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The Duchy of Burgundy was a feudal territory in Medieval Europe. It roughly conforms to the modern Bourgognemarker, although it grew to have considerable possessions in the Low Countries as well. Existing between 843 and 1477, the Duchy was ruled by a succession of dukes, whose extinction with the death of Charles the Bold in 1477 led to the southern part of the Duchy being absorbed into the French crown by King Louis XI, while the Low Countries fell under Habsburg control.

The Duchy is not to be confused in historiography with the Palatine County of Burgundy or Franche-Comtémarker, with which it was sometimes linked, or with the preceding two medieval Kingdoms of Burgundy (the last ended in 1378), when the remnants were absorbed by France spawning the duchy.


Duchy of Burgundy.
Burgundy as part of the Frankish Empire between 534 and 843
The origins of the Duchy lie in the far older Kingdom of Burgundy. The kingdom had evolved from the territory ruled over by the Burgundians, a Scandic people who settled in Gaul in the late 4th century; they lived in the area around Dijonmarker, Chalon-sur-Saônemarker, Mâconmarker, Autunmarker, and Châtillon-sur-Seinemarker, and their name was applied to the region. This first Kingdom of Burgundy would be annexed to the dominions of the Merovingian Kings of the Franks in the era of Clovis and his sons; it would, however, be recreated on several occasions whenever it was necessary to divide the Frankish territories between the sons of a deceased Frankish King.

Although the Kingdom of Burgundy did not always exist as an independent entity during this time, it continued a semi-autonomous existence as a part of the Kingdom of the Franks: the Burgundians maintained their own law codes, the Loi Gombette, whilst the people developed the agricultural and viticultural wealth of the territory. But southern Burgundy was pillaged by the Saracen invasion of the eighth century; and when Charles Martel had driven the invaders out, he divided Burgundy into four commands: Arles-Burgundy, Vienne-Burgundy, Alamanic Burgundy, and Frankish Burgundy, appointing his brother Childebrand as governor of this last. Under the Carolingians, Burgundian separatism lessened; Burgundy became a purely geographical term, applicable only to describe the territory the counties replacing it governed.

From these counties would emerge both the Duchy of Burgundy and the County of Burgundy, aided by the collapse of Carolingian centralism, and the division of the Frankish domains brought about by the Partition of Verdun in 843. In the midst of this confusion, Guerin of Provence attached himself to Charles the Bald, youngest son of Louis the Pious, and aided him in the Battle of Fontenay against Charles' eldest brother, Emperor Lothar. When the Frankish kingdom in the west was divided along the boundary of the Saone and Meuse (neatly dividing geographical Burgundy in the process), Guerin was rewarded for his services by the King (a move as much a recognition of the circumstances in Burgundy) by being granted the administration of the Counties of Chalon and Nevers, in which he was by custom expected to appoint Viscounts to rule as his deputies. As a vital military defender of the West Frankish border, Guerin was sometimes known by the Latin term for 'leader' - Dux, or Duke.

The Beneficiary Dukes

The Kingdoms of Upper and Lower Burgundy and the Duchy of Robert the Justiciar
By the time of Richard the Justiciar, the Duchy of Burgundy was beginning to emerge. Richard was officially recognised by the King as a Dux; he also stood as individual count of each county he held (if it was not held on his behalf by a viscount); as Duke, he was able to wield an increasing amount of power over his territory; and to the collective body of his territory there came to be applied the term Ducatus, meaning in this case not only Richard's status as Duke, but the status of his territory. Included in the ducatus of Richard were the regions of Autunais, Beaunois, Avalois, Lassois, Dijonais, Memontois, Attuyer, Oscheret, Auxois, Duesmois, Auxerrois, Nivernais, Chaunois and Massois. Under Richard, his territory was also given law and order, protected from the Normans, and acted as a haven for persecuted monks.

Under Ralph (also Raoul or Rudolph), the son of Richard, Burgundy was briefly catapulted to a prime stance in France; for Ralph, acceding to the Burgundian territories in 921, became King of France in 923, and it was from his territories in Burgundy that he drew the resources needed to fight those who challenged his right to rule.

Under Hugh the Black came the beginning of what would, for Burgundy, be a long and troubled saga. His neighbours were the Robertian family, who held the title of Duke of Francia; this family, wanting to improve their standing in France and against the Carolingian kings, attempted to subject the Duchy to the suzerainty of their own Duchy. They failed; eventually, when they appeared close to success, they were forced to scrap the scheme, and instead maintain Burgundy as a separate Duchy. Two brothers of Hugh Capet, the first Capetian King of France, took up the rule of Burgundy as Duke; first Otto and then Henry the Venerable maintained the Duchy's independence, and the death of the latter without children proved a defining moment in the history of the Duchy.

