Charles the Bold

The French nobleman Charles the Bold (1433-1477) was Duke of Burgundy from 1467 to 1477. During his life the Burgundian state reached the height of its political, economic, and cultural power.

The last of the four Valois dukes of Burgundy, Charles the Bold ruled a heterogeneous collection of territories running from the North Sea and the Netherlands around the eastern edge of the kingdom of France and terminating near the Mediterranean coast in Provence. The "Great Duchy of the West," as Burgundy was called, possessed the greatest strategic and diplomatic importance, wealth, and culture of any 15th-century principality. The independent policy of Charles's predecessors, Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, and Philip the Good, had made Burgundy the key power in resolving the Hundred Years War between England and France, as well as the most important influence on the political stability of the French kingdom. The life and career of Charles the Bold represented the greatest threat to the efforts of Louis XI to stabilize the kingdom of France by restoring royal authority over that of the great princes.

Charles was born at Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, on Nov. 11, 1433, the son of Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal. Made Count of Charolais while still an infant, he was from birth the only heir of the dukedom and was carefully educated for his role as arbiter of the fortunes of Burgundy. He read widely in history, became an effective administrator and speaker, and grew into a ruthless and ambitious ruler. The personality traits which he appears to have developed early—a strong will, obstinacy, and little control of his emotions, particularly when faced with personal or political setbacks—coincide well with his nickname, "le Téméraire" ("the Bold," or as some would have it, "the Rash"). Charles's political character was further shaped by his reluctance to consider himself a subject of the king of France and by his desire to follow an independent and dangerous diplomatic course in his relations with England and France, in French internal politics, and in the affairs of the German territories which bordered his own on the east.


Struggle with the King

Kept from exerting power in Burgundy by his father's long reign and by a persistent animosity which developed between the two, Charles continually intervened in the struggles between the French king Louis XI and his nobles, particularly during the rebellion known as the League of the Public Weal (1465-1466). After the first of his many truces with Louis, Charles married Margaret of York, sister of the English king Edward IV, and thereby reopened the threat of an Anglo-Burgundian alliance, a diplomatic maneuver which had effectively threatened France earlier in the century and still constituted the greatest danger to French royal power.

Charles's growing ambition caused Louis to take the unprecedented and dangerous step of forcing a personal interview by staging a surprise confrontation with Charles at Péronne in October 1468. But Charles learned of the King's attempts to foment rebellion in Burgundian territories precisely at the moment when Louis was his "guest." On this occasion Charles extracted a number of concessions from Louis which greatly strengthened the power of the rebellious French nobles and secured Charles's position as the leader of the nobility, and the chief rival—and threat—to the king.

Charles's overwhelming success at Péronne appears to have increased his ambition and to have either revived or generated his idea of separating Burgundy from France by negotiating with the emperor Frederick III to make Burgundy an independent kingdom. By the Treaty of St. Omer in 1469 Charles acquired a number of strategic territories linking his northern and southern holdings, even further establishing Burgundy as a power separate in all but name from France. With his German, English, French, and Aragonese allies, Charles attempted in 1471 and again in 1472 to assemble large military coalitions against Louis XI. Although these failed to materialize, by 1474 Charles was at the height of his power, a formidable threat to France and the single key force in the diplomatic arrangements of the West.


Defeat for Charles

In 1474, on the eve of yet another Anglo-Burgundian coalition against France, Charles's single-mindedness and obstinacy drew him into a sequence of diplomatic and military errors. Instead of supporting the invasion force of Edward IV, Charles pursued a fruitless military campaign in Germany, thus abandoning his ally and making it easier for Louis to induce Edward to make a final peace. The ensuing Treaty of Picquigny (1475) marks the final resolution of the Hundred Years War.

Humiliated at being outmaneuvered by Louis and faced with revolts in Alsace, Charles launched punitive attacks against the duchy of Lorraine and the Swiss, who had provided aid to Louis. In 1476 the Swiss defeated Charles at Grandson and again at Morat. Committed to a policy of punishing the allies of his enemies, Charles finally became the victim of his own temperament. "The more involved Charles became," wrote his contemporary Philippe de Comines, "the more confused he grew." Driven to a fury by his setbacks at the hands of the Swiss, Charles forced a third battle at Nancy in 1477, in which the Burgundian army was once again defeated and Charles killed. Charles's death left his 20-year-old daughter, Mary of Burgundy, as the only heir to the Burgundian wealth and territories.


Further Reading on Charles the Bold

There is no adequate biography of Charles the Bold in English. The standard work, in French, is J. Bartier, Charles le Téméraire (1944). A subsequent work, also in French, is Marcel Brion, Charles le Téméraire, grand duc d'Occident (1947). The life of Charles is adequately treated in Joseph Calmette, The Golden Age of Burgundy (1956; trans. 1963). A detailed picture of the rich court life of Burgundy is in Otto Cartellieri, The Court of Burgundy (1926; trans. 1929). The importance of Burgundian culture is described in the brilliant work of J. Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages (1924). However, the most vivid account of Charles and Louis XI remains the Memoirs of Charles's contemporary Philippe de Comines (available in many editions and translations).


Additional Biography Sources

Vaughan, Richard, Charles the Bold; the last Valois Duke of Burgundy, New York, Barnes & Noble Books 1974, 1973.