"That Lion is our Flemish Lion, / That crouching still the foe defies." - The Guldensporenslag in 1302

11 July 1302, at Kortrijk (Courtrai), 50 miles west of Bruxelles, 9.000 Flemish burghers decisively defeated the flower of the chivalry of northern France in the Guldensporenslag, the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

"The sable Lion I Mark him ramping / So proudly on his golden field I / Mark well his claws, his giant weapons, / That tear the foe spite mail and shield! / Behold his eyes, for battle flashing! /  Behold his mane, how wild it flies! / That Lion is our Flemish Lion, / That crouching still the foe defies." (Hendrik Conscience, “The Lion of Flanders”)

Nicaise de Keyser’s imagination of the Battle of the Golden Spurs (1836)

When Guy, Count of Flanders, had a diplomatic fling with Edward I of England, seeking allies against King Philip IV le Bel of France who had cast a covetous glance on the rich province of Flanders, he overstepped the mark in the eyes of the French. Philip sent Robert II, Count of Artois, to invade the place and show the unruly Flemings what’s what. Robert defeated the Flemish army at Furnes in 1297, occupied most of Flanders and when Philip and Edward finally made peace, Count Guy, without friends anymore, surrendered himself, his eldest son and his last remaining domain, the city of Ghent.

Flanders came under French suzerainty in 1301 but Philip’s rigid tax policy did not go down well with the self-confident Flemish burghers at all. Came spring of the year 1302, all Flemish cities were in uprising – against their own patricians and the French. The situation was climaxing in Bruges, when the burghers armed themselves, attacked the French garrison and slaughtered everyone who could not pronounce schilt ende vriend (shield and friend) the way a Fleming would. Philip le Bel decided he’d had it and Robert of Artois was ordered to march again against the Flemish.

With 2.500 noble cavalry, 1.000 Italian crossbowmen and about 4.000 foot to mop up what was left in the basket after the knightly charge, Robert drew up his battles in the worst imaginable terrain for horse – a boggy field, riddled on top of it by the Flemish with ditches and holes. Nonetheless, Robert ordered his vanguard to charge across that into the 9.000 burghers, armed with their spiked staffs, sometimes known as goedendag, a cross of a mace and a spear, and their long lances, the geldon, pretty good equipment to harass horsemen who got stuck in a swamp. Exactly that happened. When Robert personally led his main battle into the melee to aid his hard-pressed van, he met a solid line of Flemish spears he could not break, butchering first his horses and then his noble knights. At this point, he probably regretted having recalled his infantry to let his cavalry charge and gain all the glory. A few hours later, 700 French knights lay dead at Courtrai. Robert was among them and many other high-ranking nobles. Mercy was not given by the burghers and the golden spurs of the knights were collected and put on display in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe-Kerk in Courtrai – from where the French recaptured them allegedly 80 years later.

The anniversary of the Battle of the Golden Spurs is celebrated since 40 years as the Flemish national holiday, but annual celebrations were held already in the Middle Ages – to remember another auspicious victory of well-organised and aptly equipped commoners over the contemporary military elite, whose days were already numbered.

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A contemporary depiction of the battle