What is Burgundy? Part four: The Burgundian Inheritance

In the last instalment of our look at Burgundy’s shape-shifting borders, Duke Charles was on the verge of a war that would bring his house and duchy to ruin, while successors will rip and tear the great Burgundian Inheritance to shreds over the following centuries.

The States of Valois Burgundy at their height in the 1470s. Charles the Rash’s attempt to seize Lorraine and join the two halves was just one of the catalysts of the Burgundian Wars that would lead to the States’ collapse. The parts in purple would be claimed by France and those in orange by the Habsburgs. The areas striped in orange and purple were initially Habsburg territories and later taken by France in the 17th century.

The beginnings of the Burgundian Wars, as they have become known, are – unsurprisingly – complex.

As Valois Burgundy grew in power and prestige, becoming economically, diplomatically and militarily independent, so its rulers felt that they were less subjects of the French king (albeit very powerful ones) and more his equal. In the last Valois duke, Charles the Rash, this logic reached its natural conclusion.

His father, Philip the Good, had grandiosely styled himself ‘Grand Duke of the West’, Charles wanted to be a king of an independent state between France and the Holy Roman Empire, fusing together all of the French, Flemish and German lands his family had diligently and assiduously accrued over the last century.

He even entered into negotiations with the Holy roman Emperor, Frederick III, for a coronation to take place at Trier but the other prince-electors of the empire were firmly against such a development and the coronation never happened.

Charles was an abrasive individual, often depicted as unbending, slightly humourless and committed to getting his way. He also had an unfortunate knack for making enemies.

In the 1460s he’d led a rebellion of powerful nobles against Louis XI of France to curb his growing powers over them. This hardly made him popular with the devious and vengeful Louis. He then bought the Landgraviate of Alsace and some other territories from Duke Sigismund of Austria in 1469 but refused to sell it back when Sigismund changed his mind about the deal, making him another enemy.

The man Charles chose to govern these new territories on the Upper Rhine, peter von Hagenbach was also a mistake. His high-handedness and cruelty (it was claimed) led the towns to rebel and they would eventually turn for help to one of the most feared military forces in the late medieval world, the Eidgenossen – the Swiss Confederation.

Finally, wishing to link the duchy and county of Burgundy with his possessions in the Low Countries, Charles wanted to take control of Lorraine and began stationing garrisons in the territory, ostensibly to help his ally, the young Duke of Lorraine René II, who’d supported Charles against Louis XI. But when Charles’s mission creep and ultimate intentions began to make themselves plain, René switched sides.

A perfect storm was brewing for the headstrong Charles. In 1474 a dispute between Ruprecht of the Palatinate, the archbishop and prince elector of Cologne and his subjects was an excuse for Charles to step in and he invaded Imperial territory. The 10-month siege of Neuss proved unsuccessful and when Emperor Frederick III arrived with a relieving army in June 1475, the two concluded a peace.

It was a much-needed break for Charles. While he had stood impotently before the walls of Neuss, in late 1474 the bitter Duke of Austria, unhappy towns of the Upper Rhine and Swiss Confederation had formed an anti-Burgundian league.

After trying and executing Charles’s deputy in the Upper Rhine, Peter von Hagenbach, the Swiss had invaded and occupied the Franche-Comté. In December 1474 Louis XI joined the league as well along with René of Lorraine.

Duke Charles the Rash flees from the Battle of Morat in 1476. The following year he and his small army would be overwhelmed and slaughtered outside Nancy.

From 1475 nothing went right for Charles. His brother-in-law, Edward IV of England, invaded France as promised but when Charles didn’t offer the support they’d arranged Edward and Louis concluded the Treaty of Picquigny in which Louis paid Edward to leave.

Charles was then surprised and soundly thrashed by the Swiss at the battles of Grandson and Morat in March and June 1476.

In 1477 with a new army he marched on Nancy but was met by Duke René and the Swiss with a far larger army. The Burgundians were slaughtered and Charles, having lost his horse, was cut down by the stroke of a halberd which cleft his head from crown to chin.

