Dukes of Burgundy 1364 – 1482

The Carolingian Middle Kingdom

After the collapse of the European empire of Charles the Great in 9th and 10thcentury, Europe was divided in three parts on the western side France on the eastern side what became the Holy Roman Empire and in the middle a range of territories from Frisia in the north to Italy in the south. Burgundy, which at that time covered a territory including what is now most of Switzerland, current Burgundy and the Provence became split between East and West Francia (for its earlier history see: From Salli to Merovingians 250 – 750 and Germanic, Goth and Viking Invasions).

Over the last 1500 year Burgundy has gone through many stages.


Years Burgundy at that time
410-36 The first Burgundian kingdom of Gundahar
451-534 The second Burgundian kingdom, founded by Gundioc
  1. 590-734
The third (Frankish) kingdom of Burgundy
843-1384 The French Duchy of Burgundy
879-933 The Kingdom of Lower Burgundy
888-933 The Kingdom of Upper Burgundy
933-1032 The united Kingdom of the Two Burgundies (Arelate)
Ca 1000-1678 The County-Palatine of Burgundy (Franche-Comté)
1032-? The imperial Kingdom of Burgundy
1127-1218 The imperial Duchy of Lesser Burgundy
1127+ The imperial Landgravate of Burgundy
1384-1477 The united ‘States of Burgundy’
1477-1791 The French province of Burgundy (Bourgogne)
1548-1795 The Imperial Burgundian Circle
1982+ The contemporary French region of Bourgogne.


Burgundy as will be discussed here is only one part of that originally much larger land but again would grow in significance during the 14th and 15th centuries, with France and Germany weakening, the revived Duchy was able to kick well above its weight and it became one of the political and economic powerhouses of its time. It also played a clever political game, their reign coincided with the 100 year war between France and England and Burgundy mostly sided with England, simply because of the important commercial relationships between Flanders and Holland and England. Another political intrigue occurred during most of this period and that was the interference in the (weak) French Kingdom. Here the Burgundians fought their power game with the Armagnacs . These intrigues also spilled over in the 100 Year War, with the Armagnacs supporting the French national cause.

This all started in 1364 and ended when its power was at its height in 1477, during these 100 years only four dukes ruled the area. Its legacy after the collapse was perhaps even more significant for both the Holy Roman Empire and the Spanish-Hapsburg Empire, this started with Maria of Burgundy and reached its peak under Emperor Charles V.

Dukes and Duchesses of Burgundy

Duke/Duchess Born Reign Died Buried
Philip the Bold/Filips de Stoute Pontoise – 1342 1364 – 1404 Hal near Brussels 1404 Dijon
John the Fearless/Jan zonder Vrees Dijon – 1371 1404 – 1419 assassinated Monterau 1419 Dijon
Philip the Good/Filips de Goede Dijon- 1396 1419 – 1467 1467 Dijon
Charles the Reckless/Karel de Stoute Dijon – 1433 1467 – 1477 battle Nancy 1477 Brugge
Maria of Burgundy Brussels – 1457 1477 – 1482 horse accident 1482 Brugge
Philip the Fair Brugge – 1478 1482 – 1506 1506 Brugge
Charles V Ghent – 1500 1506 – 1555 1558 Yuste Spain

As Norman Davies argued in his book  Vanished Kingdoms the the name Duchy of Burgundy is a bit of a misnomer.  As we will see it started with Philip the Bold – mas on of the King of France – who through his marriage with the only daughter of the the Count of Flanders also inherited her father’s land . Her lands were actually bigger that Burgundy itself.

Norman Davies argues for the name ‘States of Burgundy’or the ‘Duke-counts of Burgundy’ would have been better descriptions, others talk about composite monarchies.

At it heights this territory Included: the two Burgundies, Flanders, Artois, Limburg, Brabant, Luxemburg, Namur, Charlois, Zeeland, Zutphen, Guelre, Hainault and Holland.

Together with the Italian city states the cities in the Burgundy lands formed the heartland of the Renaissance, with learning, commerce going hand in hand with arts. There was also lively contact between the two regions with the Italians having large commercial communities in Flanders, Italian financiers financing large parts of the Burgundian affairs and many Burgundian intellectuals and artist travelling to Italy.

Leading European artists include: Robert Campin, Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden,Hans Memling, Claus Schluter, while the tapestry artist are not well known  their output is still considered as the best ever. Music flourished with at its centre the Royal Chapel in Dijon and the leading musicians of the time included people like the Brabantine  Guillaume Dufray and Joskin van de Velde.

The greatest humanist of its time was Erasmus of Rotterdam.

We start with an overview of the for Dukes and their Court in Dijon.  The first 50 years was dominated by French politics, the following 50 years saw their attention moving towards the north of their territory. The consequences of their actions here  led to the creation of  the famous Burgundian lands.


Philip the Bold

Where it all started.

For his brave behaviour Philip, the fourth son of the French King John II – the Good (born in 1342), received his nickname ‘the bold’ in the Hundred Years’ War during the battle of Poitier, which France lost, but the 14 year old prince had shown great courage during this battle and as a reward received in 1360 the fiefdom of the duchy of Touraine (Loire Valley).

Philip, together with his brothers, Charles V, King of France, Louis I, Duke of Anjou and John, Duke of Berry were amongst the most influential, educated and respected leaders of their time.

Très Riches Heures – Book of Hours

Jean, Duc de Berry commissioned what perhaps is the most important artistic work of the High Middle Ages, Très Riches Heures.

The book of hours was a devotional book popular in the Middle Ages. They contain collections of texts, prayers and psalms, often with appropriate decorations, for Christian devotion. While in most of these prayer books illumination and decorations were kept to a minimal, books made for wealthy patrons may be extremely lavish, with full-page miniatures and de Très Riches Heures is no doubt the most richly decorated of all, it has 416 pages, including 131 with large miniatures and many more with border decorations or historiated initials.

Work on this book started in 1409 by the Limbourg brothers (Gebroeders van Limburg – Herman, Paul, and Johan) famous Dutch miniature painters from the city of Nijmegen. They had already worked for the Duke before and from 1404 till 1409 they had worked on the Belles Heures du Duc de Berry. Before that the brothers had also illuminated a bible for Philip the Bold. An interesting side story here is that on one of their travels to Paris, Herman and Johan were captured as Burgundy was at war with Gelre and Nijmegen was the capital of Gelre at that time, Philip however paid for their release and safeguarded them back to Nijmegen.

The brothers worked on the Très Riches Heure till 1416 when the Duke and the artists died (plague epidemic?). Several decades later further work was done by Barthélemy, one of the members of the famous Dutch paining family van Eyck and finally completed by Jean Colombe in 1485.

In 2012 I saw a velum of the book at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – The Cloisters in New York City.

With the sudden death of the last Capetian duke, Philip of Rouvres of Burgundy in 1361, that title had become vacant and the King of France with sovereign powers over this dukedom therefore could appoint a new duke. He arranged for his youngest son Philip to swap Touraine for the more prestigious Burgundy. Philip also received the title ‘pair du royaume’ which put him at the top of the feudal elite of the kingdom and required more or less his permanent presence in Paris.

King John II died in 1364 and was succeeded by Charles V (the French not the Hapsburg Charles V). He wanted to re-arrange the marriage of the only surviving child of Louis II de Male Count of Flanders, Margaretha the 11 year old widow of Philip of Rouves.

However, Louis  had been arranging a marriage with one of the nobilities of the major trading partner of Flanders one of the dukes of England, Edmond of Cambridge. Political intrigue had so far prevented this marriage of being consumed. Nevertheless Louis opposed the French advances.

Reputedly, his mother Margaret of Artois, vexed at the ill will of the count her son, had one day said to him, in front of a larger gathering of knights in Brugge in 1368, as she tore open the front of her dress and took her right breast in her hand, “Since you will not yield to your mother’s wishes, I promise God to soon cut off this breast which fed you and and in contempt  I will throw it to the dogs.” Louis was persuaded and agreed to the marriage.

The wedding took place on June 19, 1369 in Gent and was one of the most spectacular weddings ever seen in Europe. As a gift King Charles ceded Walloon to Flanders.

