Tapestry of the Siege of Dijon, c. 1514-1520 (detail).
Tapestry of the Siege of Dijon, c. 1514-1520 (detail). © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon/François Jay

The Siege of Dijon 1513

The Old Swiss Confederation won a stunning military victory over France at the Battle of Novara in June 1513. Following up on their successes in Italy, the Swiss and their Swabian allies successfully besieged the city of Dijon in September 1513, which marks the apex of Swiss power across Western Europe.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a world historian, Co-Founder of World History Encyclopedia, writer, and PR specialist, who has taught as a professor in Europe and North America.

The role played by the Old Swiss Confederation during the Burgundian Wars (1474-1477) was of tremendous consequence in European history. The Swiss saw to it that Burgundy was destroyed as a major political power with the death of Duke Charles “the Bold” at the Battle of Nancy in 1477. However, the Burgundian State did not disappear or disintegrate entirely. The Burgundian court continued to dazzle the entirety of a continent from Edinburgh to Istanbul, and Burgundy was to remain a byword for artistic splendor, sumptuous display, and political intrigue for decades to come. Charles’ widow, the English princess Margaret of York, and his daughter, Mary of Burgundy, worked together to prevent a complete collapse of their Burgundian patrimony. Their tireless efforts succeeded. Although King Louis XI of France managed to take possession of parts of Picardy, Artois, as well as the Duchy of Burgundy after Charles’ demise, much of Wallonia, Flanders, Holland, Luxembourg, and the County of Burgundy – better known as “Franche-Comté” – remained firmly in Burgundian hands.

Burgundy, as dark with power as with wine…greedy, rich Flanders. These are the same lands in which the splendour of painting, sculpture, and music flower, and where the most violent code of revenge ruled and the most brutal barbarism spread among the aristocracy.

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, 1919
Map of Burgundy, c. 1608.
Map of Burgundy, c. 1608. Folger Shakespeare Library
Margaret of York shrewdly encouraged her stepdaughter Mary to marry the future Maximilian I of Austria ) in order to check French ambitions. Theirs was to be the most consequential marriage in European history and a very happy union. They had two children – Philip (1478-1506) and Margaret (1480-1530) – in quick succession, and Burgundy’s fortunes seemed secure at last. Tragically, during a hunting expedition in Flanders in 1482, Mary was thrown from her horse and broke her back. She died a few weeks later, leaving Burgundy once more in shock. France now appeared to hold a strategic advantage over Burgundy and Austria. Maximilian I, left with few political options, signed the Treaty of Arras in December 1482, which required the marriage of his daughter, Margaret, to the Dauphin Charles, the future Charles VIII), and an expensive dowry. The young Margaret was even sent to France to be brought up and educated alongside her future husband as a Frenchwoman. In 1491, the mercurial Charles VIII repudiated his betrothal to Margaret and married a different rich heiress, Anne of Brittany. Furious at the slight to the Habsburgs, Maximilian I vowed to see the Duchy of Burgundy returned as part of Margaret’s rightful inheritance. He thus waited for an auspicious time to strike France and seize the duchy back.
Emperor Maximilian I with his wife Mary of Burgundy and their son Philip the Handsome as well as grandsons Ferdinand I, Charles V and grandson-in-law Louis II.
Emperor Maximilian I with his wife Mary of Burgundy and their son Philip the Handsome as well as grandsons Ferdinand I, Charles V and grandson-in-law Louis II. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien
The enmity between France and Austria over the “Burgundian inheritance,” as well as competition for influence in Italy, seemed poised to engulf all of Europe in a protracted conflict. Given the complex territorial and political ambitions of the Valois and Habsburg dynasties, Spain and England favored Austria, while Scotland, Florence, and Ferrara supported France. Located between the rival powers, the Swiss naturally took note of the escalating tensions. Although Austria was the traditional, hereditary enemy, anti-French sentiment had become pervasive throughout the Confederation in the early-1500s as a result of French interference in domestic affairs. The Swiss feared the consolidation of French power in the Low Countries and Italy would ultimately hinder their long-standing economic and political interests in these regions. In time, the French might even invade the Confederation just as the Burgundians had a generation earlier. Moreover, as the French still owed considerable debts to the Swiss as a result of the Italian Wars, there was increasing clamor for old scores and debts to be settled on the battlefield.
Pope Julius II, painted by Raphael, 1511.
Pope Julius II, painted by Raphael, 1511. National Gallery

