The Battle Of The Golden Spurs Was Belgium's 'Braveheart' Moment


Belgium is like the backyard of Western Europe. It's where the angry children of the world can have their Battles of Waterloo and Bulges safe in the knowledge they won't break anything of value. And nobody's more aware of that status than the Flemish, the Dutch-speaking sub-region of Belgium that can't even get the world to stop making them sound like sentient spit. Over the centuries, the region of Flander has been conquered by every mainland country that can field three guys sharing a single crossbow, having to bitterly bend the knee to Germans, the Spanish, the Dutch, and the most hated of all, the French. 

But also the Dutch. And the Spanish. And the Germans. 

But there was one fight on Flemish soil that its servile people did pick, a revolt as unwinnable as it was ballsy. We go back to the advent of the 14th century and of the Franco-Flemish war. Back then, the County of Flanders was one of Europe's wealthiest parts, dense with mercantile cities churning out so much wool that Europe's sheep looked like wrung-out dishtowels. It also operated as a semi-independent fief, owing allegiance to the Kingdom of France while retaining their own ruler and rules. A good Flemish analogy would be that their state was like their precious semi-detached houses: Open enough that you can ignore your neighbors, but nearby enough that you can still hear when someone's being screwed. And the Flemish soon heard that they were on that to-roughly-do list courtesy the new French king, Philip IV, also known as the handsome Philip le Bel or Philip the Fair.

Jean Louis Bezard
Look at that irresistible hunk of royal beef. 

With a million wars to fund and a million frilly shirts to buy, the spendthrifty Philip the Fair decided it was time to tax the hell out of wealthy Flemish burgers and peasants alike. And Americans know what happens when excessive taxation meets no representation. The Flemish people rose up … and had a passive-aggressive chat with their French neighbor. In response, Philip the Fair (who was also called the Iron King, I probably should've mentioned that earlier) replied by imprisoning and letting die the Flemish ruler, Count Gwijde (Guy) van Dampierre. In his place, Philip installed his dirtbag brother-in-law, Jacques de Chatillon, who had no problem taxing and oppressing the Flemish to his French heart's content. At which point, people in Bruges (hey, from that movie!) decided to solve their problem once again with words. Only this time, they'd use those words to find out who to stab.

Despite being the EU's headquarters, having long been Europe's whipping boy has deeply influenced Belgian and Flemish culture. By which I mean that xenophobia is about as Flemish as throwing a can of Stella Artois at the head of a Dutchman during a UEFA match they're losing 0-9. But at least the Flemish are the passive kind of xenophobic. The peering through curtains at the black mailman kind of xenophobic. The tutting loudly at the car with the Polish license plate xenophobic. The voting en masse for political parties that deport immigrants who wind up getting tortured xenophobic. This is why it must've come as such a surprise to the French when they received reports that the Flemish city of Bruges was very pro-actively committing mass-murder of its foreign citizens.  

The Matins of Bruges revolt started like any proper revolution: with a genocide. On May 18th, 1302, under cover of midnight, Flemish rebels snuck into Bruges and systematically started killing every single French person in the city's garrison (and just about everywhere else). How did they know who were the Frenchies and who were the Flemmies? The rebels demanded everyone they encountered to utter the following Flemish creed: "Schild en Vriend," or "shield and friend." But this was a linguistic trap. No Frenchman can stop his "r" from rolling, and only a Fleming, and some select Welsh, can muster the phlegmy drawl to make the proper "sch" sound. So the 2,000 French speakers who mumbled "skilled 'n frrrind" like Tony the Tiger with a head cold, they got their throats slit.

There was a lot of Swedish collateral damage that day.

Despite the city-wide French genocide, the dastardly governor de Chatillon managed to escape, running back to his kingly-brother-in-law for an army to crush the rebels in open warfare. Crown Bae did him one better, not just sending with him over 8,000 professional soldiers, including many French knights, but also renowned military and prankmeister general, Robert of Artois. Artois was a man so good at quashing rebellions he had enough spare time to rig his entire manor like a Willy Wonka funhouse. So on one side, you had the greatest commander in the world commanding the greatest French knights in the world, each one like a Medieval ballistic missile (if ballistic missiles had two different strains of gonorrhea). On the other side, you had a group of weekend militia, no knights, and a small unit of battle monks. Both sides knew that in a fair fight, the Flemish had no chance of winning. But that was all right because the Flemish were planning on fighting dirty anyway.

