Swiss Heroes - George Upton

Death of Charles the Bold

Night had fallen and silence brooded over the Burgundian camp, upon which the snow was falling in heavy flakes. In the forest near the abbey a man stood leaning against a tree striving to penetrate the thick snow clouds that filled the air. "Why does not Giacomo come?" he muttered to himself in Italian. "It is too cold in this cursed country to wait long."

"You shall not have to," replied a voice near him, "for I am here already and have brought with me as much as I could carry away from my canteen. It will soon he up with them over yonder," he added, motioning toward the camp, "and methinks we shall do well to join the Swiss. Then at least there will be some hope of getting back to our own beautiful land."

The first speaker wore the uniform of a cuirassier, and was no other than the former servant in the wine shop at Treves. "I wonder," he said musingly, "how long our comrades will stand by the Duke. It is long since he gave us any pay. Our fare is wretched, and the cold unbearable to us all."

Giacomo produced some food from his bundle, and the two men walked on through the forest, eating as they went. Suddenly they paused. Was that the trampling of horses' hoofs they heard? The cuirassier laid his ear to the ground. Yes, there was no doubt a large body of horsemen was approaching.

"Can they be following us?" asked Giacomo anxiously.

"Surely not," replied his companion, "but something must be afoot. It may be a night attack on the Swiss. In any case we shall do well to conceal ourselves behind these juniper bushes."

Nearer and nearer came the horsemen, the hard-frozen ground reechoing to the heavy tread of armored steeds. Deeper into the thicket shrank the two deserters, as the clang of arms resounded so close to them they almost feared to be trampled upon. But the troop passed on.

Did you recognize any one?" asked Giacomo.

"No," replied the other, "but it seemed to me I heard the voice of our commander, Campo Basso."

"So I thought too," said the sutler. "Can it be that they are deserting? It is said the Count has been mortally offended by the Duke of Burgundy, and it is possible they are going over to the Swiss."

They said no more but followed the riders along the road to Saint Nicholas. On their arrival the next day they found the wildest excitement prevailing. The Confederates had occupied the town on the preceding day, and the Count of Campo Basso with one hundred and eighty lances had come early that morning to proffer his services to Duke Rene. The offer had been accepted, so Giacomo and his companion returned to the society of their comrades.

At daybreak on the fifth of January, 1477, the Burgundians prepared for battle, for Duke Rene and the Swiss were close at hand. As Charles the Bold was arming himself; the golden lion of Burgundy fell from his helm into the dust. "It is a sign from Heaven," he said gloomily; and so indeed it proved, for at the first onslaught of the enemy, panic seized the Burgundians and they fled in confusion, while the citizens of Nancy sallied forth to attack them in the rear.

Walter Irmy was one of the first outside the gates of the city and soon found ample opportunity to prove his valor; for the combined forces of the Swiss, with Duke Rene and the Alsatians, drove the whole of Charles's fast diminishing army back upon Nancy. Most of the faithless mercenaries followed Count Campo Basso's example; but the Burgundian nobles, who formed a large part of the army, still fought on with the courage of despair. Many a stroke did Walter parry and return ere the burghers of Nancy could gain any advantage; but at last the foe began to weaken. Smiting one of the Burgundian knights from his horse, Walter swung himself into the empty saddle from whence he could overlook the scene of conflict. The Swiss and Alsatians were now but a few hundred feet away, and the enemy took to flight, hotly pursued by the conquerors on horse and foot.

Suddenly the shout arose, "Yonder is the Duke! Stop him, stop him!" and on still faster pressed the pursuers. But Charles was better mounted than most of his foes, and soon but a handful of riders were left in pursuit of the flying Prince, whose followers had by this time dwindled to some thirty men.

"Can no one capture the Duke?" cried one of the Alsatian leaders in despair.

"I will try," said Walter; "h must reckon with me for the death of Siffrein de Baschi," and spurring to furious speed the superb animal he had just captured, he soon overtook the fugitives. Paying no heed to the others, he urged his steed close beside that of the Duke, and the next moment their swords had crossed. In the frantic flight no one thought of the Duke, and the two antagonists now found themselves on a meadow, the icy surface of which had been thawed out by the noonday sun, so that the horses' feet sank deep into the ground at every step. Charles dealt one mighty blow at his assailant, but it was his last, for the next instant the Switzer's blade had pierced his helm, and the great Duke sank lifeless to the ground. Walter had no time to rejoice over his victory, however; the Prince's followers now attacked him, and after exchanging a few blows he too fell sorely wounded.

