The Battle itself

Both armies started to prepare for the battle early in the morning. This took quite some time, especially in the French army where the knightly formations needed more time to manoeuvre to their appointed positions.

Battle of the crossbow shooters

The Flemish crossbowmen had taken position right behind the two brooks. They were somehow protected by their big paveses carried by their servants. The French footsoldiers attack first and here too the crossbowmen advance first.

The battle starts around noon. Both sides shoot arrows but gain very little success. After a while the Flemish men are out of arrows and the pressure from the French becomes too great. They retreat backwards, to the own lines. While they retreat they cut the strings of the bows and throw them on the ground, in order to make the charge of the knights on horse later more difficult.

The French footsoldiers advance and start to cross the brooks. Their commanders understand that this can severely obstruct the charge of the knights and so they order their men to stand aside. Immediately afterwards the signal for the knights to charge is given.

The French left wing attacks

Copyright Koninklijke Bibliotheek Brussel, Ms. 5, fol. 329
Picture of the Battle of Courtrai from the "Grandes Chroniques de France", beginning of 14th century.

The left corps of the army advances a bit sooner than the right corps. It's the corps of marshal Raoul de Nesle. The French foot can avoid for the most part to be run over by their own cavalry. It's a myth that the French knights impatiently rode into their own infantry and therefore were defeated.

But the French knights do have trouble getting over the three meters wide brook in closed order. Most get over however without too much trouble. What does cause a problem is the fact that the speed is out of their attack. Once they cross the brook the knights have to form up again and take a new go for their charge. The distance between them and the Flemish lines is however too short now to gain enough speed.

The Flemings stand closely packed, eight rows deep. The first line has alternately a man with a spear and a man with a goedendag. The men with the spear put the shaft end on the ground with their foot on top to take the first shock of the charge. The men with the goedendags raise their heavy weapons to let them come down on the heads of the horses or on the knights.

The French knights ride ahead on this wall of peaks and goedendags. Their charge produces a thundering noise and thus they crash into the Flemings. But the wall doesn't break up! Only at isolated spots some knights manage to enter the line, but they are immediately taken care of by the deeper lines and chopped into pieces. A major break through does not happen.

The attack of the right wing

The right wing of the French army apparently attacked in a more organised way. Their crossing of the Groeninge brook happens much better, but even here they don't manage to break through. The Flemish line stands!

While the French knights are attacking on the field, the garrison of the royal castle of Courtrai tries to force their way out and attack the Flemish in the back. Here the Ypres town militia throws them back and this attack turns out to be a complete failure.

In the centre of the Flemish lines, where the men of the Franc of Bruges and Coastal Flanders are standing, the French almost manage to force a break through. They had a bit more space to perform a better charge here. The French knights deeply enter the lines and the front almost collapses. The Flemish reserve under John of Renesse quickly rushes in and throws back the enemy. The lines are repaired.

The battle now rages over the whole frontline, and for the most part fierce close combat takes place. The French knights loose their big advantage. The goedendags do their terrible job and mercilessly pound on knights and horses. The Flemish commoners start to advance themselves now.

The Flemish Victory

The count of Artois had not taken part in the first charge and noticed that his knights were about to be thrown back. Therefore he decided to go into action himself, in an attempt to avoid a defeat. Mounted on his magnificent steed Morel he crosses the Groeninge brook without any trouble and he enters deeply into the Flemish ranks. He even manages to rip of a piece of the big Flemish banner, but then he too goes down by the anger of the Flemish soldiers.

With the death of their supreme commander the curtain falls over the French attack. The Flemings have advanced towards the brooks and the French knights who are not slain desperately try to run. The Flemish soldiers don't let this happen and the battle turns into a frightening slaughter. The by the French and Leliaarts despised Flemish commoners take their revenge.

Copyright Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag KA XX, fol. 214r.
The battle is fought without mercy.

The French rearguard with the two remaining battles hangs the shield on their back and runs. The French footsoldiers try to evacuate, but a lot of them are caught by the Flemings and are killed without mercy. Some Brabançons who fought with the French try to change sides and now shout "Vlaenderen die Leeu", but Guy of Namur orders to kill all those that wear spurs. The fugitives are chased for more than 10 kilometres from the battlefield. The Flemish victory is complete!

After the battle

The battle lasted for more than three hours. The field was covered with bodies of both men and horses. The Florentine merchant Villani later wrote that this was indeed "an almost impossible event". The most magnificent army of Europe is defeated and the toll is quite heavy on the French side. Commander Robert d'Artois, marshal Raoul de Nesle and his brother Guy, Godfrey of Brabant (brother of duke John I), Jean de Burlats, Renaud de Trie, the count of Aumale, the count of Eu, the lord of Tancarville, Pierre Flotte, Jacques de Châtillon the son of the count of Hainault,... all died. The French nobility looses some sixty barons and lords, hundreds of knights and more than a thousand squires.

The Flemings stand guard that night on the battlefield. A battle is but won when the victorious army can hold the battlefield until the next morning. That next day the booty is collected. From the battlefield, apart of the expensive knightly armours, some five hundred pairs of golden spurs are found. This gives the battle its modern name. Only knights were allowed to wear gold-plated spurs, squires only wore normal or at the best silver- plated spurs. The French baggage train falls almost completely in Flemish hands.

Just seven days later pope Boniface VII is woken up in Rome from his sleep to bring him the news of the Flemish victory. For the first time in recorded history an army of footsoldiers defeated an army of knights. Thanks to this fact and because of its extraordinary origins this battle is one of the most remarkable in history.

Because this battle was won, Flanders was able to keep its independence and was reinstated as a county. The French influence was halted and this made it possible centuries later that the states of Belgium and the Netherlands were formed. The men in Courtrai fought for their "Patria Flandrensis" and thereby prevented that not only Flanders but also the entire Low Countries were saved from disgraceful defeat.

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Copyright on text, images and photos by Joris de Sutter, unless noted otherwise.
The first miniature come from "Grandes Chroniques de France", Copyright Koninklijke Bibliotheek Brussels, Ms. 5, fol. 329
The second miniature comes from "Spiegel Historiael", Jacob van Maerlant, Copyright Koninklijke Bibliotheek Den Haag KA XX, fol.214r.
This information is provided by De Liebaart and was last updated on March 30th 2001.