International Alliances and Coordinated Plans

In October 1511, Pope Julius II proclaimed a “Holy League'' against Louis XII of France. The Swiss eagerly joined the Spanish-Austrian-English-Papal alliance, which widened the scope of the Italian Wars into that of a major European conflict. The implicit aim of this alliance was the complete expulsion of the French from Italy, but old dynastic and political grievances were to be settled as well. Cardinal Matthäus Schiner of Sion encouraged Europe’s leaders to launch immediate attacks against France and promised forthcoming Swiss support. Wasting no time, Ferdinand II of Aragón and Henry VIII of England affirmed the Treaty of Westminster against France in November 1511. Maximilian I immediately lent his support too as he had familial ties to Spain’s Trastámara dynasty: Maximilian I and Ferdinand II shared grandchildren, including the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Ferdinand II struck France first, promptly invading and conquering Andorra and Navarre in 1512. Henry VIII, meanwhile, pondered how best to move his troops across the English Channel.
Heinrich VIII in 1509.
Heinrich VIII in 1509. Denver Art Museum
Cardinal Matthäus Schiner of Sion in a 18th century etching.
Cardinal Matthäus Schiner of Sion in a 18th century etching. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
The Swiss victory over the French at the Battle of Novara in June 1513 lent new immediacy and enthusiasm to a coordinated Anglo-Austrian-Swiss offensive as the French made a hasty retreat from Italy. Once again, Schiner facilitated the crucial diplomatic overtures. Austrian and Swiss officials agreed that Confederate and Swabian troops would carry out a joint expedition into France, while Maximilian I and Henry VIII would personally command their armies in Picardy. France would be struck hard, facing two fronts of war simultaneously. The initial plan stipulated that the Swiss should enter France with the intention to attack and besiege Paris, where then they would rendezvous with English and Austrian troops. Plans changed when the English vanquished a large French army at the Battle of the Spurs outside of Thérouanne in mid-August 1513. The English, supported by the Austrian forces, took the town Thérouanne, razed it to the ground, and then laid siege to the neighboring city Tournai. This news was received with jubilation in England, Austria, and the Confederation. France appeared as if it were on the verge of collapse. Maximilian I, who still entertained hopes of recovering the Duchy of Burgundy for his daughter, Margaret, now proposed that the Swiss now target Dijon – the capital of the Duchy of Burgundy – instead of Paris.
Henry VII, King of England and Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, meet after the successful Battle of Guinegate. Painting from the 16th century.
Henry VIII, King of England and Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, meet after the successful Battle of Guinegate. Painting from the 16th century. Royal Collection
The Swiss concurred that the timing and strategy for such an endeavor was most opportune. Just the year before, politicians from Bern, Solothurn, and Fribourg had tried to convince the other cantons to join them in an expedition into the Duchy of Burgundy. On August 1, 1513, the Federal Diet ordered 16,000 men to assemble, and these troops were publically reviewed on August 17th in Zürich. Around 30,000 other volunteers – led by Heinrich Winkler, the Captain of Zürich, and Jacob Wattwil, the Captain of Bern – joined the others by the end of the month. On August 27th, they mustered in Besançon, the later capital of Franche-Comté, joining 1,000 Swabian knights and 26 pieces of artillery under the command of Duke Ulrich II of Württemberg. They were also met by a contingent from Hainault under the command of Guillaume de Vergy, the Marshal of Burgundy. Hungry for plunder, the Swiss and their allies crossed into the Burgundian countryside to pillage and raze the towns of Saint-Seine, Fontaine-Française, Lux, Till-Châtel, Marey-sur-Tille, Chenôve, Marsannay-la-Côte, and Couchey. At Bèze Abbey, Swiss soldiers exhumed the graves of priests and monks in order to seize antique treasures, horrifying the local population.

