The Duchy of Burgundy in the Middle Ages

The Duchy of Burgundy in the Middle Ages

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Thehistory of the Duchy of Burgundy, from the French royal domain, is characterized by a struggle against the monarchical power of the Capetians for more than four centuries. If the transjuran part of Burgundy (Franche Comté) knows another destiny as a territory of the Germanic Empire, the duchy is completing its construction after centuries of conflicts and political and geographical outbreaks. Burgundy gradually established itself as a powerful and prosperous principality within the kingdom of France, preluding the Golden Age of the duchy under the Valois from the 14the century.

The long history of the Duchy of Burgundy

Following the father of Hugues Capet, Hugues le Grand, it is the two brothers of the King of France, Otto (956-965) then Henri (965-1002) who succeed each other at the head of the Duchy of Burgundy. The latter's death leads to a succession dispute between his adopted son, Otte-Guillaume, and the new king of France, Robert II the Pious, who emerges as the victor but obtains a reduced Burgundy. He thus recovers a duchy close to the principality constituted at the end of the 9th century by Richard the Justice but deprived of the counties of Nevers, Auxerre, Sens and Troyes. As for Otte-Guillaume, he remains at the head of the transjuran part: the county of Burgundy is still part of the still existing kingdom of Burgundy. The Capetian duchy of Burgundy was formed around 1016 around the region of Dijon, Beaune, Autun, Avallon and Châtillon-sur-Seine. In 1032, Henri Ier, son and successor of Robert II the Pious on the throne of France gives the duchy to his younger brother Robert I the Old. It was the beginning of a long ducal dynasty which arose from the Capetians and which continued without interruption and almost smoothly until 1361.

The Dukes of Burgundy then turn out to be faithful allies of their cousins, the kings of France. If some intrigues exist, the dukes are recognized as peers of France. They are placed at the top of the hierarchy of the king's feudatories. They do not hesitate to support him both militarily, whether during the Third Crusade or the Battle of Bouvines, and politically. And this loyalty, coupled with the remarkable longevity of their dynasty, allows the dukes to organize, strengthen and expand their territory. They constitute a strong ducal power, holding their vassals in hand. They bring together lands and domains, for example, acquiring the county of Chalon in 1237. At the time of the reign of Philippe le Bel (1285-1314), they were undoubtedly among the most powerful barons of the king and at the head of a duchy prosperous both economically and artistically and above all religiously.

A land of monks

Monasticism is nothing new in Burgundy. From the end of Ve century, it already took on real importance under the Merovingian dynasty and continued under the Carolingians. However, this monasticism suffers, mainly from barbarian invasions leading to numerous looting, in particular on the part of the Normans, but also spoliations of property by the secular or even clerical nobility. But this decline is only very temporary. Burgundy is at the heart of the great movement to found or restore Benedictine establishments which affects all of the medieval West. A movement that starts from the abbey of Cluny founded in 909 or 910 by Guillaume d'Aquitaine.

Driven by great abbots, the Cluniac order quickly gained scope and spread throughout Europe. At its peak, in the 12the century, more than a thousand establishments are under the Cluniac authority which imposesulse a real economic, political and spiritual dynamic, helped by some other bridgeheads like Guillaume de Volpiano, reformer of many Benedictine monasteries, from Saint Bénigne de Dijon to Mont-Saint-Michel. And if studies and art are relegated to the background compared to spirituality, they have left a lasting mark on history. Monks who copy the scriptoria to Burgundian Romanesque art such as the Saint Lazare cathedral in Autun or the abbey of Vézelay via Cluny III, the largest church in the Middle Ages, the Cluniac order shines culturally and artistically both in the duchy and in the county of Burgundy .

This influence is not without attracting certain criticisms on the lack of ascetics and eremitism of the Cluniacs. These critics are grouped together under the authority of Robert de Molesme who founded the abbey of Cîteaux in 1098. Like Cluny, this new Cistercian order experienced a real boom and spread throughout the medieval West during the XIIe and XIIIe century, well helped by the words of the most influential of its members, Saint Bernard. this new monastic order also delivers real architectural masterpieces in a more refined style like the abbey of Fontenay.

The future of the Kingdom of Burgundy

On the other side of the Saône, until the middle of the XIe century, a small late Carolingian kingdom still remains. It is about the kingdom of Burgundy also named kingdom of Transjurane whose relative political stability ensured until then its continuity under the dynasty of the Rodolphians. And if the Carolingian Empire no longer exists, its institutions continue on the smaller scale of the Transjurane which includes the current Franche Comté, a large part of Switzerland, the Dauphiné, the Alps as well as Provence. However, the integration of this kingdom within the Germanic Empire weakens its political balance. The Rodolphians gradually lose their influence over the territories they govern and slip under the tutelage of the Germanic Emperor. On the death, without a successor, of King Rudolf III, Emperor Conrad II leads a war of succession against the Burgundian aristocracy (transjurane) to recover the crown. This was then attached to the Empire around 1032-1034 and continued almost fictitiously until the 12the century.

Because this change continues the disruption of political institutions already underway with the weakening of the Rodolphian dynasty. The emperor thus recovered a kingdom where most of the authority was played out at the local level with a rise in power of the aristocracy, both religious and secular. Bishops and counts thus take over from transjuran royalty. The kingdom then easily fragmented into various principalities such as the county of Savoy. The latter, although sometimes very close geographically, ultimately have little in common between them, if only through the languages ​​of the different populations.

