uniting the ends of his duchy—and marched his army over the Jura into Vaud. The Swiss were the doughtiest warriors of the age; they defeated Charles near Granson, and again near Morat (1476); the Burgundians were routed, and Charles neared insanity in his grief. Lorraine saw its chance and rebelled; the Swiss sent men.

Louis sent money, to help the revolt. Charles formed a new army, fought the allies near Nancy, and in that battle met defeat and death (1477). On the morrow his body, stripped naked by ghouls, was found half submerged in a pond, the face frozen fast in the ice. He was forty-four years old. Burgundy was absorbed into France.

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