They go forth of their country in great companies together, and whosoever lacketh soldiers, there they proffer their service for small wages. This is the only craft they have to get their living by. They maintain their life by seeking their death.

Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) in Utopia
The castle of Dijon around 1512.
The castle of Dijon around 1512. Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon

The Siege of Dijon

Louis de la Trémoille – who had been one of the French generals in charge at the Battle of Novara − correctly presumed that the duchy would be the likely target of Swiss aggression. As early as July 1513, he ordered the immediate accumulation of food supplies as well as extra military reserves to be stationed within the city. Trémoille also ordered the suburbs of the city to be burnt down, which he believed would offer safe haven and shelter to the Swiss and their allies during a siege. Trémoille could not rely on increased material assistance from Louis XII, who was busy fighting the English and Austrian armies at Tournai.
Louis de la Trémoille, painted by Ghirlandaio or one of his pupils.
Louis de la Trémoille, painted by Ghirlandaio or one of his pupils. Musée Condé Chantilly
On September 4th, advance scouts from the Swiss army came within sight of Dijon’s medieval walls. Four days later, after crossing the Saône River, the Swiss and their allies encircled Dijon and the first cannons fell upon the city. The Dijonnais were vastly outnumbered in terms of manpower and artillery. Swabian cannons destroyed the Dijon’s walls in several places and artillerists from Zürich fired their smaller cannons at every direction inside Dijon, day and night, creating further havoc. Trémoille’s stratagem of creating massive ditches near damaged city walls kept the Swiss and the Swabians only briefly at bay. French archers could only do so much too in the face of such superior artillery. The Swiss rear guard, consisting of men from Luzern, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Zug, and Glarus, massacred the Dijonnais cavalry and took prisoners on September 9th. Dijon teetered on the brink of ruin, and the situation appeared hopeless. Trémoille sent emissaries to negotiate with the Swiss on September 10th. These preliminary talks failed to end the siege, which continued for the next three days.
The siege of Dijon according to a woodcut in the Stumpf Chronicle. However, the woodcut was also used to illustrate other sieges of the Swiss Confederation. Around 1548.
The siege of Dijon according to a woodcut in the Stumpf Chronicle. However, the woodcut was also used to illustrate other sieges of the Swiss Confederation. Around 1548. Zentralbibliothek Zürich
On September 11th, Dijon’s elites organized a religious procession outside the Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon, parading the statue of a black Madonna: Our Lady of Good Hope. The Dijonnais prayed for mercy and for the lives of their children to be spared. Without divine intercession, they knew the Swiss would burn their vineyards and ateliers, loot their wealth, and raze their city to the ground. They knew full well the tales of Swiss brutality, which crisscrossed Europe, and they repeated lurid stories in which Swiss soldiers were said to have thrown away priceless jewels, believing them to be colored glass, in the aftermath of the Battle of Grandson. Without the cessation of immediate hostilities, Dijon would fall; the Swiss would then advance on Paris, leaving a trail of destruction and chaos across eastern France in their wake. Ever the pragmatic diplomat and political schemer, Trémoille realized he had to confer with the Swiss even without the expressed permission of his king. While this was tantamount to treason, Trémoille cunningly believed that he could induce the Swiss to lift their siege in exchange for promises that Louis XII would never keep. Buying the Swiss off would certainly be a blow to French pride, but keeping Dijon out of the political orbit of the Confederation and Austria was a price Trémoille was willing to pay.
Louis de la Trémoille (centre) negotiates with the Swiss about their withdrawal.
Louis de la Trémoille (centre) negotiates with the Swiss about their withdrawal. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon/François Jay
The French signed a humiliating treaty of eight articles as dictated to them by the Swiss on September 13th. The most important articles specified that the Confederates were to receive a colossal indemnity of 40,000 écus – quite a figure compared to the Imperial troops who only received 10,000 écus – and that Maximilian Sforza was officially recognized as the duke of Milan. France had to abandon all other claims in Italy, and the French could no longer recruit Swiss mercenaries without the expressed permission of the Confederation. Five noble hostages were handed over to the Swiss to be ransomed later. Satisfied with their campaign, the Swiss quickly lifted the siege and returned home the following day even though their allies urged them to continue negotiating. Contemporary reaction to the success at Dijon across Switzerland was mixed. The sudden return of Swiss soldiers to Bern and Zürich in late-September 1513, elicited criticism from their fellow citizens for having been bought off and deceived by their French nemesis. Upon hearing the news of the Treaty of Dijon, Louis XII was livid and furious, and he refused to recognize or ratify the treaty just as Trémoille had anticipated. The subsequent turn of events also surprised Henry VIII and Maximilian I in Picardy. Henry VIII still managed to seize Tournai in late-September 1513 and conclude the campaign season on a high note, but Maximilian I, like his erstwhile enemy Louis XII, completely disregarded the treaty.

