Battle of Grandson/Bataille de Grandson
March 2, 1476
2 Mars 1476
Charles the Bold (le Temeraire)
Charles the Bold
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Between 1476 and 1477 Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy, engaged in three unsuccessful battles against the Swiss and their allies. This ultimately led to his death in 1477. The first of these battles was fought at Grandson, Switzerland on March 2, 1476. The second was fought in June 1476 at Morat, also in Switzerland, while the final battle was fought at Nancy in 1477.
This conflict grew out of the dynamics of European politics in the latter decades of the 15th C. Charles was initially allied with Austria, which was in conflict with the Swiss cantons. In 1469, by the Treaty of St. Omer, Charles acquired Austrian lands in the Black Forest and Alsace. Not all inhabitants of the change accepted it without contention. As a result of this treaty, Bern and other cantons felt more threatened by the Burgundians, who also coveted lands to the south of the cantons. The cantons were also interested in spreading their influence and control into these southern lands, setting up a clash with Burgundy. The Cantons made an alliance with Louis XI of France, who was himself in conflict with Burgundy. France offered financial aid and diplomatic support more than military assistance to the Swiss. All in all, a somewhat complicated state of affairs, with Burgundy and Austria initially allying and France and the Swiss allying. This alignment of interests changed, some would argue with the assistance of Louis XI, when in March 1474 Austria sought rapprochement with the Cantons and they signed a mutual assistance pack in the event of a foreign incursion (where Burgundy was jointly perceived to be the likely aggressor).
In 1474 Alsace revolted against Burgundy, the leader (Pierre Hagenbach) was executed and Austria reasserted control over Alsace. Tensions continues and by early October 1475 the Bernese invaded the Vaud, territory of Savoy and lands allied to Burgundy. Morat (Murten in German) feel to the Bernese, a number of locales surrendered in the face of the Swiss army and Estavayer was conquered, defenders massacred and the town sacked. Its castle Chenaux was burnt. All the Vaud fell to the Bernese by the end of October. The Swiss moved on to Lausanne and Geneva and accepted ransom from them before withdrawing. In the end, they ended up garrisoning primarily Grandson and Morat. This October invasion followed earlier attacks and the capture of Orbe by the Swiss. Jaques of Savoie, count of Romont, led a counterattack later in the fall on his lost territory, with limited success.
The outcome of this maneuvering was a declaration of war by the Swiss Confederation against Burgundy October 25, 1474.
Here is what the situation looked
like in 1474. The darker gray areas are the high Cantons, lac Neufchatel
(with Grandson at the southern end) is the horizontal striped area on the
left side of the map, Burgundy is to the west and the duchy of Savoie is
to the south. Alsace is at the upper left of the map. This map is from
Guerres de Bourgogne.
In winter 1476 Charles le Temeraire gathered an army of about 20,000 men and entered the Vaud, traveling from Bresancon and passing Orbe in the way to lac Neufchatel. Charles quickly seized the town of Grandson on February 21 and laid siege to the castle, which was defended by Bernese troops. The chateau dates from the 13th and 15th centuries and is pictured below. It is possible to visit the chateau.
As the story goes, from the Swiss perspective, when they saw that relief was not likely, the defenders agreed to surrender with the promise from Charles that their lives would be spared. Other sources say the surrender was unconditional and the defenders put themselves at Charles' mercy. They surrendered February 28, but Charles had all 412 Bernese executed. It is possible the Bernese and their allies did not become aware of this until after the battle. After the fall of Grandson, the Savoyards and Burgundians had effectively recaptured all that had been won by the Bernese in the previous fall, with the exception of Morat.
Charles moved north and an advance guard garrisoned the fortification at Vaumarcus, north of Concise. He moved his base camp up to the area of Concise. Meanwhile, a Bernese force of also about 20,000 troops was moving down the west side of lac Neufchatel. This Confederation army was made up of troops from Bienne, Soleure and Fribourg. The Bernese, with 7000 troops, were the largest contingent followed by about 1700 from Zurich and and 1800 from Luzern. These two maps show the situation leading up to March 2. The roads used by the Swiss are still extant so it is possible to get a good sense of the battle site. The Swiss moved towards Concise via two routes, a coastal road (the right #2) and a high road that travels though a wooded area (the left #2). The Burgundians moved up through Concise to 'B' on the map. This map is from Les Guerres.
This geodesic survey map shows the woods and terrain are essentially the same today as they were 500 years ago. The red underlining is marked 'champ de bataille de Grandson.' Concise is just under the red line.
This is the view the Burgundians had of the battlefield. They are looking north. As near as I can tell, the Swiss formed up in the center area of the photo, on flatter territory, basically on the light green vineyard in the middle center of the picture.
Perhaps this next picture offers a clearer view. The Swiss aligned in square in the vineyard pictured in the center of the picture. You are able to see the western road, the lighter line just behind the solitary tree in the center of the picture. This is the same as the left 'B' in the previous map.
The Swiss position was formidable. The Swiss square had rows of pikemen that created an insurmountable barrier the Burgundian calvary could not penetrate. The Burgundians also suffered under the illusion that they were facing the entire Swiss force on the field. This picture is from a painting in the museum in the Chateau of Grandson. In the early stages of the fight, neither side was able to gain an advantage. The Burgundian calvary was unable to penetrate the square and took casualties from Swiss gunmen. The Swiss took casualties from Burgundian artillery. Charles himself apparently led an assault on the position, without success. After some time of essentially stalemated conflict, Charles decided to change tactics. He was going to withdraw his calvary and reposition his artillery so they could put concentrated fire on the Swiss square without injuring Burgundian troops. The timing for this move was coincidentally and disastrously unfortunate.
As Charles was withdrawing his calvary for the artillery repositioning, the balance of the Confederate forces arrived via the high approach to Concise. Below is their view. (Today there is a battlefield memorial at this spot.) They were able to look down on the square of their comrades (foreground), see the Burgundians aligned to the right of the picture, and see the distant hill (today crowned by a line of trees) where Charles had his artillery. Concise is in the distance, on the shore of the lake. Their appearance caught the Burgundians by surprise. The Burgundian infantry troops saw the Confederation troops arrive and saw the cavalry moving back, which they interpreted as a retreat. They panicked and fled, leading to a general rout of the Burgundians. Charles tried to rally his troops but was unsuccessful and was himself forced to withdraw from the field. The Swiss were unable to capitalize on their surprise victory since they lacked the mounted troops to pursue the Burgundians.
(Tom dans le champ de bataille de Grandson)
The Burgundian defenders at Vaumarcus were able to escape by leaving their possessions behind and fleeing over the mountains.
Charles abandoned his baggage train and his best artillery. This constituted a significant defeat for Charles but not a fatal one. The Burgundians lost only about 300 troops and the Confederation about 200 troops, so Charles had the basis of a strong army to regroup and continue the conflict. The Swiss captured the best of the Burgundian artillery. Today the Chateau de Grandson is a museum open to the public. Among its offerings are many examples of late 15th C artillery (courtesy of Charles le Temeraire) and of contemporary pikes. Here are several examples.
To continue with the story of Charles' battles, please visit the bataille de Morat.
Geiger, B. Les Guerres de Bourgogne, 3rd edition, Ecole militaire superieur, 1999
Vaughan, R., Charles the Bold, Boydell Press, Great Britain, 2002
Wikipedia: Battle of Grandson