Charles was born in Dijon on 11 November 1433, the son of Philippe 'the Good', duc de Bourgogne, and his third wife Isabella of Portugal. Charles was first married to Catherine de France, who died in 1446. On 30 October 1454 he married Isabelle de Bourbon, the daughter of Charles I, duc de Bourbon, and Agnes de Bourgogne. They had one child, Marie, who would marry Maximilian of Austria, the future Emperor Maximilian I.
Charles lived in the shadow of his much more intelligent father. In the last three years of his father's life he had allowed Charles to participate in government. When Philippe died in 1467 Charles succeeded him as duke of Burgundy. Isabelle had died in 1465, and in 1468 he married Margaret of York, sister of Edward IV, king of England. This marriage did not result in progeny.
Charles wanted to aggrandise the House of Burgundy as much as his father had. His territories were spread far and apart, within France as well as in the Netherlands and Germany. Aiming to unite all these territories with himself as an independent king, he first established a standing army, which resulted in increased taxes for the population. He then tried to centralise government and justice; however this also upset many people as all his duchies, counties and lordships had their own laws and traditions. He obtained the Elsas (Alsace) and parts of Lorraine, decreasing the distance between his territories in the north and the south. In December 1472 Arnold van Egmond, duke of Gelre, pawned his duchy to Charles for 300,000 golden Rhine guilders.
In 1473 Charles arranged a meeting in Trier with Emperor Friedrich III. They arrived in pouring rain at the same time and tried to outdo each other in politeness, each urging the other to enter the city first. After an hour in the rain they decided to enter together. They had many issues to discuss: the marriage of Charles' only child to the emperor's son; the creation of the kingdom of Burgundy; and in case of the emperor's death, Charles becoming the next emperor. Charles impressed the impoverished emperor with his wealth, so that agreements seem to have been reached. A crown was made and a day appointed on which Charles was to be crowned king by the emperor. However the day beforehand the emperor left. The reason was probably lack of support from the German princes and objections by Charles's enemy, King Louis XI of France.
Louis XI then encouraged dissidents in Charles' territories and supported an uprising in the Elsas with a Swiss army. The Swiss defeated Charles time after time, until he was killed at Nancy on 5 January 1477 in the final and decisive battle of the Burgundian Wars.