Monday, 7 March 2016

Flemish Communal Forces 1477-1482

"The men of Ghent, Bruges, Kortrijk and Wervik, gathered their men. On foot and horseback they made ready, with food, wagons, artillery, tents, pavilions and all the gear needed for the war. They formed a powerful army."
Chroniques de Jean Molinet (1474-1506)
Flanders was the most densely populated area within the northern territories of the Duchy of Burgundy and was itself dominated by the 'free' cities and towns which were at the time an economic powerhouse. Of all of these, three cities dominated the region; Ghent (Gent), Bruge (Brugge) and Ypres (Iepres).Their respective charters granted them the right to set their own taxes and to create their own laws. Effectively each was a separate nation-state that owed fealty solely to the Duke, but the demands that he could place on them were also limited in scope.  The same was also true of the cities of the Meuse valley (Huy, Namur, Dinant, Liège, and Maastricht), as is the case with much of what follows in this post.  

Duke Phillip and Duke Charles had eroded these limitations and imposed their own taxes on them; this was especially felt during the final years of Charles's reign. When Charles died at Nancy and Louis XI of France began systematically seizing those regions he believed reverted to the crown, the only way Charles's daughter Marie was going to retain Flanders in her duchy (as well as raising an army from it) would be with the agreement of the cities and towns within it. With Flanders traditionally belonging to France, there was also the possibility that King Louis might decide to bring it back into the fold too, so time was a factor in resisting Marie's claim.

Duchess Marie broke first and restored the traditional 'customs and liberties', in return for which the cities and towns accepted her right to rule, which was ceremonialised in the traditional pageant known as the Blijde Inkomst (Joyeuse Entrée in French - 'Joyous Entry') held in Ghent (although it was later to be repeated across the Netherlands). After this had occurred the new Grote Raad (Great Council) of the Netherlands, began planning with Marie's own council to raise an army with which to oppose the French. Flanders itself was to raise 12,000 men as part of that plan, the bulk of which were to be drawn from Ghent, Bruge and Iepres.

Ghent surrenders to Phillip the Good in 1453. Above the burghers wearing penitent white, can be seen the badges of some of the city's guilds. The lowest one is that of the weavers, while those of what looks like the wool-carders, masons and free seamen, can also be seen. Each bears the arms of Flanders to the top left and those of Ghent to the top right.

Social Structure

Before examining the forces raised it is necessary to have some understanding of how these cities worked, as it directly impacts on their structure. At the top of a city was its ruling council - the Landsraad or just Raad, which was headed by the schepenen (échevins in French) - aldermen and headed by a Stadhouder (essentially a lord-mayor usually appointed by the Duke) for the larger cities, although schout (écoutète) - bailiff was usual for smaller towns. The Raad was typically divided into legislative and judicial sub-councils, but sat as a single body.

Functionary municipal officers were also appointed to oversee the city's finances, the maintenance of the city's walls and watch, sanitation, judiciary and law enforcement, pretty much all of the things a city council does today; these officers were the burgemeesters (burgomasters) and baljuw (bailiffs). These also sat on the Raad as 'Raden' (councillors). All of these were almost invariably elected from within the patrician elite of the city and its immediate environs, known as the poorterij.

The arms of the six zestendeel of Bruge; 
Sint Jans, Sint Niklaas, Onze Lieve Vrouw, 
Sint Jacobs, Sint Donaas and Carmers.

The various trade guilds had formed originally as a means of mutual protection on the road, then as a way of regulating trade, prices and eventually to guarantee a city's merchants a monopoly on trade in certain goods within it. Mutual agreements between the guilds of other cities reinforced this, effectively keeping out foreign competitors. Each trade had its own guild, but as each was as important to a city as another, the various guilds co-operated with each other (in the main at least) for the benefit of all. The heads of the guilds often sat on the Raad as schepenen and their subordinates were often also burgemeesters. This conjuration of the city's guilds is what gave them their strength in opposing the feudal nobility and is why they are typically described as 'communal' in history books.

The power of the guilds was exemplified by Ghent, but Bruge and other cities based their structure on the individual zestendelen (districts or parishes) of the city. While each of the various zestendeel were often concentrations of a single social class in any case, the system was somewhat more egalitarian than the rigid hierarchical guild structure. Each zestendeel had its own representatives on the Raad and each also had its own smaller council formed from the individual dekens (deans or deacons) of the neighbourhoods of the zestendeel, which were also further sub-divided into coningstavelrijen (constabularies), each with their own coningstavel (constable).

The relevance of all of the above is that the two main types of urban structure were to directly impacted on how the respective cities organised their contingents for war.

