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Violently Neutral: How the Swiss Defeated Burgundy at the Battle of Nancy

By Wojciech Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | November 27, 2012 |

By Wojciech Góralczyk | Pajiba Storytellers | November 27, 2012 |

The 15th century was, in a way, the last closing of doors for Europe — everything that made it past this final reckoning was pretty much here to stay. Granted, things continued to evolve, but no major pieces of the cultural jigsaw were completely swept off the board. Your Englands would remain English, your hundreds of Germanies would coalesce into something decidedly German, your Bulgarias — though nowhere to be found at the time — would eventually reemerge Bulgarian, and your Spains … Gah. I really don’t have time to get into Aragon. But look, Fassbender! *ninjasmoke*


Unfortunately, not everyone managed to claw their way into the 1500s. Three poor, magnificent bastards got gunned down just before reaching those blast doors. Two of them bowed out in poetic balance: in 1453, the Ottomans marched into Constantinople, and wiped out the last remnant of Byzantium. And in 1492, on the other side of the continent, the Catholic Monarchs — the actual moniker used by the Spanish royal power couple — conquered Granada, thus completing the Reconquista and putting an end to over 8 centuries of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula. Both these events were momentous enough to be credited with having ended the Middle Ages, seeing as they led to the emergence of two game changers — the Spanish and Ottoman Empires. The third casualty, however, never really got a proper write-up. It was called Burgundy, and it was vibrant and unique enough to provide the basis for one of the definitive works on medieval culture (Huizinga’s “The Autumn of the Middle Ages”), but unfortunately also posed certain problems. For one, it’s almost impossible to say what it actually was, as there were several kingdoms, duchies, and counties, all called Burgundy — quite a lot of them concurrently.

And then there’s the fact that it was *cough* destroyed by the Swiss.

There was a meeting, and a vote. The Watchers’ Council — which is what historians like to call themselves between tweed-laced kisses and soft cries of “old chap!” — agreed that people would just laugh, and possibly tell them to get a real job. And so the whole Burgundian debacle was swept under the rug. But it happened, and I have the books to prove it.

So, what was Burgundy, exactly? In essence, it was a collection of territories ranging from the south of France to the Holland of Holland, that had the misfortune of being perched atop a sort of historical fault line — no polity in that area seemed to stick around for long. In 843, the Carolingian state gave birth to three kids: the pretty girl that would grow up to become France, the conflicted youth that eventually matured into Germany (albeit after a very long and awkward Holy Roman Empire phase), and that middle one with the funny eye that had its moments, but never quite figured it out. That’s where Burgundy landed.
Then a bunch of medieval stuff happened, and it got absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire, becoming one of its principal kingdoms (alongside Italy and Germany), but the curse of the fault line persisted. Most Emperors started out with a power base in Germany, and had to choose whether to focus on Italy or Burgundy next — and only one of those places had Rome. This meant that Burgundy was usually left to its own devices, which — as is the case with many a neglected child — prominently featured bashing itself with an extensive collection of mallets, and watching various bits and pieces fly off towards France. From time to time, someone in the Empire would try to sort that mess out, and for those special occasions Burgundy would save stuff like three simultaneous succession crises with three different Margarets of Burgundy and three different Philips de Valois at the same time. Look, I usually jack off to this sort of thing, but that is just wrong. Carrie Mathison vision board caliber wrong.


Holy Roman Emperors agreed — eventually they just dropped “King of Burgundy” from their letterhead. It was easier than having to explain what they actually meant.

Thankfully, towards the end of the 14th century, a man called Philip (because of course) simplified the equation by uniting the French Duchy of Burgundy with the Imperial (German) Free County of Burgundy, and a bunch of lands in the Low Countries. This new Duchy-County was a unique combination of French, German and Flemish influences, and a marvel to behold. It was the most prosperous domain in Europe, beholden to neither of its titular masters, and a power player in French and Imperial politics. It also boasted a vibrant culture — the early Flemish masters worked on Burgundian commission, the Burgundian court was one of the most opulent in Europe, with its etiquette and protocol considered to be the pinnacle of refinement (read: the froofiest shit in all the land), and the Burgundian administration model was subsequently adopted in both the Holy Roman and Spanish Empires.

