Duke of Burgundy’s Failure

The Treasures of Grandson

The Swiss advance took them as far as Morges on Lake Geneva, and the fear of sack and pillage resulted in them being paid a ransom from the cities of Lausanne and Geneva. Other Swiss operations effectively cut the Duke of Burgundy’s supply lines across the Alps, the route that was used by the Italian mercenaries whom he employed. All was not gloom, however, for Charles the Bold, because in November 1475 he captured Nancy, the capital of the duchy of Lorraine. This was an important gain for Burgundy, and encouraged Charles to make an attempt to recapture the strategic castle of Grandson, which lay near the southern tip of Lake Neuchatel and was one of the Swiss confederacy’s most important gains. Its construction dated from 1279, and the building was to be associated with various Lords of Grandson for many years. One female member of the family even made her mark on English history. This was Catherine, Countess of Salisbury, who became the mistress of Edward III after the death of her husband. It was Catherine’s garter that slipped from her leg during the famous ball, leading to the immortal comment from the king and the founding of the Order of the Garter.

Charles the Bold launched his attack on Grandson with twenty thousand men on 18 February 1476. So tight was the Burgundian control of the approaches by lake as well as by land that when a number of boats containing reinforcements made their way across Lake Neuchatel by night they could not even get close enough to Grandson to inform the garrison of their presence, in spite of desperate shouting and the vigorous waving of spears. The castle held out for ten days, but surrendered to Burgundian terms on 28 February. By this date the battlements had been blasted off by the Burgundian artillery and the garrison’s meagre rations of corn had finally run out. According to Swiss sources, false information was given to the garrison that other nearby castles had already fallen, with much slaughter, but that their own lives would be spared if they capitulated. The garrison had little choice but to comply. Because they were facing starvation and had had much of their powder supply destroyed by fire, the defenders gave in to Charles’s army. The majority of the several hundred survivors of the siege were either drowned in the lake or hanged from the walnut trees on its shore.

A Swiss relief army for Grandson had assembled at Neuchatel on 28 February, only to learn two days later that they were too late to save the castle. The force numbered about eighteen thousand men, of which the Bern contingent of seven thousand was the largest. Hearing that the Swiss were concentrated on the northern side of Lake Neuchatel, Charles the Bold led his army in that direction rather than continuing round its southern tip. A few miles along the shore from Grandson lay a small but strategic castle called Vaumarcus, which dominated the narrowest stretch of road between the lake and Mont Aubert. The Burgundian army quickly seized and garrisoned Vaumarcus, giving itself a further point of defence against any Swiss incursion. The rival armies were now only twelve miles apart.

Perhaps hoping that an attack on Vaumarchus would entice Charles to come out and meet them in battle, the Swiss army assaulted it on the night of 1 March. Whether it was intended or not, the result was a Burgundian advance. Charles the Bold established a new camp two miles from Vaumarchus at Concise, the village that was to lend its fields, if not its name, to the forthcoming Battle of Grandson. With Vaumarchus safely masked, the vanguard of the Swiss army advanced on Concise by two routes: the high road through the woods on the slopes of Mont Aubert, and the road along the side of the lake.

Historians still dispute whether this initial advance was a tactical move or just the wayward forward progress of certain army units. Whatever the intention, there was a brief clash with Burgundian scouts, and late in the morning the Swiss vanguard emerged from the forest to see the entire Burgundian army advancing on the slopes and plain below. Keeping to the high ground, the Swiss sent urgent messages to the rear, and waited for the arrival of the main body.

Meanwhile the Burgundians, who were as yet oblivious of the nearness of the Swiss, were also on the move, in their case by three columns – one along the shore, another across the plain and a third through the edge of the woods – when the Swiss vanguard suddenly came into view. Charles ordered a limited tactical withdrawal, in the hope of replying with an encircling movement, and then launched a series of unsuccessful attacks, including at least one cavalry charge that was repelled by the phalanx of pikemen.

