The Guns of Burgundy

Mons Meg

In Edinburgh Castle sits one of the world’s best examples of a white elephant. It is a giant bombard known affectionately as Mons Meg, and was given to King James II of Scotland by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, in 1457. The expression `white elephant’ is apt, because it derives from the presentation of these rare and valuable creatures by kings of Siam to visiting dignitaries. As well as being uncommon and precious, the beasts were also exceedingly expensive to keep, and were therefore not entirely welcome as diplomatic gifts. Mons Meg was not only elephantine in size but it was also difficult to transport and slow to fire, and almost obsolete by the time Philip the Good gave it away. In its way, Mons Meg makes a strange comment on the notion of a military revolution. Damage to walls during the recent sieges of Constantinople and Belgrade had demonstrated the power of huge bombards. Yet Philip the Good was so aware of their shortcomings compared to lighter bronze guns that he could afford to give away what appeared to be the most formidable artillery piece in his collection. But Mons Meg is no less telling as a symbol of the sad fate of the dukes of Burgundy, because artillery was not the only field in which the Burgundian rulers showed unusual foresight. We can also discern in the armies of Philip the Good and his successor Charles the Bold the first stirrings of a military revolution in the form of infantry organisation, uniforms and the combination of troops. One might therefore have expected that such developments would have brought about the Burgundian domination of Europe. Yet this did not happen, and the supposedly modern Burgundian army was to find itself being defeated time and again by a mode of warfare that looked comparatively primitive, until Burgundian power disappeared for ever in 1477 at the hands of what appeared to be squads of simple infantrymen.

The Burgundian dukes had always been at the forefront of developments in gunpowder weapons. Froissart credits Philip the Bold, who reigned from 1363 to 1404, with the first successful siege using cannon, at Odruik in 1377, and his descendants were to follow eagerly in his footsteps – an achievement that was partly explained by their continued enmity against the kings of France. By 1453 the royal artillery train, associated in particular with the Bureau brothers, had been instrumental in the expulsion of English armies from France at the end of the Hundred Years War, and developments in technology were carefully noted and jealously guarded. The Burgundians also had the advantage of controlling some well-established centres of metal-working such as Liege. John the Fearless, who reigned from 1404 to 1419, may have had as many as four thousand hand guns in his arsenal. As for larger weapons, when Charles the Bold laid siege to Dinant in 1466 the town capitulated after only a week’s bombardment, in spite of having resisted seventeen previous siege attempts mounted without the aid of artillery. But even this was no easy victory, because as many as 502 large and 1,200 small cannonballs were fired during this short space of time, and Charles’s frustration was taken out on the citizens whom he tied together in pairs and threw into the river. Artillery warfare required both patience and enormous financial resources.

The Burgundian adoption and appreciation of artillery technology was in marked contrast to the attitude of many of their contemporaries. A certain `Lord of Cordes’, besieging Beauvais in 1472, had only two cannons, which were fired twice during the entire operation, and in 1453 the entire army of Ghent had fled when one of their artillerymen accidentally let a spark fall into an open sack of gunpowder. Accidents apart, such battlefield use of artillery was by no means as efficient or impressive as the firing of cannon against a castle wall. At Montlhéry, for example, the Burgundian cannon were well represented, but only managed to fire ten salvoes at the French during the battle, and at Brusthem trees and hedges impeded their lines of fire.

By the last quarter of the fifteenth century the Burgundians had realised that a number of smaller bronze guns could be more effective in a siege than one or two huge bombards. One vital consideration was transport. The early bombards were arduously loaded on to wagons and then equally as laboriously taken off and prepared for firing – the Ottoman monsters at Constantinople being a good example. Lighter guns could also be designed to sit on permanent carriages, and the model designed in Burgundy was to become the prototype for all later European gun carriages. But even this innovation does not imply any great speeding up of the artillery process on the battlefield. At the Siege of Neuss in 1475 the Burgundians were able to ford the Rhine with their heavy guns while under full view of the enemy, because the emperor’s guns were facing away from the river and it would have taken too long to turn them round.

As for Mons Meg, the famous gun was completed in 1449 and at birth weighed in at 15,366 pounds, with a length of fifteen feet and a calibre of eighteen inches. She arrived in Scotland in 1457 and may have been present at the fateful Siege of Roxburgh in 1460, when a gun exploded while being fired and killed King James II. Her awkwardness notwithstanding, the Scots continued to use Mons Meg for many years to come, and the gaping hole in one wall of Norham Castle on the River Tweed bears testimony to how effective she was in 1497. But when the Scots invaded England for the disastrous Flodden campaign in 1513, Mons Meg was not taken along. She ended her active days firing royal salutes, the last of which, in 1680, blew a hole in her barrel. Meanwhile, the Burgundians had not only moved on in terms of artillery development but, against all expectations, had managed to move off the political stage completely. Long before the apparently obsolete Mons Meg had left active service in Scotland, the supposedly modern dukes of Burgundy had disappeared into history, having met with a catastrophe in 1476 against an army that artillery technology had been so far unable to challenge on equal terms.

