Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle: French Army Led by King Philip Defeats Flemish Rebels

 
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Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle: French Army Led by King Philip Defeats Flemish Rebels

"Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle" featuring French King Philip the Fair (center)
Painting by Charles-Philippe Larivière (c. 1839-40)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 18, 1304

For today's military history trip, we journey to the County of Flanders (part of modern-day Belgium and France) in the early 14th century. The French monarchy was seeking to bring the county back under its thumb. The Flemings had resisted the French very successfully, but…

Background

Flanders had been a fiefdom of the French throne since at least the mid-fifth century AD. Increasing prosperity from trade with England, the nations of the Baltic Sea, and Italy made many of the towns of 12th and 13th century Flanders very wealthy. Though many of the towns began to think of themselves as independent entities, they still owed allegiance to the King of France.

In 1299, the French monarch Philip IV "the Fair" concluded a brief war with Edward I of England. The conflict was fought entirely in the County of Flanders. As a result, Philip felt the need to show the Flemings who was boss as a result of this brief war. The Count of Flanders, 76-year-old Guy of Dampierre, had been an ally of the English king during the war with France. In retribution, King Philip deposed Guy and threw him into prison with his two sons. To replace him, the French monarch appointed Jacques de Châtillon, a nobleman and soldier, as royal governor in 1300. A royal army was assigned to help him manage the pesky Flemish.

Unfortunately, Châtillon was ill-suited for the task. He did not understand the political forces in Flanders, with factions supporting the deposed count and those supporting the French monarch. Châtillon also failed to comprehend the intricate workings of power between the city rulers and the craft guilds. Also, he was shocked by the wealth and power of some of the Flemish towns – like Bruges and Ghent – far richer than any comparable city in France.

Map of the County of Flanders, late 13th century; by this time, Most of Flanders was under the rule of France (west of the red line); Mons-en-Pévelè (Pevelenberg) is near the bottom of the map
Map of the County of Flanders, late 13th century; by this time,
Most of Flanders was under the rule of France (west of the red line)
Mons-en-Pévelè (Pevelenberg) is near the bottom of the map

On May 17, 1302 Châtillon and his French army arrived at the town of Bruges, accompanied by Pierre Flote, the king's chief advisor and negotiator, as they attempted to make peace with the Flemish guild leaders. When news of the approaching French reached the city of Bruges, most of the rebellious factions fled the city, fearing retribution and imprisonment instead of peaceful negotiations. When the French arrived, there was no one in authority with whom to negotiate. French soldiers then began to harass the families of the rebels, involuntarily taking lodgings in many Flemish homes. Tales of mistreatment of the townspeople found their way to the absent Flemings.

During the early morning of May 18, Flemish militia units made their way back into the city. They set into motion a plan to retaliate against the French. The militiamen began going door-to-door, asking whoever answered to repeat a simple Flemish phrase. Anyone who could not repeat the phrase properly was thought to be a Frenchman, and the offenders were immediately slain. At least 2000 Frenchmen were massacred in this manner. Only a handful of French, including de Châtillon and Flote, managed to escape. Both officials reported the events in Bruges back to Philip the Fair.

To answer this challenge to his royal authority, King Philip mustered another army to punish the rebellious Flemings. Over the next two years, the French fought two major battles, and the Flemings won both, at Courtrai (also known as the "Battle of the Golden Spurs") in July of 1302 and at Arques in April of 1303.

Prelude to the Battle

The French defeat at Arques prodded King Philip to strike back at the rebellious Flemings. He knew that if the Flemish were to successfully secede from the French kingdom, other provinces – notably Bordeaux, Picardy, and Gascony – might also rebel. Consequently, Philip raised another army to subdue the Flemings. Unlike previous expeditions, the French monarch decided to lead this force himself.

In another example of how serious Philip viewed the Flemish rebellion, he went to the church of Saint-Denis, one of the most sacred in all France, and offered prayers for victory. In addition, the French monarch brought with him the oriflamme, the French national battle standard, which was stored at the church. It was attached to a golden lance and carried by an appointed noble whose only duty during battle was to carry the banner forward, and to die rather than let the battle standard of the French realm be captured.

Reconstructed early version of the oriflamme; Designed by Tomasz Steifer for Wikipedia
Reconstructed early version of the oriflamme
Designed by Tomasz Steifer for Wikipedia

The French force entered Flemish territory in late July or early August, and encamped outside the town of Mons-en-Pévèle to await the approach of Flemish forces. After learning of the outcome of a naval battle between the Flemings and a combined French-Hollandic fleet – the Flemings lost – on August 10-11, Philip prepared his army to receive the Flemish army, which apparently arrived shortly thereafter.

