Battle of Morat: Swiss Defeat Charles the Bold and Burgundians

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Battle of Morat: Swiss Defeat Charles the Bold and Burgundians

"Battle of Morat" by Louis Braun, 1893
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 22, 1476

For today's Military History Lecture, I present one of the battles between the Burgundians and the Swiss during the Burgundian Wars (1474-1477). Combined with the battles of Grandson (March, 1476) and Nancy (January, 1477), this battle helped establish the late medieval Swiss as unparalleled infantrymen. Their stunning victories propelled the Swiss into the annals of history as doughty fighters and the perfect mercenaries.

Background: Charles "the Bold," Duke of Burgundy

Duke Charles of Burgundy (reigned 1465-1477); Painting by Roger van der Weyden
Duke Charles of Burgundy (reigned 1465-1477)
Painting by Roger van der Weyden

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 medieval 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 longbowmen, Italian cavalry and German swordsmen, among others. He also developed an extensive artillery park that rivaled or even surpassed 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, Germany and even Italy.

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 townspeople 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 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 refused to 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." Another translation came out as "Charles the Reckless."

However, in 1474 his many enemies, fomented by 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.

Prelude to the Battle

Duke Charles had formed his army and was marching to the assistance of one of his allies, the Archbishop of Cologne. On the way the Burgundians passed by the city of Neuss, which was opposed to the new Archbishop. Rather than leave a hostile strongpoint in his rear, Charles laid siege to Neuss. After nearly a year, the siege was a failure. Charles and his Burgundians pulled up stakes and continued on its way.

The siege of Grandson, and the execution of the garrison, by Christoph Froschauer; Note Swiss soldiers drowning in foreground, others hung from trees in the background
The siege of Grandson, and the execution of the garrison, by Christoph Froschauer
Note Swiss soldiers drowning in foreground, others hung from trees in the background

In February of 1476, the Burgundians besieged the town of Grandson, which the Swiss had recently captured. A Swiss relief army was en route, but the garrison surrendered to Charles on February 28. One historian claims the garrison surrendered with the expectation that Duke Charles would be merciful. However, Charles ordered the entire garrison either hanged or drowned in a nearby lake. [The whole execution process took over four hours.]

Three days later, the relieving Swiss army appeared near Grandson. The Burgundians attacked the Swiss vanguard, believing it to be the entire relief force. However, the right and left wings of the Swiss army appeared (both of these wings were larger than the vanguard), and the Burgundian army panicked and fled the field in a rout. The Swiss captured 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. [Being hard-working frugal folk, the Swiss initially had no idea of the value of most of the loot.]

Duke Charles had hoped to thoroughly demoralize the Swiss army; unfortunately for him, his execution of the Grandson garrison had the opposite effect.

Stung by his defeat by the Swiss, Charles reorganized his disordered but otherwise mainly intact army at nearby Lausanne. By the end of May he once again felt ready to march against his enemies to recover his territories. His first objective was the strategic lakeside town of Morat, set on the eastern shore of Lake Morat. On June 11, 1476, the Burgundians commenced the siege of the well-prepared town, whose forces were commanded by the Bernese general Adrien von Bubenberg. An initial assault was repulsed by a heavy barrage of fire from light guns mounted on the town walls (the ordnance was taken from the Burgundian army after the battle of Grandson). But two great bombards deployed by the Burgundians were slowly reducing the walls to rubble.

After several days of bombardment, Charles sent his infantry into the breaches in the town walls, but the garrison resisted the attempt and threw their enemies back with severe casualties. In the meantime, Charles had been kept reasonably well informed of the approach of the Swiss relief army, though he did nothing to hinder their approach. This does not mean that he was unprepared for the Swiss arrival; indeed in typical fashion Charles had prepared an elaborate plan to meet the enemy on ground of his choosing, some 1.2 miles from Morat, dominating their anticipated line of approach.