The First Succession Crisis

Henry the Venerable's death, at Pouilly-sur-Saone in 1002, left two potential heirs: his nephew, Robert the Pious, King of France; and his stepson, Otto-William, Count of Burgundy, a vassal of the Emperor, whom Henry had adopted and named his heir some time before. Robert claimed the Duchy by his dual rights as feudal overlord and nearest blood-relative of the deceased; Otto-William disagreed, and sent soldiers into the Duchy, and war broke out.

Had the two Burgundys been united, history would undoubtedly have taken a different course; a Burgundy united under the German Otto-William would have been within the sphere of influence of the Empire, and would have affected the balance of power between the French and the Germans. However, it was not to be; although it took him thirteen years of bitter and prolonged battle, Robert eventually secured the Duchy for the French crown by gaining control of all the Burgundian counties west of the Saone, including Dijon; prospects of a united Burgundy evaporated, and the Duchy became irreversibly French in outlook.

For a time, the Duchy formed part of the royal domain; but the French crown could not hope, at this time, to administer such a volatile piece of territory. The realities of power combined with Capetian family feuding: Robert the Pious gave the territory to his younger son and namesake, Robert; and when Henry I, acceding in difficult circumstances, found it necessary to secure the loyalty of Robert of Burgundy, his brother, he further heightened the rights given to his brother. Robert was to be Duke of Burgundy; as ruler of the Duchy, he would “enjoy the freehold thereof”, and have the right “to pass it on to his heirs”; the Duke would owe allegiance only to the crown of France, and be overlords of the Duchy beneath the ultimate authority of the Kings. Robert gladly agreed to this arrangement; and the era of the Capetian Dukes began.

The Capetian Dukes

The Kingdom of Arelat and the Capetingian Duchy of Burgundy in the 12/13th century
It was, Robert found, a largely theoretical power that he had been granted. Between the reign of Richard the Justiciar and Henry the Venerable, the Duchy had fallen into anarchy, a condition heightened by the war of succession between Robert the Pious and Count Otto-William. The Dukes had given away most of their lands to secure the loyalty of their vassals; consequently, they lacked power in the Duchy; consequently, they lacked the support and obedience of their vassals; consequently, the Duchy was an anarchic mess.

Robert and his heirs were faced with the task of restoring the ducal demesne and strengthening ducal power. In this, it would be seen, the Dukes were well-suited to the task: none were remarkable or outstanding men who swept all opposition away before them; rather, they were persevering, methodical, realistic, able and willing to seize any opportunity presented to them. They used the Law of Escheat to their advantage: Auxois and Duesmois fell into ducal hands through reversion, these feudatories having no heir able to administer them. They purchased both land and vassalage, which built up both the ducal demesne and the number of vassals dependent upon the dukes. They made an income for themselves by demanding cash payments in exchange for recognition of a lord’s feudal rights within the Duchy, by skillful management of loans from the Jewish and Lombard bankers, by the careful administration of feudal dues and the ready sale of immunities and justice.

The Duchy itself benefited from the rule of the Capetians. As time passed, the state was built up and stabilised; around the Dukes grew up a court in miniature of the royal court at Parismarker; at Beaunemarker sat the Jours Generaux, a replica of the Parlement of Paris; over the provosts and lords of the manor responsible for local government were imposed bailiffs, whilst the Duchy was divided into five Bailiages.

Under the competent leadership of Robert II, one of the more notable Dukes of the Capetian period, Burgundy reached new levels. Previously, the development of the duchy had been impeded by the bestowal of minor lands and titles on younger sons and daughters, diminishing the ducal fisc; Robert firmly ended this practice, stating in his will that he left to his eldest son and heir, Hugh, and after Hugh to his heir, “all the fiefs, former fiefs, seignieuries and revenue…belonging to the Duchy”. The younger children of Robert would receive only annuities; since these annuities derived from property held by Hugh, these younger children would need to owe liege homage to ensure their income.

Hugh V died; his brother Eudes IV succeeded. Himself the grandson of Saint Louis by his mother, Agnes of France, he would also be the brother-in-law of two French Kings – Louis X, married to his sister Marguerite, and Philip VI, married to his sister Jeanne – and the son-in-law of a third, Philip V, whose daughter Jeanne de France he married. Previous attempts to gain territory through marriage – Hugh III and the Dauphiné, Eudes III and Nivernais, Hugh IV and the Bourbonnais – had failed; Eudes IV’s wife Jeanne, however, was sovereign Countess of Burgundy and Artois, and the marriage reunited the Burgundys again.