French Army

The invading French military force was a large one, for the time period. Some of the various chronicles give its strength as nearly 100,000 men – not an impossible number, but highly unlikely. Modern historians believe the French army strength of 13,000 is more appropriate, including 3000 knights and gendarmes (mounted men-at-arms) and 10,000 infantrymen. The footmen included some crossbowmen, spearmen, and swordsmen.

In addition, this army also had some artillery, springalds (giant crossbows) or catapults, and even trebuchets. However, most of these engines of war were destroyed by Flemish raids before the battle occurred, as the machines took no part in the final battle. Also mentioned in the various chronicles are mounted crossbowmen.

Flemish Army

The rebellious Flemings had mustered a force of between 12,500 and 15,000 men, all of them on foot. A few officers and guild leaders were mounted, wearing armor and carrying weapons to appear similar to knights, but when the battle began they dismounted and fought on foot with their fellow townsmen. There were also a few small units of crossbowmen. The infantrymen's main weapons were pikes, some swords, axes, maces, and the dreaded goedendag.

Modern reconstruction of a goedendag
Modern reconstruction of a goedendag

The name translates from Flemish as either "good day" or "good dagger." [One historical source claims it was used on May 18 to ferret out Frenchmen or French sympathizers in Bruges. The Bruges militiamen would say, "Good day" to suspects, and if they sounded too French, the goedendag was put to good use.]

The weapon was a wooden shaft about five feet long, thicker at one end. In that same end, a foot-long steel spike was inserted. Contemporary records state that it was used as either a club, or like a boar spear. The wielder would set the one end of the goedendag to the ground, similar to a spear. Some descriptions say that spear- or pike-armed men formed the first line of their formations, with the goedendag-armed soldiers in the second rank. When the French cavalry charged the Flemish line, the pikemen would take out the knights, with the second line soldiers given the task of killing any enemy horses who may have survived the line of pikes.

The Flemings made their camp within sight of the French army's bivouac. In addition to setting up their tents, William of Jülich ordered the Flemish troops to construct a wagon fort to protect the army's tents, flanks, and rear from French attempts to outflank them. The Flemings took all the wagons and carts which had accompanied their army, tying or chaining them together. And, to prevent the French from easily separating this impromptu fortification, one wheel from each cart/wagon was removed. An extensive area of marshy ground separated the two armies.

Initial deployment of French (blue) and Flemings (orange), battle of Mons-en-Pévèle; Image is author's own work, adopted from 'Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century' by Kelly DeVries (1996)
Initial deployment of French (blue) and Flemings (orange), battle of Mons-en-Pévèle
Image is author's own work, adopted from "Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century"
by Kelly DeVries (1996)

Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle

On August 13, Flemish crossbowmen began a long-distance bombardment of the French camp. The French replied not only with crossbow quarrels, but with catapult stones and large crossbow bolts. Each side hoped to provoke their opponent into an unorganized attack, but failed. This became the pattern over the next four days. The only significant battle action occurred sometime during these days, as groups of Flemish raiders attacked the French battle line, destroying the springalds and other artillery, and likely killing some of the machines' crews as well.

In front of the French camp [C], King Philip's army deployed in one long, large body of infantry [B], with the large contingent of cavalry likely deployed in front of the footmen [A].

The Flemings were similarly deployed in a single large phalanx of pikemen in the first rank, soldiers armed with goedendags in the second line, and other infantrymen lined up behind them [D]. The Flemish camp was to the rear of the formation [E], and the wagon fort encompassed the Flemings' bivouac, and provided protection to the flanks and rear of the rebel army [F].There were likely some small units of Flemish infantry providing some flank security [G].

After the initial attempts to bring on the fighting, a "peace parliament" was organized to try and resolves differences without resorting to further bloodshed. [The primary sources disagree about which side requested the meetings.] After several days of fruitless negotiations, the discussions broke up and both sides prepared for further battlefield action.

First Phase: Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle

On the morning of August 18, the fighting resumed, but this time mere harassment was forgotten, and large-scale attacks occurred. [Again, there is no definitive agreement on who attacked who first, but it was likely that the French opened the battle.] As if trying to repeat their disastrous tactics at the battle of Courtrai 2 years earlier, the French cavalry attacked the Flemish infantry phalanx (1). It was Courtrai all over again, as the Flemish pikemen held firm, and one French witness said of the combat, "Death and blood dwelt there." These French attacks lasted through the early afternoon, brutal fighting followed by French withdrawal (2).

