Friday, 22 January 2016

Death of a Duke...

"Charles the Bold Found After The Battle of Nancy 1477"
By Auguste Feyen-Perrin (1865)
On the cold and gloomy morning of 8th January 1477, a group of servants and courtiers scoured a landscape that must have looked like one of the nine circles of hell. As far as the eye could see the landscape was covered in frozen and mutilated corpses, the victims of a battle fought just a couple of days before. Both human and animal scavengers had been at work, and most the bodies had been stripped of anything of value and the occasional body part. The occasional slashed throat marked those unfortunates who had survived their wounds and had hoped in vain for someone to come to their aid.

The searchers eventually stumbled across he who they had been looking for. Besides a cleft head, a gaping wound almost from shoulder to waist was evident, along with other smaller, but no less horrific wounds, appeared to indicate that this man fought a number of enemies to the last. A tentative identification was made, probably involving checking the mouth for the distinctive missing teeth that had marked the man in life. While a formal identification would not be possible until the corpse had been washed clean of blood, gore and dirt, it seemed likely that this was he that they sought. Charles Duke of Burgundy was dead.

The Allure of Burgundy

Apart from the longbow-heavy English armies of either the Hundred Years War or the Wars of the Roses, the (slightly less longbow heavy) Burgundian Army of Charles the Bold has to be one of the most popular armies in the medieval period. An internet search for 'Burgundian Army Wargaming' brings up a whole page of images, not least those from Simon Chick's wonderful blog 'Je Lay Emprins', which is devoted to the army and to the Burgundian - Swiss Wars that culminated in the Battle of Nancy in January 1477. I am inclined to think that the appeal of the army comes from an empathy with Charles, who constantly changed his army on an almost yearly basis, searching for that 'sweet spot' which would give him the best army in the (known) world.

Over the years the Burgundians have featured as a popular army list, whether it was in WRG's Ancients army lists, Warhammer Ancient Battles, or indeed virtually any lists for rule sets you care to mention. The timeline for the lists always ends abruptly at 1477 however, as if the Burgundians disappeared literally overnight with Charles's death. There are vague allusions to them over a period of time and occasionally there is mention of the Battle of Guinegate in 1479, which is more usually over-shadowed by the battle of the same name in 1513, more commonly known as 'The Battle of the Spurs'. 'Burgundian Men at Arms' crop up in the odd 'Early-Renaissance' lists, but by and large the whole territory falls into a black hole in January 1477.

Surrender of the Burghers of Ghent to Philip the Good. Although the setting is 1453, the painting is believed to originate from a later time and is perhaps more reflective of clothing and armour of the last quarter of the 15th Century. The depiction of the guild banners is an excellent resource too.
Why We Fight

Wargaming is dominated by 'Big Battle Periods', possibly due to some primeval megalomaniac gene we all share. How many times have you seen 'Agincourt', 'Waterloo', 'Gettysburg' and other famous battles crop up in wargames literature and in demonstration games? I don't actually think a year goes by where there is not an article on an aspect of Napoleon's Hundred Days in the wargaming press. These massive historic battles are like catnip for wargamers and while the majority will never actually collect enough figures to satisfy their urge to games one of the greats, it is their long-term goal.

I fall more towards the Dark Side of the hobby myself, having been corrupted by role-playing games back in the day and what I refer to as 'the incident' (a WRG 6th Edition Game) which put me off 'proper wargaming' for life. That's not actually quite true but I needed a bit of drama for this post. I have since the '80s had a preference for 'skirmish games' however, or more accurately games where one figure represents a single man, or a small group of men, as opposed to twenty, fifty, or a hundred. I appreciate that 'real wargamers' see this as little better than playing with toy soldiers, but then seeing two figures representing a company (or in some cases a battalion) leaves me cold in equal measure.

Medieval Wargaming is built upon a lie however and that is, that we look at the era in terms of the battles fought and that defines the period for our games. In essence 'no battles - no interest' defines it as a period to us. When you actually look at the battles themselves and the lead-up to them the obvious conclusion is that at least one army was trying to avoid a battle altogether. Medieval warfare was all about destroying your opponent's economy; besieging and sacking towns, ravaging the countryside, burning crops, in other words destabilising his ability to rule.

In 1346 the Battle of Crecy was fought between a large English raiding force that had laid waste to Normandy and was set on doing the same to Paris. Delayed from crossing the Somme, Edward III was forced to stand and face the French Army he had been trying to outrun and which was probably twice the size of his army. Another English raiding force was brought to battle at Poitiers in 1356. Agincourt resulted from Henry V's desire to show himself to the people of France, while conducting an ignominious retreat to Calais after the siege of Harfleur had taken longer than expected. Baugé in 1421, La Brossinière in 1423 and Verneuil in 1424, all tell similar stories.

Charles the Bold's military career is largely a case of his being brought to battle by a relieving force while besieging somewhere. The sole exception being his withdrawal from Neuss on the approach of an Imperial army despatched to relieve the city. The only conflict in the era where 'battle' was the primary aim of both parties, are the Wars of the Roses, which produced eighteen battles over the course of thirty years, with the longest period of virtually continuous military activity being between 1459 and 1464.  Even in that period however, the armies were raised, marched-off to battle and the survivors back at home before much more than a month had passed.

