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Flanders, the Lion
By Nils Visser
NOTE: Aye, the image of the black lion on a golden field, the coat of arms of the Count of Flanders, has been stolen by Flemish nationalists and extremists. Please note that the frequent use of this image doesn't mean that I support or sympathize with the extremist nationalists, on the contrary, I think they're ignorant nincompoops. Usage of this image just means that I'm stealing it back.
By Nils Visser
Courtrai is the location of a Medieval battle that is well known in the Low Countries, the Battle of the Golden Spurs (formally the Battle of Courtrai), which took place on July 11th 1302. Some of the myth surrounding the battle is a load of crap, Flemish nationalists like to present the battle as some sort of ultimate freedom struggle by Dutch speaking Flemish peasants trying to throw off the yoke of French aristocratic oppression. In fact, the “Flemish” side fought for the increased power of a French aristocrat, Guy de Dampierre, were led by a Dutchman, Jan van Renesse from Zeeland, and consisted of contingents of Walloon men-at-arms, retainers from Zeeland and Flemish city militia. The “French” side had as many Frenchmen as it had Flemish and Brabançon nobility and their retainers. In other words, your typical Medieval mishmash of interests and interchangeable loyalties, simply because nationalism as we understand it was virtually unknown (To keep it simple, I will refer to a Flemish and French side, even though you now know better).
What interested me was the historical fact that a very large part of the Flemish army consisted of armed city militia, i.e. amateurs who, in comparison to the French knights and men-at-arms, were poorly trained, barely armoured and insufficiently armed, barring one type of weapon. I’ve been studying the Medieval city militias in great detail and coming to the conclusion that they were probably a lot more effective than they’re given credit for, due to that one type of weapon which is of course ballistic in nature: The crossbow and the longbow.
The Battle of the Golden Spurs foreshadows the battles of Crécy and Azincourt in that victory seemed a certainty for the French side, based on the assumption that the French had a lot of nobles and the Flemish army did not. Not long ago such an assumption strengthened the generally accepted view that knights were a bunch of numbskulls who assumed that their blue blood was superior to that of peasants. No doubt there were some who believed such nonsense back then, just as they do now when they name their son Waleran Percival duBuneville Edingthorpe the Fourth. But the majority would have made this particular assumption on the basis of very sound military thinking.
A Knight or man-at-arms was someone who had been trained for war since youth. I’ve recently had the doubtful privilege of handling a one-and-a-half-hand training sword in mock combat against someone trained to use the sword and was subsequently ‘killed’ ten times in very quick succession, training really does make a world of difference here. So does proper armour, sure, armour has weaknesses and it comes in all sorts of qualities, not everyone could necessarily afford the best stuff. However, having no armour whatsoever on a battlefield is by far a worse proposition when you think of all the sharp-edged steel implements out there. Those knights and men-at-arms who are mounted have a further advantage, a well-trained warhorse is one that fights with you using hooves and teeth as weaponry and one that can dance forwards, backwards and sideways giving you lots of manoeuvrability: That horse if worth its weight in gold. Quite literally actually, the price of a trained war-horse was akin to the cost of a manor farm back in the days of yore.
In short, having an abundance of these well-trained men (2,500 mounted knights and men-at-arms in an army of 8,000), suitably encased in protective armour and riding the equivalent of a Batmobile, gives you very reasonable grounds to assume your opponent, who has a severe shortage of these high-tech human weapons (only 400 in an army of 9,000), is going to be in a lot of trouble when the shit hits the fan.
None-the-less, at the day’s ending on July the 11th 1302, that superbly well-trained and well-equipped army lay prone in the mud, smashed and shattered by bunch of peasants. What had happened?
Well this is where selective thinking –or stupidity if you will- does make an entry. The first, and once again a foreshadowing of Crécy and Azincourt, is the adherence to the principal tactic of a feudal army, the heavy cavalry charge, regardless of the terrain. Terrain is everything, in a battle selection of terrain is paramount and this lesson was ignored or forgotten by the French commander, Count Robert II d’Artois. Heavy cavalry are a potent weapon of war, but require certain pre-conditions in order to be effective, amongst other aspects these include room for manoeuvring, solid ground underfoot and the ability to arrive as one, a literal solid wall of horse and knight. The Groeningeveld outside the city of Courtrai was therefore a poor place for the French to fight, interspersed as it was with woodland and criss-crossed by streams and flooded ditches. Rather than deal with this problem the French spent a few days plundering the countryside, killing men, raping women, burning farms and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock: actions which only served to enrage the Flemish side, increasing their determination to die well.
