Battle of Grandson: Swiss Army Defeats Burgundians under Charles the Bold

 
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Battle of Grandson: Swiss Army Defeats Burgundians under Charles the Bold

"Battle of Grandson" by Diebold Schilling the Younger (c. 1515)
From the Swiss illustrated Chronicles of Luzerners
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: March 2, 1476

Today's mini-history lesson involves a fight between a duke of Burgundy variously called "bold" or "rash" and the growing power of the Swiss Confederation. [I have written on these foes in a previous column. If interested, see my post from January of 2010: Battle of Nancy 1477.]

Background

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 an independent entity within France, and had even allied with England (France's enemy) during the Hundred Years War. During the reign of Charles's father, 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 in 1467, Charles demonstrated a marked aptitude for military administration and political machinations. Using his intelligence, personal drive, and a great deal of his duchy's treasury, Charles built an army that was the envy of all Europe. Using the usual mediaeval recruiting techniques that were normal for the time, he also instilled in his soldiers a rigid discipline. In addition, Charles supplemented his forces with well-paid foreign mercenaries, including English bowmen, Italian heavy cavalry and German swordsmen, among others. He also developed an extensive artillery park that rivaled or even exceeded those of many other nations. Through diplomacy 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.

Cropped image of Charles the Bold by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1460); Oil on oak, currently at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany
Cropped image of Charles the Bold by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1460)
Oil on oak, currently at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Germany

In 1474, Duke Charles bit off more than he could chew. He simultaneously got into difficulties with the French kingdom, the Swiss Confederation, and the Duke of Lorraine. The three antagonists banded together and declared war on Charles. The Burgundian forces were not universally successful in the first two years of the war.

However, in February of 1476 Charles besieged the castle of Grandson, which had been captured by the Swiss the previous year from the Duke of Savoy, one of Burgundy's few allies. Located on the lake of Neuchâtel, Charles brought his extensive artillery park to bear on the medieval castle. Realizing the effectiveness of the Burgundian guns, the Swiss defenders began to ponder whether to fight or surrender.

[A few years earlier, Charles demonstrated how he would react if angered. In 1465, the town of Dinant – in modern-day Belgium – received a false report that Charles had died. The populace celebrated by burning the duke in effigy and chanting disparaging remarks about his legitimacy and his mother. The next year, Charles brought his army to the town, sacked and burned it, and slaughtered the entire population.]

Word of the siege reached the nearby Swiss cantons, and a relief army was being raised. A boat approached the garrison with the news that an army was coming to its relief, but was unable to approach the fortress closely for fear that it would be hit by Burgundian cannon fire. The men in the boat gestured to the defenders in the fortress to inform them that help was on the way, but their gestures were misunderstood, and the garrison decided to surrender.

Hoping for clemency from the Duke of Burgundy, the Swiss defenders were badly disappointed. Charles ordered the entire garrison – 412 men altogether – to be hanged or thrown into the nearby lake. This act was calculated to dishearten the Swiss nation.

Execution of the Swiss garrison of Grandson, February 28, 1476; [Note hanged men in trees, drowning men in lake]; Engraving by Johannes Stumpf (c. 1548)
Execution of the Swiss garrison of Grandson, February 28, 1476
[Note hanged men in trees, drowning men in lake]
Engraving by Johannes Stumpf (c. 1548)

Prelude to the Battle

The Swiss relief force began marching along the shore of Lake Neuchâtel, hoping to raise the siege of Grandson castle before its defenders surrendered. [It is unknown whether the army knew about the fate of their countrymen or not.] Burgundian scouts learned of the approach of the Swiss army, and Duke Charles ordered his army to march to intercept it. They arrived at the small town of Concise on March 1, and the Burgundians established a fortified position to meet the Swiss attackers.