Plans and Preparations

Like the rest of the Netherlands the citizens of Ghent and Bruge between the ages of 16 and 60 had to present themselves properly armed and equipped for service when directed to do so by the landsraad of his locale. Unlike other legislation across North-West Europe at the time, there was no stipulation that any individual had to perpetually own the weapons and equipment, just that on an appointed day he should have it. The cities therefore maintained their own armouries and stores from which such items could be either purchased (jacks and other 'consumables') or leased (weapons).

The reasoning for this is quite sound, as in the sometimes volatile politics of an urban population, the last thing anyone wanted was an armed and armoured citizenry. The cities themselves bore the cost of livery jackets, munitions and standards. The flaw in this system was exemplified by the fact that Duke Charles had raised contingents from the cities for his last campaign in Lorraine and stocks had not been replenished.

The first steps to be taken were therefore to be the ordering of arms, armour and ordnance from wherever it could be found. A flurry of orders went out to the various Netherlands and German centres of arms production. The expense of these orders was considerable, but it was to be imagined that much of the cost would be recuperated when the items were sold or leased to the citizens called up for service. Powder and shot were the most expensive items however and the cities had no option but to bear the cost.

Some of these purchase orders have survived and we know that Bruge ordered; 100 pikes of 20' in length, 200 of 14', 300 'loden hamers' (presumably lead-filled war hammers), 10 serpentijnes (field guns) and 220 bows. Ghent ordered 300 'glaives or pikes' of 13', 300 of 16', 12 'rijtglavien' (presumably a shorter glaive as they are specified for 'riders'), 383 'loden hamers', 11 serpentijnes and 324 haakbussen (the very latest type of arquebus and not the old handbussen or handguns) and 615 bows.

What are presumed to be 'loden hamer' otherwise known as the Bec de Corbin or 'raven's beak' and Lucerne Hammer. The 'lead' may refer to the heads being partially filled with lead to add to the weight. Similar weapons can be seen in the illustration heading this post, as are the normal range of voulges and guisarmes. The orders for them (or any other item) are not to be taken as the sole quantities of those items, as we do not know what was actually in stocks.

Secondly a series of laws were passed to prevent the export or sale of arms and armour and making the city concerned the sole purchasers and sellers of military items. Seizure for debt or the use of arms and armour as security for a loan was forbidden and Lombard bankers were to be subject to weekly inspections to ensure that they were not flouting this law.

The plan of the Grote Raad rested on the fact that they assessed that there were 100,000 citizens eligible to serve, but that only an initial force of 34,000 would be required. A levy in lieu of service from those remaining 66,000 citizens would go a long way in covering the costs involved. Flanders itself was to raise just 12,000 of the 34,000 men, of which the bulk were to come from Ghent, Bruge and Iepres. In Ghent each guild was given a quota of men to produce, based on each guild's membership, while in Bruge each district and neighbourhood held a public lottery, overseen by the deacons and constables, to determine who would serve, the numbers based on the relative populations of each district.

It would be impossible to raise all of the men at once however, which necessitated sending much smaller forces as they became available, the first of which were to be ready by 1st March 1477. In the event it took longer than the month specified and in Ghent's case, it was to be May before its contingent was ready. When the French besieged Lille in April, the city was forced to send a scratch force from what was ready to assist in its defence. Ypres and its environs was to guard the west of Flanders near the border with the County of Bolougne, while the remainder of the forces were to gather between Courtrai (Kortrijk) and Lille.  

The final preparations included a common code of military discipline and terms of service and somewhat uniquely for a 15th Century army, the establishment of a common 'death or dismemberment' for the widows and orphans of those who were to serve. The former was the usual prohibitions against looting, rape and damage to property, which were quite relevant given that they were to be fighting on friendly territory. There were also penalties for draft-dodging and desertion, with the unusual proviso that offenders would be judged and sentenced by men of their own communities and through their local courts if possible. The 'death benefits' included exemption from certain taxes, 'preferred status' by the municipality for any trade or craft run by widows or dependants, and a grain dole.

While it was agreed that Adolphus of Cleves would be the overall commander of the army as the Duchess' s appointed Governor-General of the Netherlands, this was to be effectively as a figurehead and his only actual authority extended to the feudal contingents of Brabant and Hainault. The forces of Flanders were to be a volkenleger (peoples' army), led by men of their own municipalities, appointed by their respective raads and under the overall command of a Kapitein-Generaal appointed by the Grote Raad. To underline their independence the Flemish released Adolf van Egmond - Duke of Guelders, whom Duke Charles had imprisoned, to be its first.

