Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

Charles the Bold and the Swiss

On the 6th of February, 1476, Duke Charles of Burgundy marched from Besançon to take the field against the Swiss, between whom and Burgundy hostilities had broken out. There were three parties to this war, Louis XI. being the third. That politic monarch had covertly stirred up the Swiss to their hostile attitude, promised them aid in money, if not in men, and now had his secret agents in both camps, and kept himself in readiness to take advantage of every circumstance that might be turned to his own benefit. Leaving Tours, he went to Lyons, that he might be within easy distance of the seat of war. And not long had he been there before news of the most gratifying character came to his ears, Duke Charles had met the foe, and—but we anticipate.

The army of Burgundy was a powerful one, having not less than thirty or forty thousand men and a strong train of artillery. It was followed, as was Charles's fashion in making war, with an immense baggage-train. Personally his habits were simple and careless, but he loved to display his riches and magnificance, and made his marches and encampments as much scenes of festival as of war. What this showy duke wanted from their poor cities and barren country the Swiss could not very well see. "The spurs and the horses' bits in his army are worth more money than the whole of us could pay in ransom if we were all taken," they said.

Without regard to this, Charles marched on, and on February 19 reached Granson, a little town in the district of Vaud. Here fighting had taken place, and hither soon came the Swiss battalions. Powerful fellows they were, bold and sturdy, and animated with the highest spirit of freedom. On they marched, timing their long strides to the lowings of the "bull of Uri" and the "cow of Unterwalden," two great trumpets of buffalo horn which, as was claimed, Charlemagne had given to their ancestors.

Against these compact battalions, armed with spears eighteen feet long, the squadrons of Burgundy rode in vain. Their lines were impregnable. Their enemies fell in numbers. In the end the whole Burgundian army, seized with panic, broke and fled, "like smoke before the northern blast."

So sudden and complete was the defeat that Charles himself had to take to flight with only five horsemen for escort, and with such haste that everything was left in the hands of the foe,—camp, artillery, treasure, the duke's personal jewels, even his very cap with its garniture of precious stones and his collar of the Golden Fleece.

The Swiss were as ignorant of the value of their booty as they were astonished at the completeness of their victory. Jewels, gold, silver, rich hangings, precious tapestry, had little value in their eyes. They sold the silver plate for a few pence, taking it for pewter. The silks and velvets found in the baggage-wagons of the duke, the rich cloth of gold and damask, the precious Flanders lace and Arras carpets, were cut in pieces and distributed among the peasant soldiers as if they had been so much common canvas. Most notable of all was the fate of the great diamond of the duke, which had once glittered in the crown of the Great Mogul, and was of inestimable value. This prize was found on the road, inside a little box set with fine pearls. The man who picked it up thought the box pretty and worth keeping, but saw no use for that bit of shining glass inside. He threw this contemptuously away. Afterwards he thought it might be worth something, to be so carefully kept, and went back to look for it. He found it under a wagon, and sold it to a clergyman in the neighborhood for a crown. This precious stone, one of the few great diamonds in the world, is now in the possession of the Emperor of Austria, its value enhanced to him, it may be, by its strange history.

There was only one thing in this event that did not please Louis XI.,—that Charles had left the field alive. He sent him advice, indeed, to let those poor folks but hard fighters of the Alps alone, well convinced that the fiery duke would not take his counsel. In truth, Charles, mad with rage, ordered that all the soldiers who had fled from the field should be put to death, and that the new recruits to be raised should be dealt with in the same manner if they did not march to his camp with all haste. It cannot be said that this insane command was obeyed, but so intense was his energy, and so fierce his rage against the Swiss, that in no great time he had a fresh army, of from twenty-five to thirty thousand men, composed of Burgundians, Flemings, Italians, and English.

Late in May he was again on the march,—with much less parade and display than before,—and on the 10th of June pitched his camp before the little town of Morat, six leagues from Berne.

Everywhere as he went he left word that it was war to the death on which he was bent. His pride had been bitterly wounded. He vowed to heal it in the blood of his foes.

The Swiss were preparing with all haste, and advancing to Berne. The governor of Morat sent them word to be at ease concerning him. "I will defend Morat," he said, and to garrison and people he swore that he would hang the first who spoke of surrender. For ten days he had held out against Charles's whole army, while his countrymen were gathering.

The men of Zurich were the last to reach Berne. On the 21st of June, in the evening, the Swiss encamped near their foes.

"Have those hounds lost heart, pray?" the duke had just said; "I was told that we were about to get at them."

His wish was to be gratified in a way he had not meant; they were about to get at him. The next day, June 22, opened with a pelting rain. Later, the sun burst through the clouds. With its first beams the Swiss were in motion, marching on the camp of their foes.

