Monday, July 11, 2011

The Battle of the Golden Spurs (1302)

A short week after the Americans celebrate Independence Day, the Flemish community have their own official holiday. Let's find out what happened before, during and after the 11th of July, 1302.

Illustration of the Battle of the Golden Spurs
in the Grandes Chroniques de France.

Prelude

In 1300, the County of Flanders encompassed two of the richest and most powerful cities in Europe, Ghent and Bruges. The County was a fiefdom of France, independent but still paying taxes and allegiance to the French crown.

The Count of Flanders was Guy of Dampierre (c. 1226-1305). His personal conflict with King Philip IV of France led to Philip having Guy taken hostage in 1300. Governorship of Flanders was given to Jacques de Châtillon, an uncle of the King's wife. In this way, the king hoped to keep Flanders under his thumb.

Guy, Count of Flanders. Image: Wikipedia

That was a tremendous mistake. Jacques de Châtillon was a soldier, not a governor, and he failed to understand that in Flanders, the urban guilds held the real power. He supported the patricians, the official rulers of the cities, and in doing so alienated and provoked the guilds.

On May 17, 1302, de Châtillon entered Bruges with a small force of soldiers, causing those among the citizens who were opposed to the French regime to flee the city. On the following day, they went back into the city and murdered every Frenchman they could find, around 2,000 people. The massacre became known as the Brugse Metten (French: Bruges Matins). Jacques de Châtillon narrowly escaped the blood bath, but his next encounter with the Flemish fury would not be so fortunate.

The Oxford Chest (aka Chest of Courtrai) is carved with scenes from the
Battle of the Golden Spurs. This panel shows the Brugse Metten.

The Town Square in Bruges is dominated by a statue of Pieter de Coninck
and Jan Breydel, the two leaders of the uprising in Bruges.


The Battle of the Golden Spurs

Upon hearing of the massacre in Bruges, king Philip sent an army of 8,000 men to beat the Flemish into submission. The army was led by Count Robert II of Artois, who had previously defeated the Flemish in 1297.

Artois had had 2,500 mounted nobles and squires under his command. At the time it was widely believed that no infantry formation could resist a heavy cavalry charge. The physical power of an armoured knight, and the wealth which allowed him to pay for his equipment, gave rise to the near-mythical status of the mounted knight in medieval Europe.

Goedendag,
a weapon
popular
among the
Flemish
militia.
To face the French army, the Flemish gathered a force of 9,000 town militia. In those days, the Flemish militia prided themselves on their training and their weapons, which included the native goedendag club-spear. They fought exclusively on foot.

The prelude to the battle was a French attempt to take the city of Kortrijk (French: Courtrai) on July 9 and 10. On July 11, the two armies faced one another in an open field near the city.

The field was crisscrossed by numerous ditches and streams, which would slow down the French cavalry charge, which was an all-important part of military tactics of the time. Still, Artois was confident that his knights would easily crush the Flemish infantry. There was little evidence to suggest any other possible outcome. (It is unknown whether Robert had heard of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, but if so, he hadn't learned anything from it.)

As soon as the French knights charged at the Flemish ranks, they were halted by a solid wall of spears. The militiamen stepped forward, knocking the knights off their horses with the heavy head of the goedendag and stabbing them to death with the sharp iron spike at the end. The relatively short swords of the knights did not give them the reach needed to take on the Flemish militia with their spears.

Carving on the Oxford Chest showing Flemish militia armed with
goedendags (centre) at the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

Seeing that things were not going the way they wanted, the French began to retreat. It then became clear to them that the Flemish did not intend to take any prisoners. The militiamen rushed forward, ruthlessly slaughtering the knights crowding the streams and ditches in their desperate retreat. Some of the French would be chased for several kilometres from the battlefield before the Flemish gave up the chase.

The French lost at least a thousand nobles in the battle, as one could see from the approximately five hundred golden spurs that were taken from their bodies and hung in the Church of Our Lady in Kortrijk to commemorate the victory. This is why the battle is known as the Guldensporenslag, or Battle of the Golden Spurs. Among the nobles slain were Robert of Artois, the commander; Raoul of Clermont-Nesle, Constable of France; Guy I of Clermont and Simon de Melun, both Marshals of France; Pierre de Flotte, Chief Advisor to the King of France; Godfrey of Brabant, the Lord of Aarschot; and Jacques de Châtillon, who had narrowly escaped the massacre in Bruges two months earlier.

Nicaise de Keyser: Battle of the Golden Spurs (1836).
The painting shows Robert II of Artois surrendering his sword
shortly before being slaughtered by the Flemish militia.

Panel from the Oxford Chest showing Flemish militia
looting the bodies of  French knights.


Aftermath

After this glorious victory, Flanders remained completely independent for all of two years. In 1304, King Philip (incidentally known as "the Fair") personally led an army into Flanders and defeated a Flemish army headed by the son of the Count of Flanders.  One year later, a peace treaty was signed which allowed Flanders to preserve its independence as a fief of the Kingdom of France, as it had been before the revolt. In exchange, the the cities of Lille, Douai and Béthune were transferred to the French crown.

By the time the treaty had been signed, Guy of Dampierre, the Count of Flanders, had died in French captivity. He was succeeded by his son, Robert, who would uphold the Flemish tradition of being a thorn in the side of the French.


Further reading:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Golden_Spurs
http://www.liebaart.org/oxford_e.htm

5 comments:

  1. That's interesting! A lot of Flemish people don't actually know what happened during the Guldensporenslag. They remember names, statues, but that's mostly where it ends. Thanks for adding this to your blog :)

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  2. No problem! I had at least as much fun researching and writing this as you had reading it ;)

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  3. Sherryl Van AckerJune 28, 2012 at 12:32 AM

    There is so much information about why they have the celebration today but it does not say much of what they actually do. I am Belgian and I would love to know more!!

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  4. That's a very good question, Sherryl. Norway makes a big deal out of their national holiday, but I know very little about the Belgian celebrations. I'll try to find some more information about that by 21 July ;)

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  5. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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