By this time others of the pursuers had come up and a hand-to-hand conflict began, in which fifteen more of the Burgundian nobles were slain. But no one heeded the fallen, and when the survivors again took to flight the conquerors raced after, still supposing the Duke to be among them.

After sundown it grew bitter cold. Walter tried to shield himself from it, but in vain. He was too weak even to loosen a cloak from the saddle of a horse that lay beside him. Between cold and hunger and the pain of his wounds he fell into a sort of stupor. Visions of the past floated through his mind. Now he seemed to see his own father lying with his brave comrades among the ruins of the hospital at Saint Jacob; again, he was a boy at home in his own warm bed, while the mother, whom he had followed to her grave seven years before, bent over her loved one to kiss him good-night. He could see her eyes shining down upon him—but no! it was not his mother's warm breath he felt upon his cheek. He started up in terror, and the wolf whose eyes he had seen shining above him in the darkness slunk away scared. By good fortune Walter had his sword beside him.

The visions and fantasies that had haunted his brain were swept away by the frightful reality. He was lying wounded and alone amid a pile of corpses, upon which the wolves had already begun to appease their hunger. No longer conscious of pain or weakness, he sat upright and grasped the handle of his sword, firmly resolved to defend his life to the last against the horrible beasts. But the dead horses were sufficient prey for the wolves, and it was only now and then that one came to sniff at the wounds of some fallen knight. They held aloof from the young Swiss, and as the morning light dawned at last; they slunk away one after another to their lairs in the dark ravines of the mountains. Walter fell back senseless, and was still unconscious when some hours later he was lifted in strong arms and carried back within the walls of Nancy, whither he had come a few weeks previously to bring the glad tidings of relief.

It was long before the body of Charles the Bold was discovered. It had been so mutilated by the wolves that none but a page and the Duke's own physician, who had been taken prisoner, could identify it. Enveloped in a white cloth, the corpse was borne to the city on a bier by some of the nobles of Lorraine. The following day all that remained of Charles the Bold was laid upon a black velvet bed of state, ornamented with a cross of white satin and six escutcheons.

The dead man was wrapped in a white satin robe, the jewelled ducal coronet upon his head, over which a red cap had been drawn to conceal its disfigurement. The feet were encased in scarlet hose, with golden spurs. Between two heralds stood two magnificent stools, on which a consecrated cushion and a red cross were placed. Four other heralds stood with lighted torches at the corners of the bed of state. The room was hung with black, and two tapers burned on an altar before which the services for the dead were to be performed. Ranged about the walls were seats, also draped in black, for the use of Rene and the nobles of Alsace and Lorraine, who were to assist at the ceremonies.

Beside the bed, and bowed with grief, knelt Anton, a half-brother of Charles. Though reviled by the Duke as a bad and ungrateful kinsman, he now refused to be parted from the dead. His sobs, the outpouring of the grief of a brave soldier, penetrated the hearts of all who entered the room. Last came Duke Rene clad in deepest mourning, but wearing, in accordance with the old knightly custom, a long beard of spun gold, in token of victory over a princely foe who had fallen in battle. With deep emotion he grasped the hand of the dead, saying in a low voice: "God rest your soul, fair cousin! Much sorrow and trouble have you caused us, yet 'twas by no will of ours that you were brought to this."

After sprinkling the corpse with holy water he knelt before the altar, where he remained in prayer while the knights and courtiers of Burgundy and Lorraine paid the last honors to Charles the Bold.

On the twelfth of January, 1477, the last Duke of Burgundy was laid to rest in St. George's Church at Nancy, whence he was removed in 1550 by his mighty great-grandson the Emperor Charles the Fifth, who wished that the remains of his ancestor might be buried in his native town of Bruges.

Freed at last from their bitterest enemy, and crowned with victory, the Swiss returned to their homes and exchanged the implements of war for those of peace. With his youth and strength, Walter Irmy was soon restored to health and to the arms of his father, whose large business he conducted to the entire satisfaction of the worthy Councillor. Honored by his fellow-citizens and beloved by his people, he lived long and happily with his good wife, surrounded by a group of children who were the joy and delight of their grandfather.

Who knows? Perchance his spirit lingers yet about the good city of Basle, ready to prove to the enemies of his country that the victors of Granson and Murten have not perished, but still live on in the courage and valor of their descendants.