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On this day 1419…Floreat Burgundiae

On this day in 1419 the gruesome murder of its duke would propel medieval Burgundy to the height of its Renaissance power – artistic and viticultural.

John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, is assassinated on the bridge at Montereau on 10 September 1419 as the Dauphin looks on.

Fifteenth-century France was riven by a vicious civil war between the Dukes of Burgundy, their cousins the Dukes of Orléans and the Count of Armagnac.

The Armagnac-Burgundian War as the conflict was known was rooted in a power struggle over the regency of France during the occasional bouts of insanity suffered by Charles VI – during which he either believed he was made of glass or violently attacked, sometimes fatally, those around him.

The “cold war” that had been simmering since Charles’ accession in 1380 quickly became “hot” in 1407 when the politically devious but increasingly isolated Duke of Burgundy, John the Fearless, had his cousin and chief rival, Louis of Orléans, assassinated in Paris.

The passage of the war, itself set within the wider Hundred Years War, need not be retold here but suffice to say that with the Armagnac catastrophe at Agincourt in 1415 and unchecked English expansion, by 1418 the anti-Burgundian faction, now led by the Dauphin, Charles, was keen to reach a rapprochement.

John agreed to meet with Charles, his first cousin once removed, but at the second meeting on the bridge at Montereau on 10 September 1419, a misunderstanding or premeditated plot led to John’s own grisly death.

Kneeling before an apparently indifferent Dauphin (Louis of Orléans had been his uncle so he was naturally an Armagnac supporter) when John rose he rested his hand on the pommel of his sword, a perfectly natural and probably automatic pose but misconstrued (deliberately?) by the Dauphin’s knights.

“You put your hand on your sword in the presence of His Highness?” Lord Robert of Loire supposedly asked him before Tanneguy du Chastel, without further hesitation, struck him across the face with an axe, strengthening the case that the whole event was a pre-planned assassination. The severely injured John was then stabbed to death.

John’s death though ushered in Burgundy’s golden age under the auspices of his son, Philip the Good (pictured below).

Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. A shrewd statesman like his grandfather, Philip the Bold, he also inherited the rather more unfortunate family trait of ugliness.

John, while wrapped up in the plots, counter-plots and warfare that wracked the French political arena of 1407-1419, continued to rule his duchies and counties adroitly. It was under John that the agreed boundaries of what constituted ‘Burgundy’ wines were established, from Auxerre in the north to the Maconnais in the south – boundaries that still exist, in essence, to this day.

Nonetheless, it was his son, Philip, who would become one of the greatest Renaissance princes a patron of art, architecture and chivalry and a shrewd businessman who used the wool and wine trades to enrich his domains which, by the time of his death after a 48 year reign in 1467, made him almost a mightier lord than the King of France.

Philip’s ability as a statesman was more in the vein of his grandfather, Philip the Bold’s, tenure as duke.

It was Philip the Bold of course who so famously outlawed Gamay from the Côte d’Or in his decree of 31 July 1395, an ordinance which also banned the excessive use of manure in the vineyards in an effort to promote quality over quantity.

By the time of Philip the Good, the ravages of the Black Death and then terrible droughts which had wreaked such havoc on the population and agronomy of fourteenth century France were fully healed and bearing fruit (quite literally).

The assassination of his father pushed Philip into an alliance with the English. Already trading partners through the hugely profitable English-Flemish wool industry, it also opened a new market for Burgundy’s wines. The English wine trade in the fifteenth century was possibly as extensive and dynamic as it is today and England was already an extremely profitable market for Portuguese and Bordeaux vintners – the former a long-standing ally and the latter an English possession since the 1100s.

There was beer too, produced in Flanders, Brabant and Artois and there can be no doubt that the riverine highways of the Sâone, Meuse and Scheldt and their tributaries were often full of wine and beer barges plying back and forth between the states’ great cities.

Burgundian wines were even exported to the Holy Roman Empire, Philip was count of the Free County of Burgundy as well as duke, and as count of the Franche-Comté, a part of the Holy Roman Empire since the Treaty of Verdun in 843AD, he had an eye on what was going on in Germany as well as ready access to its markets. It was only natural, therefore, that a territory as vigorously trade-oriented as medieval Burgundy would send its produce up the Rhine and Moselle to Colgone, Starsbourg, Mainz and Frankfurt while merchants would likewise import wines from the Mosel and Rhine into Burgundy and beyond.

Philip’s itinerant court would also have helped the spread of Burgundian wine and beer, either in his own territory or while visiting the ducal Hôtel in Paris which of course needed to be fully stocked with wine and food for the Duke, his family and an entourage of hundreds.

He founded the chivalric Order of the Golden Fleece and the Feast of the Pheasant was a major diplomatic event held in Lille in 1454 – Burgundian wine would have flowed at both.

The wealth created by such an industrious duchy flowed not only into Philip’s coffers but those of his subjects too. Although nominally still a feudal society the beginnings of a mercantile, middle class were emerging at this time which meant there was a growing number of men (and some women) of independent means and personal wealth.

As such, in 1441 when Beaune was afflicted by an outbreak of plague, Philip’s chancellor, Nicolas Rolin and his wife Guigone responded by building the Hospices de Beaune, the Hôtel Dieu of which is so well-known to visitors today and is still an important wine producer in the region.

But this has been the scantiest of introductions and these are all stories for another time.

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