War is delightful to those who have had no experience of it.

Desiderius Erasmus

Conflicting Legacies & An Exquisite Tapestry

Historians still debate the importance of the Siege of Dijon, which coincides with the apex of Swiss military power in Europe. The Swiss historian Ernst Gagliardi characterized the year 1513 as both the “high point and decline of the Swiss great power.” Gagliardi considered Novara and Dijon to be military victories, but they were also relatively short-lived successes. It is undoubtedly true that the Confederation could not compete with the likes of France or Austria in the theater of war, in the long term, because of its complicated decision-making processes, conflicting domestic interests, and lack of manpower. Exactly two years after their success in Dijon, thousands of Swiss men lay dead at Marignano. Times were changing and so was the art of war. As early as the 1490s, Austria had pioneered significant advancements in artillery technology. As weapons became more accurate and able to cover greater distances, war became a far deadlier prospect. Most Swiss did not know it at the time, but these critical technological innovations marked the the end of the Swiss pikeman’s heyday on the battlefields of Europe.
Illustration from the Zeugbuch of Emperor Maximilian I, 1502.
Cannons of this type could have been used to destroy the Dijon city walls. Illustration from the Zeugbuch of Emperor Maximilian I, 1502. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
Another fascinating historical curiosity is that at the same time the Swiss and their allies besieged Dijon, a 30’000-strong army led by King James IV of Scotland invaded England. James IV had declared war on England in August 1513 to honor Scotland’s traditional “Auld Alliance” with France. At the Battle of Flodden, over 10,000 Scotsmen, including James IV himself, died fighting against the English on September 9, 1513. The Scots had fought wiedling pikes in the Swiss fashion in a deadly foreshadowing of Marignano.
Detail of the Murten diorama in the National Museum Zurich.
Confederate pikemen at the Battle of Murten, some 40 years earlier. At the end of the 15th century, new technologies emerged that made this type of warfare very deadly for the soldiers. Detail of the Murten diorama in the National Museum Zurich. Swiss National Museum
To the French, the Siege of Dijon was yet another defeat in what became known as ‘l’année terrible’. France’s fortunes ebbed and flowed as conflict with the Habsburgs persisted during the first half of the sixteenth century. The Siege of Dijon did little to stifle Valois-Habsburg tensions, and the dispute over the “Burgundian inheritance” would continue to burn for centuries. Although the Habsburgs never recaptured the duchy of Burgundy, the incorporation of the “Burgundian inheritance” into the Holy Roman Empire served only to enrich and invigorate an already dynamic Austria. The fateful siege never left the consciousness of the Dijonnais, and the belief that the Virgin Mary had interceded on their behalf became entrenched in the city's popular culture. Every year on September 4th, the Dijonnais commemorate the deliverance of their city with the “Festival de Notre-Dame des Suisse.” More than any other object, there is one magnificent treasure, which artisans created immediately after the events of 1513: A splendid tapestry depicting the events from a Dijonnais perspective. Likely woven between c. 1514-1520 and presumably donated to the Church of Notre-Dame of Dijon a short time later, this tapestry captures an intriguing moment in Swiss and wider European history.
Tapestry of the Siege of Dijon, c. 1514-1520
Tapestry of the Siege of Dijon, c. 1514-1520. © Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon/François Jay

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