This was a very astute move from the French King, together with some of the mini states in Italy, Flanders was one of the richest places in Europe with important trading cities such as Ghent, Brugge, Antwerp and Mechelen. However, the richness of these cities also made them very powerful and the Count of Flanders had to continuously negotiate taxes and privileges in order to get the cooperation of these cities. These cities looked after their own affairs – as mini states. The Duke was seen as the natural ruler of the land and for that reason as well for military protection against foreign rulers, taxes and levies were paid to him.

At a very early stage some democratic principles were formalised in what was known as the ‘Blijde Inkomst’ (Joyous Entry – see: Duchy of Brabant). Since 1356, new rulers made their entry into these cities on which occasion they confirmed the privileges of the city. These Privileges functioned as a sort of Constitution. While we were in Brussels in 2005, Louise and I saw the re-enactment of the Blijde Inkomst of the Hapsburg Emperor Charles the V in 1549.

These confirmations and reconfirmations were essential. Before the 19th century groups of people identified themselves foremost locally their link with larger entities such as counties or kingdoms was much more vaguely. However, there was a strong personal tie with the ruler.

In 1379 Philip assisted his father-in-law in suppressing the weaver revolts in Gent however, it was not until 1382 that he ‘finally’ defeated them. As a reward he became the regent (ruwaard) of Flanders. The City of Gent unsuccessfully asked for the help of England to appoint one of their princes as their ruwaard.

After the death of Louis de Male in 1384, Philip the Bold became the ruler of both Flanders and Burgundy, Margaretha furthermore brought in territories of Artois, Compté and Nevers, all bordering the main county. This became the foundation of one of the richest and politically most powerful lands in Europe. Situated between France, England and the Holy Roman Empire it was able to profit from that position but at the same time this position also became its downfall a century later. Nevertheless also in modern times the Netherlands maintains that position of a middle-power wedged between England, France and Germany.


By the 15thcentury only northern Italy was economically stronger than Flanders and Brabant. Brugge was the northern metropolis of that age; an international trade and financial centre, dominated by the merchants rather than the nobility. One of these families was the family of brokers van der Beurse (literally and appropriately “from the purse”), they also had an inn where many Venetian and Hanseatic merchants came together. Their name became synonym and still is for places elsewhere where similar financial functions were performed: the Bourse. It is one of the most beautiful medieval towns of Europe.

It rose to power during the 13thcentury but became glorious after the victorious battle of the Gilded Spurs (Gouden Sporenslag) against France in 1302 (See: Popular uprisings)

An important adviser to Philip in the latter days of his reign was Jean Gerson, an academic from the University of Paris  with some early humanism ideas. He also was also Philip’s personal chaplain. This most certainly will have had a liberal effect on the developments in Burgundy.

Philip’s power play in France

Burgundy of course had its origin in France and especially in the early years the political focus of the Burgundian dukes was on France. They spend more time on French politics than on ruling the new lands the inherited in the north.

The country of birth of Philip the Bold was France. He maintained close relations with his brothers, the oldest became King Charles V. Apart from his Burgundian duties, Philip also took responsibilities over various French bishoprics such as Champagne and Picardy.

Under the French King Charles V rule great progress was made in governing, bureaucracy and politic, which were eagerly adapted by his brother Philip. Through politics, diplomacy and governance Charles was able to slowly but steadily impress his powers on the lands he ruled. He was also a great patron of the arts; he started a library and ordered rich tapestries and paintings.

After the death of the French king in 1380, his 11 year old son became Charles the VI; a royal regency council was established in which Burgundy also participated. This lead to a range of conflicts of interest, lots of money was misappropriated by the various interests.

In 1385 Philip had positioned himself as the strongest figure amongst the regents. He used this to his advantage by arranging the double wedding that year (see below).

After Charles VI came to age it became apparent that he was mentally unstable, which – in 1392 – led to reinstating Philip’s regency. During this period he was able to redirect annually one-eighth to one-sixth of the royal revenues to his own treasury  – mainly for military services provided in the French war against the English[1. Brief history of the Hundred Years War, Desmond Seward, 1978, p.144] At other times Louis, Duke of Orleans held the regency, as greedy as Philips, he also increased taxes in his case to pay for his ambitions in Italy.

Philips power play in France and its war with England  – which made him fabulously rich – was not always seen as being in the interest of the Flemish cities and they often refused to pay taxes the dukes required for their power plays and wars. Also the influx of French officials into Flanders was often resisted.

With Philip’s attention more aimed at France, this left the cities in Flanders to use that situation to further entrench and expand their own powers. During the Burgundian century, Gent in particular would show continuous defiance.

For six years Philips  was the defacto ruler of France.

The strong relation with France was looked at with suspicious eyes by the Holy Emperor, however this all happened during a period of political infighting  in the empire and for a long time the Burgundian Dukes could use that to their advantage (as a result for example in 1362 the emperor gave Franche Compté in fief to Philip). After 1400 the emperors started to become powerful enough again to take action against the Burgundian expansion. This only changed after the emperor son Maximilian marries Maria of Burgundy in 1478, but by now the political advantage had turned towards the empire.

Before their death, in 1401, Philip and Margaretha arranged their succession under their three sons , known as the Burgundian Inheritance:

  • John: Burgundy, Flanders, Artois, Franche Comte. Mechelen
  • Antoon: Brabant, Limburg and Antwerp
  • Philip: Nevers, Rethel

After the death of Philip in 1404, his wife Margaretha ruled his territory for another year till her death in 1405. After which their son John the Fearless could take the title of Duke.

The three brothers worked very closely together and later also included the count of Hainault, Holland and Zeeland . However, after the death of Antoon, Brabant became an unreliable partner , it would take several decades before that situation was reversed.

The Court of Dijon

While the capital of Burgundy was in Dijon, the centre of power rapidly moved to the cities of Flanders and the dukes started to spend far more time in the cities of Flanders than they did in Dijon. Philip the Good only spend 6% of his time in Dijon [x.De Hertogen en zijn Staten, Robert Stein, 2014, p128]. Nevertheless they did built their ducal palace here and also planned for their burial grounds to be here. Dijon still talks about the Joyous Entrance of Charles the Reckless in 1474, when the duke received the keys of the town from the mayor Entienne Berbisey.

The city is a shear delight was its many houses dating back the 14th, 15th and 16thcentury; very characteristic with their pointed gables and geometrically patterned timbering. Many with lovely courtyards and spiral stairways going to the outside galleries of the next floors. During our visit to the city in 2006, our guide used the postman’s key to get access to some of the ‘traiges’ narrow alleyways deep into these private courtyards. In one of those mansions was the delightful restaurant Philippe le Bon where we together with our Dutch friends Paula and Martin celebrated my birthday.

While Dijon was the political capital and it was here that the dukes most of their time spend their winters, for the rest of the year they traveled as true medieval rulers throughout their territory and held their courts in all the important places throughout their lands.

The Carthusian monastery of Champmol

In Dijon I also visited the remnant of what once was the Carthusian monastery of Champmol, flattened after the French Revolution. Build by Philip the Bold as his burial place. The portal of the church from 1388 has survived and shows the sculptures of the duke andthe duchess. The site also has the remnants of the Moses Well (1399) one of the most valuable art objects from the Flemish Renaissance, sculptured by Klaas (Claus) Sluter from Haarlem.

The tomb for Philip was commissioned in 1381 to Jean de Marville. However in 1404 at the duke’s death the tomb was still not finished and his son John the Fearless ordered Klaas Sluter to finish it what finally happened in 1410 (after the death of the sculptor). John also ordered a tomb for himself, but also this one was not ready at the time of his death in 1419. His son Philip de Good renewed the order in 1435; finally this one was finished in 1470.

One need to see these tombs in order to realise why they took close to 100 years to finish them both, they are absolute master pieces. After the French Revolution the tombs were removed from Champmol and eventually found their final resting place in the ducal palace, now the musée des beaux arts. It takes several visits to fully take the pieces of art in and these are easily objects that you could visit time and time again.