They were not, however, reunited for long. The marriage of Duke Eudes and Countess Jeanne produced only one surviving child, Philip; he married another Jeanne, the heiress of Auvergne and Boulogne, but they again only produced a single surviving child, Philip I, Duke of Burgundy, also known as Philip of Rouvres. The elder Philip predeceased both of his parents in an accident with a horse in 1346; Jeanne de France followed him to the grave a year later, and the death of Eudes IV in 1349 left the survival of the Duchy dependent upon the survival of the young Duke, a young child of two and a half, and the last of the direct line of descent from Duke Robert I.

By inheritance, Philip of Rouvres was Duke of Burgundy from 1349. He had already been Count of Burgundy and Artois since the death of his grandmother, the Countess, in 1347; in practice, though, the Duke his grandfather had continued to rule over these counties as he had done since his marriage to Countess Jeanne, Philip of Rouvres being only a baby. With the old Duke’s death, the Duchy and its associated territories were governed by the young Duke’s mother, Jeanne I, Countess of Auvergne and Boulogne, and by her second husband, King John the Good of Francemarker.

Richer promises were made to the young Duke. He could expect to inherit Auvergne and Boulogne on his mother's death; and a marriage was arranged between himself and the young heiress of Flanders, Margaret of Dampierre, who could promise to eventually bring Flanders and Brabantmarker to her husband. By 1361, aged 17, he appeared to be on track to continue the Duchy’s steady rise to greatness.

It was not to be, however. He became ill with the plague, a disease that all but inevitably promised a swift and agonising death; fully expecting to die, the young Duke made his last will and testament on 11 November; ten days later, he was dead, and with him, his dynasty.

The Second Succession Crisis

Even before his death, France and Burgundy had begun considering the knotty problem of the succession. By the terms of his will, the Duke had stated that he directed and appointed as heirs to his “county, and to our possessions whatever they may be, those, male and female, who by law or local custom ought or may inherit.” Since his domains all practiced succession by primogeniture, there was no question of his dominions passing en bloc to any one man or woman – they had come to Philip of Rouvres by different paths of inheritance, and so by the customs of the territories, they were required to pass to the next in line to inherit in each respective territory.

The Counties of Auvergne and Boulogne – inherited by Philip upon his mother’s death a year earlier – passed to the next heir, Jean de Boulogne, the brother of Philip’s grandfather William XII of Auvergne. The Counties of Burgundy and Artois passed to the sister of Philip’s grandmother Countess Jeanne, Marguerite de France, herself the grandmother of Philip’s young bride Margaret of Dampierre.

The Duchy of Burgundy, however, proved a greater challenge to jurists. In the Duchy, as in much of Europe at this time, two principles of inheritance were held valid: that of primogeniture – as in the case of the English crown in 1377, which at the death of Edward III was inherited by his grandson Richard of Bordeaux, the eldest son of his deceased eldest son Edward, rather than by his son John of Gaunt, the eldest of Edward III’s sons still living; and that of proximity of blood – as in the case of Artois, which had on the death of the Count in 1302 had been inherited by Mahaut, his eldest living daughter, rather than by his grandson, Robert, the eldest son of the Count’s already deceased son. In some cases, the two principles were able to mesh together: in the case of Boulogne and Auvergne, for example, Jean was the second son of Robert d’Auvergne, Philip’s great-grandfather, and the nearest ancestor to Philip to have surviving lines of descent following Philip’s death; Jean was therefore both the most senior heir to Robert following Philip’s death, and also the closest to Robert by descent. In the same manner, Marguerite de France was the closest heir by both primogeniture and proximity to her mother, Jeanne de Chalons, Countess of Burgundy and Artois, Philip’s great-grandmother and, again, the nearest ancestor of Philip to have lines of descent surviving the Duke’s death.