The Rise of the Swiss

The memories of 1476 and the dramatic military events that surrounded that year are still cherished in Switzerland, whose soldiers brought about the unexpected Burgundian humiliation. A short poem, once taught to every Swiss schoolchild, sums up neatly the events that culminated during the first few days of 1477:

Karl der Kühne verlor

bei Grandson das Gut,

bei Mürten den Mut,

bei Nancy das Blut.

 

Charles the Bold lost

at Grandson his treasure,

at Mürten his courage,

at Nancy his life.

Charles the Bold was the fourth, and last, Duke of Burgundy. He was born in 1433 in Dijon, the capital of the original duchy, which by Charles’s accession in 1467 had spread northwards in an irregular patchwork to encompass the Low Countries, Brabant and Flanders. Charles had been the loyal supporter of his father during the discussions and plans on first saving Constantinople and then recapturing it. He was also fully in tune with the Burgundian enthusiasm for artillery, and knew how to use his weapons to good effect. During the Siege of Neuss in 1475 a chronicler noted how `it was pitiful how culverins were fired at (the people) thicker than rain’. Success attended his efforts, and Charles captured Luxembourg and Lorraine during the first few years of his reign.

But from 1469 onwards Burgundian power had also become a threat to the Swiss. These were the days when the word `Swiss’ was just coming into use to describe the loose confederation that dated from the end of the thirteenth century, when the three original canton members of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden had created a nucleus. Of the three, the Schwyz attained a particular reputation, so their name was adopted by the whole confederation after their humble spearmen had defeated an army of mounted knights at Morgarten in 1315. By 1469 the Swiss confederacy was becoming aggressive and dynamic. It desired complete independence from the Holy Roman Empire, and was much given to raiding. The canton of Bern now led the Swiss federation, which had its eye on expansion into the Burgundian territories towards the north and the west.

The principal weapon used by the Swiss in the early days was the halberd – a heavy, pointed axe mounted on a long shaft that combined the functions of battle axe, cutting weapon and hook. It was deadly when it met its target but was slow and ponderous to deliver, so when the predominantly infantry-based army of the Swiss confederacy began to expand out of its own valleys into areas where cavalry could operate a change in weaponry was required. As a result, one particular weapon came into its own: the pike. This weapon was probably first introduced from Italy, but by the time of an expedition from Lucerne in 1425 it was recorded that 40 per cent of the army of the Swiss confederacy were armed with pikes.

The Swiss pike was wielded by the most experienced troops in the army: men who could be trusted to co-operate with each other and who would hold firm when mounted knights approached. These men sheltered other troops, such as crossbowmen, within the giant hedgehog that they created. The most heavily armoured pikemen formed the front line, the butts of their weapons were grounded to take the shock of a charge, and their usual targets were the knights’ horses.

By using pikes in this way the Swiss soon achieved a formidable reputation for breaking cavalry and humiliating the élite mounted knights. The Swiss secret was unity and discipline. A single pikeman, who wore little armour and carried a clumsy weapon, was almost defenceless, so the Swiss never fought as individuals but instead as an organised and self-supporting body of men who made up a unit that acquired a life of its own. Contemporaries referred to the silent and eerie way by which a Swiss pike square seemed to ooze across a battlefield. Deep inside the square were other men armed with the old-fashioned halberds. They caused most of the wounds when riders were unseated or the square entered into a situation of melée. At the right moment the pikemen’s ranks would open, letting the halberdiers through as a second wave – and none of them took prisoners.

In April 1474 Alsace revolted against Burgundian domination and its inhabitants executed their hated overlord Pierre Hagenbach. The Swiss were heavily involved in this development, so a military confrontation between them and Charles the Bold could not be long in coming. When, in the following year, Charles was heavily occupied in several areas of his territory simultaneously the Swiss initiated the long-expected military collision, but it was not until the Swiss reached Estavayer on Lake Neuchatel that there was any serious resistance. Fortunately, for the besiegers, many of Estavayer’s citizens had decided to flee by climbing down ropes that they had hung from the town walls, and had very obligingly left these escape ropes in place. With their help the Swiss entered the town and a massacre ensued – the first of many such episodes in the Swiss-Burgundian conflict. Estavayer was also looted systematically, including every piece of equipment used in its cloth-making industry. Such behaviour was by no means uncommon in fifteenth century warfare, but the `rape’ of Estavayer was so extreme that it even provoked a reprimand from the authorities at Bern, who criticised their own army for carrying out atrocities that `might move God and the saints against us in vengeance’. It was a strangely prophetic remark, save that the role of the Almighty was to be taken by the very earthly Duke of Burgundy.

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