Both tombs (actually cenotaphs) look similar with dozens of individual carved mourners following each other in procession.On top of Philip’s cenotaph we see his statue sculptured, on John’s we also see that of his wife Margaretha of Bavaria. Philip’s wife Margaretha was buried in her family burial ground in Lille (now France). The coffins of Philip the Bold, John the Fearless and his wife Margaretha of Bavaria, Philip the Good and his wife Isabel of Portugal were all buried in the vault of the church of the Chartusian monastery.

It is amazing to see the similarities between these tombs and the tombs of the kings of Sidon from ca. 350BCE with similar funeral processions. Claus Sluter the designer of the Burgundian tombs can’t heve seen the tombs from Sidon as they were only unearthed in the 20th century.

The French Revolution, which has resulted in an enormous amount of historic vandalism, also meant the end of Champol. Most of the buildings were demolished with the church portal and the remnants of the Moses well the only few pieces left. Fortunately, they did recognise the importance of the tombs and they were in 1792 moved to the St Benigne church (from 1280) in town. We visited this very interesting church with its mysterious crypt (Rotunda) from the 11thcentury. The archaeological museum next door is another gem, with a fascinating collection of Gallo-Roman artefacts, amongst them items from the sanctuary at the source of the Seine, where the goddess Sequana was worshipped.

I saw another interesting reminder of the Roman past in the St Johns Church, partly built over the old Roman city wall, these have since been excavated and can be see in this part of the church.

Another interesting piece of history is on display on the façade of the Notre-Dame, built between 1210 and 1240. It has three rows of fake gargoyles. They way originally not fake, but one fell off the façade and killed a groom on his way to marry his wife, they were replaced by the fake ones. However, for the purpose of the ducal history, the animated clock on top of the church is important. Known as Jack-o’-the-clock it originated in Coutrai (Kortrijk, Flanders). But as a punishment of the 1382 rebellion Philip the Bold had taken it down from the belfry in that town and send to Dijon as part of the spoils of war. Since that time the people of Dijon have given Jack, who strikes the clock a wife Jacqueline (in 1761) and a daughter Jacquelinette (in 1881).

The Ducal Palace

The site of the ducal palace goes back to Roman times, when it was walled, later the first dukes of Burgundy took procession of this site, but nothing is left of their legacy of this place.

Upon his accession to the dukedom in 1363 Philip the Bold had a new tower built. The Bar Tower took its name from the imprisonment here, of the French King Rene of Anjou, Duke of Bar, from 1431 to 1437. Inside the tower are several rooms; some of them now used by the museum. The bottom room served as the marvellous Sainte Chapelle chapter house with its beautifully carved keystones.

The other building we were allowed to have a glimpse – they are normally locked – was the kitchen, rebuilt in 1433 by Philip the Good, under the supervision of his wife Isabella of Portugal, the building still has according to expert distinct Portuguese features. It is a single room, twelve meters on each side with one central vault leading to an air hole. There are three massive fireplaces with double chimneys.

In front of the kitchen building is still the original well.

The private section of the ducal palace was built between 1450 and 1455; it is in the guard room of this building that – in 1827 – the above mentioned cenotaphs were placed. It was here that the proverbial Burgundian banquets took place.

At the back of the ducal living quarters on the north side of the building a lovely park, known as Place des Dukes, this was the site of the originals gardens of Margaretha of Flanders, legend has it that she had a tortoise from her mother land in the pond in her garden. During the reign of John the Fearless, his wife Margaretha presided over the ducal council of Burgundy. She had a leading role in the governing of the State. It was her who acquired for the defence purpose of Burgundy the territories of Tonnerre and Beaujolais.

Burgundian Feasts

The various feasts and spectacles such as the Joyous Entries, the Feast of the Pheasant,  and meetings of the Knights of the Golden Fleece also gave Burgundy the name of ‘theatre state’. The public could stare in amazement and the stories grew taller and taller and spread as wildfire all over Europe. To such and extend that our current language still refers to a ‘Burgundian lifestyle’.

Its origin of these feats goes back to pre-historic times when the chief invited his warriors for a feast to celebrate victory, this was accompanied with lots of mead. They had a special hall for this, which later on were fortified and slowly turned into castles during the High Middle Ages. The Romans often had a communal feast after a sacrifice. Their nobility however, entertained themselves more through what perhaps we would call dinner parties. The Burgundian parties added gastronomy to their parties.

They  successfully used this style of diplomacy to impress the English, French as well as the Pope at regular intervals. Its history doesn’t end here, state banquets and wedding diners in our time, all evolved from this tradition.

Philip the Good Tower

Towering above the site is the 46 meters high prestigious tower of Philip the Good, completed in 1460. Together which Martin Aalbers, a friendof ours, I climbed the impressive staircase that lead us to the top. From here it provided us with a perfect view Dijon and large parts of Burgundy, a clear symbol of authority. In the beautifully carved staircase a portrait of the architect Jean Poncelet with two workmen is sculptured. We had our apartment directly opposite of the palace, which over the following centuries has been extended and changed into the States-General palace, and now also has a great half round square, Place de la Liberation, where we enjoyed great Burgundian food, wine and coffees.

Country retreat Germolles

Driving through the impressive vineyards of Burgundy we travelled south from Dijon to Germolles. This medieval fortress castle was rebuilt by Philips the Bold and Margaretha of Flanders (as she was known) into a country retreat, hundred years before such practice became popular in France and elsewhere. We met the new owner whose grand-parents had bought the palace and we were given a very interesting tour through the castle.

While fires and other disasters have over the centuries caused lots of damage the castle remarkably has been able to maintain its 14thcentury character. During restoration the most remarkable discovery has been large parts of the original wallpaper with the initials P and M. Some of the rooms are still in their original format and one of the rooms has been linked to Margaretha of Bavaria the wife of their son John. Other interesting parts are the two chapels, the grand fireplace, again with the monographs of the owners and a range of original tiles.

Many of the outlying buildings such as farmhouses are also dating back to the times of Philip and Margaretha. Apart from the palace in Dijon, it is the only remaining residence of the dukes in France. Legend also has it that Margaretha brought with her from Flanders the idea of the green, gold and black glazed roof tiles, which are now a typical feature of Burgundy. We saw many magnificent roof tops, perhaps the most elaborate is the one of the hospital in Beaune.

John the Fearless

John’s  mother Margaretha didn’t have great faith in her son as the new ruler of the Burgundian lands. With his father’s spending most of his time in France, he also had not received  the lessons needed for good governance.

In 1394 John took part in a crusade against the Ottoman Turks and was involved in the capturing of Thrace, most of Bulgaria and Serbian Macedonia. In order to finance the crusade John had been negotiating with the Flemish cities, in this activity he showed great diplomacy and obtained more money from the cities than what was initially anticipated. While the crusade suffered a military disaster at the gates of Nicopolis in 1396 where John was captured, he showed great fearlessness, hence the nickname he was given. After an enormous ransom was paid for by his father, he was triumphantly received back in both Dijon and the Flemish cities.

After this Philip started to take John more into the intimacies of Burgundian politics, governance and diplomacy. During that period he stayed for long times in Dijon, without neglecting his duties in Flanders. The county stayed more or less independent during John’s reign. After his father’s death, John tried to continue the French affairs, but without the lifelong experiences his father enjoyed, he was obviously less successful. Nevertheless after his father’s death he again showed remarkable skills in increasing the family wealth.

Growing towards political unity

During his reign it is also interesting to see the strong regional ties that were already forged by Philip between Burgundy, Flanders, Hainault, Holland, Zeeland and Brabant.

By this time, John the Fearless’ brother Anton was in charge of Brabant and his brother-in-law William VI was the count of Hainault, Holland-Zeeland. These alliances would proof to be critical in the future developments of what would become the Netherlands.

He also allowed litigants in the Council of Flanders to communicate in their own language.

Within the context of the family’s power play in France., he used his family alliance to build an invasion army against his French rival the Duke Louis of Orleans, who in the meantime also had started a relationship with the sexual and emotional deprived wife of the king, Isabelle of Bavaria. While this didn’t go much further than a war of words, in 1407 John organised the assassination of the Duke, which took place on November 23 1407.

To further highlight the international relationships between the various key players, Isabelle of France was the cousin of William VI. A year later another relative John of Bavaria, prince-bishop of Luik appealed successfully to his relatives for assistance; John was the brother of William VI.