Although we are left with a decent amount of documents which cover this battle little was said about archery. We are told that the French side had about 500 to 1,000 crossbow archers, and the Flemish side about 500 crossbow archers. Knowing however, that the largest part of the Flemish force consisted of city militia and that the primary weapons of city militia were ballistic in nature, the St Georges Guilds consisting of crossbow archers and the St Sebastian Guilds consisting of longbow archers, and that allows us to surmise that the weapon of our primary interest was well-represented on the battlefield.
In fact, it’s quite possible that the 500 crossbow archers referred to were professional soldiers rather than civilian militia, something hinted at when we read that the initial French crossbow barrage had little effect on the Flemish crossbow archers across the stream, because these sheltered behind their large shields, suggesting pavises which were more likely to be part of the equipment used by professional soldiers. At any rate, these archers didn’t withdraw until the French infantry advanced across the two streams and threatened their positions. The French infantry continued to plunge into the Flemish shield wall and seemed to be gaining the upper hand when the aristocratic mind-set intervened. The French cavalry, worried that the common infantry would gain the victory pressured Robert d’Artois to recall the infantry and order a cavalry charge to deliver a coup de grace to the Flemish army.
The moment the French cavalry started moving revealed a new and dangerous adversary in form of the terrain. The streams, though two to three meters wide at most, were deep and difficult to cross. The French knights intended to jump their horses across the streams, but anyone who knows the geographical nature of the Low Countries will realize that the ground adjacent to the streams would be boggy to the extreme, offering little or no support for the weight of a warhorse carrying an armoured man. The first unfortunate knights failed to complete the crossing, drowning in the stream and/or mud. The others became entangled with the French infantry, trying to withdraw as ordered but finding that the lack of manoeuvring space was creating a confusing bottleneck. A number of the French knights became impatient and started to hack and hew their way through their own infantry and archers. The cavalry became disentangled from the infantry in bits and pieces, and it was in that formation that they charged. Thus the Flemish lines did not receive a single wall of charging cavalry, but small groups. These broke the shield walls only to find that they were in a very small minority and surrounded by armed Flemish militia who had pikes and goedendags, clubs with spikes protruding from the end. There is also a reference to archers, who, having run out of arrows, used their bows and quivers to trip horses. To my mind this confirms the presence of longbows, as crossbow bolt quivers are the size of a purse at most and unlikely to impede the forwards movement of a warhorse.
The Flemish didn’t take prisoners, presumably because they had been ordered to do so because men with prisoners will leave the lines to secure their prisoners and for the Flemish the fight was one for survival, as they were well aware of the inequality in training and equipment. Moreover, knights were trained to capture one another, war and battle very much being a matter of capturing rich opponents and demanding ransom, untrained peasants never really had that ingrained instinct. Knights who went down, including Robert d’Artois, were killed. Apparently d’Artois begged for his life but was informed by the militiamen surrounding him that they didn’t speak French and therefore didn’t know what he was on about.
When the remnants of the French cavalry realized that the day was lost, they found that the streams impeded their retreat, and now far more knights and horses ended in the water where they were drowned or crushed by other knights. The retreating French were pursued for miles by the Flemish forces. In the aftermath of the battle thousands of golden and silver spurs were found on the Groeningeveld, giving the battle it’s popular name. The number of nobles slain at the battle, about a thousand, was to have a huge impact in Western Europe, another sign (remember Stirling and Bannockburn) that heavy cavalry could be vulnerable, a lesson not learned at dates yet to follow at Crécy and Azincourt.
The French aristocrats whom the Flemish militia and Zeelanders fought for, by the way, de Dampierre family, signed a peace treaty with the French king a few years later, in which they effectively sold out the Flemish cities which had fought for them so bravely. Never trust a snob, might well be a useful lesson here.