Charles the Bold was born in Dijon, the son of Philip the Good and Isabella of Portugal. Before the death of his father in 1467, he bore the title of Count of Charolais; afterwards, he assumed all of his father's titles, including that of "Grand Duke of the West". He was also made a Knight of the Golden Fleece just twenty days after his birth, invested by Charles I, Count of Nevers, and the seigneur de Croÿ.
Charles was brought up under the direction of Jean d'Auxy and early showed great application alike to academic studies and warlike exercises. His father's court was the most extravagant in Europe at the time, and a centre for the arts and commerce. While he was growing up, Charles witnessed his father's efforts to unite his far-flung and ethnically diverse dominions into a single state, and his own later efforts centered on continuing and securing his father's successes in this endeavor.
In 1440, at the age of seven, Charles was married to Catherine, daughter of King Charles VII of France and sister of the Dauphin (later King Louis XI). She was five years older than her husband, and she died in 1446 at the age of 18. They had no children.
In 1454, at the age of 21, Charles married a second time. He wanted to marry a daughter of his distant cousin Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York (a sister of Kings Edward IV and Richard III of England), but under terms of the Treaty of Arras of 1435, he was required to marry a French princess. His father chose Isabella of Bourbon, who was three years younger than he was. Isabella was the daughter of Philip the Good's sister Agnes and a very distant cousin of Charles VII of France. Isabella died in 1465. Their daughter Mary of Burgundy was Charles' only surviving child; she inherited all the Burgundian domains before her marriage to Maximilian of Habsburg, the son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III.
Charles was on friendly terms with his brother-in-law Louis, the Dauphin of France, who had been a refugee at the court of Burgundy from 1456 until he succeeded his father as king of France in 1461. But Louis began to pursue some of the same policies as his father, for example Louis's later repurchase of the towns on the Somme River that Louis's father had ceded in 1435 to Charles's father in the Treaty of Arras, which Charles viewed with chagrin. When his father's failing health enabled him to assume the reins of government (which Philip relinquished to him by an act of 12 April 1465), he initiated a policy of hostility toward Louis XI that led to the Burgundian Wars, and he became one of the principal leaders of the League of the Public Weal, an alliance of west European nobles opposed to policies of Louis XI that sought to centralize the royal authority within France.
For his third wife, Charles was offered the hand of Louis XI's daughter Anne. The wife he ultimately chose, however, was his second cousin Margaret of York (who was also a great-grandchild of John of Gaunt). Upon the death of his father in 1467, Charles was no longer bound by the terms of the Treaty of Arras, and he decided to ally himself with Burgundy's old ally England. Louis did his best to prevent or delay the marriage with Margaret (he even sent French ships to waylay her as she sailed to Sluys), but in the summer of 1468, it was celebrated sumptuously at Bruges, and Charles was made a Knight of the Garter. The couple had no children, but Margaret devoted herself to her stepdaughter Mary. After Mary's death many years later, she kept Mary's two infant children as long as she was allowed.
On 12 April 1465, Philip relinquished control of the government of his domains to Charles, who spent the next summer prosecuting the War of the Public Weal against Louis XI. Charles was left master of the field at the Battle of Montlhéry on 13 July 1465, but this neither prevented the king from re-entering Paris nor did it assure Charles of a decisive victory. He succeeded, however, in forcing upon Louis the Treaty of Conflans of 4 October 1465, by which the king restored to him certain towns on the Somme River, the counties of Boulogne and Guînes, and various other small territories. During the negotiations for the treaty, his wife Isabella died suddenly at Les Quesnoy on 25 September, making a political marriage suddenly possible. As part of the treaty, Louis promised him the hand of his infant daughter Anne, with the territories of Champagne and Ponthieu as a dowry, but no marriage ever took place. In the meanwhile, Charles obtained the surrender of Ponthieu.
Charles' concentration on the affairs of France was diverted by the Revolt of Liège against his father and the bishop of Liège (Louis of Bourbon) and a desire to punish the town of Dinant in the province of Namur. During the wars of the summer of 1465, Dinant celebrated a false rumour that Charles had been defeated at Montlhéry by burning him in effigy and chanting that he was the bastard child of his mother Isabella of Portugal and John of Heinsburg, the previous Bishop of Liège (d. 1455). On 25 August 1466, Charles marched into Dinant, determined to avenge this slur on the honour of his mother, and sacked the city, killing every man, woman and child within. After the death of Charles' father Philip the Good in 1467, the Bishopric of Liège renewed hostilities, but was defeated by Charles at the Battle of Brustem. Charles made a victorious entry into Liège, dismantled its walls and stripped the city of some of its privileges.
Treaty of Péronne
Territories of the house of Valois-Burgundy during the reign of Charles the Bold.
Engraving of Charles the Bold
Alarmed by the early successes of the new Duke of Burgundy and anxious to settle various questions relating to the execution of the Treaty of Conflans, Louis XI requested a meeting with Charles and daringly placed himself in his hands in the town of Péronne in Picardy in October 1468. In the course of the negotiations, the duke was informed of a fresh revolt of the Bishopric of Liège secretly fomented by Louis as part of the Liège Wars. After deliberating for four days on the best way to deal with his adversary, who had foolishly placed himself at his mercy, Charles decided to respect the promise he had given to guarantee Louis's safety and to negotiate with him. At the same time, he forced Louis to assist him in quelling the revolt in Liège. The town was captured and many inhabitants were massacred. Louis chose not to intervene on behalf of his former allies.