The general lack of battles over the period as a whole, but the virtually constinuous employment of professional soldiers across the period, separated by brief outbreaks of peace, prompts the obvious question "What were they doing if they were not fighting battles?". The answer is that they were either garrisoning outposts to protect areas from raiders, or that they were actually raiding. There is a whole unwritten history of minor skirmishes, raids on supply trains, border clashes and similar activities, that has been ignored because history concentrates on 'big battles'. As a 'skirmish gamer' such actions are the meat and drink of my small corner of the hobby.

Near-contemporary (1513) illustration of the Battle of Grandson from the Luzerner Schilling.
Life After Charles

Burgundy did not cease to exist when Charles met his grisly end. In fact it was to survive (albeit with the actual loss of one of the two 'Burgundies') as the 'Burgundian Netherlands' until 1482, when it became the 'Hapsburg Netherlands', by modern terminology at least. Charles was succeeded by his daughter Marie as Duchess and then by his grandson Philip the Handsome, who united the territory with the Kingdom of Castille. His son was Charles V of Spain, who united Burgundy, the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and its territories into one massive super state. In the meantime the Low Countries and in particularly the area we now call Belgium, became the 'Cockpit of Europe' for the next three hundred and fifty years or so.

The period from 1477 to 1482 saw almost constant warfare between the French and an uneasy alliance of Flanders Cities and 'Burgundian nobility, which was further complicated by the involvement of Maximilian of Austria, who married Duchess Marie. While the 'peace' of 1482 stopped French encroachments, the French nurtured rebels in Ghent and Guelders against Maximilian, leading to effectively a civil war within the Netherlands. Amongst other things this prompted less reliance on the cities for troops and resulted in the proliferation of the Landsknechts as the principal military force in Maximilian's possession.

In both peace and war military forces criss-crossed the region. The estimation is that not only were large areas of Picardy, Artois and Flanders desolated by the continuous fighting, raiding and punitive actions, which were conducted even in peace, but that the loss of life was not to be equalled until the Thirty Years War era. While there was actually only one major battle (Guinegate in 1479), the scope for recreating the kind of actions that are covered in skirmish games is virtually limitless.

As far as the toys themselves are concerned, on the one hand you have the French with their Ordonnance Companies, Francs-Archers, the Swiss-trained Bandes Francaise and the Swiss themselves. On the other you have the dwindling companies that Charles created, the militia armies of the cities of Ghent, Bruges and the other great Flemish city states, the retinues of the Burgundian and German nobility and the first of the previously mentioned Landsknechts. England provided contingents at various times too, so there is actually very little of the last quarter of the 15th Century missing in military terms.

What prevents this period from becoming the wargaming scenario par excellence is that there is very little in background history readily available. If you are a French, Flemish or Dutch speaker, then the ground is somewhat less sparse, but even then the amount of literature available is dwarfed by that available for the Hundred Years War, the Eighty Years War and the Thirty Years War. The essential details are available however and this is where I am pitching this section of my blog towards. It is possible to determine how these forces were raised, organised and how they fought, at least at a level sufficient for wargaming. Being neither proficient in French or Flemish is somewhat of a handicap, but with Google Translate and a bit of perseverance, is not an insurmountable problem.    

I have posted about this project in the past, but you live and learn over time, and in some cases I have added to my knowledge store on the period. I intend to re-write the previous posts on the topic over time and to pursue this as a long-term project. Hopefully this might inspire some of you to pick up the period too, but if not I am content in producing posts on this for my own gratification regardless.   

14 comments:

  1. Interesting and thought provoking post. The popularity of the Lion Rampant rule set would suggest that you're not alone in finding historical day-to-day skirmish games more appealing than the 'big' battles.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Matt. I can't really fault LR, even if you take the route where your units represent perhaps fifty to a hundred men, the game keeps on working.

      If it isn't already, I think the rules will go down as one of the greatest sets ever.

      Delete
    2. I think you're right Jim, Dan Mersey has created a core set of rules that will regarded in the future as a classic. The next set of colonial and 17th century add features that improve on the original.

      Delete
    3. I am looking forwards to Pikeman's Lament, even though I had planned to put Pike and Shot on the backburner... I guess I'm just weak lol.

      Delete
  2. Well done. Another very interesting post

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      Delete
  3. A fascinating read, on a very interesting subject.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Ray. I am quite fascinated with the whole thing and have been for a couple of years now... as I'll hopefully show, it has everything a Medieval gamer could want, all in a single conflict.

      Delete
  4. Stop. You're making me want to start a new period. ;) Your Lion Rampant campaign rules look like a lot of fun.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I should surrender now... there's a fair bit to come, albeit a fair bit of it is re-writes of old posts. It is exciting stuff though, even if I say so myself.

      Delete
  5. Indeed, I dare say a constant stream of exciting stuff. I'm going to pitch Lion Rampant to Fritz and see if I can get him on board. Although I promised him a Battletech campaign after Quinto.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A Battletech campaign is not without its merits and it always pays to keep your gaming partner happy.

      Delete
  6. Another thoughtful, enjoyable read. With a an great piece of art I'd not yet seen. Thank you, Jim!

    ReplyDelete