Example of a mid-fifteenth century bombard, 2.6 feet in length, firing a 13.2 lb. stone cannonball; On display at the Musee de l'Armee, Metz, France
Example of a mid-fifteenth century bombard, 2.6 feet in length, firing a 13.2 lb. stone cannonball
On display at the Musee de l'Armee, Metz, France

The terrain around Morat is quite hilly and Duke Charles had chosen to rest his left flank artillery on a steeply sloped gorge cut by the Burggraben stream. In the center, behind an elaborate ditch and palisade entrenchment known as the Grünhag, stood the bulk of Charles' infantry and artillery that were not engaged in besieging Morat itself. These were to fight the Swiss pike and halberd blocks, bringing them to a halt, while on the far right the massed Burgundian gendarmes ("knights in shining armor") would then flank the frontally engaged Swiss, thus creating a killing ground from which there was no escape.

It was a good plan; too bad the Swiss didn't cooperate.

Swiss Army

The Swiss Confederation army – with a little help from the Duke of Lorraine – totaled some 25,000 soldiers. The bulk of the army comprised pikemen and halberdiers, handgunners, some archers or crossbowmen, and between 1200-2000 heavy cavalry, courtesy of their allies Duke Rene II of Lorraine and Duke Sigismund of Austria-Tyrol, two of Charles of Burgundy's implacable foes.

The Swiss pikemen were not yet professional soldiers (as were about 30 percent of the Burgundian army), but they were carefully drilled, and were capable of responding to changing conditions on the battlefield. The use of the halberd was an innovation that set the Swiss apart from other nations. Within a typical Swiss pike block, the first 4 or 5 rows of pikemen were backed up by halberdiers, who reacted quickly any time the pikemen were severely threatened. In addition, light infantry skirmishers would leave the interior of the pike block to harass enemy formations.

Burgundian Army

The Duke of Burgundy's army was a hodgepodge of nationalities and troop types, about 12,000 to 20,000 soldiers. These included Burgundian troops of Charles's personal retinue, retinues of his vassals, Milanese cavalry, German landsknechts, English mounted longbowmen, and a variety of crossbowmen, hand gunners, and trained artillerists. Since the loss of his artillery train at Grandson, Charles had reformed his artillery arm with at least 200 cannon of various sizes and calibers. At least a third of the Burgundian army was composed of mercenaries.

Battle of Morat

Map of battle of Morat, June 22, 1476; Image courtesy of
Map of battle of Morat, June 22, 1476
Image courtesy of

Duke Charles expected the Swiss forces to attack on Friday, June 21. He arranged his army and prepared for the coming assault. However, the Swiss commanders decided to wait an additional day for the troops from Zürich. The Swiss army had marched through the day, and made camp in the Galmwald, a thick, massive forest to the east of the Burgundian position. Their commanders decided to wait out the heavy rainstorm that was occurring, hoping that a contingent of troops from Bern would catch up with them. After about six hours of waiting Charles ordered his troops to stand down and return to camp

The next day, the Burgundian forces were once more ordered into line of battle. The rainstorm, which had begun the previous day lasted most of the morning, did not help the Burgundian morale. However, by mid-morning no enemy appeared. Charles began to think that the Swiss were not coming. As a result, he again ordered his men to stand down. But this time, possibly to improve his army's morale, he ordered the paymasters to begin distributing the men's pay. The Burgundian soldiers scattered to their tents, counting their pay (probably organizing some gambling as well), eating their midday meal, and trying to keep out of the rain. By noon time, the only Burgundian troops deployed for battle were 2000 light infantrymen – longbowmen, arquebusiers, and crossbowmen – and artillerymen occupied the Grünhag.Stationed nearby in support were 1200 heavy cavalrymen.

The skeleton force that remained at the Grünhag were surprised when the Swiss army, in battle order, emerged from the woods less than 1,100 yds. from their lines. The Swiss vanguard of some 6,000 skirmishers and all the cavalry present erupted out of Birchenwald Woods to the east of Morat, exactly where Charles had predicted they would appear.

