Charles the Bold (French: Charles le Téméraire, Dutch: Karel de Stoute, 10 November 1433 – 5 January 1477), baptised Charles Martin, was Duke of Burgundy from 1467 to 1477. He was the last Valois Duke of Burgundy.
His early death at Nancy, at the hands of the Swiss fighting for René II, Duke of Lorraine, was of great consequence in European history:
The Burgundian domains, long wedged between the growing powers France and the Habsburgs, were divided, but as neither side was satisfied with the results, the disintegration of the Burgundian state, together with the question of the boundary between the French and German spheres of political influence, was a factor in most major wars in Western Europe for the following two centuries and beyond.
Charles the Bold was born in Dijon, the son of Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal. In his father’s lifetime (1433–1467) he bore the title of Count of Charolais; afterwards, he assumed all of his father’s titles, including that of “Grand Duke of the West”.
He was also made a Knight of the Golden Fleece just twenty days after his birth, being invested by Charles I, Count of Nevers and the seigneur de Croÿ.
He was brought up under the direction of Jean d’Auxy, and early showed great application to study and also to warlike exercises. His father’s court was the most extravagant in Europe at the time, and a centre for arts and commerce.
While he was growing up, Charles witnessed his father’s efforts to unite his increasing dominions in a single state, and his own later efforts centered on continuing and securing his father’s successes.
In 1440, at the age of seven, Charles was married to Catherine, daughter of Charles VII, the King of France, and sister of the Dauphin (afterwards Louis XI). She was five years older than her husband, and she died in 1446 at the age of 18. They had no children.
In 1454, at the age of 21, having been a widower for eight years (from the age of 13 to 21), Charles married a second time. He wanted to marry a daughter of his distant cousin, the Duke of York (sister of Kings Edward IV and Richard III of England), but under the Treaty of Arras (1435), he was required to marry only a French princess.
His father chose Isabella of Bourbon for him: she was the daughter of Philip the Good’s sister, and a very distant cousin of Charles VII of France. Isabella died in 1465. Their daughter, Mary, was Charles’ only surviving child, Mary became heiress to all Burgundian domains prior to marrying Maximillian of Bavaria.
Charles was on familiar terms with his brother-in-law, the Dauphin, when the latter was a refugee at the Court of Burgundy from 1456 until Louis succeeded his father as King of France in 1461. But Louis began to pursue some of the same policies as his father; Charles viewed with chagrin Louis’s later repurchase of the towns on the Somme, which Louis’s father had ceded in 1435 to Charles’s father in the Treaty of Arras.
When his own father’s failing health enabled him to take into his hands the reins of government (which Philip relinquished to him completely by an act of 12 April 1465), he entered upon his lifelong struggle against Louis XI, and became one of the principal leaders of the League of the Public Weal.
For his third wife, Charles was offered the hand of Louis XI’s daughter, Anne; however, the wife he ultimately chose was Margaret of York (who was his second cousin, they both being descended from John of Gaunt). With his father gone, and being no longer bound by the Treaty of Arras, Charles decided to ally himself with Burgundy’s old ally England.
Louis did his best to prevent or delay the marriage (even sending French ships to waylay Margaret as she sailed to Sluys), but in the summer of 1468 it was celebrated sumptuously at Bruges, and Charles was made a Knight of the Garter. The couple had no children, but Margaret devoted herself to her stepdaughter Mary; and after Mary’s death many years later, she kept Mary’s two infant children as long as she was allowed.
Margaret survived her husband, and was the only one of his wives to be Duchess of Burgundy, the first two wives having died before his accession and thus being known as Countesses of Charolais.
On 12 April 1465, Philip relinquished government to Charles, who spent the next summer prosecuting the War of the Public Weal against Louis XI. Charles was left master of the field at the Battle of Montlhéry (13 July 1465), but this neither prevented the King from re-entering Paris nor assured Charles a decisive victory. He succeeded, however, in forcing upon Louis the Treaty of Conflans (4 October 1465), by which the King restored to him the towns on the Somme, the counties of Boulogne and Guînes, and various other small territories.
During the negotiations for the Treaty, his wife Isabella died suddenly at Les Quesnoy on 25 September, making a political marriage suddenly possible.
As part of the treaty Louis promised him the hand of his infant daughter Anne, with Champagne and Ponthieu as dowry, but no marriage took place.
In the meanwhile, Charles obtained the surrender of Ponthieu. The Revolt of Liège against his father and his brother in law, Louis of Bourbon, the Prince-Bishop of Liège, and a desire to punish the town of Dinant, intervened to divert his attention from the affairs of France.
During the previous summer’s wars, Dinant had celebrated a false rumour that Charles had been defeated at Montlhéry by burning him in effigy, and chanting that he was the bastard of Duchess Isabel and John of Heinsburg, the previous Bishop of Liege (d.1455).
On 25 August 1466, Charles marched into Dinant, determined to avenge this slur on the honour of his mother, and sacked the city, killing every man, woman and child within; perhaps not surprisingly, he also successfully negotiated at the same time with the Bishopric of Liège.
After the death of his father, Philip the Good (15 June 1467), the Bishopric of Liège renewed hostilities, but Charles defeated them at the Battle of Brustem, and made a victorious entry into Liège, whose walls he dismantled and deprived the city of some of its privileges.
Alarmed by these early successes of the new Duke of Burgundy, and anxious to settle various questions relating to the execution of the treaty of Conflans, Louis requested a meeting with Charles and daringly placed himself in his hands at Péronne.
In the course of the negotiations the Duke was informed of a fresh revolt of the Bishopric of Liège secretly fomented by Louis.
After deliberating for four days how to deal with his adversary, who had thus maladroitly placed himself at his mercy, Charles decided to respect the parole he had given and to negotiate with Louis (October 1468), at the same time forcing him to assist in quelling the revolt. The town of Liège was carried by assault and the inhabitants were massacred, Louis not intervening on behalf of his former allies.
At the expiry of the one year’s truce which followed the Treaty of Péronne, the King accused Charles of treason, cited him to appear before the parlement, and seized some of the towns on the Somme (1471). The Duke retaliated by invading France with a large army, taking possession of Nesle and massacring its inhabitants.
He failed, however, in an attack on Beauvais, and had to content himself with ravaging the country as far as Rouen, eventually retiring without having attained any useful result.
Making a last effort, Charles formed a new army and arrived in the dead of winter before the walls of Nancy. Having lost many of his troops through the severe cold, it was with only a few thousand men that he met the joint forces of the Lorrainers and the Swiss, who had come to the relief of the town, at the Battle of Nancy (5 January 1477).
He himself perished in the fight, his naked and disfigured body being discovered some days afterward frozen into the nearby river.
Charles’ head had been cleft in two by a halberd, lances were lodged in his stomach and loins, and his face had been so badly mutilated by wild animals that only his physician was able to identify him by his long fingernails and the old battle scars on his body.
Charles’ battered body was initially buried in the ducal church in Nancy, by René II, Duke of Lorraine.
Later in 1550, his great-grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, ordered it to be moved to the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, next to that of his daughter Mary.
In 1562, Emperor Charles V’s son and heir, King Philip II of Spain, erected a splendid mausoleum in early renaissance style over his tomb, still extant.
Excavations in 1979 positively identified the remains of Mary, in a lead coffin, but those of Charles were never found.