The Duchy, however, was nothing like as simple. In terms of inheritance, the nearest ancestor to Philip of Rouvres to have lines of descent surviving Philip’s death was his great-grandfather, Duke Robert II, the father of Eudes IV. Unlike Jeanne de Chalons and Robert d’Auvergne, however, both of whom had left only two lines of descent (allowing the cadet line to inherit without controversy following the termination of the main branch with Philip), Robert II had left three lines of descent: the main line, through Eudes IV, which had ended with Philip; and two cadet lines through his daughters, Marguerite and Jeanne. Both women were long dead; Marguerite de Bourgogne, the elder daughter, and the wife of Louis X of France, had died in 1315, leaving only a daughter, Jeanne II of Navarre; Jeanne de Bourgogne, the younger daughter, and the wife of Philip VI of France, had died in 1348, leaving two sons, John II of France – who would go on to become stepfather of Philip of Rouvres by his marriage to Joan of Boulogne – and Philippe d’Orleans. Out of these three, Jeanne de Bourgogne’s sons were still alive; Jeanne II, however, had died in 1349, leaving three sons, the eldest of whom was Charles II of Navarre.

To the jurists of the Duchy, this presented something of a difficult legal problem, for the two claims stood more or less equally in terms of justification: Charles II, as the great-grandson of Robert II by his elder daughter, had a superior claim to John II in terms of primogeniture; John II, as the grandson of Robert II by his younger daughter, had a superior claim to Charles II in terms of proximity of blood.

Were it simply a legal issue, the King of Navarre would certainly have had as good a chance of inheritance as the King of France, and perhaps better: proximity of blood was beginning to lose force in Europe, and, as events would subsequently prove, Burgundy had no intention of being absorbed into the French royal domain. But there was more in play than a simple legal issue: the Hundred Years War was in full flow, and the King of Navarre, as an ally of England and an enemy of France, was distasteful to the Burgundians, who in meetings of the Estates during John II’s English captivity had been consistently loyal to John and his son the Dauphin, and opposed to the King of Navarre.

Furthermore, John II had the support of John of Boulogne and Marguerite de France. The former was a staunch ally of the King – this alliance having been strengthened by the marriage between the King and Joan of Boulogne, John of Boulogne’s niece. The latter was, as the daughter of a former king of France, and one of the last living members of the House of Capet, all French in her sympathies; besides which, Charles II had offended her by laying claim to lands in Champagne which had formed part of her sister Jeanne de France’s dowry in marrying Eudes IV, and which were deemed now to pass to Jeanne’s sister – the lands had derived from Joan I of Navarre, Countess of Champagne, grandmother of Marguerite and Jeanne, and as the senior heir by primogeniture of Joan I, Charles was now laying claim to them. (Wrongly. His argument was that his mother, Joan II of Navarre, had been rightful Countess of Champagne from the deaths in 1316 of her father, Louis X of France, and brother, John I of France, both of whom had inherited the County of Champagne from Joan I, Louis X’s mother. If Joan II had been Countess from 1316, Philip V of France – who had been judged heir of Louis and John and accordingly had inherited Champagne, as well as France and Navarre, in 1316 – would not legally have had the right to bestow part of the County’s fisc upon his own daughter as a dowry. But, disregarding the legality of Philip V’s inheritance, Joan II had by treaty with Philip VI signed her rights in Champagne away to the French crown in 1330, making the King of France – rather than the heirs of Joan II – the beneficiary if Philip V’s actions were declared invalid.) With this triple compact between the three heirs, Charles II was shut out: the support of a co-heir carried weight in deciding inheritance, and John II had the support of both, whilst Charles II had the support of neither. The nobility of the Duchy, in the face of this, decided in favour of John II, who took immediate possession of the Duchy. He had, indeed, already mobilised soldiers in Nivernais, to do so by force if it proved necessary; but in fact, the nobility willingly swore homage to him as their new Duke, and the Duchy saw only a few isolated and half-hearted acts of rebellion in favour of Charles II.

John the Good and the establishment of Valois Burgundy

The accession of John the Good is, unfortunately, frequently misunderstood. It is not uncommon to read that, upon the death of Philip of Rouvres, “the Duchy of Burgundy, lying within France, therefore escheated to the French crown.” This claim is simply untrue: the Duchy had been granted to the heirs simple of Robert I – by the terms of the original grant, it could be inherited by or through women – and were it not for the manner in which the descendants of Duke Robert II married, and the circumstances of the time at which Philip of Rouvres died, John II – who, history makes clear, made his claim to the Duchy as the son of Jeanne de Bourgogne and the grandson of Robert II, rather than as the feudal overlord of all France – would never have inherited it.

The claim, however, that upon his inheritance of the Duchy it was merged with the crown is more difficult to refute: for whilst this in itself certainly was not the case, he immediately attempted to merge the Duchy into the crown by means of letters patent: establishing in the relevant document that he was taking possession by virtue of his descent from the Dukes, he continued that as the Duke, he immediately gave the Duchy to the French crown, with which it was to be inseparably united (much the same as would be followed in the case of Brittany in 1532). Had this come into effect, Burgundy as an independent Duchy would have ceased to exist, and John would no longer have been the Duke; a definitive break in the Duchy’s history would have occurred.