As for the county of Burgundy (the term Franche Comté does not appear a priori in the texts until 1336), it is governed by the descendants of Otte-Guillaume. They had to deal with the rise of local lords as well as ecclesiastical authorities such as the Archbishopric of Besançon or the many monasteries, such as Clunisians, Cistercians or even Carthusians, etc. A new political upheaval occurs with the extinction of this county branch. Jeanne de France, granddaughter of the last count, Otto IV (died in 1303) married in 1318, the Duke of Burgundy, Eudes IV. Franche Comté then entered the fold of the kingdom of France and ducal Burgundy.

From Capetians to Valois

Eudes IV does not unite only under his control the duchy and the county of Burgundy but also the county of Artois then by the marriage of his son, the county of Boulogne. And if difficulties are still being felt on the part of the Franche-Comté barons in search of independence, he finds himself at the head of a powerful principality prefiguring the Burgundy of the Grand Dukes. The duchy was then consolidated by his grandson, Philippe de Rouvres, bringing Flanders by marriage in 1360. However, he was swept away by the plague a year later, in 1361. If his death led to a dismemberment of this vast territorial unit, she also marks the end of this long Capetian dynasty in a Burgundy hit by disease and wars.

From the various dismembered principalities, the king of France Jean le Bon, cousin of the late duke, recovers the duchy against Charles le Mauvais, king of Navarre. Through skilful political maneuvers, this recovery took place smoothly, particularly with the Burgundian nobility, who were still wary of royal authority. Jean le Bon then formed a team of trusted men united around Jean de Melun, Count of Tancarville to govern Burgundy. A close advisor to the king, he took up the fight against the Large Companies ravaging the towns and the countryside. Suffering a resounding defeat at the Battle of Brignais, Tancarville resigned his office as lieutenant general of Burgundy in 1363. He left his place to a young man of 21, younger son of the King of France, Philippe, already nicknamed "Le Hardi" more at the battle of Poitiers in 1356. The duchy was soon to meet its new duke.

The rich hours of the Dukes of Burgundy

In 1363, Philippe II the Bold receives from his brother Charles V (heir to the Capetian domain) Burgundy in prerogative, annexed to the royal domain after the death without posterity of Duke Philippe de Rouvres. In 1384, he added to his territory the Flemish heritage of his father-in-law Louis de Male, a heritage comprising the county of Flanders, Artois, Franche-Comté and Nevers. Thus appears the family of Valois in Burgundy.

His son, Jean sans Peur, duke from 1404 to 1419, reformed the administration of the Duchy of Burgundy and practiced a policy of annexation (Tonnerrois, Boulonnais, Picardie, Besançon). With regard to the kingdom of France, he led a vigorous policy, opposing his cousin Louis d'Orléans, within the Council of Regency which governed during the illness of King Charles VI. This policy led him to assassinate Louis d'Orléans in 1407. Supported by a powerful Burgundian party, he then had to face the reaction of Charles VI, who allowed the Armagnac party to be formed (named after their leader Bernard VII count of 'Armagnac) and started a civil war in Paris. Compromised by his support for the rioters, he had to flee, giving way to Armagnac domination. He then concluded an alliance with Henry V, King of England (1416), but was assassinated in 1419 in Montereau by Tanneguy Duchâtel, a supporter of the Dauphin, after the victory of the English, while he was trying to get closer to the Dauphin Charles .

Become duke (1419-1467) on the death of his father, Philippe III le Bon attaches the county of Mâcon and further increases the domain, notably in Picardy, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland. Taking advantage of the clauses of the Treaty of Arras (1435), he freed himself from Franco-English affairs to devote himself to his State, which extended, thanks to skilful matrimonial alliances, purchases and confiscations, from the sea of North to Switzerland, despite the Lorraine enclave. Protectors of the arts, the duke surrounded himself with a brilliant court and remained faithful to Dijon as the ducal capital, proposing the city as the seat of the Order of the Golden Fleece he had just created.

Charles the Bold, last Duke of Burgundy

Only son of Philippe III, Charles the Bold succeeded his father in 1467. Richer and more powerful than all the other princes, Charles the Bold undertakes the restoration of the old kingdom of Burgundy and the creation, between France and the Empire, of a new Lotharingie, regrouping its possessions of Flanders, Burgundy and Franche-Comté. After this game of diplomatic alliances at the expense of France, the Bold confronts Louis XI again directly, forcing him to witness the massacre of the Liégeois that the sovereign has driven to revolt. He then ravages Picardy but is stopped in his conquest in front of Beauvais by Jeanne Hachette (1472). He nevertheless annexed Gelderland in 1473 and attempted to conquer Lorraine in 1475.

The reign of Charles the Bold was ultimately only a long conflict with the French sovereign. After a period of systematic annexations, the Bold was held back by the French and allied armies: when he turned his ambitions towards Switzerland, he suffered severe defeats during the battles of Grandson and Morat (1476). Combative, he nevertheless refused the conditions of peace and undertook, in October 1476, the siege of Nancy, before which he died on January 5, 1477. His heiress, Marie of Burgundy, was dispossessed of his Burgundian lands by Louis XI who, claiming that the appanage returns by right to the crown in the absence of a male heir, seizes ducal Burgundy, which is now part of the royal domain. Burgundy was then attached to France, while the possessions of Flanders returned to the Habsburgs, after the marriage of his heiress, Marie, to Maximilian, the son of Emperor Frederick III.


- Jean Richard (dir.), History of Burgundy, Éditions Privat, 1988.

- Bertrand Schnerb, L'État bourguignon, Éditions Perrin, Paris, 2005.

- The unfinished kingdom of the Dukes of Burgundy: 14th-15th centuries, by Elodie Lecuppre-Desjardin. Belin, 2016.

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