First Phase; Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle; Image is author's own work, adopted from 'Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century' by Kelly DeVries (1996)
First Phase; Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle; Image is author's own work,
adopted from "Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century" by Kelly DeVries (1996)

Thirst and the summer heat began to wear down the French soldiers. Seeing that they were getting nowhere, some French troops lost hope and began to leave the battlefield in small groups (3).

Second Phase: Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle

Observing that his tired, thirsty, over-heated army was losing its cohesion, King Philip came up with a new battle plan. He ordered some of his cavalry to attack the flanks of the Flemish army, hoping to divert some attention from the frontal assaults (4).

Second Phase; Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle; Image is author's own work, adopted from 'Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century' by Kelly DeVries (1996)
Second Phase; Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle; Image is author's own work,
adopted from "Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century" by Kelly DeVries (1996)

The French experienced some initial success with this tactic. As a result, some French horsemen penetrated the Flemish defenses. However, rather than attacking the rear of the enemy phalanx, the French knights began pillaging the Flemish camp (5), while others attempted to take apart the Flemish wagon fort to allow further attacks on the enemy rear (6). However, the Flemish flank guards reacted quickly to limit the damage done by the French cavalry, eventually forcing the French to retreat (7). At the same time, the French frontal cavalry attacks on the Flemish infantry block continued, but with less zeal than before (8).

By this point in the day, the relentless heat and lack of potable water was taking its toll on both sides, but the French knights felt the conditions more acutely. Many of them pulled back from the fighting and tried to remove some of their armor to keep their body's temperature at a safe level. [Several of the chronicles stated that many Frenchmen died without a wound on them, alluding to the dangerous heat on that day.]

Final Phase: Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle

There was a pause in the fighting at around 5:00 pm, as both armies were nearly exhausted after several hours of combat. The French army was in disarray, with cavalry and infantry units wandering about their camp or nearby. The commanders tried to get their men into some kind of order, but fatigue and dehydration took a great toll of invaders. King Philip also tried to get his army back into line, for he knew the Flemings were not finished with his army.

Meanwhile, across the battlefield, the chief Flemish leaders were discussing their next moves. William of Jülich felt the time was right for a counter-attack, as the French army looked disordered and confused. However, two of his subordinates, John and Henry of Namur, and their troops left the Flemish battle line and fell back to the city of Lille. This left William with about half of his original force, but this did not dampen his resolve.

Final Phase; Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle; Image is author's own work, adopted from 'Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century' by Kelly DeVries (1996)
Final Phase; Battle of Mons-en-Pévèle; Image is author's own work,
adopted from "Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century" by Kelly DeVries (1996)

Consequently, at about 7:00 pm, the Flemish infantry charged the disordered French army, smashing through the infantry line still holding its ground beyond the marshy area (9). The French were shattered and began to rout back to the main bivouac, with the rebel army in hot pursuit. As dusk approached the Flemings broke into the French camp, looting and killing indiscriminately (10).

At this point, King Philip the Fair was threatened by the rampaging Flemings. Philip rallied his troops, and with the sacred oriflamme flying by his side, the king led a charge which brought the Flemings up short (11). The fighting swirled around the French monarch, as the Flemings fought to kill him, and his loyal troops sought to keep him safe. Finally, as sunset beckoned, the French held firm and forced their enemy out of their camp, sending the Flemings retreating in complete disorder (12). The battle of Mons-en-Pévelè was over.

Aftermath

Modern historians believe the Flemings lost between 7000 and 8000 men, including their commander William of Jülich. They further believe that the losses of the victorious French were somewhere between 1700-8000. A very bloody battle, even for the Middle Ages…

Footnote #1: With the death of William of Jülich, the Flemings lost the best military leader they possessed. After further minor battles, eventually the Treaty of Athis-sur-Orge was signed on June 23, 1305 which recognized the Flemish nominal independence but the county was still a fief of the French crown. Flanders was also required to transferred to France the cities of Lille, Douai, and Béthune, and pay exorbitant fines to King Philip.

Footnote #2: Despite the French victory – won at an exorbitant cost – the sacred oriflamme standard was lost to the Flemings during the latter stages of the battle. Another one was constructed to replace its predecessor. This is why no two descriptions of the banner seem to agree.

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