Charles left one child, his daughter Mary, as inheritor to the Burgundian States but wolves were circling as well as suitors. The Wars were not over yet.

As heiress to the two Burgundies and the Low Countries, Mary had her pick of eligible suitors but chose Maximillian von Habsburg – the son of Frederick III of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1479 a new Burgundian army with Maximilian at its head defeated the French at Guinegate. But Maximilian and Mary’s happy union (and it does seem to have been happy) was ended abruptly when she broke her back and died after falling from her horse in 1482.

The ‘Burgundian Inheritance’ was then split between the French crown and the Habsburgs over the course of two treaties, Arras in 1482 and Senlis in 1493.

The Duchy of Burgundy and some other ‘French’ territories were returned to Louis XI and his eventual heir Charles VIII. The Low Countries and County of Burgundy meanwhile were retained by the Habsburgs who would henceforth refer to themselves as ‘Dukes of Burgundy’.

Let’s deal then with the fallout and gradual decline of the ‘Burgundian Inheritance’ from the late 15th century onwards. Maximilian and Mary had children before she died. Their son, Philip, was married to Joanna of Castile the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella in a highly desirable match that would make Philip the first Habsburg King of Spain.

The Imperial Burgundian Circle created by Archduke Charles (later Emperor Charles V) in 1512.

Philip’s son, Charles, would rule both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire as Charles V. In 1512, before becoming the King-Emperor of this mighty European empire, Charles organised the Duchy of Luxembourg, County of Burgundy and the Low Countries into an Imperial administrative grouping known as a Kreis, a ‘circle’ – more specifically the ‘Burgundischer Kreis’, the ‘Burgundian Circle’.

In 1555, Charles decided that ruling both Spain and the Empire was too much for one person and split the kingdom. Spain, would receive the Burgundian Circle as part of this rearrangement and this was the beginning of the ‘Spanish Netherlands’ as they have become known. For a while the Franche-Comté became ‘El Contado Franco’ and it was also the period that the ‘clavelin’ bottle was introduced to Jura because it was an official bottle size in Spain.

Europe was changing fast in this period however, and religious dissent with the Reformation and rise of Protestantism and nascent nationalism were having powerful and divisive effects. In 1477 the territories of the Low Countries had declared for Mary of Burgundy after she had signed a charter known as the ‘Great Privelige’ which restored to the various cities freedoms and communal rights that other dukes, especially Mary’s father, had taken away.

This charter had largely been abolished by Maximilian and then Philip but the grievances and the feeling of independence remained. With religious tensions and what was seen as careless and unfair governance by the Spanish at a pitch, in 1566 the Seventeen Provinces of the Low Countries rebelled against Spain, beginning the brutal Eighty Years War.

Although King Philip II’s generals tamed the southern part of Flanders, in 1579 the Protestant Dutch states in the north, namely: Holland, Utrecht, Zeeland, Zutphen, Drenthe, Frisia, Guelders and Overijssel declared themselves to be the United Provinces and in 1581 seceded from Spain sparking a a second round of brutal sectarian warfare that would continue to 1648 when the Peace of Münster (part of the wider Treaty of Westphalia that brought an end to the Thirty Years War that had sprung up in the meantime) recognised Dutch independence.

The Burgundian Circle was now much reduced but still intact – though not for long.

Louis XIV was now King of France and embarked on a series of wars against both the Dutch and Spanish. The County of Artois was annexed from Spain in 1659 at the end of the Franco-Spanish War (along with Roussillon in the south and part of the Basque Country) and the Franche-Comté was occupied and ceded to France at the Treaty of Nijmegen in 1678.

The dog-bitten rump of the Spanish Netherlands was transferred to Austrian control in 1715 at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession and this administration in turn would end when the region was overrun by French revolutionary armies in the 1790s.

