The Dukes of Burgundy, the “Great Dukes of the West”

By Geneviève Lacroix

The recomposition of Carolingian Lotharingia in the 15th century?

The most famous Valois Dukes of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold – will, bit by bit, initially without much planning, then according to a clearly defined strategy, recompose the Lotharingia of the Carolingian empire in the 15th century. However, the death of Charles the Bold without a legitimate male heir, six years after his declaration of independence, puts paid to this ambition.


Presentation of the Hainaut Chronicles to Philip the Good (Bibliothèque nationale de Belgique)

The Low Countries – a strategic issue

Dukes_of_Burgundy_Philip_the_BoldThe first “modern” Duke of Burgundy who will kick-start the demise of the Middle Ages and lay down the foundations of a real economic and cultural Renaissance in Burgundy, is Philip the Bold (Philippe le Hardi). He marries the Countess Margaret of Flanders, another vassal of the King of France.
Their two domains have no links to each other, either geographically or culturally. Be that as it may, constant journeys lead to the creation of two cultural centres, one rooted in Benedictine spirituality, vineyards and contact with the Rhône and the South, and the other accessed on the North Sea, trade with England and the world of the Hanseatic League.

Dukes_of_Burgundy_John_the_FearlessHis son, John the Fearless (Jean sans Peur), prince of France and claimant to the throne, developed his alliances around the wealthy County of Flanders, and maintained fierce rivality with his royal Valois cousins. His violent death, in an ambush in Montereau, finally made it clear to his son Philip the Good, that he would be wise to concentrate on his possessions in the Low Countries which were becoming increasingly prosperous, instead of placing his hopes on taking the throne of France by force.

In three generations, Philip the Good (Philippe le Bon) found himself at the head of a composite domain, carved out owing to inheritances, marriages and occasional purchases, which had become deeply wedged between the Kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The Burgundy of old and the Burgundian Low Countries had acquired a certain coherence through their joint cultural and economic development. In terms of exchanges and shared and exponential benefits.

Philip the Good, alliances and good business sense


Flemish Merchant’s boat from the 15th century (Bruges)

Neither king nor emperor, and increasingly “encouraged” by his “French” cousins to distance himself from Paris, Philip the Good benefited from his unique position and turned it to his advantage. By gradually distancing himself from the political and property concerns in France, he had greater liberty to form closer ties with England. This rich and dynamic kingdom was seeking links on the continent. Philip opened up the North Sea ports – in Flanders and Zeeland in particular – to English merchants. The intensity of commercial traffic expanded considerably. The Burgundian Low Countries then found themselves at the head of a dense network of commercial land, river and sea routes. In addition to foodstuffs, precious goods, ideas and artists all circulated. English wool, woven into Flemish cloth, cereals and beer, wine and luxury goods were exchanged for foodstuffs, metallurgical products, books and artwork…

Life at court

Dukes_of_Burgundy_Philip_the_GoodPhilip the Good had a flamboyant facade built on the Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy in Dijon, ducal apartments worthy of the name, a vast ceremonial hall and ducal kitchens where 30 chefs could work at one time. He recognised the value of luxury in facilitating diplomatic relations. He was a patron of artists and writers and encouraged the promotion of local merchandise, particularly wine, whose high quality added to his prestige.

It must be borne in mind that his was still an itinerant court, as indeed were all important courts at this time. The sovereign had to be seen by all, and a listener to all. He travelled from city to city with the entire court, which could include several hundred people if advisors, servants and their families, merchants and accredited craftsmen accompanied him. In each city in which he was received, the sovereign sized up the situation, listened to complaints, resolved local conflicts, generated credits, enhanced his prestige and instilled a sense of proximity.

These excursions reinforced the feeling of cohesion between his various states. They were united only insofar as they shared the same sovereign, under different statutes. However, over time, links were created, ideas shared and needs and habits took on a cloak of uniformity.


