Saturday, 11 March 2017

Charles the What?

Sort of following up from the discussion a few weeks ago about Alexander ‘the Great’, III of Macedon, I’ve just finished Richard Vaughn’s Charles the Bold. As most of you probably know, this is the fourth and last in the series of the Dukes of Burgundy, and was published in the 1970’s. So far as I can tell there is not an awful lot more on Duke Charles published since then in English, although it would seem that the Burgundian state is an object of interest to French and German historians, and also to the more sort of ‘theoretical’ historian, the sort who is interested in why we have modern nation states at all, rather than ‘composite’ states, as Burgundy was.

Charles seems to have been, while Duke of Burgundy, neither particularly rash nor bold. He usually only went to war when he either had to or when he had diplomatically isolated his target. He was not, as most medieval rulers seem to have been, systemically broke. As most rulers, until the formation of national banks in the 1600’s, had to, he borrowed from the (mostly) Italian banks because he needed ready money. While the Burgundian court was glittering and extravagant, the lands of the Burgundian Duke could actually afford it.

If anything Charles failed the Napoleon test as a general. He was not lucky. At Grandson, his troops panicked where they saw a backward movement of part of the army, and fled. At Murat and at Nancy Charles seems to have been a bit thick and was not expecting to fight. At Nancy he did suffer some desertions, but this seems to have been experienced captains saving their own lives and those of their men from a hopeless situation.

Being not very clever as a commander in chief is not, however, the same as being bold or rash. These epithets seem to derive from translations from the French. According to Wikipaedia (OK, not a great source of knowledge, but probably OK in this case)  Charles was known as le Hardi (the Bold), le Guerrier (the Warrior), le Terrible (translation left as an exercise for the reader) and le Temeraire ( the Reckless). The latter was used by the chronicler Thomas Basin, writing in 1484. What seems to be important, therefore, is the impression, rather than the facts of the matter, at least in the case of bynames. Mostly, however, he was known as Charles of Burgundy.

As Phil Barker observes in the DBM army lists, Charles’ army, the Burgundian Ordonnance, is a favourite of wargamers, despite its 100% record of losing battles. Barker does not speculate as to why this should be, except to note that the army has a bit of everything – men at arms, archers, pikemen, artillery by the spade load and so on. That may well be part of the charm, of course. If, for example, the English longbow men were still feared (and they were), and the European man at arms was the cream of medieval fighting prowess and technology (and they were, or at least, liked to think they were) then, surely, bringing them all together would make a great army.

To an extent this is, while an unproved and unprovable hypothesis, it cannot be disproved either. Charles was outnumbered at the three battles against the Swiss, even though only part of the Swiss army was in action at Grandson. At Nancy and Murat the army didn’t stand a chance, being surprised and divided by trying to keep a siege going at the same time as fighting off the Swiss. Part of the draw of the Burgundian Ordonnance is that we might feel it should have done so much better.

I suspect too that there is a bit of the romantic draw, and also a bit of the ‘can’t do worse’ syndrome. For the former, we all love a loser. The Cavaliers (wrong but romantic) are more popular than the Roundheads (right but repulsive). So may it be too with Charles of Burgundy. Not that he was necessarily right or wrong, of course – his causes would probably make little sense in the politics and diplomacy of today. But he was Europe’s leading knight. His court was the epitome of cultured sophistication of the day. Everyone else modelled themselves on Burgundy.

In fact, the court was designed to specifically draw attention to its culture, its sophistication, and the requirement that everyone who aspired to knightly living needed to emulate it. Charles had a massive amount of pride and was determined that his honour would, at all times, be upheld and satisfied. In a sense this is what killed him. Having started a siege, he would not stop it until his honour was satisfied; that is, until he either captured the place or was given a way out through negotiation. He managed at Neuss, but failed at Nancy.

The other part of the draw I mentioned is that a wargamer, faced with a 100% failure rate of the original army, may well feel that, if  they lose then that is historical, while if they win, that is something down to the skill of the wargamer themselves. I am not really qualified to enter into the psychology of this point of view, and, of course, as a solo wargamer, I do not have to, but it does seem like a live attitude out there.

I suspect, finally, that the other draw is the large artillery park the Duke could deploy. Wargamers, it seems, like technology. Indeed, at Nancy the Swiss decided on a flank attack because the road was commanded by the Duke’s artillery. Artillery could and did have a tactical effect, even though its rate of fire in a battle situation was lamentable. But wargamers, it seems, like artillery anyway, and so did the Duke. It was, in fact, another aspect of making the claims to greatness and power in the pre-early modern state. The earlier unassailable fiefdoms based around powerful castles were being, in some cases literally, blown away by the super-powerful Kings and Dukes with modern artillery parks. ‘Don’t mess with me or your masonry will tumble’ was a decent opening gambit in centralisation of the nation state.

So there you are: an army which should have done better; a Duke who might have been a bit brighter. The Burgundian Ordonnance army is often seen as transitional, although I’m sure that Charles, his captains and his men did not see it like that at all. Worth a wargame?


  1. No argument with any of that, not that I know much about the subject, but three questions occur to me.

    The Duke may have been able to afford his lifestyle but were the peasants, tradesmen, merchants etc enthused to be paying for it?

    More to the point, thinking about how widespread Charles' territories were, nowadays part of hmm 7?? Modern countries? How much coherence did his armies have? Esp with so many mercenaries. How strong was the bond that held them all together?

    Lastly from a purely wargaming POV how many gamers are drawn just because it lets them paint up at least one unit of just about everything?

    1. Well, Vaughn does say that CtB was beaten by urban centres, which is, of course, where taxation was easiest.

      The armies were not that coherent - English, Italian and various other soldiers of fortune. Levies were not that keen, being, for example, pike from the northern towns who Charles and his father had put down rebellions.

      As for the third point: I think this is the case. You can have more or less anything you'd like in one of Charles's armies. And there is all this chivalry.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.