Friday, July 11, 2008


706 years ago a Flemish Army utterly defeated the finest of all knight's armies the French King had ever assembled.

The Battle of the Golden Spurs, so called because of the huge numbers of golden spurs taken from the bodies of the French knights after the battle, was but one chapter in the early 14th century hostilities between the County of Flanders and the Kingdom of France. France has a long history of annexing, or trying to annex, neighboring territory. One of the most coveted regions the French Crown would have liked to lay its hands on was rich Flanders, with it prosperous cities Ghent, Bruges, Oudenaarde, Ieper (Ypres), Roeselare. By shrewd manoeuvring the French King, Philip IV, had lured the Count of Flanders, Guy of Dampierre, and his two sons, into captivity. In his place he appointed, in 1300, a governor, Jacques de Châtillon , who quickly made himself detested, a.o. by imposing heavy taxes. In May 1302, a Bruges militia murdered the French garrison there, an episode known as the "Brugse metten". Among the few who managed to escape was Jacques de Châtillon. Two months later, the French King, white with rage, sent a splendid 10,000 strong Knight's army commanded by Count Robert II of Artesia to Flanders to extoll revenge. Before the city of Kortijk they were awaited by the Flemish Army, which was basically an infantry army of militias of townsfolk from all over Flanders. Important Flemish leaders were Willem Van Gulik, Jan Van Renesse, Guy of Namur and Pieter De Coninc. It is believed that the Flemish commanders deliberately chose a "victory or death" strategic position on a field just outside the city of Kortrijk, with the French-held Castle of Kortrijk and the River Leie (Lys) in their backs and the approaching enemy army on the other side of a deep brook, the Groeningebeek.

The following is a translated exerpt from a famous document of the time, the so-called Annales Gandenses (Annals of Ghent), believed to have been written in Latin by a Franciscan Monk in a Ghent monastery around 1308-1311. The translation is by Hilda Johnstone (London, 1951). You will now be reading a 700-year old document:

About the beginning of July, Robert moved from Lille, set out for Courtrai, and pitched his camp near that town, at a distance of about four or five furlongs. As the French entered Flemish-speaking Flanders, to show their ferocity and terrorize the Flemings they spared neither women nor children nor the sick, but slew all they could find. They even beheaded the images of the saints in the churches, as though they were alive, or chopped off their limbs. However, such doings did not terrorize the Flemings, but stimulated and provoked them to still greater indignation and rage and violent fighting.

When Guy and William heard of the approach of the enemies whom they hated so bitterly, they assembled their army with speed and rejoicing, about sixty thousand foot, strong and well armed. And they summoned all those faithful to them, who loved there, not only from the parts of Flanders those who were with them and had turned against the king, but also from Ghent, where about seven hundred well-armed men secretly left the town, and on this account were at once banished by the leliaerts. All those he had assembled were eager to come to blows with the French. In their whole army Guy and William had no more than about ten knights, of whom the most distinguished and experienced in warfare were Henry de Loncin from the duchy of Limburg, John de Renesse from the county of Zeeland, Gossuin of Goidenshoven from the duchy of Brabant, Dietrich of Hondschoote, Robert of Leewergem, Baldwin of Popperode of the county of Flanders. These, with Guy and William, drew up the Flemish army in order of battle and put heart into it. For three or four days there were individual assaults and combats between the two armies. But on a certain Wednesday, July 11, Guy and William found out through their scouts that all the French were making ready for battle in the morning, and did the same themselves, posting the men of Ypres to resist any of those in the castle who might wish to make a sally during the battle, and drawing up their army in a line both long and deep, about the hour of terce, to await the enemy in the field.

