Battle of the Golden Spurs
The Battle of the Golden Spurs (Dutch: Guldensporenslag, French: Bataille des éperons d'or), also known as the Battle of Courtrai, was a battle fought between the Kingdom of France and the County of Flanders at Kortrijk (Courtrai in French) in modern-day Belgium 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 an important cultural reference point for 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 origins of the Franco-Flemish War (1297–1305) can be traced back to the accession of Philip IV "the Fair" to the French throne in 1285. Philip hoped to reassert control over the County of Flanders, a semi-independent polity notionally part of the Kingdom of France, and possibly even to annex it into the crown lands of France. In the 1290s, Philip attempted to gain support from the Flemish aristocracy and succeeded in winning the allegiance of some local notables, including John of Avesnes (Count of Hainaut, Holland and Zeeland). He was opposed by a faction led by the Flemish knight Guy of Dampierre who attempted to form a marriage alliance with the English against Philip. In Flanders, however, many of the cities were split into factions known as the "Lilies" (Leliaerts), who were pro-French, and the "Claws" (Clauwaerts), led by Pieter de Coninck in Bruges, who advocated independence.
In June 1297, the French invaded Flanders and gained some rapid successes. The English, under Edward I, withdrew to face a war with Scotland and the Flemish and French signed a temporary armistice in 1297, the Truce of Sint-Baafs-Vijve, which halted the conflict. In January 1300, when the truce expired, the French invaded Flanders again and by May were in total control of the county. Guy of Dampierre was imprisoned and Philip himself toured Flanders making administrative changes.
After Philip left Flanders, unrest broke out again in the Flemish city of Bruges directed against the French governor of Flanders, Jacques de Châtillon. On 18 May 1302, rebellious citizens who had fled Bruges returned to the city and murdered every Frenchman they could find, an act known as the Bruges Matins. With Guy of Dampierre still imprisoned, command of the rebellion was taken by John and Guy of Namur. Most of the towns of the County of Flanders agreed to join the Bruges rebellion except for the city of Ghent which refused to take part. Most of the Flemish nobility also took the French side, fearful of what had become an attempt to take power by the lower classes.
In order to quell the revolt, Philip sent a powerful force led by Count Robert II of Artois to march on Bruges. Against the French, the Flemish under William of Jülich fielded a largely infantry force which was drawn mainly from Bruges, West Flanders and the east of the County. The city of Ypres sent a contingent of five hundred men under Jan van Renesse and despite their city's refusal to join the revolt, Jan Borluut arrived with seven hundred volunteers from Ghent.
The Flemish were primarily town militia who were well equipped and trained. The militia fought primarily as infantry, were organized by guild, and were equipped with steel helmets, chainmail haubergeons, spears, pikes, bows, crossbows and the goedendag. The goedendag 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 a well-organized force of nine thousand, including four hundred noblemen, and the urban militias of the time prided themselves on their regular training and preparation. The Flemish militia formed a line formation against cavalry with goedendags and pikes pointed outward. Because of the high rate of defections among the Flemish nobility, there were few mounted knights on the Flemish side. The Annals of Ghent claimed that there were just ten cavalrymen in the Flemish force.
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 about 5,500 infantry, a mix of crossbowmen, spearmen, and light infantry. Contemporary military theory valued each knight as equal to roughly ten footmen.
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The combined Flemish forces met at Kortrijk on 26 June and laid siege to the castle, which housed a French garrison. As the siege was being laid, the Flemish leaders began preparing a nearby field for battle. The size of the French response was impressive, with 3,000 knights and 4,000–5,000 infantry being an accepted estimate. The Flemish failed to take the castle and the two forces clashed on 11 July in an open field near the city next to the Groeninge stream.
The field near Kortrijk was crossed by numerous ditches and streams dug by the Flemish as Philip's army assembled. Some drained from the river Leie or Lys, while others were concealed with dirt and branches, making it difficult for the French cavalry to charge the Flemish lines. The marshy ground also made the cavalry less efficient. The French sent servants to place wood in the streams, but they were attacked before they completed their task. The Flemish placed themselves in a strong defensive position, in deeply stacked lines forming a square. The rear sides of the square were covered by a curve of the river Leie. The front sides presented a wedge to the French army and were placed behind larger rivulets. The large French infantry force led the attack, which initially went well and managed to cross the rivulets. Subsequently however, they failed to force back the Flemish front rows. The French commander Robert of Artois became impatient and recalled his foot soldiers to free the way to the noble cavalry. The cavalry were much hindered by the streams and ditches which the infantry had more easily negotiated in the beginning of the battle, and the disciplined Flemish infantry held firm. Unable at most points to break the Flemish line of pikemen, many French knights were knocked from their horses and killed with the goedendag, the spike of which was designed to penetrate the spaces between armour segments. Those cavalry groups that succeeded in breaking through were set upon by the reserve lines, surrounded and wiped out. To turn the tide of the battle de Artois ordered his cavalry reserves to continue the charges, with the same lack of success. When ultimately the French knights became aware that they could no longer be reinforced, their attacks faltered and they were gradually driven backwards into the rivulet marshes. There the disorganized, fallen, and mud-drowned French cavalry were an easy target for the heavily armed Flemish infantry. A desperate charge from the French garrison in the besieged castle was thwarted by a Flemish contingent specifically placed there for that task. The French infantry was visibly shaken by the sight of their knights being slaughtered and withdrew from the rivulets. The Flemish front ranks then charged forward, routing their opponents who were massacred. The surviving French fled, only to be pursued over 10 km (6 mi) by the Flemish.