Ghent at war with Maximilian of Austria c. 1488. With the exception of a single crossbowman in black, green seems to be the predominant colour for Ghent's troops and yellow for Maximilian's, albeit that both colours appear on both sides.
The Raw Material

Despite individual methods of actually raising troops, across the whole of Flanders the actual types of troops raised were the same. Firstly there were the poorterij who were the social elite of the cities and who with the wealthier of the middle classes, formed the ruiterij (horsemen) of the civic contingents. Each of the three big cities also employed professional soldiers, the kaproenen as a permanent paramilitary police force and 'troubleshooting' formation. Each city and town also had its schuttersgildes (shooting guilds), which were in essence social clubs devoted to particular weapons, but who provided the missile-armed troops in time of war. Each city also had its own artillery park. Finally there were the Voetvolk (footmen) the ordinary citizens and guild members that formed the rank and file of the army.

The Poorterij & Reiterij

The bulk of the poorters would look somewhat like this representation of a man at arms. As seems typical for the age, horse armour is absent and seems to have been used only by the very wealthiest individuals.

As mentioned above the Poorterij (burghers) were the elite of the city. Technically anyone could become a poorter, all it took was a sum of money (admin fee, contribution towards the maintenance of municipal buildings and personnel), proof that income and assets were at a certain level and that you actually lived within the city walls and maintained a household. This formal citizenship granted certain rights and privileges in return, not least the removing the burden of serving on the watch. However it did impose a duty to serve in war and to do so with an enhanced level of armour and equipment. Poorters were also expected to also take on additional responsibilities if called upon to perform them.

The minimum level of equipment to be provided varied as to income. At 50 Flemish pounds this was; halsbergoele (a haubergeon, but presumably a brigandine would have been acceptable), wayelen (possibly greaves or poleyns for the knee), colliere (collar - a mail 'standard'), hersniere (probably a catch-all term for helmet), spoudiere ('spalder' - shoulder armour) and "all other harness that belongs to them". At 100 Flemish pounds; a full metal harness, helmet, 'hoetskovel' (either a gorget, or possibly a mail standard), leg armour and gauntlets.

Neither horses or weapons are mentioned, but in a society where outward displays of wealth were both customary and expected, they probably did not need to. Men would naturally turn out in the best equipment that they could afford. What money could not buy was experience in war and the handling of weapons. The burgers may have looked like men at arms, but that was as deep as it went for most of them. Estimations of the ratio of members of chivalrous families (who almost certainly had the traditional martial education from an early age) to those of mercantile families in the poorterij tend to be in the region of 1:30.

Many of the poorters were members of the schuttersgildes, although this is no indicator of role. Members of these guilds included successive dukes of Burgundy and Antoine 'bastard of Burgundy' won a contest five years running for his guild. The lowest levels of the poorters would however have fallen into the '50 pound' bracket and while they could afford a horse, would have served in the 'archer lances' (with longbow or crossbow), which were attached to the lances of the wealthier poorters.

The poorters were organised into the same traditional style lances as were the feudal men at arms. For most it was the 'three-man lance' of themselves as man at arms, a somewhat lighter armed and armoured valet de guerre (or coustilier) and a page. Four-man lances were typically those of the leaders and 'groot burgers' and differed by the addition of an additional valet who bore a standard or guidon. To each of these lances were typically added a 'lance' of two mounted archers or crossbowmen, themselves drawn from the schuttersgildes. A unit of one four-man lance to 19 three-man lances and 20 'archer lances' added to the whole is not un-typical. A single contingent raised by Bruge at the start of the conflict also added a pikeman and an archer to each lance.
While perhaps somewhat more expensively equipped, the communal mounted archer would look little different to his professional counterpart in the former compagnies d'ordonnance.

The Kaproenen

The 'Witte Kaproenen' (white hoods) of Ghent have an important part in the history of their city in the 14th Century. Although it was a political faction, rather than a formal body of troops, when Ghent recruited professionals to form its full-time police force in 1476, 'White Hoods' was symbolic of the city's heritage. Bruge also had its Rode Kaproenen (Red Caps) and Ypres its Blauwe Kaproenen, raised in the same year too. These men were not simply a city watch, that role was performed by the schuttersgildes, they were a paramilitary force. If heavy-handed policing was required at a major civic faire or other event, or there were bandits on the highway, or even if a show of force was needed for interlopers fishing in Ghent's stretch of the river, the Karproenen were it.

Few in number the Kaproenen were, with members of the schuttersgildes and poorterij, sent to reinforce the garrisons of Picardy against the initial French actions. While no doubt others were recruited, their use thereafter was as guard units for the contingent commanders and the city and ducal standards, whether in camp or in battle. 