How was Charles to break the formation and the resolve of the formidable hedgehog of pikes with its core of halberdiers? One answer that lay in his hands was the powerful Burgundian artillery arm. With long bronze barrels that offered a considerable accuracy of fire, and mounted on carriages with a sophisticated mechanism for changing the gun’s elevation, these cannon were capable of a range of eight hundred yards. There were, however, problems about bringing them into action at Grandson: the Swiss were still on the slopes above the Burgundians, which made elevation a problem, and Charles’s own army was constantly engaging the enemy, thus denying the Burgundian gunners a clear field of fire. Charles needed to pull back part of his army again. Unfortunately for him, the retiring of his front-rank troops was perceived by the rest of his army not as a further tactical withdrawal but as a retreat. Panic soon spread and the erroneous perception of a rout became a grim reality. To add to the confusion, the main body of Swiss troops had now arrived to join their comrades and announced their presence by the blowing of alpenhorns and the uttering of blood-curdling yells.

As fears grew the Burgundian army took to its heels and fled before the expected pursuit, but no pursuit occurred. Having inflicted only a few hundred casualties on Charles’s army the Swiss simply let them go – a strange decision that is totally explained by what the Swiss found in the Burgundian camp. The ostentatious Charles the Bold had been planning to set up a new fortified position, and in addition to his abandoned weapons, artillery, flags and tents the Swiss found innumerable chests packed with treasure ready for the move. No contemporary army could possibly pass it by, and the Swiss began to enjoy a frenzy of plunder among what was to prove to be one of the richest hauls of booty ever taken in battle up to that time. Tapestries, books, reliquaries, plate, jewels, diamonds, gold, not to mention Charles the Bold’s throne and his pearl-encrusted hat, were among the items grabbed, broken up, hidden inside jackets or loaded on to carts. The Swiss rule that all booty should be taken in common and then divided up was gleefully ignored in the massive act of appropriation. For the next quarter of a century this immense booty was to provide many a legal wrangle for the confederacy’s leaders, whilst continuing to provide them with a healthy bank balance.

Somehow enough members of the Swiss army managed to tear themselves away from their newly acquired wealth to cut down the bodies of their comrades that were still hanging from the walnut trees outside Grandson. Only thirty Burgundian troops still remained in the castle, and after battering the door down the Swiss calmly threw each of them to his death from the battlements. Only one aristocrat, who pleaded that he was worth ransoming, was spared from the general slaughter. The Burgundian garrison at Vaumarchus quickly learned of the disaster down the road at Concise, and managed to slip away at dead of night through the siege lines of the Swiss, whose energies were probably occupied in prising rubies out of reliquaries with their daggers.

Left of Battle of Morat [Pike & Shot Campaigns]

Left-center-back of Battle of Morat [Pike & Shot Campaigns]

Center-back-right of Battle of Morat [Pike & Shot Campaigns]

Right of Battle of Morat [Pike & Shot Campaigns]

Massacre at Mürten [Morat]

The abundance of loot prevented any immediate follow-up to the victory of Grandson, and it was the loose organisation of the Swiss Confederacy that ruled out any further strategic move to take advantage of their enviable situation. Their policy of disbanding and returning home after a victory left the initiative with the Burgundian court, where Charles the Bold displayed a remarkable capacity for recovery. On 9 May he was to be found reviewing his troops in preparation for a new campaign, although this was against the wishes of several of his counsellors. All was not well within his army either, because its heterogeneous contingents of mercenaries often quarrelled with each other. In March there had been open conflict between the English and Italian units that had resulted in many casualties on both sides. `The English are proud people without any respect,’ commented a perceptive chronicler, `and claim superiority over every nation.’ A week after Charles’s review of his troops these same English archers mutinied and surrounded his headquarters, brandishing their longbows and demanding to be paid. The duke, who spoke excellent English, persuaded them to calm down and even succeeded in getting them to kneel and ask his pardon.

The new Burgundian army that Charles assembled consisted of about twenty-two thousand men, including 2,100 heavy cavalry and 5,700 archers. He could choose two possible routes for an attack upon Bern from the direction of Lausanne. Each had in its path a fortified place; one was Fribourg and the other was Mürten (Morat). Charles chose the latter route, which would involve a siege against this little fortified town whose walls touched the shore of Lake Mürten. In spite of having lost nearly all his artillery, Charles was supremely confident. After all, the Siege of Grandson had been a resounding success – it was only the battle that he had lost.

