The Battle of Courtrai
An article by Alexi Goranov
The potential of the cavalry as a dominant fighting force on the field was first demonstrated in the 4th and 5th centuries by northern "barbaric" tribes invading Roman territories. Then in subsequent centuries, particularly after the 8th century, the cavalry did become the dominant and often decisive force during the battles. So successful was this new warrior class that they won the appreciation of the aristocracy, and became raised into nobility themselves. Today we know this noble class of mounted warriors as knights. However, the dominance of the mounted cavalry on the field was to begin declining in the 14th century. Many socio-economic and political factors brought about this change in battlefield tactics, but arguably some of the most important were the increase in self-confidence of the foot soldiers, as well as the increased power of city states and non-noble burghers who had to depend on mostly non-noble followers for protection of interests.
One of the first and possibly most celebrated of the victories of the 14th century foot soldier was that at Courtrai, Flanders (modern day Belgium) in 1302. The events that led to the armed conflict were sparked indirectly from the never-ending rivalry between England and France.
In brief, England was the dominant supplier of raw wool in Europe. However, the vast majority of textile producing centers that turned raw wool into cloth (a major commodity in Europe) were in Flanders, with a few more in Florence and other Italian cities. In other words, for the Flanders textile factories to work they had to import English wool at high costs.
Due to the wars against Scotland, Edward I increased export taxes of wool even more. From this time through the Hundred Years War, likely for economic reasons, Flanders textile merchants favored being vassals of England more so than being vassals of France. Due to this pro-English sentiment Flemish lands served as a foothold for English armies on the Continent and many of the Flemish nobility and merchants were major supporters of England’s invasion of France. England thus used the Flemish support in the late 13th century in an attempt to exact control of French lands through armed conflict. This was largely unsuccessful and Edward I of England signed a peace treaty with the French king Philip the Fair.
With England out of the way, the French crown wanted to penalize the Flemish for their support of the English. The Flemish count, Guy of Dampierre, was imprisoned, new taxes were levied, and French statesmen were put in control over Flemish states with the help of a large French army. This did not sit well with the independent spirit of the Flemish and a revolt was underway.
To try to dispel the revolt by more diplomatic means, a group of French soldiers and negotiators went to the town of Bruges in mid May 1302, but most of those who had picked up arms had already left. The French remained in the town harassing the relatives of the rebels. The stories of the mistreatment reached the rebels camping nearby. The French contingent stayed in the town overnight and the Flemish used this opportunity to ambush the sleeping French on the morning of May 18th killing several hundred French.
Knowing that the French will seek military retaliation the rebels from Bruges began organizing an army by sending messengers to other Flemish cities asking for military support. Only Ghent refused to help. The recruited army was under the leadership of Guy of Namur and William of Jülich, both related to the imprisoned Flemish count Guy of Dampierre. The assembled force moved to the French-garrisoned castle of Courtrai, reaching it on June 26, 1302. Philip the Fair was determined to avenge the "Brugeois massacre" and sent a large armed force under the command of Robert of Artois. The two armies fought a battle on July 11, 1302 near the castle of Courtrai.
The battle, won by the Flemish army, is also known as "The battle of the golden spurs" on account of the many golden spurs won at tournaments that were collected from the dead French knights. The date of the battle is still celebrated in modern day Belgium as a national holiday.
The Flemish army was composed mostly of foot soldiers with little or no armour and only a few knights with military experience. Many of the soldiers were armed with the weapon typical for the Flemish: the goedendag, a form of polearm. The French army was estimated to have been comprised of about 2,000 mounted knights and about 4,000 foot soldiers. The heart of the French army was the splendidly dressed and armoured mounted force of knights, many of which were wearing golden spurs won at tournaments. Both forces were quite sizable for their time.
As the Flemish army arrived at Courtrai they first besieged the castle held by French forces, while also preparing the field for battle. The castle of Courtrai is situated near the river of Lys and water from the river was used to flood many ditches dug in the field, whose purpose was to hinder a potential cavalry charge. Many of these ditches and pits were covered to hide their presence. The Flemish army chose a good defensive position with the Lys River protecting their back and flanks and leaving only the ditch-covered field as an open direction from which to be attacked.
The French arrived at Courtrai on July 8th, almost two weeks after the Flemish got there. They spent three days surveying the countryside and pillaging the surrounding Flemish villages. Instead of scaring the Flemish army, it enraged them and increased their fighting spirit. Most accounts portray the Flemish in high morale and spirit. Most likely, some skirmishing occurred in this three day period but without major consequences. Meanwhile the French managed to acquire a detailed map of the ditches on the field for a large sum of money, but in retrospect that acquisition did not seem to have helped them much.
Though there were relatively few experienced warriors on the Flemish side, including Guy of Namur and William of Jülich, they led the army well. They kept the morale with speeches, and organized the army to fight on foot, in a single line as a "shield wall". The French, on the other hand, were represented in various accounts as arrogant and overly confident, believing that they could crush the Flemish at will.
Due to the low number of crossbowmen on each side, the initial missile fire that opened the battle was largely ineffective. The French infantry then charged. This charge was so successful that the Flemish line was almost broken.
When the French knights saw that the infantry had almost won the battle, they reportedly asked Robert of Artois to halt the infantry attack so that the knights could deal the last blow and claim the victory. And what a disaster this second charge was! The knights fell into the ditches and died by drowning. By the time they reached the Flemish, their charge had lost much of its impetus.
The waiting Flemish met the horseman with their goedendags, beat the horses to the ground and attacked the riders. The cavalry was pushed back to the ditches, where more knights drowned. The dead and dying piled on top of one another. The attack of the French garrison from the castle did not help much either, as it was controlled by a small contingent of the Flemish force left in anticipation of the garrison attack.
The Flemish took no prisoners. They killed all they could and collected the booty, including the golden spurs, leaving the dead to decompose where they had fallen. It was a complete rout for the French. All chroniclers were impressed with the total number of casualties and especially with the number of nobility casualties, which included Robert of Artois, leader of the French army. It is likely that about half of the French cavalry was lost during that battle.
The golden spurs were hung in the Cathedral of the Virgin at Courtrai to commemorate the Flemish victory. They hung there until 1382 when the French won a battle near Courtrai. Remembering their previous loss, they retrieved the spurs and burned the town and the cathedral to avenge their fallen comrades of nearly 80 years before.
The fact that an army comprised largely of inexperienced foot soldiers defeated the "Flower of Chivalry" represented by the French knights still baffles historians today. What most will agree upon is that it is not a single factor that needs to be considered in understanding the outcome of this battle. The great defensive strategy employed by the Flemish, in combination with the preparation of the field, and the lack of organization during the French charge are likely the major contributors to the Flemish victory. It is also likely that the Flemish had some numerical advantage. The battle could have ended differently, had the French let their infantry finish their successful initial attack.
The Battle of Courtrai did demonstrate that foot soldiers and tactics relying on fighting on foot were to be taken seriously and that they were worthy adversaries of the knightly mounted charge. The battles at Bannockburn, Crécy, Poitiers, Agincourt, Duplin Moor and the ambushes at Morgarten and Sempach have made this point repeatedly. The unquestionable rule of the chivalric charge as the dominant and superior form of warfare was slowly dying.
About the Author
Alexi is a postdoc in the biological sciences at MIT. He has had an outstanding interest in medieval military history and weaponry for many years, but only started collecting in late 2003. His main interests lie towards European weapons and warfare practices of the 13th and 14th centuries.
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