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History of Burgundy

The Glorious Age of the Dukes of Burgundy

Burgundy Coat of Arms, France
Coat of Arms 1363

These years mark the golden age of Burgundy when the Duchy challenged the power of France itself. Assassinations, inter-marriage, illegitimate children, treachery and back-hand dealings all played their part in the story. There were key moments such as the Battle of Agincourt and the burning of Joan of Arc. Contrast this with the pageantry of the magnificent court of the Dukes of Burgundy, the art, music, jewellery and wealth of the dynasty brought by the Flanders acquisitions during successive generations.

There were four Dukes of Burgundy in these golden years between 1364 and 1477: Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold. Each married well, so increasing the Duchy’s cross-border land and power. The Low Countries, what we know now as Belgium and the Netherlands, were amongst the rich gains bringing untold craft skills, culture and prosperity. A sumptuous court resulted where every aspect of the arts was patronized: tapestries, music, sculpture, gastronomy and fine arts. Burgundy blossomed, gaining in stature and power.

"Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold."

To set the scene, King John the Good of the House of Valois reigned in France from 1350 to 1364 and had four sons; Charles the king in waiting, the Duke of Anjou, John Duke of Berry and Philip, Duke of Burgundy, all key players in the politics of the next generations. There were twists and turns at every stage of the political game with in-fighting between family members and in-laws married into the Valois family.

France as we shall see became riven with strife, through weak kings and feudal factions. England was on the offensive in France and what became the Hundred Years War which started in 1337, kept rearing its ugly head throughout the dynasty.

To know more about these times in depth, read ‘The Golden Age of Burgundy’ by Joseph Calmette.

Philip the Bold - Philippe le Hardi
1364 - 1404

Duke of Burgundy Philip the Bold, France
Philip the Bold

Philip was 22 years old when he was given the title of Duke of Burgundy in 1364 by his father. He had already distinguished himself on the battlefield of Poitiers, winning the nickname ‘the Bold’, a name which stuck throughout his life.

The fourth son of the king, Philip married well and it was this which propelled Burgundy to power. Margaret of Flanders was to become the richest heiress in Europe on the death of her father, Count of Flanders, who ruled Holland, Belgium and Franche Comté.

Philip had been living in Dijon before he got married and it was here that he chose to set up court. His love of beautiful things led to ornate buildings and he brought in Flemish labour to build the Palais des Ducs and Chartreuse de Champmol outside the city walls. The Flemish patterned coloured roofs, so characteristic of Burgundy, became prominent and timber framed houses were built, some of which still remain today.

Dijon became one of the major cities in medieval Europe being a major trade route.
But not everything was glamour and gloss; there was no sanitation, living conditions for the masses were poor and crime from the passing traders thrived.

Patron of the Arts

Tomb of Philip the Bold, Burgundy, France
The Tomb of Philip the Bold

Philip’s patronage of the arts knew no bounds. The sculptor Claus Sluter was brought from the Low Countries, and played an important part in what was to become the ‘Dijon School’. In his book ‘The Golden Age of Burgundy’ Joseph Calmette puts Sluter in the same league as Michelangelo, and although much of his work has been lost, the tomb of Philip the Bold in the Palais des Ducs clearly expresses his great skill. Marble was imported from Liège and alabaster from Genoa for this tomb, providing Sluter with the materials to incorporate facial expressions, draped cloth and what we would now call body language to make his work distinctive.

The court moved around Europe, particularly to Belgium where paintings and tapestries in gold thread were commissioned. Four day knightly tournaments took place and there was music and merriment wherever they went.

"Calmette puts Sluter in the same league as Michelangelo"

Fortunately, to help swell the coffers, Philip became one of the two regents to the French crown, receiving a salary from the state. Charles VI had inherited the throne of France at the age of eleven and as he grew up it became clear that he was mad. The position of regent continued until 1402. Despite his aptitudes, Philip’s money management was lacking and he died land rich and cash poor to the point where his sons had to pawn the ducal silver to pay for his funeral. John the Fearless succeeded him.

John the Fearless - Jean sans-Peur

Duke of Burgundy John the Fearless, History of France
John the Fearless

By comparison, the life of John, the eldest of Philip and Margaret’s nine children, was stormy. A coarse man, devoid of charm, he had no fear but it is said that he took pleasure in instilling it in others. Once again he married with political ambition in mind, taking Margaret of Bavaria to consolidate the possession of the Low Countries.

Fighting for King and country on a Crusade in 1396 he got the name ‘Fearless’. He was taken hostage by the Turks, and released the following year for an enormous ransom.

Reckless and scheming might have been a better name for him. As Duke of Burgundy, like his father, he was involved at the court of Charles VI minding the demented king. Being liberal minded, he entered into open conflict over tax matters in government with Louis of Orleans, the king’s younger brother, and, as the hatred grew, he had him assassinated in the streets of Paris. This caused an outcry but through propaganda, this clever manipulator John managed to manoeuvre his way back to popularity.

He went on to hatch plots against the Armagnac and Orleanist clans. The stakes were high and he was playing for the control of France. Paris was in disarray. People didn’t know who to trust, they were short of food and firewood and they didn’t know whether to go for reform or revolution. Civil war was the result.

