Courtrai – 1302

COURTRAI (THE GOLDEN SPURS), BATTLE OF, 11 JULY 1302

Defeat by the Flemish of the French under Robert of Artois for Philip IV. It followed the revolt of the Matins of Bruges. The Flemings besieged Courtrai whose castle was held by the French. The French attempted relief. A Flemish force, called `weavers, fullers and the common folk’, assembled under Guy of Namur, William of Jülich and Jean de Renesse. The Flemish army consisted mainly of citizen militias, infantry armed with crossbows and goedendags. The Flemings protected their position with ditches. The French charged but, faced by ditches and pikes, failed to break through. The garrison sortied against the Flemish rear but was beaten back. Robert led the rearguard into the fray. His horse was hit and he was dragged off and killed. Courtrai demonstrated the value of infantry against cavalry. The battle was known as that of the Golden Spurs, because 700 pairs were taken from French corpses as trophies. The defeat shocked France, but Philip IV gained his revenge at Mons-en-Pévele.

Staff weapons, used both by foot and equestrian soldiers, are of great antiquity, but the period from 1300 was when they especially came into their own as an infantry weapon. In 1302, at the Battle of Courtrai, the Flemish townsmen from Bruges, Ypres, and Courtrai, armed, in the main, with staff weapons routed a superior and supposedly better-armed French army. The reaction to this victory, essentially by the lower and middle classes, and the large numbers of French cavalry dead, were noted throughout Europe and caused up roar among the nobles, knights, and the upper classes of society. The weapon, called a goedendag (literally “good morning” or “good day”), which caused such a devastating and unexpected victory, far from being sophisticated or innovative, was basically a heavy-headed club to which iron spikes were attached. Their use at Courtrai and, equally important, the discipline of the Flemish forces, mark the rise of the infantry armed with staff weapons as a potent force on the battlefields of Europe. This victory was followed by that of the Swiss using staff weapons at the battle of Morgarten against the Austrians in 1315. From this time on staff weapons played an increasingly important part on the battlefield-blocks of disciplined, well-trained, and well-drilled infantry, all armed with similar weapons, were com mon down to the seventeenth century

Throughout the high Middle Ages, heavy cavalry had completely dominated warfare. It had become completely entrenched in both the military and socioeconomic systems of the day- the noble knight was a key component of the feudal system. In this way, infantry was overlooked as strategically important, even when certain groups of foot soldiers again began to claim victories against the knightly cavalry.

By the 14th century, infantry (without the large support of cavalry) was reasserting its effectiveness in combat. In certain areas of Europe, infantry was becoming a well organized and capable fighting force, which was even able to stand against heavy cavalry. Flemish infantry of the early 1300s, for example, were organized by guild into regular militias, and well equipped with mail habergeons, steel helmets, gauntlets, shields, and even plate armor; and they bore an assortment of weapons, including bows, crossbows, pikes, and goedendags. (This was a heavy wooden staff, four to five feet long, and tipped with a steel spike.) Because of their structure, in particular their ability to hold the line when facing a cavalry charge, the Flemish were able to achieve a decisive and influential victory against the French chivalry at Courtrai in July of 1302.

The cities of Flanders were rebelling against the King of France, and laying siege to Courtrai castle. The king sent 2,500 men-at-arms and 8,000 infantry to relieve the Courtrai garrison and dispatch the rebellion. He took it for granted that the Flemish would flee when they found themselves outnumbered in heavy cavalry, which was widely acknowledged as the master of the battlefield. Instead, the Flemish withdrew to a predetermined position away from the city, in marshland where their flanks were protected by streams, and prepared for the French advance.

The infantry was broken up (by guild and region, so that men who knew each other would be fighting together, which boosted morale) into four divisions, three in line and one as reserve. The soldiers were densely packed, about eight deep, with their pikes and goedendags extended. The Flemish knew that success depended on their holding formation during the French charge, and they did so.

At Courtrai in 1302, javelin-armed bidauts began the battle by advancing with the French crossbowmen. Withdrawing as the knights charged home, the bidauts then re-appeared in support of their cavalry, now engaged with the Flemish infantry line, by throwing their javelins, stabbing at the enemy pikemen and no doubt rescuing individual knights in trouble.

The charge was foiled, and degenerated into a vicious mêlée, in which Flemish infantry outnumbered the French men-at-arms. The surviving French, disarrayed and demoralized, and finding little ground to retreat, began to flee. Over a thousand French noblemen were killed in the battle. The dominance of cavalry in warfare now became subject to question.

It took two more bloody battles-Arques, a loss for the French, and Mons-en-Pévele, a loss for the Flemings-and more than three years before the county of Flanders was forced to submit to the king of France. Before peace was made in 1305, many had died on both sides, including the leading Flemish general, William of Jülich.

