Battle of Nancy, January 5, 1477

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800px-MULO-Charles_the_Bold_corpse Wherein Charles the Bold loses his head... During the mid-fifteenth century, one man typified the “warrior-king” ideal to which many of the crowned heads of Europe aspired but few achieved. That man was Charles, Duke of Burgundy, often called “Charles the Bold.” Born in 1433, he was well connected to both the king of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. Burgundy was a fairly independent entity in eastern France, and had even allied with England – France’s enemy – during the Hundred Years War. Burgundy had the reputation as one of the most extravagant courts in Europe. From the time he took over the rule of Burgundy from his father (1465), Charles demonstrated a marked aptitude for military administration and political machinations. Using his intelligence, drive and a great deal of his duchy’s treasury, Charles built an army that was the envy of all Europe. Besides using the usual mediaeval recruiting techniques that were normal for the time, he also instilled in his soldiers a rigid discipline. Further, Charles supplemented his forces with well-paid foreign mercenaries, including English bowmen, Italian cavalry and German swordsmen, among others. He also developed an extensive artillery park that rivaled many other nations. Through diplomacy, marriages and conquest, he built a mini-empire that included much of what is today eastern and northeastern France, as well as Luxembourg, Belgium, and portions of the Netherlands and Germany. However, Charles also displayed a marked mean streak. In 1465, while Charles was warring with France, the town of Dinant (in modern-day southern Belgium) received a rumor that Charles had been killed in battle. In celebration the people of Dinant hanged him in effigy and chanted that he was a bastard. A year later, Charles retaliated, marched into the town, sacked it thoroughly and killed every inhabitant. Two years later, while negotiating a treaty with the Louis XI, King of France, Duke Charles received word that the city of Liege had revolted against his rule. Charles quelled the revolt – with the help of French troops – and then massacred the rebels. In 1471, he invaded France and marched as far as the suburbs of Paris. However, the French army would not meet him in the open field. Enraged, Charles marched his army back to Burgundy, burning French towns, cities and castles on the way. For these acts and others, the French gave Charles the nom de guerre “Charles the Terrible.” However, in 1474 his many enemies, fomented by the King Louis of France, finally united to put the mad dog down once and for all. The Austrians, the Swiss and the Duke of Lorraine all attacked various portions of his holdings. Duke Charles put his army in the field, at first holding his enemies at bay through the end of 1475. With the dawn of the year 1476, Charles’ luck began to run out. In March, while besieging the Swiss town of Grandson, he was attacked and defeated by a Swiss army. He left behind a large amount of booty (including his silver bathtub) and the majority of his artillery. Charles reformed his army and artillery park, and besieged the Swiss town of Murten in June. A Swiss army attacked and routed Charles’ forces, killing half of his men. Determined to press the fight to the Duke of Lorraine, Charles reformed his army (now numbering only 4000-8000 men and about 30 pieces of artillery) and in December, 1476 besieged Nancy, the capital of Lorraine. The Duke of Lorraine marched his army – a force numbering 9000 infantry and some 3000 cavalry, with 10,000 Swiss mercenary pikemen and halberdiers – to raise the siege. Marching through the snow-covered hills and a driving snow storm, the Swiss-Lorrainer force drew near Charles’ siege lines on the morning of January 5, 1477. Charles received word of the approach of his enemy, and hastily drew up his battle plan. He knew that the relieving force had to march through a particular valley to approach his camp. He arranged his artillery at the top of a slope, with his infantry (mainly pike units with some dismounted heavy cavalrymen and their somewhat more lightly armored followers) in a hollow square at the foot of the slope. On each flank he placed his mounted cavalry and units of swordsmen. The Swiss-Lorrainer scouts saw that a frontal assault on Duke Charles’ positions would be suicidal. Therefore, the allies executed a perilous march through the snowy hills around the flank of the Burgundian position and would attempt to attack its rear. The vanguard of the allied force – the Swiss soldiers and 2000 cavalry – would attack the Burgundian left flank. The main blow would come from the allied center, which consisted of the bulk of the Lorrainer infantry and about 1200 cavalry. The center would then attack the rear of Charles’ position. About 800 handgunners were held in reserve by the allies. After a 2-hour march, the allied center emerged from the woods slightly to the rear of the Burgundian position, formed into a wedge and began to advance on the Burgundian lines. Then, the Swiss vanguard, seeing their allies advancing, blew their alpenhorns three times to signal the rest of the army, and charged into the Burgundian right. Some of the Burgundian artillery managed to retrain their guns to fire on the advancing Swiss, but they could not elevate their pieces enough to matter. The one volley they got off killed only 2 men. Burgundian cavalry on the right was sent to help out the left flank and managed to chase off the allied cavalry, but the Swiss wedge slammed into the Burgundian square with devastating results. Charles tried to juggle his forces to save his right flank, but the sheer weight of numbers was against him (many of his units were at 50% strength or less). The Burgundian forces began to melt away despite Duke Charles’ efforts to stop them. Finally, a unit of Swiss surrounded his small band of personal followers. A halberdier landed a solid hit to Charles’ helmet, cleaving his head in two. His fall signaled the rout. No official casualty figures are given for either side, but it is assumed that the Burgundian force was a total loss. Three days after the fight, Charles’ body was found on the battlefield by his personal physician. It was stripped of all accoutrement, had several broken pikes protruding from the stomach and groin, and the face had been horribly mauled by wild animals. His doctor only managed to identify him by the long fingernails and previous battle scars on his body…
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