At the expiry of the one year's truce that followed the Treaty of Péronne, the French king accused Charles of treason, cited him to appear before the parlement, and seized some of the towns on the Somme in 1471. The duke retaliated by invading France with a large army; he took possession of Nesle and massacred its inhabitants. He failed, however, in an attack on Beauvais and had to content himself with laying waste to the countryside as far as Rouen. He eventually withdrew without attaining any useful result.
Charles pursued domestic policies that assisted the growth of his military establishment. To this end, he relinquished at least some of the extravagance that had characterized the court of Burgundy under his father, if not the magnificence of ceremonial events. Since the beginning of his reign, he employed himself in reorganizing his army and the administration of his territories. While retaining the principles of feudal recruiting, he endeavored to establish a system of rigid discipline among his troops that was strengthened by the employment of foreign mercenaries, particularly Englishmen and Italians, and the augmentation of his artillery. The economic power that Charles inherited from Philip would lead to an independent judicial system, a sophisticated administration, and the establishment of local estates.
Building a kingdom
Charles constantly sought to expand the territories under his control. In 1469, Archduke Sigismund of Austria sold him the County of Ferrette, the Landgraviate of Alsace, and some other towns, reserving to himself the right to repurchase.
In 1472–1473, Charles bought the reversion of the Duchy of Guelders (i.e. the right to succeed to it) from its duke Arnold, whom he had supported against the rebellion of his son. Not content with being "the Grand Duke of the West," he conceived the project of forming a kingdom of Burgundy or Arles with himself as independent sovereign and even persuaded the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III to assent to crown him a king at Trier. The ceremony, however, did not take place owing to the emperor's precipitate flight by night in September 1473, which was occasioned by his displeasure at the duke's ambitions.
At the close of 1473, the duchy of Burgundy was anchored in France and extended to the edges of the Netherlands. This made Charles the Bold one of the wealthiest and most powerful nobles in Europe. Indeed, his landholdings and revenue base rivalled those of many of the royal families.
Charles' flight after the battle of Grandson, by Eugène Burnand
The corpse of Charles the Bold discovered after the Battle of Nancy, by Auguste Feyen-Perrin
In the year 1474, Charles began to involve himself in the series of political struggles that would ultimately bring about his downfall. He first came into conflict with the Archduke Sigismund of Austria, to whom he refused to restore his possessions in Alsace for the stipulated sum. Then, he quarreled with the Swiss, who supported the free towns in the Upper Rhine in their revolt against the tyranny of the ducal governor Peter von Hagenbach (who was condemned by a special international tribunal and executed on 9 May 1474). Finally, he antagonized René II, Duke of Lorraine, with whom he disputed the succession in the Duchy of Lorraine, which bordered many of his territories. All of these enemies readily joined forces against their common adversary Charles.
Charles suffered a first rebuff in endeavouring to protect his kinsman Ruprecht of the Palatinate, Archbishop of Cologne, against his rebel subjects. He spent ten months (July 1474 – June 1475) besieging the little town of Neuss on the Rhine (the Siege of Neuss), but was compelled by the approach of a powerful imperial army to raise the siege. Moreover, the expedition he had persuaded his brother-in-law Edward IV of England to undertake against Louis XI was stopped by the Treaty of Picquigny of 29 August 1475. He was more successful in Lorraine, where he seized Nancy on 30 November 1475.
From Nancy he marched against the Swiss. He saw fit to hang or drown the garrison of Grandson in spite of its capitulation. Grandson was a possession of Jacques of Savoy, Count of Romont, a close ally of Charles, that had been captured recently by the forces of the Swiss Confederacy. Some days later, on 2 March 1476, Charles was attacked outside the village of Concise by the confederate army in the Battle of Grandson and suffered a shameful defeat; he was compelled to flee with a handful of attendants and abandon his artillery along with an immense booty (including his silver bath).
Charles succeeded in raising a fresh army of 30,000 men that he used to fight the Morat on 22 June 1476. He was again defeated by the Swiss army, which was assisted by the cavalry of the Duke of Lorraine. On this occasion, unlike the debacle at Grandson, little booty was lost, but Charles did lose about one third of his entire army. The defeated soldiers were pushed into the nearby lake, where they were drowned or shot at while trying to swim to safety on the opposite shore. On 6 October, Charles lost Nancy, which the Duke of Lorraine was able to recover.
Death at Nancy
Making a last effort, Charles formed a new army and arrived in the dead of winter before the walls of Nancy. Having lost many of his troops through the severe cold, it was with only a few thousand men that he met the joint forces of the Lorrainers and the Swiss, who had come to the relief of the town. He himself perished in the fight, his naked and disfigured body being discovered some days afterward frozen in the nearby river. Charles' head had been cleft in two by a halberd, lances were lodged in his stomach and loins, and his face had been so badly mutilated by wild animals that only his physician was able to identify him by his long fingernails and his old battle scars.
Charles' battered body was initially buried in the ducal church in Nancy, by René II, Duke of Lorraine. Later in 1550, his great-grandson, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, ordered it to be moved to the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, next to that of his daughter Mary. In 1562, Emperor Charles V's son and heir, King Philip II of Spain, erected a mausoleum in early renaissance style over his tomb, still extant. Excavations in 1979 positively identified the remains of Mary, in a lead coffin, but those of Charles were never found.
The wives of Charles the Bold.