While John was able to ‘explain’ his way out of the assassination affair he made some very powerful enemies. The situation also awakened ambitions of other princes in France and a civil war broke out between the two leading families – both related to the Valois King – the Burgundians and the Armaganacs (named after Bernard, Count of Armagnac whose daughter had married Louis of Orleans’ son Charles). Both had armed camps and in particular Paris suffered a lot in this conflict. John received the support of the Parisian bourgeoisie and academics and the Armagnacs from the establishment – the nobles and the royal officials.

In 1411 John was able to take control over Paris.

This civil war severely undermined the war effort against England and France had to pay dearly for this infighting. Even John – now an ally of the English – became worried that England would organise a full scale invasion of France. He summoned the Estates to grant him new taxes and used a campaign of terror to achieve this. He failed and had to ask the Dauphin and his princes to come and save him. The end result of this was that he had to leave Paris and went back to his court in Dijon. The Armagnacs  soon had full control over France. A counter attack on Paris was launched by John in 1414. The Armagnacs now threatened to invade Burgundy and dispose of the Duke. The English King Henry V negotiated a truce between the two parties. Henry played the two parties out against each other for his own political gain.

One of the  most famous battles of the Hundred Year War  took place at Azincourt/Agincourt  in 1415. England invaded Normandy with 8,000 archers and 2,000 men of arms in 1500 ships. Because of continuous rain the battlefield had turned into a mud pool and here over 10,000 disorganised and immobilised Frenchmen an allies  were slaughtered by the English. Unspeakable atrocities were conducted by the English during this massacre.

At the battle John’s brother Anton – the duke of Brabant –  was also killed, and two years later his other ally, brother-in-law William, died as well.  This further weakened John’s position against his French opponents.

In 1417 the Pope facilitated a treaty between England and France.  John decided to now join the English and he was promised  to become – as a vassal of King Henry – to receive the crown of France (claimed by England), for his promised assistance in deposing Charles VI. The following year the Burgundians took Paris and the civil war with Armagnacs raged again. However, when he saw the advances the English were making he felt threatened and tries to negotiate with the Armagnacs.  The Dauphin  used that opportunity to organise John’s assassination in revenge of the murder of Duke Louis. The murder  place during the peace negotiations on September 10, 1419 on the bridge over the Yonne in Montereau.

This also ended the the power position the Burgundian Dukes had held in France for almost 50 years and some historians have argued that this also became the start of the end of the Duchy.


Philip the Good

When John’s son, Philip the Good took over the reigns he basically inherited a bankrupt state and the prospects were looking very grim indeed, the domains were in a state of neglect, the financial administration was in total disarray and there were ongoing popular uprisings mainly aimed at the high taxes.  This was at the time that the Burgundians and Armagnacs were at each other throat. This allowed the English to progress their conquering of France. Philip aligned himself with the English and together they began to negotiate with King Charles and his wife Queen Isabeau. This resulted in France having to sign one of the most humiliating treaties ever, signed in Troyes, it made Henry heir of the throne of France. On the 1st of September 1420 Henry V, Philip the Good and King Charles made a ceremonial entry into Paris, which formalised the English occupation, which would last for 15 years, its occupation of Normandy lasted 30 years.

The arrogance of the English King and that of  his nobility that now flooded into France created serious animosity with the Burgundian nobility, which started to create a distance between the two allies. At the same time the costs of the war nearly bankrupted England and its people suffered poverty and distress as a result of the financial burdens.

With the reign of Philip the Good the emphasis of Burgundy finally shifted from France to Flanders and Holland-Zeeland. The influence of Burgundy in France ended with the assassination of John the Fearless. He successfully increased his influence in the wealthy territories of Brabant and Holland-Zeeland. Philip became one the mightiest rulers of Europe.  Areas such as Utrecht, Groningen, Friesland, Guelre and even Cleve – while technically part of the Holy Roman Empire – became all largely part of the political conglomerate of Burgundy [1. The Emperor Charles V, Karl Brandi, 1939, p 22]. Perhaps a better explanation of what was happening during these Burgundian times was given by British historian John Ellis, who called the political entity a ‘composite monarchy’, personal unions between the various principalities, they remained independent – a situation that would continue for several centuries.

Nevertheless within the emerging new environment  the famous Burgundian parties became more elaborate, as an example the wedding between Philip and his third wife Isabelle of Portugal is still ranked as one of the largest parties ever conducted in Europe. The wedding cake contained a sheep, there were fountains where lions spouted wine and 70 trumpeters with banners represented all the territories. The wedding took place on January 7th1430 in Sluis but continued later on in Brugge. By marrying Isabelle, Philips for the first time went outside the dynasty of the great powers, but nevertheless well calculated. Isabelle was not only the daughter of the king of Portugal, but also granddaughter of John of Gaunt, son of Edward III of England and duke of Lancaster. However, after a never ending range of mistresses and 26 illegitimate children the marriage slowly but steadily deteriorated.

Another, major event in the life of  Philips the Good was the Feast of the Pheasant (Banquet of the Oath of the Pheasant) a banquet  on 17 February 1454 in Lille. Its purpose was to promote a crusade against the Turks, who had taken Constantinople the year before. However, the crusade never took place.

At the end of his life Philips the Good was:

  • Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Luxembourg and Limburg,
  • Count of Flanders, Artois, Franche Compté, Hainault, Holland, Zeeland, Namur, Auxerre, Macon and Ponthieu; and
  • Seigneur of (west) Friesland, Salins and Mechelen.

Some of the titles however did not necessarily represent  separate territories, they were simply titular.

The funeral of Philip the Good in 1467 was one of the grandest spectacles ever performed in Europe, an event that was widely recorded and what stayed in people’s memory for many generations.

Order of the Golden Fleece

Coats of Arms Knights of the Golden Fleece

During the wedding festivities  Philips founded the Order of Golden Fleece (L’Ordre de ta Toison d’or – Orde van het Gulden Vlies), the last remnant of medieval chivalry. It confirmed his leading role in Europe. Its motto was non religious which was rather unique for its times: ” Pretium Laborum Non Vile” ( Not a bad reward for working). Like other orders such as the English Order of the Garter – on which it was modeled – it was a select association designed to honour the duke’s most noble subjects and his foreign allies. The fleece of a ram was a reminder of the heroic Greek Argonauts, Jason was most likely Philip’s  childhood hero. It stood for knightly honour, adventure and the protection of the Catholic faith. Philip would have loved to sail to the Holy Land and ‘liberate’ Jerusalem.

In Brugge initially, 24 members were entered into the Order. Originally all members were French speaking, in 1445 Philips appointed for the first time nobles from Holland, Zeeland and Brabant, also over the years, the number of members increased. Chapter meetings, originally annually but later on less frequent,  were as elaborate as the Burgundian feasts and lasted for weeks. They took place all over the Duchy and were a combination of secular and religious activities and followed strict traditional patterns. Shields of the members decorated the churches where the chapters were held in Brugge (11e capital 1468, 13th capital 1478), Gent (1445, 1559) and Den Bosch. These shields were donated to the church at the end of the chapter. During our various travels we have come across several of these churches with these shields still proudly decorating these places. The Duke of Burgundy was the head of the order, they were succeeded by the Hapsburg dynasty of the Holy Roman Emperors. A separate branch established itself headed by the Spanish kings. Under Charles V the Order had 51 knights. During his reign four chapters were held: Brussels (1516), Barcelona (1519), Doornik (1531) and Utrecht (1546). He was also present at the chapter in Antwerp in 1556.

Of interest here is also that in 1549, Gerhard Veltwyk born in Ravenstein became the treasure of the Golden Fleece.