About the hour of sext, the French appeared in arms on the field. They had divided their whole army, both horse and foot, into nine lines of battle, but when they saw the Flemings drawn up in a single line, very long and deep, boldly ready for battle, they made three lines out, of their own nine, placing one of them in the rear for protection and intending to fight with the other two. Battle was joined shortly before none, with horrible crashing and warlike tumult, and with death for many. The fighting was fierce and cruel, but not prolonged, for God took pity on the Flemings, giving them speedy victory, and put to confusion the French, who, as appeared clearly afterwards, had intended if victorious to do many cruel deeds in Flanders. When battle was joined those in the castle, mindful of their friends, threw down fire from the castle, as they had done often before and had set alight many houses in Courtrai and consumed one beautiful house by fire, to terrify the Flemings. Also both horse and foot came out from the castle, to attack the Flemings from the rear, but were forced ignominiously to return to it by the men of Ypres, who resisted them manfully and well. The count of St. Pol, who was in command of the third line, entrusted with the defence of the rear, though he saw his two half-brothers giving way with the [other] two lines, and in peril of death, did not go to their aid and succour, but most disgracefully taking to flight quitted the field. 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 army was turned into a dung-pit, and the [glory] of the French made dung and worms. The Flemings, embittered by the cruelty the French had practised between Lille and Courtrai, spared neither the dying Frenchmen nor their horses, and slew them all cruelly, till they were completely assured of victory. An order had been proclaimed in their army by their leaders before the fight began that anyone who stole any valuable during the battle or kept as prisoner a noble, however great, should be straightway put to death by his own comrades. In the said battle, therefore, there perished that no and victorious prince, Robert, count of Artois, with James his half-brother, already mentioned, to whose brewing all the evils then and later were mainly due; Godfrey, paternal uncle of John, duke of Brabant, with his only son, the lord of Vierzon (he, it is believed, because on the mother's side his nephew was of Flemish blood, would if. the French had won have turned him out of his land, or slain him, and secured it from the king to hold himself); John, eldest son of the count of Hainault, called the Pitiless because of his cruelty; Pierre Flote, the crafty and powerful councilor of the king; the count of Aumale; the count of Eu; the lord of Nesle, marshal, that is to say chief of the knighthood of France, with his brother Guy, a most valiant knight; and other barons and landed magnates, as noble, mighty and powerful as many counts of Germany, to the number of seventy-five. More than a thousand simple knights, many noble squires, and numbers of foot, fell there, and more than three thousand splendid chargers and valuable horses were stabbed during the battle. The total of those who were either killed in the battle or died of their wounds soon afterwards was as much as twenty thousand, and many took flight. The whole of the knightly force remaining to the king was not equivalent to the number of slain. After the victory the Flemings captured some nobles who had remained on the field, unable to flee because wounded. They were immensely enriched by booty and spoil taken from their enemies, and furnished and magnificently provided with weapons, tents and trappings of war.

The Battle of the Golden Spurs, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Courtrai in Anglosaxon literature, was but the opening shot in a four-year war between Flanders and France. But in the end it turned out to be the decisive battle. There would be further minor clashes and skirmishes. And two year later, the war would be concluded with two major battles. The first was the Naval Battle of Zierikzee on 10 and 11 August, 1304 in Zeeland, which is in the Netherlands. There, the Flemish fleet was defeated in two days by the French fleet under the command of a Genovese admiral with what would become a famous name: Rainier Grimaldi. He was the first sovereign ruler of Monaco, and Monaco's current ruler of Monaco, Prince Albert, is a far descendant, colourful although probably a less good tactician.

The second battle took place barely one week later, on August 17, 1304, at Mons-en-Pévèle in northern France. We Flemings call it the "Slag bij de Pevelenberg. It was a horrifying clash with tremendous casualties on both sides. At one point in the battle, the French came very close to another crushing defeat, as King Philip IV, personally leading his army for the first time, was thrown of his horse and reportedly only escaped death because the amour he donned did not betray his true identity. The Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle ended undecided, but both sides claimed victory, and if you ever happen to watch the famous August 15 Bruges Procession, know that what you see is in fact a commemoration of the Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle.

The war dragged on for another year, until an armistice was signed on June 23, 1305, known as the Treaty of Athis-sur-Orge, in which France recognized Flemish independence, and Flanders in return had to pay heavy fines and give up the cities of Lille, Douai and Béthune, now in northern France. Tourists are reminded of the Flemish origin of these cities and the surrounding land by the brown and white signs along highways reading "Flandres" - French for Flanders.

The outcome of the 1302-1305 war meant that Flemish would remain our language and that Flanders would never lose its cultural identity. I do not say "territorial integrity", for Flanders' independence would alas be short-lived. It would return to some vassal-state status under French influence (and later on it would come, together with its age-old antagonist Wallonia, under Burgundian, Spanish, Austrian and Dutch control.) Nevertheless, such was the power of Flemish arms in those long-ago hot summers of 1302 and 1304 that afterwards, France considered it too hot a potato to swallow. Unlike other peripheral regions such as the Languedoc or Gascony or Brittany, Flanders was never incorporated into the Kingdom of the Lys. And to the end of his days, Philip IV would speak of the Flemings only in the harshest and most scornful of words.

What we are today, the immense architectural and literary riches that survive to this day, the virtues of hard work and the quest for perfection which inspire our entrepreneurs to this day, the still very freedom-loving undercurrent in Flemish society (of which the mere existence of the Vlaams Belang is but the most visible manifestation)... all that we owe to those warriors of long ago. For decades now, Flemish youth is told and taught otherwise, with lessons that reduce what was a noble struggle for freedom into a senseless butchery without purpose or significant outcome. Luckily, in my case my interest in history has for some reason always be such that beyond the fairytales taught in school, I came across far too many material convincingly disclaiming the politically correct nonsense. We westerners of this time and age, who at these pivotal times risk losing so terribly much, have an obligation to instill in our youth an interest and love for our great past. For if we don't value our past, we will not be able to value what is still ours, and are bound to lose it. My children, to begin with, will know the truth.


No comments: