Battle of the Golden Spurs
Updated: May 15, 2022
"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."
From the Annals of Ghent, c. 1308.
Courtrai (Kortijk in Flemish) is a major city in the Flemish region of Belgium close to the French border. A visit to the city includes visiting the Church of Our Lady. The one-time collegiate church was established in the 12th century and now serves as the parish church. It is notable for what hangs on the ceiling. Hundreds of golden spurs adorn the vaulted ceiling. These are replicas of the originals taken from the field of battle outside the castle of Courtrai in 1302. The battle was one of the most disastrous in medieval French history. It exposed the weaknesses of mounted knights and ushered in the slow decline of the importance of heavy cavalry in warfare.
During most of the medieval period, the historic County of Flanders had remained a semi-independent principality. The kings of France made periodic attempts to incorporate the region into the Kingdom of France, but they had little success with a permanent solution. The Flemings fiercely guarded their independence. By the time the Church of Our Lady was completed in 1199, Courtrai and other towns in Flanders had emerged as the leading textile centers of Europe. Flemish cloth was desired throughout Europe and as far as the Orient. Wealth poured into the towns, and there arose an urban merchant and working class. During the course of the 13th century, these urban centers grew in their political power.
A key component of the Flemish textile success was English wool. England had become the leading wool producer and exporter of the time period. As a result, duties on wool exports were an important source of revenue for the English crown. Since Flanders was the major wool market, this linked the areas economically. This would entangle Flanders in the dynastic conflict between England and France. The Flemish nobility, through feudal and marriage ties, leaned toward the French. French wine was exchanged for Flemish cloth. Courts were modeled after the court in Paris. The French language was becoming predominant, French prelates held high church offices, and children of wealthy families were sent to schools in France. On the other hand, the merchants and the working class of the urban centers held sentiments for England, mostly out of economic self-interest.
At the end of the 13th century, King Edward I of England sought to assert his claims to French territory. He hoped to use Flanders as a base of operations on the continent for an invasion of France. His efforts went largely for naught. Uprisings in Scotland led by Robert the Bruce diverted Edward's attention. At this time, animosity arose between the English king and the Counts of Flanders. In anger, Edward I raised the tariffs on English wool which upset the major cloth merchants. They put pressure on the new Count of Flanders, Guy of Dampierre. Guy decided to make amends with the English monarch, and in 1294, a marriage alliance was arranged between one of his daughters and the Prince of Wales.
Of course, this did not sit well with the king of France, Philip IV. Besides the fact that Philip was Guy's liege lord, the king of France desired to annex Flanders. The wealth of the textile industry would flow into royal coffers, and the French could utilize the Flemish coastline to cross the Channel and harass the coast of England. In 1302, Philip invaded Flanders, accusing Guy of conspiring with the English against the French crown. He took Guy and two of his sons prisoner. They would be released only when Guy broke off the marriage arrangement. Guy's daughter would also be imprisoned to prevent the marriage from happening. While under this pretense, Philip stationed a large French army in Flanders, and he began imposing French rule upon the formally independent territory. The harsh enforcement of French laws was conducted by the newly named governor, James of St. Pol. The Flemish towns saw this as an affront to their independence. Distaining this attempt to meddle in the internal affairs of Flanders, the Flemish towns refused to comply with the establishment of French rule.
Wishing to assert French authority, St. Pol decided to occupy the town of Bruges. Bruges had been the most vocal of the Flemish towns against the French. St. Pol arrived to find that the most rebellious of the town had fled into hiding in the surrounding forests. But the remaining townspeople offered no help. As tensions mounted, French soldiers harassed the townsfolk. Rumors of French atrocities began to be spread to the other towns and across the countryside. The rebels organized a raid against the occupying army. Early on the morning of May 18, 1302, while the French were still asleep, they entered the town and proceeded to massacre over 300 French soldiers. St. Pol was forced to flee and became trapped at the castle of Courtrai. In the meantime, the rebels organized an army recruited mainly from the working classes of the various Flemish towns: fullers, weavers, and other artisans. This newly raised army then besieged Courtrai.
The Flemish militia was mainly composed of infantry soldiers and commanded by a handful of local knights with limited military experience. There were an estimated 7,000 - 10,000 men, most of them owned very little armor. The main weapon used by the Flemish foot soldiers was known as the "goedendag." (Literally "Good Day" in Dutch). This weapon was a form of polearm, essentially a long club with a spike at the end. It was effective against mounted men as well as being able to deliver blunt blows when necessary.