John, however, had failed to grasp the realities of the Duchy. He had already been smoothly accepted as Duke; he had on 28 December 1361 received the homage of the Burgundian nobility, before he returned to France, leaving the Count of Tancarville as his deputy; but the Burgundian Estates had, in their meeting around the time of the homage-swearing of 28 December, firmly given several pronouncements – that the Duchy intended to remain a Duchy, that it had no intention of becoming a province of the royal domain, that there would be no administrative changes, that it was joined to France by virtue of one man’s rights and would never be absorbed into it. Most importantly of all, it was firmly stated that there had not been, and never would be, annexation of Burgundy by France, merely juxtaposition – the King was also the Duke, but there would be no deeper link than that.

Set against these declarations of Burgundian autonomy was the decree of John II that Burgundy was absorbed into the French crown. The latter proved of no avail: the Burgundians refused to countenance the terms of the letters patent; the king proved unequal to the task, far beyond his political capabilities; in the face of a non-violent but firm refusal by the Burgundians to allow the independence of their Duchy to be threatened, the King quietly scrapped the Letters Patent, and instead turned to other possibilities.

His youngest son, Philip (called the Bold), was also his favourite, and his most prestigious; Philip had distinguished himself in 1356, at the Battle of Poitiers, when at the age of fourteen he had fought alongside his father to the bitter end; and he showed not only the valour, amiability and charm he shared with his father, but the common-sense the latter sadly lacked, and consequently admired. It occurred to him to both honour his son, and sooth the ruffled feelings of the Burgundians, by investing him as Duke of Burgundy (and more: he received promises from his brother-in-law Emperor Charles IV for the investiture of Philip as Count of Burgundy, and attempts were made to arrange a marriage between Philip and Joanna I of Naples – who was also Countess of Provence, a territory once included in the old Kingdom of Burgundy). Accordingly, the King appointed Philip governor of Burgundy in late June 1363, following which the Estates of Burgundy – who had consistently opposed the previous governor, Tancarville – loyally granted him subsidies. Finally, in the final months of John the Good’s reign, Philip the Bold was established as Duke of Burgundy: the King secretly created his son as Duke on 6 September 1363 (in his dual role as Duke giving his own title to his child and as King sanctioning this change in leadership), without making the fact public, and, on 2 June 1364, following the death of King John, King Charles V issued a letters patent to publicly establish the fact of Philip’s title.

Valois Burgundy

Under the Valois Dukes of Burgundy, the Duchy flourished. A match between Philip the Bold and Margaret of Dampierre – the widow of Philip of Rouvres – not only reunited the Duchy with the County of Burgundy once more, as well as with the County of Artois, but also served to bring the wealthy Counties of Flanders, Neversmarker and Rethelmarker under the control of the Dukes. By 1405, following the deaths of Philip the Bold and Margaret of Dampierre, and the inheritance of the Duchy and most of their other possessions by their son John the Fearless, Burgundy – to follow the custom of giving the name of the Duchy to the much wider agglomeration assembled by the Dukes – stood less as a French fief, more as an independent state, and a major political player in European politics.

Philip the Bold had been, in politics, a cautious man. His son, however, was not, and under John the Fearless, Burgundy and Orleans clashed as the two sides squabbled for power. The result was an increase of Burgundy’s power; but the Duchy came to be regarded as an enemy of the French crown, and from the death of John the Fearless in 1419, the Dukes were treated with caution or outright hostility by Charles VII and his successor, Louis XI.

The last two Dukes to directly rule the Duchy, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold, attempted to secure the independence of their Duchy from the French crown. The endeavour failed however; when Charles the Bold died in battle without sons, Louis XI of France declared the Duchy to have become extinct, and absorbed the territory into the French crown. The daughter of Charles the Bold, Mary of Burgundy, used the title of Duchess of Burgundy, and her heirs described themselves as Dukes of Burgundy, refusing to accept the loss of the Duchy. In 1525, Emperor Charles V – Mary’s grandson – was restored the title and territory by the French King Francis I, as part of the Treaty of Madrid. But Francis repudiated the Treaty as soon as he was able to, and Charles never managed to secure the Duchy.

The territory of Burgundy remained part of France from then onwards. The title was occasionally resurrected for French princes, for example the grandson of Louis XIV and the grandson of Louis XV.

See also

Burgundian Netherlands

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