Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Battle of the Golden Spurs

Today is officially designated the Flemish Feest Day (Vlaanderen Feestdag). It is so designated however because it commemorates the Battle of the Golden Spurs on July 11th, 1302. This event is worth noting by not only Flemings or those of us with Flemish ancestry but also by the wider world community.

For military historians, this battle was critical for demonstrating that citizen levies could defeat feudal levies (heavily armored knights) in a set piece battle. More importantly, Flemish guild members defeated France, at that time Europe's strongest power.
For students of political history, it was a victory of plural governance over absolutism. Offset by only seven days from America's own Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776), its calendar proximity underscores the continuum of Flemish contributions to the development of the United States of America.

For those of you unfamiliar with the battle and the events leading up to it, I recommend the books I cited in my posting one year ago. But a quick synopsis would go something like this:

Although Flanders just 100 years before had been larger than France, by the end of the 13th century the evil though handsome (hence the name Philip le Bel - Philip the Fair) French king sought to impose his rule on Flanders. Some Flemings sought their own self-interest (including of course, the successive Counts of Flanders) but others - especially led by strong guildmembers in Bruges/Brugge struggled against the political and cultural encroachment by France. Events culminated in an uprising of the Bruges/Brugge townsmen and defiance of the French king.

In response, King Philip of France summoned those who owed him feudal service - including Flemish knights - and marched north to 'chastise' the Flemings. The guilds of Bruges/Brugge, supported by some Flemish knights (the "vast majority" according to historian J.F. Verbruggen) joined the guilds. They faced forfeiture of fiefs, loss of income, and a painful death if they lost.

Incidentally, there were many different Dutch-speaking communities represented on the Flemish side by small levies or individuals from Dutch-speaking villages and fiefs. These included: Brugge/Bruges, Kortrijk/Courtrai, Aalst, Oudenaarde, Hondschote, Wessegem, Gistel, Erpe, Praat, Limburg, Zeeland, Holland, Rijsel/Lille, Loon, Aardenburg, Brabant, Lembeke, Gillis, Belle, Moorslede, Coudekerke, Steenland, Namen/Namur, Ieper/Ypres and Gent/Ghent. In other words, nearly the entire Dutch-speaking from north of the Scheldt west to the Rhine, south to what is now France and west as far as Calais. They were trying to live the idea: "Vlaanderen, Samen staan we sterk."

For the most part these men were armed with an inexpensive Flemish pike called the "goedendag" of about 12 feet long.

Against this levy of perhaps 10,000 Flemings - nearly all footsoldiers whose day jobs were weavers, butchers, greengrocers, etc. - was arrayed a roughly equal (but qualitatively better in terms of arms, training and experience) French crossbowmen (more than 1000), footsoldiers (6000?), and knights (several thousand). The Frenchmen were trained in warfare, protected by armor, and experienced in field tactics.

The outcome was not expected to be favorable to the Flemish. They fought as men whose backs were against the wall. Which in a very real sense they were, since the French had a garrison inside the castle walls of Kortrijk, outside of which they were arrayed. But after multiple attacks on the Flemish with both their crossbowmen and their French knights, the Flemish were victorious. More than 700 French knights left their fancy, golden spurs on the field.

In tribute to their near-miraculous deliverance from French absolutism and oppression, the Flemish hung those spurs at the Onze Lieve Vrouw Kerk in Kortrijk. There they hung for 80 years, until the French juggernaut overwhelmed the bright lights of Flemish pluralism. Today battle monuments stand on the Groeningeveld in Kortrijk to commemorate the Flemish victory.

Rather than outline in detail the moves of the battle, today I take a different approach. Below, courtesy and thanks to my friend Ray van Angeltjes (whose superb blog Angeletjes I highly recommend), are links to the movie "The Battle of the Golden Spurs". The movie is in Dutch with English subtitles.


  1. Of course, the Flemings couldn't monetize their advantage on the terrain, as always. Ten years later or so, the leverage was mostly lost in Pevelenberg. Flemings have always been good in tactics but never in strategy.

    1. Pevelenberg was not a defeat..more of a draw..witch the french claimed as a fo the strategy part..since the nthe flemmish pikemen stayed a wel know anrespected footsoldier an plaeyd an important part in manny batles..pardon my writing i am Flemish..greetings bouden devos

  2. 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.