Modern-day view of the Grandson battlefield; Swiss pike square formed up in center of this photo; [Image courtesy of http://home.eckerd.edu]
Modern-day view of the Grandson battlefield
Swiss pike square formed up in center of this photo
[Image courtesy of http://home.eckerd.edu]

The immediate area of the battle was hilly and heavily forested, but there was a fairly flat plain northeast of Concise which Duke Charles selected as his battlesite. [That area today has changed little, and the plain – perhaps as it was in 1476 – has cropfields and vineyards.]

Burgundian Army

The army of Charles of Burgundy has been estimated at containing between 12,000 and 18,000 men. It included all the parts of his armed forces: Burgundian and French gendarmes (knights), who could also dismount and fight on foot; Dutch and Flemish pikemen; mounted Italian crossbowmen and English longbowmen; German handgunners; and nearly 200 pieces of artillery of various sizes and calibers.

Surviving Burgundian cannon, on display at Grandson castle, Switzerland; [Image courtesy of http://home.eckerd.edu]
Surviving Burgundian cannon, on display at Grandson castle, Switzerland
[Image courtesy of http://home.eckerd.edu]

Swiss Confederate Army

In 1476, the Swiss Confederacy consisted of ten cantons (districts). The relieving army was organized primarily from the cantons of Berne (the slaughtered defenders of Grandson castle were Bernese), Fribourg, Lucerne, Solothurn, and Zurich. This army consisted of some 20,000 men. The vast majority were pikemen, with halberdiers also mixed in. It also included a small number of crossbowmen and handgunners, who usually acted as skirmishers. Some chronicles say that the Swiss also brought along several pieces of artillery (though not as many as the Burgundians).

Block of Swiss pikemen [image courtesy of http://homepage.ntlworld.com/steveandclare]
Block of Swiss pikemen [image courtesy of http://homepage.ntlworld.com/steveandclare]

Battle of Grandson

At dawn on the morning of March 2, the Swiss troops were awakened, at a quick breakfast, and began to march on Grandson. The Swiss relief force divided into two divisions, with each division marching along one of the two main roads that cut through the forests of the area. One division – which initially engaged the Burgundian army – contained about 10,000 men, mostly from Berne, Lucerne, and Zurich. This group followed a road which paralleled the shore of Lake Neuchâtel. The second division, consisting of the remainder of the relief force, followed a second road that was about a mile to the west of the lakeside road and cut through the forests following a high ridge.

A Burgundian foraging party met the advance guard of the first Swiss division, and returned to inform Duke Charles of the enemy's approach. Charles the Bold quickly made his troop dispositions, dividing his army into three divisions: infantry and artillery in the center, and cavalry on each wing.

As the Swiss marched out of the woods and onto the plain – which is described as being about a mile wide – they formed into a single large block, 100 men wide. The center of the phalanx consisted of halberdiers, surrounded by eight ranks of pikemen. Arrayed to their front was a line of about 300 skirmishers armed with crossbows and handgunners. To the left rear of the Swiss pike block they set up their few cannon. At about 11:00 am, their deployment complete, the Swiss began slowly marching toward the Burgundian line.

Swiss advance to the Grandson battle, March 2, 1476; Map from Geiger, B. Les Guerres de Bourgogne, 3rd edition, Ecole militaire superieur, 1999; [Map courtesy of http://home.eckerd.edu]
Swiss advance to the Grandson battle, March 2, 1476
Map from Geiger, B. Les Guerres de Bourgogne, 3rd edition, Ecole militaire superieur, 1999
[Map courtesy of http://home.eckerd.edu]

Charles thought that the Swiss division to his front was the entire enemy army. He ordered his artillery, crossbowmen, and handgunners to fire on the Swiss phalanx, while his right flank horsemen were ordered to attack the flanks of the Swiss formation. The Burgundian artillery, just from the sheer volume of their cannonade, caused a large number of Swiss casualties. This did not, however, slow down the Swiss advance, as they simply reformed and continued forward. As the Burgundian cavalry charged the surging enemy formation, the Swiss skirmishers and artillery caused a number of casualties among the charging horsemen.