Philip IV sent one of his experienced commanders, Robert, Count of Artois. The count arrived at Courtrai at the head of an imposing French army composed of the cream of French knighthood. The knights presented a formidable opponent to the inexperienced Flemish militia. Historians estimate that the army consisted of 30,000 knights along with 4 - 5,000 foot soldiers. Battle was the realm of the knight. Heavy cavalry charges were the prime tactic used in warfare, and they would have been a harrowing experience for anyone who stood in the path. Robert of Artois discovered that the Flemish had taken up a position in front of the castle with the River Lys protecting their left flank.
The two opposing armies met on July 11, 1302. The Flemish had dug a series of ditches and filled them with water diverted from the River Lys. Purportedly, the French commanders had obtained a map of the ditches, thereby presumably negating their intention of slowing down the French cavalry. The Flemish formed into a single line at dawn, their backs to the River Lys preventing any retreat. The line curved outward toward the French position. Some of the infantry held pikes that could be planted into the ground to slow a mounted charge. Next to these were the men armed with goedendags to unmount the enemy. In an unusual move, even the few Flemish knights dismounted and were prepared to fight on foot. The Flemish leaders boosted morale with patriotic speeches and exhorted their men to fight for the nation and their families. A small contingent was held in reserve and to guard against any action from the French holed up in Courtrai. Facing them was the glory of France. Against better counsel, Robert of Artois had divided his knights into three formations. Two would attack while the third would be in reserve. Confidence was riding high in the French camp.
The battle began with the French infantry attacking. Despite the waterlogged ditches, the French infantry moved quickly across the field. The initial attack pushed the Flemish back. The French knights watched the success of their infantry. Sensing that the battle would be won, they grew impatient. Their chivalric code plus contempt for the lowly foot soldiers demanded that they gain the victory in battle. They urged Robert of Artois to recall the infantry and send them in to finish off the Flemish. At this critical juncture, he pulled the infantry back and allowed the Flemish to regroup. He then ordered his knights to attack. The first formation of knights charged the right-wing and part of the center of the Flemish line. The second formation of the French would attack the left end closest to the river. The Flemings kept their nerve and stood steady against the assault of mounted knights. The line of pikes and goedendags became an impenetrable wall. Horses were struck, and men
toppled from their mounts.
On foot, the knights had little maneuverability and made easy targets. Even those mounted men who breached the line were killed easily by the Flemish foot soldiers. Yet, the onslaught of French cavalry continued unabated. As the battle dragged on, the center of the Flemish line appeared to be weakening. The commander of the Flemish reserve gambled and had his men join the fight. Fresh reinforcements helped turn the tide of the battle. French casualties were mounting, and the Flemings were now forcing the French backward. Robert of Artois, sensing the desperation of the situation, finally ordered the last remaining knights into a frontal assault. They found themselves deep in the ranks of the enemy, surrounded by pikes and goedendags. A fierce melee ensued, and during the course of the action, Robert of Artois was killed.
With their leader killed, the remaining French attempted to retreat from the field. The Flemish ruthlessly pursued them. Their heavy armor made it hard for them to cross the ditches and streams that crisscrossed the battlefield. The Flemish continued to hunt the defeated French until they had slaughtered almost all of them. As trophies, the victorious Flemish took hundreds of golden spurs worn by the French knights. In the 19th century, when Belgium would win its independence, Courtrai became a symbol of national pride.
The Battle of Courtrai, or the Battle of the Golden Spurs, was a complete infantry victory over heavy cavalry. Robert the Bruce would apply many of the lessons of Courtrai to his victory over the English at Bannockburn. Courtrai didn't immediately end the dominance of mounted knights in battle. Still, it did foreshadow battles such as Crecy and Agincourt, where English footmen and archers won victories over superior French cavalry. The battle marked the beginning of the long decline of the importance of armored knights. The nature of warfare would ultimately be altered. The rise of infantry would once more lead to the development of standing armies, and rulers would no longer have to recruit from the ranks of nobility to field an army.
But that day was still in the future. Twenty-five years after Courtrai, the French exacted their revenge on the Flemish. The golden spurs were recovered, and the Church of Our Lady burned.
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century: Barbara Tuchman
The Battle of the Golden Spurs, Courtrai, 11 July 1302: J.F. Verbruggen