Battle of Nancy: The Swiss, Charles the Bold’s worst nightmare

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Renowned for their savagery during the Burgundy wars at Grandson and Morat, the Confederates delivered the blow during the Battle of Nancy, where the Duke lost his life on January 5, 1477. The explanations of the historian Jean-Baptiste Santamaria, author of The Death of Charles the Bold.

Charles the Bold found naked among thousands of victims robbed by the Swiss, after the Battle of Nancy. A work by Augustin Feyen-Perrin (1865). © Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy/DR

Charles the Bold found naked among thousands of victims robbed by the Swiss, after the Battle of Nancy. A work by Augustin Feyen-Perrin (1865). © Museum of Fine Arts of Nancy/DR

Published on 05/09/2024

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

“In front of Grandson, lost his possessions. In front of Morat, my heart broke. In front of Nancy, lost his life.” This old Swiss saying well sums up the nightmare experienced by Charles the Bold facing the Confederate troops. The Duke of Burgundy, who had inherited in 1467 from his father, Duke Philip the Good, a vast conglomerate of lands extending from the North Sea to the Jura, led a policy of expansion towards the Holy Roman Empire. Germanic Roman. Being able to boast an army almost without equal in Europe, he dreamed of sitting on the imperial throne, or at least of wearing a royal crown. This was without the spirit of independence and the extreme pugnacity of the Helvetii.

Because these are indeed these “Waldstätten” with gnarled arms, these brawlers experienced in mercenarism since the 13the century already who, within a coalition of 20,000 men set up by the Duke of Lorraine René II, defeated the last duke of the house of Valois, on January 5, 1477 in front of Nancy.

“The formidable Swiss had already weakened the Bold at Grandson and Morat in March and June 1476, when the Burgundian army had threatened the Confederation. Renowned for their valor and brutality, they offered a considerable advantage to the Duke of Lorraine, whose own forces were meager,” says historian Jean-Baptiste Santamaria, lecturer at the University of Lille and author of a fascinating work on The death of Charles the Bold1.

Charles the Bold in ceremonial armor, in 1474.
© Museum of Fine Arts of Dijon/DR

Naked in the ice

On January 4, 1477, there was an emergency in Nancy. The city has been under siege by the Burgundians since October and the assault seems imminent. It was then that 9,000 Swiss infantrymen landed. Raising the standards of the cantons, they joined the Lorraine and Alsatian forces, ready to do battle. The Bold, for his part, only has 5,000 men available. But with his robust field artillery and the firepower of his culverins, he does not fear the enemy: “If they come to present themselves to me, I will put up such good resistance to them that with the help of God, I I will win the victory,” he assures, according to the Chronicle of Lorraine.

After a freezing night, the battle began around 1 p.m. It will be short-lived. The attackers, taking advantage of poor visibility under the snow, succeeded in an evasive maneuver. Then, very quickly, they fell on the rearguard of the Burgundian army. It’s a rout. The Duke of Burgundy tries to retreat towards the north. But at the Saint-Jean pond, he falls from his horse El Mororeceived a terrible blow to the head from a halberd and several anonymous pike charges in the process.

His lifeless body was only found two days later, completely naked, partially stuck in ice, already eaten away by wolves or stray dogs. Unrecognizable among several thousand corpses methodically stripped by the Swiss, he is only identified by his prisoner half-brother, Antoine de Bourgogne, and by his Portuguese doctor Mathieu Lupe, thanks to his damaged teeth, old scars and perhaps to be a forgotten ring on her finger. Duke René, in all nobility, granted him a funeral worthy of his rank in the Saint-Georges collegiate church, in Nancy.

Shock wave

The news of the death of the Bold spread extremely quickly, raising a wave of emotion throughout Europe. On the evening of January 6, the Alsatian town of Colmar was already aware of the outcome of the battle. On the 7th, the information reached Basel, as evidenced by a canon’s diary. The King of France Louis This death does not really surprise him. He himself predicted it in front of ambassadors: Charles the Bold – as he was called at the time – “loves battle too much and will end up being killed”.

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“The diplomatic game was turned upside down for centuries”
Jean-Baptiste Santamaria

This disappearance will nonetheless profoundly shake up the political scene. While Louis “The diplomatic game was turned upside down for centuries,” comments the historian Santamaria. “While France achieved its objective of internal sovereignty by getting rid of a dangerous vassal, it saw the formation against it of an even more formidable territorial entity.”

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The Swiss were especially interested in war spoils. In this drawing by Diebold Schilling (detail), they seize the treasures abandoned on the battlefield of Grandson.
©DR

Symbolic gain

The Swiss, for their part, although direct winners with the Lorraines and the Alsatians, benefited little from this redistribution of the cards. The canton of Berne was freed from the Burgundian threat, but was restrained in its ambitions of expansion towards Franche-Comté by a Diet which did not want a superpower in its ranks. The compromise imposed on Marie de Bourgogne will ultimately be financial. The mercenaries will also receive 40,000 francs from Duke René for their commitment, but will have to be content with mediocre loot compared to those of Grandson and Morat. In addition, problems of sharing in the indescribable chaos of the battlefield, while each combatant was supposed to hand over the fruit of his plunder to a Beutemeister (“master of the spoils”), will lead to conflicts between several cantons.

The Swiss gain, on the other hand, will be enormous on a symbolic level. By getting rid of a powerful prince, the Confederates will gain great prestige. “To repeat one of the harangues proposed during the battle, the Swiss will become the new David facing Goliath,” explains Jean-Baptiste Santamaria. They will be the oppressed triumphant over the bloodthirsty tyrant, this “Turk of Burgundy” described as the worst of infidels by the Basel chronicler Jean Knebel. “It is obviously a beautiful fable, when we know the bloodthirsty behavior of the Swiss. But this fable will nourish the imagination of a strong and proud Switzerland for centuries.”

Confederates of extreme brutality

Experienced in combat since their early childhood, training regularly during competitions and local festivals, the Confederates at the time of the Burgundy Wars were considered excellent infantrymen. They skillfully wielded the halberd, recognizable by its asymmetrical cutting edge, but also the five to six meter pike, very useful against cavalry attacks. Some of the fighters also had bows, crossbows or firearms.

In principle, the Swiss did not take prisoners, preferring to slay the enemy and loot the corpses. A surprising choice, if we know that a ransom corresponded to a year of the captive’s income. For Charles the Bold, for example, it was a million florins, or about four tons of gold.

In fact, as historian Jean-Baptiste Santamaria recalls, the Swiss had a reputation for waging “bad warfare”, which earned them the reputation of “butchers”. As late as 1499, Lucerne’s war ordinance provided for no prisoners to be taken. The violence of the Swiss fighters even required an effort of regulation on the part of the cantonal authorities: to cool the ardor of the Zurich fighters, they were forbidden to dismember enemy corpses or to tear out their hearts…

>1Jean-Baptiste Santamaria, The death of Charles the BoldEd. Gallimard, 2023.

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