On July 11th, 1302, the French didn't lose the battle at Kortrijk; to lose is too positive a word. They were vanquished. When the fog of war cleared, the French army had routed, and five French soldiers and knights had been killed for every Flemish militiaman. Yet the battle had started incredibly well for the overwhelming French forces. Artois, who commanded the infantry, turned the Flanders field poppy-red with the blood of Flemish soldiers. It was going so smoothly, in fact, that the noble French knights were getting worried they wouldn't get a chance to have a go on the Flemish flesh bumper machine. They loudly complained to their plate mail bro, Jacques de Chatillon, who then told Artois to pull back his infantry and let the cavalry have their fun. But the mighty knightly cavalry charge was a complete failure, undone by the Flemings' two greatest weapons: mud and clubs. 

One thing you need to know before taking a disappointing weekend break to Bruges is that Belgium is one big swamp. There's so much humidity in the air that makes the ground and your butt constantly moist and muddy. Those are not ideal travel conditions for hundreds of chivalric war machines, each weighing a half tonne, to charge across. As a result of the muddy ground and many moats dug by the militia, the French knights couldn't muster enough momentum to crash through the lines. Even if they had, they could not have foreseen what the Flemish militia did next: they held their ground. That's when the French found out that, despite being so-so in infantry warfare, the Flemish militia had been precision engineered for one task: to fuck up fancy knights in full plate armor. All thanks to one iconic weapon: the goedendag, meaning "good day" (or "good dagger,"), the first arms ever named after their own combat quip.

Joris De Sutter
They would've called it a kapow, but that's already an obscure Polish fighting stick. 

Much like the crossbow, this melee weapon was the Kalashnikov of its day: cheap to make, easy to wield, and devastating to the status quo. With a pikeman buddy taking care of the warhorse, goedendag militia could use its heavy metal rim to knock a knight down caveman-style, then put the tip in when he was on his back. This strategy was devastating against the poorly mobile French knights, who quickly started to flee -- back onto the muddy swamp grounds. Stuck there, the Flemish took no prisoners, resulting in the death of well over 1,000 men-at-arms and knights and dozens of important French nobles, including Jacques de Chatillon and Robert of Artois. In the span of an afternoon, a bunch of Flemish nobodies had literally decimated a generation of French nobility. To commemorate the feat, the victorious militia collected about 500 expensive golden spurs off the fallen knights and hung them up in a local church -- hence the name, the Battle of the Dangly Shiny Things We Took Off Your Posh Corpse.

Sadly, the celebrations were short-lived. While for the Flemish, fighting these French forces was a formidable feat, for the French, what they had lost was their equivalent of the Hawaii National Guard. Within two years, Philip IV personally had invaded Flanders again, setting its entire fleet and several cities on fire. But any good Flemish story isn't about winning battles; it's about losing money. With its most prosperous region in open revolt and having batted back waves of French knights like pointy ping-pong balls, the French currency had lost a third of its value. This left Philip with little time to negotiate surrender terms and turn his economy back around. The following peace treaty of Athis-sur-Orge was seen as a win by the French, since they were able to squeeze more taxes and war reparations out of rebellious Flanders, but also as a win by the Flemish, who were allowed to get a new count and keep its semi-independence from France.

They may take our lives, but they will never take our semi-freedom!

The Battle of the Golden Spurs had had far-reaching effects on Flemish's mentality, who still see it as the day they threw off their shackles and defied Europe's greatest power (and tend to not mention its fiery aftermath). This mudslinging match is the official regional holiday of Flanders, and De Leeuw van Vlaanderen (The Lion of Flanders), written by Hendrik Conscience, and its eponymous movie might as well have been called Flemish Braveheart if it hadn't preceded Braveheart by ten years. Meanwhile, the Matins of Bruges is now a yearly soccer match to commemorate the massacre, with the winner receiving a goedendag trophy.

Of course, The Battle of the Golden Spurs is most popular of all with the Flemish Far Right, who take to the foreigner-murdering, border-closing battle as a racist duck takes to a whites-only water fountain. As late as in 2017, a youth group was erected called Schild en Vrienden (Shield and Friends), notorious for its allegedly far-right fascists political indoctrination. Of course, there's no way to tell if an army of Germanic blonde teens who named themselves after their country's most famous xenophobic genocide are Neo-Nazis, right?

But despite its grizzly, jingoistic details, the Battle of the Golden Spurs can still be remembered as a great victory of the underdog. One that changed Europe forever. Despite all their shining armor and tank-like horses, the battle had proven that even the greatest nobleman still had to fear a disgruntled peasant wielding a big stick. The rest of the 14th century would become known for the age of the infantry revolution, and it was the Battle of the Golden Spurs that hammered the first nail in the coffin of Medieval chivalry. With a goedendag.

For more weird tangents, do follow Cedric on Twitter.

Top Image: Wiki Commons

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