Unusually for the period, the Flemish infantry took few if any of the French knights prisoner, in revenge for the French "cruelty". Robert 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 did not understand French.
The Annals of Ghent concludes its description of the battle:
And so, by the disposition of God who orders all things, the art of war, the flower of knighthood, with horses and chargers of the finest, fell before weavers, fullers and the common folk and foot soldiers of Flanders, albeit strong, manly, well armed, courageous and under expert leaders. The beauty and strength of that great [French] army was turned into a dung-pit, and the [glory] of the French made dung and worms.
With the French army defeated, the Flemish consolidated control over the County. Kortrijk castle surrendered on 13 July and John of Namur entered Ghent on 14 July and the "patrician" regime in the city and in Ypres were overthrown and replaced by more representative regimes. Guilds were also officially recognised.
The battle soon became known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs after the 500 pairs of spurs that were captured in the battle and offered at the nearby Church of Our Lady. After the Battle of Roosebeke in 1382, the spurs were taken back by the French and Kortrijk was sacked by Charles VI in retaliation.
According to the Annals, the French lost more than a 1,000 men during the battle, including 75 important nobles. These included:
- Robert II, Count of Artois and his half-brother James
- 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 of Avesnes, Count of Ostrevent, son of John II, Count of Holland
- Godfrey of Brabant, Lord of Aarschot and Vierzon, and his son John of Vierzon
- Jacques de Châtillon, Lord of Leuze
- Pierre de Flotte, Chief Advisor to Philip IV the Fair
- Raoul de Nesle, son of John III, Count of Soissons.
The Flemish victory at Kortrijk in 1302 was quickly reversed by the French. In 1304, the French destroyed the Flemish fleet at the Battle of Zierikzee and fought an indecisive battle at Mons-en-Pévèle. In June 1305, negotiations between the two sides led to the humiliating Peace of Athis-sur-Orge in which the Flemish were forced to pay the French substantial tribute. Robert of Béthune subsequently fought an indecisive campaign against the French between 1314–20.
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 a 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 (1419–34). 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.
In Flemish culture and politics
With a rising interest in Medieval history during the 19th century and the rise of Romanticism in art and literature, interest in the Medieval history of modern-day Belgium grew among nationalists. According to the historian Jo Tollebeek, this was because "it was a period that could be linked with the most important contemporary aspirations" of romantic nationalism.
The Battle of the Golden Spurs was the subject of an "extensive cult" in 19th and 20th century Flanders. After Belgian independence in 1830, the battle served as a way of evoking local pride in Flanders. The battle was painted in 1836 by the leading Romanticist painter Nicaise de Keyser. Inspired by the painting, it formed the centrepiece of the classic 1838 novel by the Flemish writer Hendrik Conscience, The Lion of Flanders (De Leeuw van Vlaanderen). A large monument and triumphal arch were erected on the site of the battle between 1906–08. The battle was evoked by King Albert I at the start of World War I to inspire bravery among Flemish soldiers as an equivalent of the Walloon six hundred Franchimontois of 1468. In 1914, the Belgian victory against German cavalry at the Battle of Halen was dubbed the "Battle of the Silver Helmets" in analogy to the Golden Spurs. In 1973, the date of the battle, 11 July, was picked as the Flemish Community's annual official holiday.
Considering the importance of the Battle of the Golden Spurs to Flemish identity, it was soon seized on by the Flemish Movement which sought autonomy or even independence for Dutch-speaking Flanders in the late 19th and 20th century. The battle was seen as a "milestone" in a historic struggle for Flemish national liberation and a symbol of resistance to foreign rule. Flemish nationalists wrote poems and songs about the battle and celebrated its leaders. As a result of this linguistic-based nationalism, the contribution of French-speaking soldiers and command of the battle by Walloon noble Guy of Namur was neglected.
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