"Treachery, conspiracy and plots were now the name of the game..."

Aligned with his cousin the feeble-minded king, John appealed for foreign help. And it was to the English, the long time enemies of France that he turned. Troops were sent to quell the riots. The turbulence in Paris continued with infighting and political disarray.

Henry V of England looked on, and seeing the opportunity, decided to strike at the divided France. He invaded Normandy setting the Hundred Years War in motion again. The Battle of Agincourt ensued, a huge humiliation for the French, with the loss of about 8,000 lives.

Treachery, conspiracy and plots were now the name of the game as John entered into a secret pact with Henry V of England to stabilize the situation. Ambition drove him. Acting as a mediator between the rival French factions he went to Montereau in the Yonne. The English were advancing and it was time for the French to consolidate against them, but was John saying one thing and acting on another? No one will ever know for at the fateful meeting in 1419, one of the king’s advisers Tanquy du Châtel attacked John from behind with an axe and killing him outright.

He was succeeded by Philip the Good.

Philip the Good - Philippe le Bon
1419 - 1467

Painting by Rogier van der Weyden 1450

And so, unexpectedly, Philip, John’s son, inherited the title of Duke of Burgundy.

Here was a man who loved pomp and ceremony, had masses of mistresses, apart from his three wives, and recognised 17 illegitimate children. The glories of the court knew no bounds. Jousting, tournaments, banquets, jewels and tapestries, music and song became the order. He was a good soldier and surrounded himself with top advisors, notably Nicolas Rolin, his Chancellor. Today, the Hôtel- Dieu, the Hospices de Beaune, built by Rolin is one of Burgundy’s most beautiful buildings.

While the possession of land in the Low Countries was consolidated through wise marriages, in France the political scene was not so straightforward. After the murder of his father, the House of Burgundy sided with the English, recognising Henry V of England as the future King of France. The Dauphin became the centre of the resistance movement.

Joan of Arc

But it was on the death of Henry V and Charles VI within six weeks of each other in 1422 that the dual monarchy of France and England came into operation and matters came to a head. Now enter Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans who stirred up such passion for the true monarchy in France. She vowed to return the Dauphin to the French throne and drive the English from France.

"In 1430 Philip the Good’s troops handed Joan of Arc over to the English..."

In 1430 Philip the Good’s troops handed Joan of Arc over to the English for a huge ransom of 10,000 gold crowns, and she was subsequently burnt at the stake.

Sensing the tide of patriotism, Philip now manoeuvred himself skilfully. He agreed to break with the English dominance and for Charles VII to be instated on the throne, for which he was handsomely paid and the Duchy of Burgundy was established as an independent principality with all its land, with Dijon the capital.

On the day of his marriage to Isabelle of Portugal, he founded the Order of the Golden Fleece (Toison d’Or) which is still highly prestigious today.

After a long and eventful life, he died in 1467 to be succeeded by Charles the Bold.

Charles the Bold - Charles le Téméraire
1467 - 1477
Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold by Peter Paul Rubens, History of France

During his relatively short reign as Duke of Burgundy, Charles, the son of Philip the Good managed, unbelievably, to milk dry Burgundy’s extremely wealthy coffers.

Louis XI was on the throne of France and he and Charles were constantly at loggerheads. Wars were a regular occurrence as they tried to get the better of each other. Charles even kidnapped Louis XI at one point, holding him in a tower for three weeks.

Charles took luxury and extravagance to the extreme. He loved hunting, pageantry and culture. A well educated and cultured man, he played the harp and composed songs himself, encouraging the Burgundian School of music which had flowered under Philip the Good, to blossom further. Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois were two of the composers for a long list, whose work has stood the test of time. Continuing with the religious music of the earlier years, secular music in the form of motets and chansons also became fashionable, along with instrumental pieces for dancing.

When Charles was approached by Emperor Frederick III, King of Germany and head of the Hapsburg Empire, asking for his daughter Marie’s hand in marriage to Maximilian, Fredrick’s son, the Duke of Burgundy saw a chance to increase his power still further and get one over on Louis XI.

"Frederick was broke. Word has it that he ate the palace pets and even the vultures on the roof, before they moved in to eat him..."

Frederick was broke. Word has it that he ate the palace pets and even the vultures on the roof, before they moved in to eat him. He needed some of Charles the Bold’s money. Charles saw this as an ideal opportunity to gain another title, thinking along the lines of King of Burgundy. However, after discussions, which Charles saw as a foregone conclusion, Frederick walked out on the negotiations, leaving all the copious bills behind him.

From then onwards, Charles stumbled from one disaster to another. The battles and lifestyle exhausted the wealth. Charles was killed at the siege of Nancy in 1477. Marie and Maximilian had eventually married and on Charles’ death, part of the Duchy passed to the Hapsburgs while Louis XI of France reclaimed the rest. The wealthiest state in Europe was on the wane. Louis XI occupied Dijon in 1479 and the Palais des Ducs became the Logis du Roi.

Pam Elson ©burgundytoday.com