Through all this war and turmoil the Duchy of Burgundy continued to be a pre-eminent part of the Kingdom of France. The title of duke – while claimed as an honorific by the Habsburgs of Spain and then Austria right up until 1918 – was held in France by two of Louis XIV’s grandsons, Louis and then Philip – the latter who became Philip V the first Bourbon King of Spain at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession.*

Much as the Frankish kings had referred to themselves as kings of ‘Francia et Burgundia’, setting Burgundy aside as an almost separate entity, so Burgundy had quite a special place in 18th century France as well – army regiments raised in Burgundy for example carried the saltire cross of St Andrew on their flags – heraldry that had been introduced by Charles the Rash – rather than the white cross of St Denis. Its wine was much admired still but, otherwise, its history in this period is largely unremarkable in the broader sweep of French history.

With the French Revolution, in 1790 the old aristocratic provinces were reorganised into the modern departments, the Duchy of Burgundy being broken up into the Yonne, Côte d’Or and Saône et Loire, and Franche-Comté into the Haute-Saône, Doubs and Jura. And this remained the way the country was organised until 1982 when the departments were grouped into 22 broader regions that roughly corresponded to the old provincial lines, meaning names such as ‘Bourgogne’ and ‘Franche-Comté’ were officially back on the French map.

In 2014 the regional presidents of Bourgogne and Franche-Comté announced their desire to join their regions into one larger entity, something that then-prime minister Manuel Valls was promoting more generally. In 2015 a new wave of organisation cut the 22 regions in Metropolitan France to 13 and one of the mergers was the creation of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, the last of the Burgundies together again at last… or at least, for now.


So what is Burgundy?

The new flag of the greater Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region created in 2016. The first and third quarters are from the coat of arms of the duchy and second and fourth are the old coat of arms of the Free County of Burgundy, aka Franche-Comté.

If you recall, the start of this series was sparked by protests in Burgundy that several historic wine regions would be stripped of their right to label their wines ‘Bourgogne’ by the INAO while some in Beaujolais would gain the right.

The body eventually backed down and said it would rethink its plans and take into “historical and cultural considerations” into account.

This may have placated the modern Burgundians but if “historical and cultural considerations” are really taken into account they may realise, to their horror, that there are a great many places that can lay claim to a ‘Burgundian Inheritance’ of their own.

In his chapter on Burgundy in ‘Vanished Kingdoms’, Norman Davies counts five to seven kingdoms, two duchies, one to two provinces, one county-palatine, one landgravate, one United States, one Imperial Circle and one region that have borne the name of Burgundy throughout history.

As his book was published pre-2015 we can now add an extra region too. In its time places called ‘Burgundy’ have existed in and spanned the modern countries of Germany, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Burgundy’s capitals and principal cities include Worms, Geneva, Basel, Arles, Lyon, Grenoble, Ghent, Bruges and Brussels as much as Dijon, Auxerre or Beaune.

Modern wine regions that old Burgundies have covered include: the Rheinhessen, Alsace, the Valais, Jura, Savoie, Beaujolais and the Rhône.

Beaujolais has been a part of the ‘Bourgogne’ wine region since the 1930s when it was rather lumped in at the last minute. While not a territory of the Valois States, it was part of the older Frankish and Burgundian kingdoms of the 5th to 9th centuries.

Heavens, if you want a prime candidate for a region that might be able to style itself ‘Bourgogne’ look no further than the Jura. It’s in Franche-Comté yes but remember this is the Franche-Comté, the ‘Free County of Burgundy’.

What is Burgundy therefore? Viticulturally this is quite straightforward to answer and culturally it might be simple to define too but historically?

Historically Burgundy is as changeable as quicksilver. Over time the various parts of the old kingdoms and states have allowed their Burgundian name to fall into abeyance until only one has remained. But is it the ‘true’ Burgundy?

The answer will very much depend on who you ask.


*When the Bourbon monarchy was restored in Spain in 1975, the title of Duke of Burgundy was one of the (purely titular) honorifics it laid claim to and the title of duke is currently borne by King Felipe VI.



Part one: The Dark Ages

Part two: The Middle Ages

Part three: The Valois Dukes

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