Once the Burgundian cavalry reached the Swiss line, they were confronted by a deadly hedgehog steel pike points. The cavalry charge paused, as horses will not charge onto a thick formation of pointy things. As the Burgundian knights tried to bring their own lances into play, they were attacked by a dozen or more pikes, and probably a few halberdiers to boot. The initial cavalry charge foundered, and was thrown back.

Watching the failure of his first attack, Duke Charles formed his personal bodyguards and charged the Swiss pike block himself, hoping to inspire his army. Unfortunately for him, his valor went for naught. He ordered several more attacks on the Swiss phalanx, without much success. With the majority of the Burgundian attacks falling on the left and front of the Swiss pike block, Charles ordered the horsemen on his left wing to attempt a flanking attack on the Swiss right, which was protected by a thick copse of trees. This attack had very tough going, though did manage to attack the right rear corner of the Swiss formation, but without great success.

"Escape of Charles the Bold" by Eugène Burnand (1894)
"Escape of Charles the Bold" by Eugène Burnand (1894)

After several hours of these fruitless attacks, Charles decided on a change of tactics. He gave orders for his cavalry to pull back and allow the Burgundian artillery to bombard the advancing Swiss into submission. However, just as the Burgundian horsemen began to pull back, the second division of the Swiss army -- which had taken the "high road" – emerged from the heavily forest to the right of the initial Swiss pike block. The appearance of this second Swiss force panicked the Burgundian infantry and artillery. Seeing their horsemen apparently retreating in rout, Charles's entire army broke and ran, with both Swiss divisions in hot pursuit.

Duke Charles, seeing his army disintegrating, rode among his soldiers trying to rally them. He also applied the flat of his sword to many a man, but his efforts were to no avail. With the Swiss closing in, the Duke's bodyguard urged him to flee. With sunset approaching, Charles fled the field, and headed west.

Aftermath

Despite nearly 35,000 to 38,000 men involved, the casualties were surprisingly low. Swiss casualties were calculated at about 200 dead, with Burgundian dead figured at between 300 and 1000. However, the greatest loss to Charles was his extensive artillery park. Amazingly, when he met the Swiss in battle three months later, he had replaced nearly all of his cannon.

Swiss troops pillaging Burgundian camp after battle of Grandson; Image from Die Berner Chronik by Diebold Schilling the Elder (c. 1483)
Swiss troops pillaging Burgundian camp after battle of Grandson
Image from Die Berner Chronik by Diebold Schilling the Elder (c. 1483)

Footnote #1: At insignificant cost to themselves, the Swiss had humiliated the greatest duke in Europe, defeated one of the most feared armies, and taken a most impressive amount of treasure. The booty Charles carried with him was immense, and included jewelry, silver and gold plate, tapestries and much of Charles' artillery.

Footnote #2: Charles the Bold had hoped to demoralize the Swiss by his slaughter of the garrison of Grandson. He badly miscalculated his enemy's resolve. At the battle of Morat in June of 1476, the Swiss virtually annihilated the Burgundian army.

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Comments

I am trying to identify a flag carried by the Swiss Confederacy at the Battle of Grandson, March 1476. The flag appears to be red with a large tree in the centre. Do you know to what flag I am making reference?

I am trying to identify a flag carried by the Swiss Confederacy at the Battle of Grandson, March 1476. The flag appears to be red with a large tree in the centre. Do you know to what flag I am making reference?

Mr. Anderson: I know the flag to which you are referring. In the painting (?) by Diebold Schilling, it is on the left-hand half, in the lower part, near the center. You are correct; it does look like a large tree.

Now the bad news: I have searched a number of websites, and I cannot find any illustration of that flag, or whether it represents a particular canton. It could (I say *could*) represent some officer's personal banner (like King Harold Godwinson's "Fighting Man" at the Battle of Hastings). Other than that possibility, I'm not really sure. Sorry I couldn't be more helpful...

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