Battle of the Golden Spurs
The Battle of the Golden Spurs (Dutch: Guldensporenslag, French: Bataille des éperons d'or), known also as the Battle of Courtrai, was a battle between the forces of the Kingdom of France and the County of Flanders fought near Kortrijk (Courtrai) in western Royal Flanders on 11 July 1302. In 1302, after several years of unrest, the people of Flanders revolted against French rule and massacred many Frenchmen in the Flemish city of Bruges. King Philip IV of France immediately organized an expedition under Count Robert II of Artois to put down the rebellion. Meanwhile, the civic militias of several Flemish cities were assembled to counter the expected French attack.
When the two armies met outside the city of Kortrijk, the mounted French knights proved unable to defeat the well-trained Flemish foot militia on a battlefield particularly unsuited for cavalry. The result was a rout of the French nobles, who suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Flemish. The battle was a famous early example of an all-infantry army overcoming an army that depended on the shock attacks of mounted knights.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Battle of the Golden Spurs became a key part of the Flemish Movement. In 1973, the date of the battle was chosen to be the date of the official holiday of the Flemish community in Belgium.
The reason for the battle was a French attempt to subdue the County of Flanders, which was formally part of the French Kingdom and added to the crown lands in 1297 but resisted centralist French policies. In 1300, King Philip IV of France appointed Jacques de Châtillon as governor of Flanders and made the Count of Flanders, Guy of Dampierre, hostage. This caused considerable unrest among the influential Flemish urban guilds. As far back as 1297, Guy had broken feudal ties with Philip in favor of forming an alliance with Edward I of England, to whom Guy had engaged his daughter Philippina in 1294.
In 1302, the French governor of Flanders took his army and the king's lead advisor and negotiator to Bruges to negotiate a peace with the rebellious towns of the region. Rebel leaders quickly relocated outside town, at which point the French army harassed the townspeople (especially the families of the rebels). On the morning of 18 May 1302, the rebellious citizens of Bruges went back to the city and murdered every Frenchman they could find, an act known as the Brugse Metten. According to legend, they identified the French by asking them to pronounce a Flemish phrase, schilt ende vriend (shield and friend) and everyone who had a problem pronouncing this shibboleth was killed.
The French king could not let this go unpunished, so he sent a powerful force led by Count Robert II of Artois. The Flemish response consisted of two groups, one of 3,000 men from the city militia of Bruges, was led by William of Jülich, grandson of Count Guy and Pieter de Coninck, one of the leaders of the uprising in Bruges. The other group of about 2,500 men from the suburbs of Bruges and the coastal areas, was headed by Guy of Namur, son of Count Guy, with the two sons of Guy of Dampierre; the two groups met near Kortrijk. From the East came another 2,500 men, led by Jan Borluut from Ghent and yet another 1,000 men from Ypres, led by Jan van Renesse from Zeeland.
The Flemish were primarily town militia who were well equipped and trained. The militia mostly fought as infantry and were uniformed and equipped with steel helmets and chainmail haubergeons. They were organized by guild. They were equipped with weapons such as pikes, bows, crossbows and with the goedendag. The goedendag, in particular, was a specifically Flemish weapon, made from a thick 5 feet (1.5 m)-long wooden shaft and topped with a steel spike. They were also well organized; the urban militias of the time prided themselves on their regular training and preparation. The Flemish militia could form a line formation against cavalry with goedendags and pikes pointed outward. They numbered about 9,000, including 400 noblemen. The biggest difference from the French and other feudal armies was that the Flemish force consisted almost solely of infantry with only the leaders mounted, more to express their leadership than for combat.
The French, by contrast, fielded a traditional feudal army with a core of 2,500 noble cavalry, including knights and squires. They were supported by 1,000 crossbowmen, 1,000 spearmen and up to 3,500 other light infantry, totaling around 8,000. Contemporary military theory valued each knight as equal to roughly ten infantry.
The assorted Flemish forces met at Courtrai on 26 June and laid siege to the castle, which housed a French garrison. While the siege was being laid, the Flemish leaders began preparing a nearby field for battle, as Philip was unlikely to let the massacre at Bruges go unpunished. The size of the eventual French response was impressive, with 3,000 knights and 4,000-5,000 infantry being an accepted estimate. After the Flemish unsuccessfully tried to take Courtrai on 9 and 10 July, the two forces clashed on the 11th in an open field near the city.
The layout of the field near Courtrai was crossed by numerous ditches and streams dug by the Flemish as Philip massed his army. Some drained from the river Lys, while others were concealed with dirt and branches, which would make it difficult for the French cavalry to charge the Flemish lines. The French sent servants to place wood in the streams but did not wait for this to be done before attacking. The large French infantry force led the initial attack, which went well but French commander Count Robert recalled them so that the noble cavalry could claim the victory. The cavalry were hindered by the streams and ditches (which they had however seen the infantry deal with in the beginning of the battle), and the disciplined Flemish infantry held firm. Unable to break the Flemish line of pikemen, the disorganized, fallen, and mud-drowned French cavalry were an easy target for the heavily armed Flemish. A desperate charge from the French garrison in the besieged castle was thwarted by a Flemish contingent specifically placed there for that task. When they realized the battle was lost, the surviving French fled, only to be pursued over 10 km (6 mi) by the Flemish.