Yet the Flemish desire for economic and political self-rule was not quenched by the violence of the French reaction to the 1302-1305 rebellion, and they rebelled once again in 1323-1328. The result this time was the Battle of Cassel, a French victory. Yet again the Flemings revolted in 1338, led by the Ghentenaar weaver, Jacob van Artevelde. On this occasion, the French could not effectively use military force to put down the Flemish rebellion, as the English, al lies of the Flemings, posed a greater threat during these early years of the Hundred Years War. It was not until 1346, when an uprising by another faction in Ghent led to Jacob van Artevelde’s assassination, that peace would return to the county. However, thirty-three years later, the Flemings revolted again, this time under Philip van Artevelde, the son of the earlier rebel leader. In 1382, a lull in the Hundred Years War fighting allowed the young French king, Charles VI, to send a large army north, which resulted in a French victory at the Battle of Rosebeke, though the citizens of Ghent, leaders among the rebels, held out until 1385.

Courtrai: 1302 The Flemish victory over the French at Courtrai in 1302 provides a good check list of the actions necessary for traditional medieval infantry to combat a knightly army.

  1. Protect the rear. The Flemings were besieging Courtrai castle which contained a French garrison. When the French knights charged the Flemish battle line the garrison sortied-out, but were repulsed by the crossbows and spears of the men of Ypres. At other battles, such as Mons-en-Pevele (1304), a garrisoned screen of wagons was placed to the rear to prevent the more mobile knights outflanking the Flemish line. When the Flemings advanced they formed ‘crown’ formations capable of halting and presenting an all-round defence like the Scottish schiltrons of spearmen.
  2. Protect the flanks. At Courtrai, the marshy River Lys provided an anchor to the Flemish flanks so that they could not be turned.
  3. Make the front difficult of access. The Groenig Brook and the Grote Beek, both swampy declivities, provided obstacles that slowed and disordered the knightly charge, so that they arrived at the Flemish line without the impetus necessary to break through.
  4. Be uphill. From the brooks the land rises to the town, bestowing an advantage on foot soldiers combating knights.
  5. Form a reserve. Jan van Renesse had a reserve body of men, possibly the dismounted knights of Zeeland, whom he was able to bring to the relief of the men of Bruges when they were being bodily pushed back, which was the crisis of the battle. The reserve would ideally include mounted troops who could follow up the defeated enemy, but the Flemings lacked sufficient knights to do this.
  6. Provide a skirmish screen. This was to prevent the enemy thinning the ranks of the close-order infantry by missile assault. Robert of Artois sent his French crossbowmen forwards to weaken the Flemings. However, the Flemish crossbowmen were deployed in front of their spears and were able to keep the French at a distance until they had run out of ammunition.
  7. Ensure good order. The Flemings fought in contingents by town and guild. Their clothing was uniform and each guild had its banner so each man knew his station, and they learnt a battle cry to distinguish friend from foe. The pikemen and goedendag men (the goedendag was a heavy two handed club with a single spike at the point) knew how to work together. The pikemen rested the butts of their weapons on the ground to form a hedge the knights could not break; the goedendag man struck the knights and their mounts once they were halted.
  8. Keep the line intact. Jan van Renesse advised: ‘Do not let the enemy break through your ranks. Do not be frightened. Kill both horse and man. “Flanders, the Lion” is our battle cry…. Every man who penetrates into your ranks or breaks through them shall remain there dead’.
  9. Dismount the leaders. The Flemish princes, Guy de Namur and Wilhelm van Jiilich, both dismounted with their bodyguards and banners and took position in the front rank. Showing that the leaders could not run away (nor do a deal with the French to abandon the common soldiers) provided a crucial boost to morale and an addition to fighting power.
  10. Stiffen morale. Before the battle the commanders made speeches to their troops with fighting instructions and a reminder of their cause. Soldiers were enjoined to kill any of their own side who broke ranks to loot the rich corpses of French knights, for that imperilled the good order and safety of all. Guy de Namur knighted more than 30 of the leaders of the common people, thus elevating the representatives of the artisan army. Before the battle all were confessed of their sins and ensured of a path to heaven, for if they died it was in a righteous cause.
  11. Pursue rigorously. Despite being on foot, the Flemish commanders (who were mainly knights) sensed when the last French, reserve had failed in its attack and ordered an immediate pursuit. The infantry hurled themselves at the downed knights, slaughtering them and preventing the French cavalry from reforming. They pushed on, routing any remaining opposition, seizing the French camp and plundering it. The Flemings named Courtrai the ‘Battle of the Golden Spurs’ because of the thousand symbols of knighthood they won.
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