In 2003 we visited the Hapsburg Treasury where we also saw the insignia of the Golden Fleece as well as many Burgundian tapestries and gowns. This triggered us to travel further in the footsteps of these Burgundian dukes.  Amongst the members personal and political conflicts could be treated in a dignified and therefore acceptable manner; a forerunner of the various international treaties and summits of today. Some of the members of the Order that are relevant to the history covered in this book: 1430 Florimond and Jacob van Brimeu (Megen) 1445 Reinoud II, Lord of Brederode en Vianen, Hendrik van Borssele, Lord of Veere (see: Holland) 1456 Adolf van Kleef (Ravenstein) 1461 Adolf de Jonge, Duke of Gelre, Count of Zutphen, Lodewijk van Brugge, Lord of Gruuthuse 1473 Engelbrecht II, Count of Nassau and Vianden 1478 Willem, Lord of Egmond, Wolfart van Borssele, Lord of Veere, Joost van Lalaing, Lord of Montigny 1481 Jan III, Lord of Bergen op Zoom, Albrecht III, Duke of Saksen 1491 Jan, Count of Egmond 1501 Cornelis de Glymes, Lord of Bergen op Zoom and Zevenbergen 1505 Floris van Egmond, Count of Buren, Jacob, Count of Horn, Hendrik III, Count of Nassau 1516 Filibert van Châlon, Prince of Oranje, Jan van Wassenaar, Viscount of Leiden, Maximiliaan of Bergen op Zoom, Lord of Zevenbergen 1519 Christiaan II, King of Denmark, Sigismund I, King of Poland 1531 Antoon, Marquis of Bergen op Zoom, Maximiliaan van Egmond, Count of Buren, René van Châlon, Prince of Oranje 1546 Albrecht V, Duke of Bavaria, Lamoraal van Egmond, Prince of Gavere 1555 Karel van Brimeu, Count of  Megen, Filips van Montmorency, Count of Horn Jan IV, Marquis of Bergen op Zoom, Willem van Nassau, Prince of Oranje

Attention to culture and art received a great boost during the reign of Philip.  They remained very important elements of the Burgundian ‘theatre’ state. It was under his patronage that Jan van Eyck painted his famous ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ altarpiece in Gent (1432), which we admired at our visit to the St Bavo cathedral, built between 1150 and 1560. The 38 Golden Fleece shields here date back to the 7th capital of the Order which was held in this cathedral in 1445. There are also the shields of the 51 knights of the Order from 1559.

Interestingly Burgundian artists did not have to rely on the nobles alone; they also had a wide and varied clientèle within the rich cities in Flanders and Brabant. It was not just art and culture that flourished.

In 1425 the first university if the Low Countries was founded in Leuven. During our ‘Brabant study trip’ in 2005 we found this university still a lively as ever. Its town hall from 1447 is another example of Brabantine splendour.

The diminishing influence of Burgundy on France also reflected the increase rival of French power thanks to the victories of Jean D’Arc in 1429 and 1430 the French started to look more favourable of winning the 100 year war against England. In Reims we visited the famous cathedral where Jean D’Arc persuaded Charles VII to crown himself, in 1429, as the new king of France.

After taking full control over Brabant. Philip ordered master builder Jan Ruisbroek from Brabant to extend the duke’s palace Coudenberg in Brussels, we visited the very impressive underground ruins of this palace during our trip ‘following in the footsteps of the dukes in Brabant’ in 2005.

As mentioned above, some of the most precious tapestries and regal gowns ended up in Vienna after Burgundy became part of the Hapsburg Empire.

Flanders and Holland depended for a significant part f their trade for good relationships with England and Philip fostered these relationships. However, he was somewhat reluctant when this led to his involvement in the siege of Paris by the English. His ambivalence also showed in a rapid peace treated he, separately from England, signed with the French king in 1431.

Philip now actively pursued a foreign policy of neutrality. He also played a key role at the Church Council of Basel and successfully organised, what has been termed as the world’s first peace conference, which took place in Arras (Atrecht) in 1435, between France, England, Burgundy and the Pope.

Simultaneously as a new European superpower the country started to lobby for an acknowledgement of this situation through an upgrade from Dukedom to Kingdom. This would be the main foreign policy for the next 50 years, but because of sheer arrogance of his son Charles, it never eventuated. The Treaty of Arras was also designed to make satisfaction for the murder of Duke John the Fearless and to re-establish peace between Burgundy and France. Philip received a definite guarantee of Boulogne, Artois and the districts of the Somme and was exempted from paying homage to the French king. At least in name it now placed the duke next to the king. The Treaty also led to the isolation of England and hastened the end of the Hundred Years’ War between France and England.

Charles the Reckless

The very intelligent Isabelle of Portugal will most probably have said enough is enough to Philip after she got exposed to yet another mistress. The relationship between his father and his mother had an effect on their child Charles who was born in 1433, he inherited his mother’s strong will and grew up under her guidance, the estranged relationship between his father and mother must have had his influence on the constant quarrels between father and son.

Charles like his predecessors grew further apart from France. This deteriorated situation between the two also resulted in lack of ‘succession education’. Coincidently the same happened at the French court where the heir of Charles VII, Louis XI suffered similar fall outs which eventually saw Louis fled to the Burgundian court. While Philip the Good saw this as an opportunity to heal the relationship with France, Charles to the contrary was very wary of the French guest, who indeed weaved a net of intrigue which eventually played a key role in the downfall of the Burgundian Empire.

Charles had a much better understanding of what he saw happening in front of his eyes, but he was virtually exiled from the court to have any direct influence on this undermining process. When he finally got into power in 1465, he certainly did so with more vigour and more duty. However, he lagged diplomacy and failed to take advice from others. Charles temper and consequent actions gave him the title ‘the Bold’ however a more correct translation would be ‘the Reckless’ and I prefer to use that translation. He saw himself as a Burgundian knight: boastful, vain, recklessly brave, unbridled both in activity and fantasy [2. The Emperor Charles V, Karl Brandi, 1939, p 32]

While until this time the expansion of Burgundy had been peaceful, mainly through marriage arrangements, with Charles that was changed from now on expansion meant war.

Another European highlight of that time was the wedding between Charles and Margaretha of York which took place in Brugge in 1468. It signalled a change in international politics, with a strengthening of the ties with England, clearly a move against France. However, thanks to his fathers hospitality Louis XI had been able to obtain insight knowledge of the operations of the Burgundian courts and with the assistance of Charles the Bold’s enemies he was able to undermine the Burgundian Empire.

The conflict started around the time he took over the reigns from his father. The first battle against France was won by audacity rather than tact and strategy, which earned Charles the title ‘the Bold’. From that moment on King Louis provided support to the variety of Charles’s opponent such as Luik, Lorraine, the Swiss cities, Guelders, Luxembourg and Flanders. In order to suppress the ongoing struggle for independence Charles the Bold had to suppress uprisings in Mechelen and of course Gent and he had Dinant destroyed in 1467. A year later he allowed his army to plunder Luik, after he successfully besieged this city after an uprising. He spread fear throughout his realm and alienated the people , the cities and many of his own peers.

In order to overcome the strong privileges that existed in Brabant and the rivalry between the various provinces, he reallocated the political and administrative powers to Mechelen, an independent enclave within Brabant. This remained into effect until after Margaretha of Austria’s death in 1530 (see here), when the court moved to Brussels.

In Holland he exploited the Hooks and Cods disputes, creating havoc in the meantime in order to undermine local privileges and force these territories into paying higher taxes to support his war activities. He also didn’t shy away from providing lucrative jobs to the highest bidders. This also resulted in higher tolls, fines, etc.

In 1470, he declared that he no longer accepted any suzerainty from the Parliament in Paris. Charles was also nearly able to link Burgundy (the lands over here) to the northern territories (the lands over there). He annexed Upper Lorraine and after the siege of Nijmegen in 1473 also got (at least temporarily) the control of Gelre.

He used his victories to try and negotiate the royal title of king during a visit to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III in Trier, in the end he did arrange a marriage between his daughter Maria and Frederick’s heir Maximilian, but he failed to obtain the royal title, more because of arrogance rather than a total unwillingness from the side of the emperor. Through this wedding proposal he basically signed the end of the Burgundian empire, as this betrothal would see Burgundy become a part of the Hapsburg empire.

His arrogance secured him enemies on all sides: in France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Swiss Cantons. After 1474, he started to lose the various battles against these opponents. Again ignoring advice he decided to take on all his enemies at once, and he did so in what usually would be the off war season. In heavy snow he was totally and utterly defeated during the battle of Nancy on January 5th 1477. His body was not found and identified until several days later and led to the legend that he was not killed but escaped and would come back; a rumour that persisted throughout the region for several years after his dead. We visited Nancy in 2009 and stood at the supposed spot where Charles was killed.