There were only four Dukes of Burgundy, but their rule spanned nearly a century, and they all kept very busy. The greatest hits of the first three include, in no particular order: capturing Joan of Arc and handing her over to the English; commissioning Jan van Eyck to paint stuff; uniting the culinary combo of Dijon, Brussels, and Limburg under one ruler; taking part in something called the Hook and Cod wars, which I refuse to look up for fear of it turning out NOT to involve people slapping each other with fish; marrying The Revered Mantis of Estremadura, apparently; and in the case of John the Fearless, with whom the power of WTF was strong indeed — murdering the French King’s brother because “he had it coming,” having the — admittedly quite insane — King agree with that logic and absolve him of the crime, and then occupying Paris (as in: his suzerain’s capital), capturing said King, and proclaiming himself his protector.

These were the shoes that the fourth Duke of Burgundy, Charles, had to fill. By the time his turn was up, his domain was so extensive that for lack of a better name people referred to it simply as “The Great Duchy of the West.” He was the richest noble in Europe — the two most prosperous (and most culturally prolific) regions at the time were North Italy and the Lowlands, except Italy was split politically into Milan, Venice, Florence, Genoa, etc., and Charles controlled all but one of the Low Countries. This fabulous wealth also translated into him having the most powerful army on the continent. His main issues were his relatively low (ducal) status, and the fact that his core Burgundian possessions were separated from the Lowlands by Alsace and Lorraine. And so, he set out to remedy these problems. Spoiler alert: He went down in history as Charles the Rash.

In order to fix the status situation, he decided to obtain a royal crown from Emperor Frederick III Habsburg. The Emperor agreed to grant his wish in exchange for a hefty payout and the marriage of the Duke’s only daughter Mary to his son Maximilian. The two met in 1473 in Trier, but Charles decided to highlight the obnoxious side of his personality — while the Holy Roman Emperor arrived with a retinue of 2500 men, the Duke brought 14,000, plus artillery, and a whole mobile display of bling, including a solid-silver bathtub, which as I understand he lugged around just so he could pose over it for paintings with two thumbs up. Somewhat turned off by the spectacle, Frederick, as befitted his Imperial stature, took the money and ran. He literally dashed off in the middle of the night, leaving the Burgundians sitting there with their dicks in their hands. Naturally, the marriage was called off.

Charles dealt with his feelings of abandonment by launching an attack on the Imperial city of Neuss in the Archbishopric of Cologne. He launched it 56 times, actually, but the burghers repelled him again and again, until Frederick’s relief force finally arrived and chased him off. In the aftermath, Charles was forced to sign a truce in which he once again promised his daughter to the Habsburgs. So to recap: he paid for a crown he didn’t receive, gave away his daughter, and in return got bragging rights for most unsuccessful assaults on Neuss in a row. Advantage Habsburg.

Having suffered that setback, the Duke of Burgundy turned his attention to the other problem — Alsace and Lorraine. Things get a bit muddled here, as Charles first purchased, and then fought with both of them, but this just seems to be the Burgundian way of doing business. His father, Philip the Good, bought Luxembourg, which was to be handed over upon its Duchess’ death, and then got impatient and set fire to her castle to speed things up. Let’s just say mixed signals were involved. Unfortunately for Charles, both the Alsatian cities and the Duke of Lorraine enlisted the help of the Swiss.

Which brings us to these “wicked, crude, contemptible peasants, who despise virtue, nobility, and moderation in favor of arrogance, treachery and hate” as they were described by Emperor Maximilian (the same one whose marriage was secured by serial Neuss failure). To be fair, Maximilian was not an impartial observer — among the myriad of indignities inflicted by the Swiss upon the Habsburgs was the conquest of the actual County of Habsburg in 1414, which made it that much more difficult for them to represent.

The Swiss were an island of libertarian DIY awesomeness in a sea of feudalism. They were basically a bunch of people who migrated into the Alpine valleys, and were pretty good at building bridges, so they created a trade route to Italy. Due to the strategic value of that route, they were granted something called “Imperial immediacy.” The medieval power structure was based on tiers: Barons answered to Counts, Counts to Dukes, Dukes to Kings, and Kings - in theory - to Emperors. Imperial immediacy meant cutting out the middle men: people from those communities were under the direct authority of the Emperor, who was usually very far away, and had more important things to do than micromanage Alpine peasants. This arrangement proved to work out so well that in 1291 three cantons (communes) — Ury, Schwyz and Unterwalden — got together and decided to basically keep on keeping on, and work together to fight outside threats. This was the establishing act of the Old Swiss Confederacy, distinguishable from other confederacies by the number of wrinkles. With time new cantons joined in, but for a very long time it remained an unstructured, grassroots sort of thing. There was no overarching treaty or constitution, just a tangled mess of pacts and alliances that didn’t always overlap. For example, Berne and Zurich might have been allied with Schwyz, but not with each other - and the Bernese actually helped Habsburgs lay siege to Zurich at one point. Even the terms of those alliances varied — Zurich, for example, retained the right to pursue its own international policy (though with the provision that it was BFFs with the Confederacy). Finally, the members of this creation had very little in common. Some cantons were rural, others — urban. Some spoke German, others — French. And come Reformation some remained Catholic, while others did not. Their only common denominator was the conviction that it was in everyone’s best interest to stick together.

