On 11th July 1302. outside of the Flemish city of Courtrai, an army of weavers, dyers, fishermen, and carpenters defeated the finest knightly army in Western Europe. It was Philippe the Fair’s arrest of his vassal Guy de Dampierre, Count of Flanders, and the poor leadership of his governor Count Jacques of St Pol, that sparked the revolt known as the Bruges Matins where the commoners massacred 120 French soldiers. Philippe sent an army to punish the rebels whilst the count’s son and grandson, Guy de Namur and Willem van Jülich, gathered their own forces. The two armies came together outside the strategically important town and castle of Courtrai.
Both armies were about the same size, roughly 9,000 strong, but were very different in composition. The Flemish force was almost entirely comprised of footsoldiers drawn from the town militias. Lightly armoured – a steel cap or chapeau de fer, a padded gambeson, maybe a mail shirt and arm and leg defencs for the wealthiest – they carried either pikes (long spears of about 12 feet rather than the 16-foot weapon of the 16th and 17th centuries) ot the typical goedendag (also referred to as the gepinde staf), a stout club bound at its head with an iron band and a steel pin projecting from the end. Some 900 crossbowmen protected by pavisiers, men carrying large shields, formed a separate, elite company.
The French army, under Count Robert of Artois, had about 5,000 to 6,000 footsoldiers, about a third of whom were crossbowmen and bidauts, skirmished armed with javelins and slinghots; they were the only French footsoldiers to take the part in the battle. The rest, some 3,000, were the knights and squires, all fully armoured and on caparisoned warhorses, professional warriors, widely and rightly regarded as the finest in Europe, they had a qualitative superiority over the amateur force of artisans, tradesmen and peasants.
The Flemish forces deployed themselves well, on level ground to the east with one flank protested by the marshy bank of the river Lys, the other resting on the town wall. In front of the deep formations of heavy infantry and lined by the crops of crossbowmen were two streams, the Groeninge Bek and the Grote Bek. The French formed opposite them, initiating their attack with their crossbows and the bidauts. Their superior numbers drove the Flemings back from the stream’s edge, giving space to the French knights to cross and reorganize for the charge.
The two main battles charged simultaneously, 3,000 horsemen bearing down on the militia’s line. Such a charge usually drove all before it, smashing the opposition’s cohesion, breaking their morale and putting them to flight.
The Flemish militias held. Their camaraderie and esprit de corps, as they stood shoulder to shoulder with workmates and family in their livery and beneath the emblems of their guilds, kept them in place whilst the forest of pikes blunted the knights’ charge. The charge could not be completely stopped however, and the knights fought their way into the Flemish ranks. As they did so the Flemish numbers began to tell, surrounding the knights and negating their advantage in height and skill.
The French were steadily forced back into the streams they had crossed and some knights drowned. The French reserve attempted to engage but had not space to launch an effective charge, were held, broke and fled. Soon the whole French army was in flight, pursued by the Flemings for up to 6 miles. Some 1,200 nobles and knights, the cream of French chivalry, lost their lives and 500 gilded spurs, symbols of their knighthood, were collected and displayed as trophies in the church of Our Lady of Courtrai.
The defeat at Courtrai cut the heart out of the French nobility and shook its self-confidence. But also showed that infantry, so long as it stood firm, could defeat heavy cavalry. When the Scots pikemen did the same thing to the English at Bannockburn in 1314 the chronicler Thomas Gray compared it with the Flemish victory.