Behind the vanguard came the main body of pike, the gewalthut (center). This was some 10,000 to 12,000 strong and was formed in a huge wedge with the cantonial standards in the center, flanked by halberdiers and an outer ring of pikemen. The rearguard of 6,000 to 8,000 more closely packed pike and halberdiers followed the gewalthut towards the now sparsely manned Grünhag.

As the Swiss charged downhill into the Burgundian position the artillery managed to fire a few salvoes, killing or maiming several hundred of the overeager Lorrainers. Against the odds the defenders in the Grünhag held the Swiss for some time before a contingent of Swiss found a way through the left flank of the defenses near the Burggraben and turned the whole position. The Swiss formed up quickly beyond it and advanced towards Morat and the besieger's camp.

Battle of Murten [Morat], part of a woodcut by Heinrich Vogtherr der Altere (1547); From a chronicle by Johannes Stumpf
"Battle of Murten [Morat], part of a woodcut by Heinrich Vogtherr der Altere (1547)
From a chronicle by Johannes Stumpf

In the Burgundian camp, there was confusion after the Swiss were sighted, as men rushed to re-form ranks and prepare for battle. In the ducal tent on top of a hill overlooking Morat, Charles was quickly armed by his retainers before rushing on horseback to try to coordinate the defense of the camp. But as fast as any unit was formed and moved forward against the Swiss, it was swept aside as various uncoordinated attacks were made against the still compact Swiss battle formations. There was some resistance from the squadrons of the ducal household who routed the Lorrainers, including Duke Rene II of Lorraine, who was saved only by the arrival of the pikes, against which the Burgundian gendarmes could only retire, unable to make any impression against them.

Charles managed to muster enough English archers to form a last line of defense before the camp, but these were routed before a bow could be bent, their commander shot by a Swiss skirmisher. Then it was every man for himself as Charles ordered the army to fall back which was interpreted as a retreat, which in turn became a rout as all organized resistance ended.

For some three miles along the lakeside many Burgundians died that day in the rout. The Italian division of some 4,000–6,000 men besieging the southern part of Morat probably suffered the worst fate: cut off by the Swiss rearguard and attacked by a sally from the town, they were hunted down along the shore and driven into the lake. As promised, no quarter was granted.

More fortunate was the Savoyard division under Jacques of Savoy, Count of Romont which was posted in the northern half of the Morat siege works. Forming up and abandoning all their baggage they retreated east round the lake and eventually made good their escape


Thanks to the Swiss refusal to take any prisoners, the Burgundian casualties are estimated at 7,000 to 10,000, many of them drowned in Lake Morat. Swiss casualties were calculated at just over 400. In addition, the Burgundian encampment was looted and ransacked. But the most important materiel that the Swiss acquired was Charles's newly-restocked artillery train.

Footnote #1: One of Duke Charles's major character flaws was that he believed himself invincible, that the series of three losses he suffered during the Burgundian Wars proved nothing. He strongly believed God was on his side, and that he would emerge victorious.

The corpse of Charles the Bold discovered after the Battle of Nancy; Painting by August Feyen-Perrin (1862); Located in the Musée lorrain, Nancy, France
The corpse of Charles the Bold discovered after the Battle of Nancy
Painting by August Feyen-Perrin (1862)
Located in the Musée lorrain, Nancy, France

Footnote #2: Duke Charles spent the remainder of 1476 reorganizing his army, seeking men and money from his vassals, and planning his next move. He decided to move against the Duke of Lorraine, for the assistance he gave the Swiss at Morat. While besieging the city of Nancy – the capital of Lorraine – in January of 1477, Duke Charles's army was attacked and defeated by a relief army. During the rout, Charles was slain while trying to rally his formations. His body was not recovered until three days later.

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