Partners of the Burgundian Dukes and Duchesses

Dukes/Duchesses Wives and husbands Children
Philip the Bold 1342 – 1404 Margaretha de Male 1384 – 1405 John (the Fearless – duke), Anthony (of Brabant- duke), Philip (Nevers, Rethel- count), 2 illegitimate children
John the Fearless 1371 – 1419 Margaretha of Bavaria +1405 Philip (the Good  -duke), 3 daughters, 4 illegitimate children
Philip the Good 1396 – 1467

Michelle of France (Valois) +1422 Bonne of Artois + 1425

Isabelle of Portugal

Charles (the Reckless – duke), 26 illegitimate children
Charles the Reckless 1433 – 1477

Catherine of France +1446

Isabelle of Bourbon +1456

Margaretha of York +1503

Maria (Duchess of Burgundy)
Maria of Burgundy1457 – 1482 Husband: Maximilian of Austria +1519 Philip the Fair,  Margaretha of Austria
Austrian and Spanish Period
Philip the Fair1478 – 1506 Juana of Aragon +1555 Eleonora of France, Charles V,  Isabella of Denmark, Ferdinand of Austria, Maria of Hungary, Catherina of Portugal
Charles V1500 – 1558

Johanna van Gheenst (not married)

Isabelle of Portugal + 1539 Barbara Blomberg (not married)

Margarethaha of Parma(1), Philip II (2), Maria of Bohemia(2), Johanna of Portugal(2) , Juan of Austria (3)
Philip II1527 – 1598

Maria of Portugal +1545

Mary Tudor +1558

Elizabeth of Valois +1568

Anna of Austria

Carlos (1), Isabella (3), Anna (4)

Burgundian Expansion

The Burgundian were skilful in utilising that opportunities that came their way. Trading, negotiating, promising, cheating and buying, were they able to bring together a motley arrangements of counties, duchies, bishoprics and lordships. This in the end led to group of 17 provinces united under the Burgundian rulers.They were situated in two kingdoms, several bishopric and archbishoprics and  cut across three languages. However, because of this they were depending on the support of the people and the institutions developed by the cities and the regions. Ceremony played a key role in all of this.

The most far reaching of these developments was, as mentioned  Philip the Bold’s arrangement in 1375 of a double wedding – which took place a decade later, in Cambrai in 1385 – of the male heirs of Burgundy-Flanders-Artois and Hainault-Holland-Zeealand with each others sisters. This peaceful arrangement brought the two leading powers in the Low Countries together an event that is still relevant today’s political and geographical situation in this part of Europe.

 Population Burgundian lands in the 15th century

Region Population
Vlaanderen 705,000
Artesië 176,000
Brabant 399,000
Limburg 15,500
Henegouwen 202,000
Holland 254,000
Zeeland 85,000
Namen 18,000
Luxemburg 68,000
Gelre 135,000
Picardië 231,500
Total 2,289,000
Bourgondië 500,000
Franche-comté 242,000
Total zuidelijke nederlanden 742,000
Total Burgundian lands 3,031,000

(Source: De Hertog en zijn Staten, Robert Stein)

  Years of formal acquisition of the Burgundian principalities

Region Formal acquisition
Bourgondië 1363





Charolais 1390
Namen 1421








Luxemburg 1462

(Source: De Hertog en zijn Staten, Robert Stein)


Double marriage of 1385

John the Fearless1371 – 1419Mother: Margaretha de Male (Flanders)Father: Philip the Bold Margaretha of Bavaria 1363 – 1423Mother: Margaretha of Brieg (Silesia)Father: Albert I of Bavaria Count of Holland-Zeeland and Hainault
Margaretha of Burgundy 1374 – 1441Mother: Margaretha de Male (Flanders)Father: Philip the Bold William of Bavaria – Straubing 1365 – 1417Mother: Margaretha of Brieg (Silesia)Father: Albert I of Bavaria Count of Holland- Zeeland and Hainault

William of Bavaria died in 1417 with his daughter Jocaba his only heiress. She married the following year John IV of Brabant. This increased the power of Burgundy(who had just been able to bring this Duchy under its influence), Holland was next on their radar.

However Jacoba’s uncle John of Bavaria, the elected bishop of Luik and brother of Willem, challenged Jacoba’s succession right, because he was the oldest surviving male in the family. Initially it looked like he would play along and was pivotal in arranging Jacoba’s marriage. Secretly however, he also promised Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund the fiefdom of this territory. At the same time he would marry Elizabeth of Gorlitz, Anton of Brabant’s widow, and for these services he would receive Luxembourg.

These intrigues  resulted in a civil war that lasted for a decade and resulted in financial ruin for, until that time, the still more or less independent territories. John IV of Brabant signed several, for his dukedom unfavourable treaties, with John of Bavaria. His wife Jacoba didn’t agree with him and also the new Burgundian duke Philip the Good became increasingly worried about this situation. In all of this the States of Brabant became an ally of Philip the Good and John IV was temporarily disposed of and his younger brother Philip of Sint-Pol became regent (Ruwaard) of Brabant. This title provided him with responsibilities similar to the Stadtholders on other provinces. However, Brabant was directly governed under the Duke and as such the States of Brabant held relatively more power than the States in other provinces.

Together with the next Duke of Burgundy Philip the Good (since 1419), Jacoba of Bavaria tried to reconquer lost territories in Holland-Zeeland, from her uncle John of Bavaria. At the same time John IV of Brabant, unhappy with his disposal entered with his troops several cities in Brabant. However, he was made prisoner by the guilds of Brussels. John IV admitted his mistakes and was reinstated in 1421.

Slowly but steadily Burgundy regained more and more control over the region, Brabant had already been secured in their camp and also John of Bavaria now also was forced to join Burgundy, as he was running out of money to continue his campaign. After the death of John of Bavaria in 1425, Holland and Zeeland went to John IV, who at least officially was still the legitimate husband of Jacoba. However, all of these succession wars had cost John IV dearly and in 1425 he handed over the rights to Holland – Zeeland to Philips the Good.

Jacoba violently opposed this but eventually this dispute was solved with the peace treaty known as the ‘Kiss of Delft’, signed in this city in 1428. Under the terms of the treaty Jacoba was recognised as the countess, however she was not allowed to marry without Philip’s consent; this virtually meant that she was handing over power to Philips.

Meanwhile in Brabant John IV died in 1427 and his younger brother Sint-Pol succeeded him. He desperately tried to wrestle back control over Brabant from Burgundy and proofed to be a much stronger ruler than his older brother. Unfortunately he died suddenly in 1430 and this was an opportune moment for Philip the Good to take personal control of Brabant. He made his Joyous Entry in Leuven on 5th October 1430. For a broader overview of the Country of Holland and the Duchy of Brabant see: Holland and Brabant under Burgundian Rule

The new Burgundian lands –  a composite monarchy

The territory was divided into two geographically separated regions the lands over here (Burgundy and Compté) and the lands over there (also known of the Low Countries). An estimated 3 million people lived within the empire and the wealth of the cities also resulted in relatively prosperous hinterland. To feed a city of 20,000 people 20 villages were needed.

Already with this extension of the Flanders the Duchy was thrown right in the middle of the ongoing power struggle between France and Germany.  The Duchy itself fell clearly within the the influence of France. However, most of the new Burgundian lands were part of the Carolingian Middle Kingdom that had landed in the hands of the German Emperor.  This new and larger Burgundy was therefore  in an ideal position to use this in a time when the power of the two ‘super powers’ had weakened because of internal infighting.  After the collapse of the Carolingian Empire  this ‘middle part’  had started to splinter into smaller and smaller pieces with lots of dukes and counts squabbling over the various crumbs. However it were also these dynamics and a lesser form of central governance in these lands that allowed for progress and innovation that started to occur in the various mini states in what is now Italy and in the north in Flanders and a bit later in Holland.

In the various land grabs France and the Holly Roman Empire had been fighting for the Middle Kingdom and various parts of it were split lands controlled by ‘German’ and ‘French’ emperors and kings. Also the 100 year war between France and England (1337 – 1453 – see: The Great Death) put Burgundy often in an interesting position that resulted in political and financial gain. But it equally put the relationship between the dukes and the cities at a test as the role played by the dukes also often required extra taxes for the war efforts.

