Heavy cavalry ruled the battlefield in the middle ages, starting way back around the battle of Adrianople. The common system of hierarchal feudal rule was firmly held in place by the Knights.
As the king dispersed rule among counts, dukes, and lords, further land was given to knights. Each group was expected to fight for the group above them, and they were supported by the hard working serfs who had no choice but to work the land.
The poor could not hope to rebel as no infantry force could hope to withstand a full heavy cavalry charge, and even hundreds of peasants wouldn’t be able to afford the horse or basic armor of knights. This unavoidable military inferiority kept order in an oppressive feudal system.
Merchants and craftsmen threw a mighty wrench into the status quo of the feudal system. Technically they were people of no importance in the feudal hierarchy, but wealthy merchants could have enough money to influence affairs. Trading towns such as the port city of Bruges had an abundance of merchants and craftsmen.
Bruges had an extensive canal network favorable for trading and was a key port for trade with England and other northern areas linking them to Southern Europe.
The region in which Bruges was located was known as Flanders, and the French sought to officially annex it completely as it was currently just a French ruled territory. This was resisted by the various craft and merchant guilds as they were trying to form more ties with England. The guilds formed a major population of Flanders and they desired their own system of rule outside of the feudal system and unification of their Flemish culture.
A French governor for Flanders, Jacques de Chatillon, had orders to handle rebellions before they grew out of hand, but his oppressive rule only served to provoke rebellion faster. Small protests and rebellions were fairly common around the region and the governor ultimately sent some of the French army to garrison Bruges where they were known to harass the townspeople.
This was finally enough and one morning the guilds, led by members from the butcher and weaver guilds completely revolted and began murdering every Frenchman they could find. When discovering an unknown person, they had them utter the phrase “Shield and Friend” in Flemish. This phrase was difficult to pronounce for a native French speaker, and if they had any trouble with it, they were quickly killed.
Knowing that this outburst would surely warrant a full scale punitive military expedition the Guilds banded together to plan a defense from the impending invasion. They had some alliances with the former count’s family and nobleman William of Julich, who was quite sympathetic to the Flemish cause and was a skilled military leader. William and a member of the weaver’s guild, Pieter de Coninck, organized and led the army.
The Flemish allies formed an army primarily composed of guild members which included the barbers, fishermen, decorators, glove makers, and many other guilds. They were far from professional, but many were part of their town’s militia forces which occasionally met to train together.
Many wielded pikes designed to combat cavalry charges but several used a regional weapon known as the Goedendag. This was a heavy wooden spear that had a heavy metal rim where the spear attached to the wood meaning that it could be used as a club and a spear. The word actually is translated as “good day” which may stem from the actual Bruges revolt where French men were greeted by the phrase before being bludgeoned by the weapon.
The army decided they should occupy the town of Courtrai as it commanded the easiest approaches to Flanders; the problem was that it was defended by a French garrison. As the Flemish army besieged Courtrai, the royal French army arrived.
The French had brought roughly 10,000 men in a standard composition with crossbowmen, light and heavy infantry, and a large force of 2,500 knights which included dozens of lords and counts, the oppressive governor of Flanders and many other high-ranking members of the French nobility in the finest armor. They were led by Robert II of Artois, known for his eccentricities, such as owning a pet wolf, but also known throughout France as a talented commander.
The Flemish army also had a comparable army in terms of numbers (8-12,000) but had limited noble support amounting to, at most, 1-200 knights. Rather than fleeing, the army held firm and formed lines with the besieged city on their right and rear with a river on their left in an outward arcing formation. The field between the armies had numerous small streams and soft earth which allowed the men to dig several ditches hoping to disorder the cavalry charge.
The battle started with an exchange of crossbow fire in which the French quickly began to win, as their light melee infantry pushed back the Flemish crossbowmen and began to easily push into Flemish formations, supported by more crossbow fire.
Before they could capitalize on their advantage, Robert pulled out the light troops. He did this because to him it would have been wrong to deny the noble knights the honor of winning. He would have also faced harsh criticism from many of the 2,500 knights who would have gone on the march for nothing.
As the knights charged, they were hindered by the rough terrain and had difficulty forming unified charges. As they crashed into Flemish pike formations they were halted, and they were quickly surrounded by light-armed, but fast mobs of men. Each French knight soon found himself surrounded by as many as ten soldiers. The Flemish soldiers had great success mercilessly beating the Knights senseless with their Goedendags until they could exploit openings in visors and joints to thrust their spears.
While the knights on either flank met horrible deaths, those in the center were actually able to push through and wounded the commander William of Julich. William was taken to the rear and his loss threatened to break the morale of his troops. His servant actually took parts of his armor and rode William’s horse back into the fray as the Flemish reserves arrived to turn the tide.
The besieged French in Courtrai attempted to break out, but specially placed Flemish troops quickly forced them to retreat. As the French commander, Robert saw his knights failing he personally led a charge into the center. He was too late, and the Flemish quickly surrounded and killed Robert and his guard.
The rest of the French army quickly fell apart, and the total victory was secured. It was a terrible loss for French nobility as over 70 lords were killed. The Flemish collected 500 golden spurs from the dead indicating a large amount of wealthy elite they dispatched. These spurs were sent to be displayed at a local church.
The victory was an early foreshadowing of the fall of knightly supremacy. The later battles of Crecy and Agincourt would cement this trend. The fact that poorly armed and trained militia could defeat the finest military force possible gave rebellions more hope and allowed smaller countries to hold their ground without as much fear or expense.
Knights cost exponentially more than militia to train, house, feed and equip and warhorses were an immensely expensive piece as well. Though the French would retaliate two years later, the victory at Courtrai would directly allow the formation of Belgium as a distinctly separate entity from France.
By William McLaughlin for War History Online
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