Prior to the battle, the Flemish militia had either been ordered to take no prisoners or did not care for the military custom of asking for a ransom for captured knights or nobles; modern theory is that there was a clear order that forbade them to take prisoners as long as the battle was as yet undecided (this was to avoid the possibility of their ranks being broken when the Flemish infantry brought their hostages behind the Flemish lines). Robert II of Artois was surrounded and killed on the field. According to some tales he begged for his life but the Flemish refused, claiming that "they didn't understand French".
The large numbers of golden spurs that were collected from the French knights gave the battle its name. At least a thousand French noblemen were killed, some contemporary accounts placing the total casualties at over ten thousand dead and wounded. The French spurs were hung in the Church of Our Lady in Kortrijk to commemorate the victory and were taken back by the French eighty years later after the Battle of Westrozebeke.
Some of the notable casualties:
- Robert II, Count of Artois, the French commander
- Raoul of Clermont-Nesle, Lord of Nesle, Constable of France
- Guy I of Clermont, Lord of Breteuil, Marshal of France
- Simon de Melun, Lord of La Loupe and Marcheville, Marshal of France
- John I of Ponthieu, Count of Aumale
- John II of Trie, Count of Dammartin
- John II of Brienne, Count of Eu
- John d'Avesnes, Count of Ostrevent, son of John II, Count of Holland
- Godfrey of Brabant, Lord of Aarschot
- Jacques de Châtillon, Lord of Leuze
- Pierre de Flotte, Chief Advisor to Philip IV the Fair
Effect on warfare
The Battle of the Golden Spurs had been called the first incidence of the gradual "Infantry Revolution" which occurred in Medieval warfare during the 14th century. In conventional military theory of the time, mounted and heavily armoured knights were considered an essential part of military success and consequently warfare was the preserve of an wealthy elite of bellatores (nobles specialized in warfare) serving as men-at-arms. The fact that this form of army, which was expensive to maintain, could be defeated by basic militia, drawn from the "lower orders", led to a gradual change in the nature of warfare during the subsequent century. The tactics and composition of the Flemish army at Courtrai were later copied or adapted at the battles of Bannockburn (1314), Crecy (1346), Aljubarrota (1385), Sempach (1386), Agincourt (1415), Grandson (1476) and in the battles of the Hussite Wars (1419 - 1434). As a result, cavalry became less important and nobles more commonly fought dismounted. The comparatively low costs of militia armies allowed even small states, such as the Swiss, to raise militarily significant armies and meant that local rebellions were more likely to achieve military success.
Next to the Flemish army consisting almost completely out of infantry, the militia also were fighting for an already defeated leader: Guy of Dampierre who was taken hostage in France. Wars in those times were usually personal arguments between noblemen, and the war ended when one of the noblemen was captured or killed. But the Battle of the Golden Spurs showed that a population could also start a war against a suppressor. This symbol of "power to the people" can also be found in the Flemish anthem (De Vlaamse Leeuw). For example the chorus sentence being "They will never tame him, as long as one Fleming lives", or the phrase "Armies may go under, but a people never dies".
In Flemish culture
With a rising interest in Medieval history during the 19th century and the rise of Romanticism in art and literature, interest in the Battle within Flanders and Belgium grew. The battle formed the subject of the classic 1838 work of the Flemish writer Hendrik Conscience, The Lion of Flanders (De Leeuw van Vlaanderen), which achieved huge popularity. The battle was considered as the Flemish equivalent of the Six hundred Franchimontois of 1468. Celebration of the battle became associated with the Flemish Movement, which sought further autonomy from Belgium, during the 20th century.
- Rogers 1999, p. 137.
- Rogers 1999, p. 141.
- Although the website the 11th of July says that the /sχ/ sound in schild that makes it difficult for French-speakers to pronounce had not yet developed in the 14th century, the phrase "scilt en vrient" is referenced in primary sources such as the Chronique of Gilles Li Muisis as distinguishing French from Flemish. It is also suggested that Scilt ende Vrient (Schild en Vriend): (shield and friend) is a wrong interpretation/translation of "'s gilden vrient" meaning "friend of the guilds".
- "Battle 1302, exposition of member of Liebaert Association at Kortenberg April 2007.". Language Log.
- The Battle of the Golden Spurs. Retrieved 15 July 2011.
- Travel info on Belgium.
- Rogers 1999, pp. 141-3.
- Rogers 1999, pp. 139-42.
- Rogers 1999, pp. 142-4.
- Rogers 1999, p. 142.
- Rogers 1999, p. 144.
- Verbruggen, J. F. (2002) . The Battle of the Golden Spurs: Courtrai, 11 July 1302 (Rev. ed.). Woodbridge: Boydell Press. ISBN 0-85115-888-9.
- Devries, Kelly (1996). Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century: Discipline, Tactics, and Technology (Reprint ed.). Woodbridge: Boydell. ISBN 978-0851155715.
- Rogers, Clifford J. (1999). "The Age of the Hundred Years War". In Keen, Maurice. Medieval Warfare: A History (Reprint ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 136–60. ISBN 0-19-820639-9.
- TeBrake, William H. (1993). A Plague of Insurrection: Popular Politics and Peasant Revolt in Flanders, 1323–1328. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-3241-0.
- "Kortrijk: Battle of the Golden Spurs.". Belgium Travel Network. Archived from the original on March 3, 2006. Retrieved 4 March 2006.
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