A man-at-arms hurried to the duke's tent, and told him that the Swiss were coming, and that they had attacked the lines. He declared the story was a lie, and drove the messenger with an insulting reproof from his tent. What, these base peasants? To attack his army? The thing was incredible! For all that, he left the tent and hurried to the point indicated. It was true, they had attacked, and were already driving back his men.

Charles rallied them as he best could. The battle was desperate. All the remainder of the day it continued. But before nightfall the Swiss were everywhere victorious, the Burgundians everywhere beaten. Charles had still three thousand horsemen, but they, too, broke before the fierce charges of the Swiss, and in the end he escaped with difficulty, having but a dozen men at his back, and leaving eight or ten thousand of his soldiers dead on the field, the greater part of them killed after the fight by the relentlessly furious Swiss.

Charles, obstinate, furious, wild with rage, sought to collect another army, but failed. No men could be found willing to bear arms against those terrible Swiss. He shut himself up for weeks in one of his castles, dismayed, inconsolable, heated with passion, ready to crush the world if his hand could have grasped it, a sorry spectacle of disappointed ambition and overthrown pride.

Other enemies rose against him. René II., duke of Lorraine, whom he had robbed of his dominions and driven from Nancy, now saw an opportunity to recover his heritage. He had been wandering like a fugitive from court to court. Before Morat he had joined the Swiss, and helped them to their victory. Now, gathering a force, he re-entered his duchy, besieged Nancy, then feebly garrisoned, and pressed it hard. The governor sent messengers to Duke Charles, asking for aid. He received none. The duke did not even reply to him. He seemed utterly dispirited. In this emergency the governor surrendered, and René had his own again.

Yet at that very moment, Charles the Bold, throwing off his apathy, was marching upon Lorraine, with a small army which he had hastily collected. On the 22nd of October, 1476, he reached Nancy, which was once more besieged. At his approach, Duke René left the town, but left it well garrisoned. He went in search of reinforcements. These he found in Switzerland, the agents of Louis XI. promising them good pay, while their hatred of Charles made them fully ready for the service.

On January 4, 1477, René, having led his new army to Lorraine, found himself face to face with the army of Charles the Bold, who was still besieging Nancy. Charles held council with his captains.

"Well," he said, "since these drunken scoundrels are upon us, and are coming here to look for meat and drink, what ought we to do?"

"Fall back," was the general opinion. "They outnumber us. We should recruit our army. Duke René is poor. He will not long be able to bear the expense of the war, and his allies will leave him as soon as his money is gone. Wait but a little, and success is certain."

The duke burst into one of his usual fits of passion.

"My father and I," he cried, "knew how to thrash these Lorrainers, and we will make them remember it. By St. George, I will not fly before a boy, before René of Vaudemont, who is coming at the head of this scum! He has not so many men with him as people think; the Germans have no idea of leaving their stoves in winter. This evening we will deliver the assault against the town, and to-morrow we will give battle."

He did give battle on the morrow,—his last, as it proved. The fray did not last long, nor was the loss of life in the field great. But the Burgundians broke and fled, and the pursuit was terrible, the Lorrainers and their Swiss and German allies pursuing hotly, and killing all they found. René entered Nancy in triumph, and relieved the citizens from the famine from which they had long suffered. To show him what they had endured in his cause, there were piled up before his door "the heads of the horses, dogs, mules, cats, and other unclean animals which had for several weeks past been the only food of the besieged."

The battle over, the question arose, what had become of the Duke of Burgundy? None could answer. Some said a servant had carried him wounded from the field; others, that a German lord held him prisoner. But a page soon appeared who said he had seen him fall and could lead to the spot. He did so, conducting a party to a pond near the town, where, half buried in the mud, lay several dead bodies lately stripped. Among the searchers was a poor washerwoman, who, seeing the glitter of a ring on the finger of one of the corpses, turned it over, and cried, "Ah! my prince!"

All rushed to the spot. The body was examined with care. There was no doubt, it was that of Charles of Burgundy. His rash and violent disposition had at length borne the fruit that might have been anticipated, and brought him to an end which gave the highest satisfaction to many of his foes, and to none more than to Louis XI. of France. He was buried with great pomp, by the order of Duke René. In 1550 the emperor Charles V., his great grandson, had his body taken to Bruges, and placed on the tomb the following inscription:

"Here lieth the most high, mighty, and magnanimous prince, Charles, Duke of Burgundy, ... the which, being mightily endowed with strength, firmness, and magnanimity, prospered awhile in high enterprises, battles, and victories, as well at Montlhéry, in Normandy, in Artois, and in Liége, as elsewhere, until fortune, turning her back on him, thus crushed him before Nancy."

To-day it might be written on his tomb, "His was a fitting end to a violent, lawless, and blood-thirsty career."