Map of the Burgundian States at the time of Charles the Bold © Marco Zanoli (Sidonius)

The personal Union

Various new seigneuries fell under the aegis of Philip the Good, creating greater ties between Burgundy and the Low Countries. He allied himself to them through marriage (he had three – successive – wives), by testament or by obtaining them through financial transactions. Not forgetting the territories he acquired through military conquest, particularly during the Hundred Years War. The duke reigned over the territory of his vassals by virtue of his statute of personal union, a flexible and harmonious medieval, legal entity, with a view to joint but not overall control. He did not seek to unify these strong-minded feudal entities which had no desire to be swallowed up into one larger whole. Each retained its own coinage, customs, legal network, notables, dialect although they sometimes put up some resistance, to keep their profile high. This apparent lack of unity did not pose a problem at the close of the Middle Ages, as the idea of a nation State did not exist.


Order of the Golden Fleece assembly, chaired by Charles the Bold

At the height of his power, Philip the Good was the most influential prince in Christendom and the Duchy of Burgundy was at its peak. The Order of the Golden Fleece, an order of chivalry founded on the occasion of his wedding to Isabel of Portugal and conferred on the great and the good in his States, was a very efficient instrument serving Burgundian cohesion and prestige. The collar depicts a ram’s fleece (with reference to the Jason of Greek legend) attached to a collar of firesteels and flints. This order still exists today.

The end of an era

Dukes_of_Burgundy_Charles_the_BoldCharles the Bold, proudly accepted the inheritance of his father, Philip the Good, but his autocratic management of the towns and provinces affiliated to Burgundy, whose revolts he put down with great violence, made him extremely unpopular. Charles wanted to make the junction between the lands of Burgundy and Flanders, in order to finally unite the two centres of his composite duchy. Many vassals, supported by King Louis XI and including the Duke of Lorraine, rose up against him. Charles laid siege outside Nancy, despite having insufficient military troops (heightened by the defection of one of his lieutenants, Nicolas de Montfort), and there met his death.

Dukes_of_Burgundy_Mary_of_BurgundyOn Charles’ death, his closest cousin, King Louis XI, annexed the lion’s share of the State of Burgundy. Mary of Burgundy, the sole inheritor of Charles the Bold, married the future German emperor, Maximilian I of Habsburg in 1477. This marriage brought the provinces of the Burgundian Low Countries under a totally new sphere: they now become part of the Habsburg empire which was to have a great sphere of influence under the leadership of Charles V, the couple’s grandson.

Tangible vestiges from the reign of the Dukes of Burgundy


The kitchens of the Palace of the Burgundian States © MBA-Dijon

In Burgundy many vestiges of the 14th and 15th century remain which still bear the imprint of the “Great Dukes of the West”. Among them, the Museum of Fine Arts in Dijon, located in the Palace of the Burgundian States, which houses precious reminders of this rich period in history. Right at the entrance, the Holy Chapel still has stained glass panels depicting Philip the Good and Charles the Bold; it was the setting for a number of Masses held by the Order of the Golden Fleece. The gisants (recumbent effigies) brought back from Champmol after the French Revolution, are impressive. Among the many vestiges from the dynasty of the Dukes of Burgundy, exquisite artworks represent different facets of their lifestyle, such as wine-tasters, festivities and the seasons. The majestic kitchens in the Cour de Bar give a flavour of the extravagance and importance of such celebrations reflecting the spirit and the way in which the Dukes conducted their communications.

A great many towns in the former Low Countries also retain reminders of Burgundian overlordship, particularly Bruges, Ghent, Brussels, Leuven and Mechelen. Little known to the general public, because they are out of sight today, are the remains of the Old Palace of Brussels on the Coudenberg, which is certainly worth a visit. The Dukes of Burgundy had a large ceremonial hall built, called the “Aula Magna”; it remained one of the most impressive in Northern Europe for a considerable time; (moreover, it was in this hall that Charles V was crowned emperor and also where he abdicated in 1555). The former Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy in Brussels was destroyed by a fire in 1731. Fortunately, impressive cellars have been preserved to the present day. There is an underground walk route which recalls the history of the palace and daily life in the Brabant court.


The Aula Magna of the former Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy in Brussels (Coudenberg)

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