Duke Charles arrived at his objective on 11 June and surrounded Mürten with impressive siege lines. Trenches were dug by night because of the artillery fire from within the town, and on 17 June the Burgundians commenced a bombardment from the nearby hills. From his excellent vantage point at the top of the hill called the Bois Dominigue, Charles watched with glee as huge holes began to appear in the town’s walls, but on 18 June a fierce Burgundian assault was repulsed after bloody fighting. Unlike Grandson, the town had been well prepared for a siege, both physically and psychologically. The fate of the massacred defenders of Grandson was reason enough to continue resistance, a matter of which the Burgundian besiegers reminded them in letters fired into the town attached to crossbow bolts.

It was at this point that Charles the Bold made an extraordinary strategic blunder. Instead of concentrating all his forces on taking Mürten, Charles divided his army, keeping part of it to continue the siege and sending the rest on towards Bern. Three attacks on the approaches and river crossings before Bern were re pulsed, and, worse still, encouraged the mobilisation of the other Swiss cantons, whose men were soon on their way towards Mürten.

Charles the Bold’s response was to draw up lines of battle outside Mürten on 21 June in anticipation of a Swiss attack. He chose a potentially strong position behind a green hedge, with mounted knights on his right flank, and the remaining Burgundian field artillery covering the left, where there was a gap of one hundred yards between the end of the hedge and a deep depression. When no attack came, Charles concluded that the Swiss had decided on a purely defensive operation, and relaxed his guard. Heavy rain that night and on into the next served only to convince him that he was right, but in fact the delay was simply due to the fact that the Swiss were still assembling their army. The Zürich contingent had marched ninety miles in three days, leaving their stragglers by the roadside, and arrived in Bern on the afternoon of Friday 21 June. After a few hours’ rest they continued their march overnight to go into battle on the Saturday morning, but the weather and their lack of both sleep and breakfast had left the Swiss troops tired and uncomfortable. A mounted reconnaissance force was sent on ahead to scout the Burgundian positions, while the wet and bedraggled army proceeded to move through the dense woodland, pausing only for the traditional ceremony of knighting some of the more prominent young noblemen.

In spite of reports by his own scouts, Charles the Bold still remained convinced that no attack was forthcoming. Nearly all the troops who had been lined up in battle order the day before had now been stood down. According to a reliable report from the duke’s war treasurer, at 10 a. m. on that fateful Saturday Charles became engaged in the vital task of paying his men’s wages. The picture this conjures up – of hundreds of Italian and English mercenaries jostling each other in an untidy scramble to get their hands on their pay before any Swiss attack materialised – may not be very far from the truth. In fact, the war treasurer recorded that one particular wages clerk was given a considerable sum of money just one hour before the battle began. He had loaded the cash on to his horse, which `left hastily with the others, and there has been no news of it since’.

As pay day began, the Swiss army emerged from the woods half a mile away from the Burgundian front line, which now consisted of only a handful of troops behind the long green hedge, and within twenty minutes the entire Swiss army was revealed. The attack was halted temporarily at the hedge by English archers who were supported by artillery fire from the flank. But soon this line was broken and piecemeal actions by isolated mounted units were brushed off by the Swiss pikes.

Charles, observed by an eyewitness to be `paralysed’, had only just succeeded in putting his armour on. Some of his army were even less well prepared and were slaughtered in their tents. As at Grandson, there was a panic and a rout, but unlike Grandson looting was replaced by a bloody pursuit. When Mürten opened its gates the Burgundian soldiers were hunted down like rats. Hundreds of them were driven into the lake, where they were either cut to pieces or drowned under the weight of their armour. Some hid in trees or managed to swim to freedom, a distance of two miles, but others were shot with arrows or handgun bullets as they swam across the lake. Still more were rounded up and had their throats cut as if on an slaughterhouse line. Female camp followers alone were spared, being compelled by the victors to confirm their gender by exposing their breasts or genitals to the leering soldiery.

At the Battle of Mürten the Swiss army lost only four hundred men, mostly during the initial action at the hedge. The Burgundian casualties may well have been as high as twelve thousand, many of whom were massacred in cold blood. What plunder had been to Grandson, so slaughter was to Mürten, in one of the most sanguinary battles of the fifteenth century.

Winkler, A. (2010). The Battle of Murten: The Invasion of Charles the Bold and the Survival of the Swiss States. Swiss American Historical Society Review, 46(1), 8-34

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