The Battle of the Golden Spurs, 1302

The Battle of the Golden Spurs: Courtrai, 11 July 1302On July 11, 1302, the townsmen of Courtrai and other Flemish rebels defeated a French army outside the walls of their city, in what is considered one of the most important battles in the Middle Ages.  The victory of infantryman over a mounted forces of knights was a shock to the current military thought of that period.  The following account of the battle comes from the Annales Ghandenses, which was written by a Friar Minor from Ghent.  His chronicle, which he began in 1308, gives an account of events in Flanders between 1297 and 1310.  For a detailed analysis of this battle, readers are encouraged to consult The Battle of the Golden Spurs: Courtrai, 11 July 1302, by J.F. Verbruggen or the De Liebaart Website.

So the king [of France], by the advice of his barons and chamberlains (for that is what his intimate counsellors are called), gathered all the knighthood whom he could collect from France, Champagne, Normandy, Picardy and Poitou, and hired also a great number of knights skilled in warfare and of nobles outside his own realm, from the duchy and county of Lorraine and Brabant and Hainault. He assembled a very strong and numerous army, and put in command of it Robert, count of Artois, his own kinsman and the queen’s uncle, strong, noble, courageous and from his youth practiced in battles and expert in tournaments.  He had been victorious in five or six mortal combats. About the end of June, Count Robert set out with almost all the counts and barons of France capable of fighting as well as the army which the king had been able to raise, about ten thousand mounted men, besides such a host of crossbowmen and foot that I have not heard their number stated, and came to Lille. When Guy [of Namur] and William [of Julich] discovered this, through their scouts, and also that he intended to lead his army against Courtrai, to overthrow the Flemings and drive them away from the siege of the castle, if possible, as those of the king’s party in the castle were provisioned for two months only, William left behind a force adequate for the siege of Cassel, and himself set out to his uncle Guy at Courtrai with a large army from western Flanders.

About this time there was such dearth and famine in Ghent, that the humbler folk were in general eating bread made from oats; for while the town of Ghent was on the king’s side, the parts all round about were for Guy and William, so that corn and other food could only be smuggled in secretly. There was touch dissension in Ghent, for the common folk favoured the count, and theleliaerts and rich the king, so that often civil war between them was to be feared.

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 drawnup 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 Godtook 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. Andso, 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.

This text is from Annales Gandenses/Annals of Ghent, trans. Hilda Johnstone (London, 1951)

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