The Dukes were not the natural inheritors of the new lands, Philip and his successors  obtained this largely through private and complex family arrangements. Therefore, in financial (tax) negotiations they always had to provide concessions to the local powers and in Flanders, Brabant, Holland and Zeeland these were the cities.

While the actual power of the dukes was rather limited their unique political and geographic position, allowed them to become very wealthy – based on the wealth of the cities – and this provided them with unprecedented (international) prestige.  Wedged between France and England – where the concept of nation-states started to emerge – Burgundy maintained its truly medieval character. Its knightly culture and the concept of chivalry remained central to its operations. The Order of the Golden Fleece was perhaps one of the most splendid aspects of this tradition. However, this also prevented them from establishing their own kingdom.

It is estimated that when Burgundy was at is peak  (1470), the seventeen provinces together had a population between 2.5 and 3 million, of which 66% lived in the country side and the rest in the cities, the highest urbanisation rate of Europe. At this time the economic power started to shift from the southern parts (Flanders) to the northern parts (Holland Zeeland). In those latter provinces just over 50% of its population lived in cities.

The middle region Brabant, Luik, Namen and Hainaut  held the major transport infrastructure; rivers and roads. In all 30% of the population lived here. The major agriculture lands were in Artois, Picardy, Gelre, Utrecht, Overijssel and Friesland. Here between 20-25% of the people lived in cities.

The Rhine river system that crossed the region was one of the most important trading routes in Europe and through toll and other transport arrangements such as staple rights, added enormously to the wealth of the counts

Still largely under developed were the provinces of Luxembourg, Limburg and Drenthe were less than 20% lived in cities.

The capital of the Seventeen Provinces was in Brussels, a city with at time a population of 33,000.

During it heydays the German countries on the fringe of the Duchy: Cleve, Julich, Berg and Mark as well as the north-eastern part of France were also under the strong influence of the Burgundians.

Administrative and Financial centralisation

Based on the developments of the French administrative system, already Philip the Bold had started to also bring these structures to Flanders. Philip the Good now also had the power to slowly but steadily centralise the various administrative, financial and legal structures of the other territories.

Based on the French system of vice-roi, the Burgundian dukes appointed stadtholders in the newly acquired territories. They chaired the local councils (Council of  Brabant, the States of Holland and Zeeland and Limburg and the Lands of Overmaas). It is unclear why Flanders and Brabant never received a stadtholder. The fact that the dukes spend more of their times in the Southern Low Countries could perhaps be the reason. Brabant however, received on the continued request of their States, a chancellor.

Start of the stadtholder function

Region Year
Bourgundy 1366
Franche-Compté 1384
Flanders – Waloon 1384
Limburg, Overmaas 1397
Zeeland 1425
Holland 1426
Namen 1430
Hainault 1434
Luxembourg 1444
Gelre 1473

Source: De Hertog en zijn Staten, Robert Stein, 2014 p135)

While the policy of centralisation had its ups and downs it started to provide higher levels of social harmony and the region reached a standard of living that was not superseded until well into the 19th century. Also the political powers became more centralised and also the Burgundian Court became separated from the Civil Administration. From around 1435 a separate legal unit started to form. In 1445 Philip formalised this into the Supreme Court (Grote Raad), made up of a mixture of nobles and specialised expert, eventually settling on a 50/50 split. However, at this stage it was still very much a travelling Court.  In 1473, under Charles the Reckless it was established as a separate Parliament in Mechelen (Grote Raad van Mechelen), he also created  a Court of Audit, this council had a majority of experts.

This was an important development, as an example between 1355 and 1430 in the Council of Brabant 170 members of the 285 strong Council came from the nobility (60%), around 65 represented the clergy (22.5%) and approx 45 represented the cities (15%). Only 35 people held an academic title (12%). The shift to 50/50 therefore was a remarkable one.

The lack of specialised expertise was also addressed with the opening of the University of Louvain in 1425, as specifically stated in the foundation bull for the whole of the Netherlands. The result of this started to become visible in the 50th and 60th of the 15th century, when the number of council members with a university degree started to have a major impact on the professionalism of the court and its administration.

The nobles didn’t receive any remuneration for their services, but they received lodging at the court as well as food, cloths and other necessities. The were assisted by clerical staff who received a so called prebendary and the expert officials did of course receive a salary. Slowly but steadily these developments ended the feudal systems to be replaced by a bureaucracy, selections became more and more based on competency and  expertise.

However, the transition was far from easy, there was no way that the powerful nobility would relinquish its influence and at the same time the duke needed the political assistance of these intermediaries. In Brussles, powerful families during that period of transition where de Croyes, Lannoy and Brimeu. In Holland, van Borselen. However, towards the end of the 15th century, the influence of most of the once so powerful nobility started to wane as they were no longer able to keep up with the complexity of the juridical and administrative systems. Only a few of the most powerful families survived, especially those who ensured that their sons received a university education.

The once most powerful court officials such as the chancellor and seneshal, were – for similar reasons – no longer members of the Council.

Slowly also the ‘French’ language domination in the various councils started to change. After the death of Charles the Reckless, in het Groot Privilege of 1477, Maria of Burgundy had to promise that she would appoint members who spoke Netherlands, German and French and significant changes were set in motion.

Another key development was the change from a traveling court to one that would settle in one location. In 1431 the Council of Brabant found its permanent residency in Coudenberg the palace of the dukes in Brussels. In Flanders the council moved between Ghent and Ieper. The Court of Holland settled in the Ridderzaal in The Hague, and in Gelre they occupied the Court of Batenburg in Arnhem.

Under the Regency of Margaretha of Austria (1507 – 1530) the separation became very visible as the Court was established in Mechelen and the Central Government operated from  Brussels. However Maria of Hungary moved the Court to Brussels again,  after she became the new Governess in 1531.

Already in 1427 Philips was able to bring all Estates of his northern territories together in Hainault. This event became the first tentative start of the States General of the Netherlands (Staten Generaal).  In 1464 the Estates, this time in Brugge, representatives of Brabant, Flanders, Artois, Hainault, Holland, Zeeland and Namur were again called together. They started to address issues that were of common interest to them, this were the first steps in a process that would lead to the establishment of the States General Assembly. Between 1431 and 1476 they met 35 times at very irregular intervals. In comparison the combined meetings of the individual States during that period added up to around 4,000 [x.De Hertogen en zijn Staten, Robert Stein, 2014, p156]

Hospice de Beaune

The aforementioned bureaucracy also allowed for the emergence of a range of university educated experts in financial, legal and administrative affairs, which resulted in great benefits to the Burgundisation process. One of the rising stars was the Burgundian (proper) Nicholas Rodin. He rose to the position of chancellor to Philip the Good, a function he held from 1422 to 1457; gathering a noble title and great wealth in the process. Nicholas and his wife Guigone de Salins founded in 1443 the famous Hôtel Dieu, Hospice de Beaune. A city ravaged by the 100 year war with lots of poverty and famine. He was inspired by similar building he had seen in the great cities of Flanders. The Salledu Polyptyque hosts an altar polyptyque with the powerful paintings of the Last Judgment by Rogier van der Weyden. There is also the equally impressive 72 meters long Grand Salle desPauvres with its 28 four-posted beds. The perfectly preserved Hospital was one of the most beautiful buildings we visited during our trip. It was still in use as a hospital until 1971.

Opposition to centralisation

However, centralisation, integration and harmonisation meant that the wealthy cities in Flanders, Brabant and Holland, slowly started to lose their privileges to the nobility who ruled the (centralised) Court.  Sometimes that was compensated with good trade deals that Philip could negotiate with England or the Hanseatic League. But at regular intervals the cities revolted against the limitations that where put on their privileges or the Burgundisation through the appointments from officials from outside the city, often outside the territory.