That, and bumpkins with halberds. In order to keep outsiders at bay, each canton maintained a highly organized and disciplined military force. This meant that the Swiss were able to field around 55,000 soldiers at the drop of a hat. And when things were quiet at home, they supplemented their income by renting those soldiers out to anyone who needed a military boost.

Note that the term “Swiss” doesn’t imply nationality in the modern sense, and is more reflective of a type of self-governance. In that vein, communes and cities that rebelled against their liege were actually described as “having gone Swiss.” The other route was the Swiss showing up on your doorstep and relieving you of your former administration.

Which was the case with Alsace. Sigismund Habsburg, the Archduke of Austria, offered to pay the Swiss off, to stop them from encroaching on his Alsatian holdings. Unfortunately, when push came to shove, he couldn’t come up with the cash, so he turned to crazy-rich Burgundy for a bailout. Charles the Rash obliged, and then assigned such an asshole to govern Alsace that Alsatian cities — which moments ago were ok with paying up to avoid Swiss occupation — actively sought out Swiss help.

Charles responded with his trademark level-headedness: in January of 1476, he marched on the small Savoyard city of Grandson, which had recently been occupied by the Confederacy, and even though the Swiss garrison capitulated, he had all but 2 of the 412 men killed. The two spared ones were made to execute the other 410. This… did not go over well.

The Swiss got their first payback several days later, when their army arrived on the scene and obliterated Charles’s, capturing all the stuff he carried around with him (the treasure was so immense that the phrase “Burgundian spoils” became synonymous with hitting the jackpot). But the true reckoning came half a year later, when Charles laid siege to the city of Murten within the Swiss canton of Bern. The Confederation’s response was crushing. On June 22, the Bernese army engaged the Burgundians. Once again, 410 Swiss were killed, but this time the tally on the other side was 10,000, i.e. the whole Burgundian force. The Swiss took no prisoners.

The final act took place in January of 1477, one year after the ill-advised Grandson massacre. Having abandoned his plans of taking on the Confederacy, Charles moved back north and attacked Nancy, the capital of the Duchy of Lorraine. The Duke responded by enlisting a force of 10,000 veteran mercenaries. I’ll let you guess their origin.
The battle of Nancy was the third consecutive Swiss slaughter of Burgundians, and this one took — Charles the Bold was among the casualties, though his body was so mutilated that it took them several days to find it.

And just like that, Burgundy ceased to be. Charles’ only heir was his daughter, Mary, who had been married off to the future Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian. When France realized that the massive Burgundian inheritance would pass into Habsburg hands, she blew a gasket and immediately moved in to take the Duchy of Burgundy — i.e. the most French portion of the spoils. This bout of histrionics proved to be premature, and left her without a proportional emotional response when Maximilian’s successor, Charles V (more on that guy here), inherited all that AND the Spanish Empire, putting her in a Habsburg chokehold.

As for the Swiss — the Burgundian Wars put them on the map. They started really flexing their muscles, at one point even ejecting France from Italy and establishing their own puppet government in the Duchy of Milan. Defeating Europe’s most powerful army was also an amazing PR coup, and business was booming. Swiss mercenaries became a mainstay on European battlefields, and various royal courts started establishing Swiss Guards for personal protection — the last remnant of which is the current Papal one. However, the Confederacy’s political ascent was relatively short-lived. A major defeat in 1515, along with growing tensions between urban and rural cantons (highlighted by disagreements over splitting the Burgundian spoils), and religious strife brought on by the Reformation, made the Swiss turn their attention inwards and start pursuing a policy of neutrality.

However, it was — and remains — heavily armed neutrality.

So the next time you crack a joke about the Swiss, do bear in mind that you’re talking about a country that issues assault rifles to all eligible citizens, provides nuclear fallout shelters for its entire population, has whole military bases, complete with hidden airstrips, built into mountainsides, and rigged most of its bridges and tunnels with explosives.

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