The Courtrai Chest

Zegel van de Brugse Scrinewerkers

The Chest of Courtrai

This wooden chest was discovered around 1909 at the New College in Oxford, England where it is still kept. It shows scenes of the Battle of the Golden Spurs fought in Courtrai, Flanders in 1302AD. It's also known as the "Oxford Chest". Only the front panel measuring 103 by 71 cm is decorated and it is more than likely that the artist was a Flemish person (maybe an inhabitant of Bruges?) who took part in the battle. This seems more than obvious considering several details in the carvings.

Picture 1 , Top right

Picture 1
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The uprising at Bruges. On the 18th of mai 1302 an uprising breaks out in Bruges. All citizens loyal to the French (the Leliaarts) and the French themselves are being murdered or taken prisoner. By the town gates three men-at-arms are decapitating a man. To the left of the town two aldermen can be seen offering the town keys to the knights arriving on Picture 2. They have the very distinct hairstyle of the period and wear the typical overgarment called surcotte. The soldiers wear mail coifs with skullcaps as helmets and seperate mail protective gloves. The small figure on the right is probably the statue of a saint.

Picture 2 , Top left

Picture 2
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Arrival of Guy of Namur and William of Jülich at Bruges. Both noblemen (Guy was a son of the count of Flanders and William a grandson) don't carry a great helm, as the rest of their train does, but a skullcap with mail coif. Guy is the knight with the lion on his shield and a scaloped bar over it. William wears a lion on his shield with a silver lilly on its shoulder. Both knights wear shouldershields (ailettes) which mostly bear the owner's blason. William of Jülich's ailettes however show five discs. A knight's blason is normally also shown on the horse's trappers, but not on this frame. Do notice the high saddles which almost anchor a knight on his horse. The man at right is a soldier from the Bruges townmilitia, armed with a "goedendag" and protected by a skullcap with mail coif and a hauberk with gloves underneath his jupon.

Picture 3 , Middle top right

Picture 3
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Seige of Wijnendale castle? The castellan is attacked from the left by three men-at-arms with goedendags and is eventually decapitated at the right of this scene. At the feet of the crossbow shooter lies a man with the remains of the castellan's lance in his chest (that's why the castellan is fighting with his sword). A soldier is watching through a hatch in the castle's gate.

Picture 4 , Middle top left

Picture 4
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Line-up of the town militias. To the left a priest is giving absolution to a man-at-arms, wearing the typical protective clothing consisting of a skullcap and a mail coif. In rare cases a mail hauberk was worn (these were very expensive) over a thickly padded gambeson. Most of the men wear gloves with mail on them. All are wearing a jupon with a uniform colour configuration according to what town or guild they belong to. The range of arms comprises pikes, goedendags (a heavy wooden pole with an iron reinforcement ring and a central pin on top), swords and falchions.

Picture 5 , Middle bottom right

Picture 5
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The Flemish line of battle. At far right we see the packed wall of spikes into which the French knights will crash. The first slain horses can already be seen lying on the ground at right. Behind these pikes are the crossbowmen and the rest of the town militias. Above the Flemish army fly the banners of Guy of Namur, William of Jülich, Henry of Lontzen, the town guilds and Pieter de Coninck. The two large figures on the right are again Guy of Namur and William of Jüllich. To the left a French knight is being stopped. A pike seems to hit him under his helmet and a sword is driven into his horse's chest.

Picture 6 , Bottom left

Picture 6
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The attack of the Courtrai garrison. A French garrison was trapped inside the castle of Courtrai and tried to force a way out during the battle. They were stopped by the town militia of Ypres. On the right hand tower the French flag is flying. Inside we observe a trebuchet. Three men-at-arms of Ypres are carrying falchions which proves that it was a very popular weapon. Also here we observe a buckler. This picture clearly shows that uniforms were worn. The Ypres townmilitia is know to have garded the castle and they wear tunics with a double cross on it, the communal arms of the town of Ypres. To the far left is a big shield (pavese) used during sieges, with two crossbow arrows sticking in it. A woman is lowered by a rope from the left tower, while a soldier is watching through a window. Above the main entrance a tonlet is suspended for an unknown reason, perhaps to let it fall on possible intruders.

Picture 7 , Bottom right

Picture 7
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Collecting the booty. Hardly any prisoners were taken at the battle of Courtrai. There were strict orders that everyone trying to take prisoners was to be executed at once by his comrades in arms. The battle was therefore fought in a very vicious and bloody manner. After the battle the dead bodies are searched and stripped of everything that could be useful. More than 500 golden spurs were collected from the battlefield. This gave the battle its modern name : Battle of the Golden Spurs. In the front we can observe a body with a ripped open belly, demonstrating the harshness of the battle. Above this man, two men seem to be fighting over the booty, or else they are using their daggers to remove equipment from the dead. At their right a man strips a dead man of his gambeson. Notice the heavy wounds on all the dead men.

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Copyright on text, images and photos by Joris de Sutter, unless noted otherwise.
The photos of the chest are taken from "De Slag der Gulden Sporen", J.-F. Verbruggen
Copyright on the photos of the Chest by New College Oxford (??)
The carpenters' seal comes from: "Ambachten en Neringen van Brugge", J. Gaillard
This information is provided by De Liebaart and was last updated on September 30th 2002.