Ghent remained the most rebellious city, followed by Brugge. Ghent even captured Philip, only releasing him after he had made concessions to the city. However, the uprising remained nearly always limited to one city at the time. Brugge revolted in 1437 and Philip was nearly killed inside the gates of the city. As a result he provided city privilege to the city of Sluis; so far this city has basically formed part of the extended powers of Brugge. Philip isolated Brugge and the city was forced to make peace in 1438 under the agreements £480,00 had to paid in compensation and ten men were executed. From this time onwards the Council of Flanders, instead of the City of Brugge, began making judicial decisions between the towns. Because of the rivalry between these cities, Philip could address the issues one by one, which over time gradually undermined the power of these individual cities. Favouritism and patronage through functions, jobs and bonuses, which played on the greed of the leading class, was also used by Philip to slowly but surely attract more power towards him.

In 1451 the citizens of Ghent refused to pay a salt tax, Philip proved a conflict that allowed him to increase his powers over the city. The city was defeated and was ordered to pay £840,000 in fines. The downside of course of all of this was fraud, corruption and maladministration, something Burgundy would suffer from throughout Philip’s reign.


Oss prospering in Burgundian times

The need for textiles both for export and internal use saw for example the city of Oss producing large quantity of flax. Oss was one of the first towns in Brabant to get a Cloth Hall (Lakenhal). A significant building was already functioning in the centre of the town by the middle of the 14th century. There still is a suburb called Flax Corner (Vlashoek) which remembers those prosperous times, a situation that didn’t return to this city until the late 1800s. I have only come across Oss once as an indication of its relative importance during the Burgundian/Brabantine period and that was in 1374 when it was ranked as the 19th largest town in Brabant. It did no longer appear in the top 25 list of 1437.

Bishoprics of Luik (Liege) and Utrecht

They operated as small enclaves within the French, – German – Burgundian lands. In 1390 John of Bavaria, somehow got himself elected as the prince-bishop of Luik. In 1408 internal struggles, supported by the French Duke of Orleans were suppressed thanks to the assistance of his family members from Brabant, Holland-Zeeland and Burgundy. This victory strengthened the influence of Burgundy in this German territory. This was further formalised in a truce that was signed between John the Fearless and Sigismund in 1417. Philips the Good was the first one who was able to gain control over the prince-bishopric of Utrecht. He successfully got his illegitimate sons David and Philip appointed by the Pope as  successive bishops of Utrecht.  However, it was not until Roman Emperor Charles V in the 16th century that Utrecht was fully annexed into his empire.


Under the chapter Brabant we have seen that Luxembourg was granted to Wenceslaus the husband of Johann of Brabant.  Through Anton it became part of Burgundy. When Anton’s 2nd wife Elizabeth from Gorlitz died childless in 1451, according to previous arrangement, this brought the territory directly under Philip the Good. But of course also her plenty of opposition but eventually he could formally take possession of the territory.

The end of the Burgundian Duchy

Often to the annoyance and frustration of both the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor, Burgundian operated all but in name as an independent kingdom. However, after the disastrous battle at Nancy, the enemies of Burgundy immediately took advantageous of the situation. The French king Louis XI denied Charles’ daughter Maria of Burgundy the appendage of Burgundy and the Duchy fell back into French hands.

The same applied to the Duchy of Lorraine, it at the same time was taken back by the French King, it maintained a quasi independent position till it was fully integrated in the kingdom in 1766.

The excuse used to annex these lands was that according to ancient tradition appendage of Burgundy and Lorraine was only provided to the male line of the family.  The core of the once proud Duchy of  Burgundy became a province which later on became known as Bourgogne.

The rest of what was left of Burgundy came under the control of the Emperor. Interestingly the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V kept the title as Duke of Burgundy, despite the fact that the original Duchy was no longer part of it.  He created the Burgundian Circle as is discussed in a separate chapter.


This noble family was originally only of a lower rank. Their name is derived from the Habichtsburg (Wawk’s Castle) built in 1020 by the Bishop of Stassburg. The title Count occurred for the first time in 1090. At that time their power-base included: Swabia, Alsac and northern Switzerland. In 1276 Rudolf I acquired Austria and Styria. They rapidly became the most powerful family in the Holy Roman Empire, Rudolf I and Albert I became emperors and with Albert II the family held on to that position from 1438 till 1806.

However, the  Dutch Uprising (1568)  also saw a further split of these lands. A further splintering of the original Burgundian lands took place after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 .

However, for the purpose of this study – which concentrates on the north-western lands – we will follow the developments of those  ‘States of Burgundy’ which fell under the control of the Emperor.


Maria of Burgundy – bridge between Burgundy and Hapsburg

After the defeat of Charles the Reckless,  France also threatened the northern territories and unsuccessfully also tried to claim Flanders. With the support of the French King Gelre took back its independence that it only had handed over to Charles the Bold a few years earlier. Luik also used the opportunity to regain independence. Luxembourg was also in turmoil but decided in favour of Maria in 1480.

The dispute over Burgundy would flare up again under the rule of Charles V, but even despite a short war with France, Burgundy would never be given back again.

Amazingly the unity of the provinces was such that Maria of Burgundy and her stepmother Margaretha of York were able to keep most of the northern territories agreeing to stay together in order to face the French King who was ready to use the opportunity to increase his territory.  They did so by reinstating the privileges of the cities and provinces. This resulted in The Great Privilege (Groot Privilege) which was signed within two weeks after the death of Charles on February 11th 1477. Maria and Margaretha were able to get a northern army together and by the summer of 1477 the French threat had ceased.

Several of the overarching institutions such as the Parliament of Mechelen (Grote Raad) were abandoned, giving the individual states back their local powers.

The Great Privilege can be considered as the first constitution of the Low Country, while it was one of the first indications of the organisation of a modern state, the Estates General remained cohesive and loyal to the Burgundian dynasty. The Great Privilege was regularly referred to during the Dutch revolt against Spain with started in 1568.

Obviously the international trends towards centralisation could not be stopped and under the Burgundian Hapsburg ruler Philip the Fair the Grote Raad was reinstated in 1504.

In 1479 Margaretha established the Princes Court (Prinsenhof) in Mechelen, while each member of the family had their own court this was combined in one family court.

In August Maximilian arrived in the Low Countries and he married the 22 year old Maria on 18th of August in Ghent. This further strengthened the stability in this region. He was welcomed by the people of Ghent as a liberator. After battles he fought with France in 1478 and 1479 a truth was finally signed with France. However, after a reasonable good start the relationship between Maximilian and the cities went downwards, he was mostly seen not more than a guardian and a foreign ruler. He tried to undo as much as possible of the Great Privilege in order the limit the power of the individual states and cities in order to restore the central authority. The cities of Ghent, Brugge and Ypres severely undermined Maximilian reign. While he wanted to created unity the cities didn’t want to be part of this, the cities however also seldom cooperated with each other, rivalry, protectionism and short-sighted egoism remained paramount amongst these cities. Economic power was already slipping away to Brabantine Antwerp, a city that believed in open and free trade.

The battle of the sleeveless (mouwlozen)

The battle of 1479 took place at Guinegate, where the army of Maximilian met the one send by the French King Louis XI, aimed at grabbing as much territory in Flanders as possible.  Maximilian basically led the combined militia from the cities of Brugge, Ghent, Kortrijk and Ieper. The French had threatened to cut of the right hands of all of those they would take prisoner. As a reaction to this Maximilian’s soldiers all went into battle with bare right arms. The battle took five long hours and was won by Maximilian.

Despite the ‘unromantic’ arrangement of the marriage between Maria and Maximilian, they seem to have been very happy together and produced three children, of which two, Philip (the Fair) and Margaretha (of Austria) survived in adulthood.

In March 1482, Maria who was an excellent rider was somehow thrown of her horse near Brugge and was crushed beneath it. She died on March 27thand she is buried in Church of Our Lady (Onze Lieve Vrouwe kerk) in Brugge, I visited her tomb next to that of her father when I visited this city in 1999. Somehow the tragedy of Maria can still be felt in Brugge; she obviously was very much loved by the people in Flanders. The site certainly has a good feel about it. I was also fascinated by the pray gallery (1465) from where you can clearly see the two mausoleums. This linked the church with the palace of Gruuthuse, one of the wealthy merchants of the city.

See also: The Burgundian Court System

With Maximilian the Burgundian period ended and the Low Countries now ended up in the hands of the Hapsburg Emperors.


The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)