While not intended to be so, this reconstruction is largely what a member of any city's kaproenen would look like. The intimation that they were dressed almost to the standard of the poorterij suggest that they were indeed heavy infantry. The lack of lower leg armour is typical of professional infantry and possibly a brigandine might subsitute for the breastplate. As municipal employees it would be normal for a livery jacket in their city's livery to be worn over the armour. 

The Schutterij

In North-West Europe the weapon of the common man had always been the spear or polearm, a tradition that went back to the warrior culture of earlier times. The bow or more latterly the crossbow were the weapons of the hunter. In France North of the Loire and in the Low Countries and Germany, it was the bow which predominated, while the crossbow was more common in Southern Europe. Hunting was primarily the pastime of the wealthy and the average commoner risked being hanged for poaching if found in possession of such a weapon without good reason. Both weapons therefore became associated with privilege and status as a result.

A phenomenon of this was the presence of what were known as schuttersgildes in Flanders, friendly societies whose principal pastime was the shooting of bows, crossbows and more recently handguns. Across regional and national boundaries competitions were frequently held at the various faires of towns and cities. These guilds were also a kind of social melting pot and while the bulk of their members were what we would describe as the middle class, poorters and nobles were also members as a way of involving themselves in the social fabric of the cities. Even rural villages and their outlying hamlets and farms managed to establish such societies and to compete.

Besides representing their towns in competition, these guilds performed communal services, typically in the form of providing the city's 'watch and ward' (patrolling a section of the walls and undertaking fire patrols), so much so that towers were often provided for each guild's use. The members would serve by rotation, so that the burden was both shared and did not become onerous. One benefit of membership was however that the weekly practice sessions were counted as 'time served', so the actual number of nights each member served on rainy and windswept walls were considerably fewer than the average citizen as a result. 

While representing an Italian crossbowman, the look of a typical schuttersgilde member would have been almost identical.

These guilds were wholeheartedly supported by their municipality (not least because most of the burgers were members in any case). In war they also provided a missile arm the city would otherwise lack and one which was proficient with its weapons. Each guild specialised in a single weapon, Sint-jorisgilde (St. George's Guild) typically favoured the crossbow, while Sint-sebastiaansgilde (St. Sebastian) were usually archers. The most recent guilds were those devoted to the handgun, which were typically named after Sin-antonius (Saint Anthony). Being granted entry to one of these guilds was like being accepted to the local chamber of commerce and was one step from becoming a poorter. If you 'networked' with your fellow guild members, it opened doors. 

In war it was certain that contingents would have a significant presence from the schuttersgildes and the chances of serving were much higher than for the ordinary citizen. members of these guilds fell into the top 10% of a city's population, yet formed around 20% of any contingent formed by a city, not counting the more wealthier members who served alongside the poorters as mounted archers and crossbowmen. The wealth of individual members allowed them to purchase better equipment and they received more pay than the standard citizen too. In Ghent nobody marched in front of Sint-jorisgilde and they were followed by the city banner and its guard. While this might seem scant privilege, think of what being at the back of a column of horses and hundreds of men must have been like.  

The Voetvolk

Duke Phillip The Good charges into the ranks of the men of Ghent's Shearers Guild during the Battle of Gavere (1453). In the background can be seen the standard of the Free Seaman's Guild. 

The basic civic duty of a resident, besides paying his taxes correctly and on time, was that each household would share a proportion of the city watch. This consisted of a set regular period of patrolling the city walls. Such service was occasional and while any individual might spend only a few days (or nights) performing such duties in any year, several hours of patrolling wet and windswept walls, especially in the Winter, was hardly popular. The poorterij were exempted from this duty by position and the men of the schuttersgildes had their periods reduced due to time spent in practice.

Part of a panel on the Reliquary of St. 
Ursula (c. 1489). In the foreground the
pike or glaive-armed man is wearing a 
jack over a haubergeon with 'splints' to 
reinforce the arms of the jack. He has a 
simple skullcap and a sword.

When war came the citizens were to expect to submit to a lottery to select those who were to serve. The unlucky winners were to equip themselves according to income, which for the lowest meant 'piek' or 'glaive' (essentially any polearm), a helmet and a dagger. At the next income level a jack and a hand-weapon (a short sword, an axe, a falchion or similar weapons) were added too. Self-preservation dictated that men would however add to the basic requirements if they could afford it and mail haubergeons or belly plates supplemented jacks, or were replaced by brigandines or whatever else a man might acquire to possibly save life and limb.  

Other than the periodic stints on watch and ward, there does not seem to have been any form of military training conducted by the cities. As the raising of the forces to fight the French did take between one and two months and there was also an extended period guarding the border at Kortrijk and Spiere, it is imagined that some form of preliminary training was undertaken. Formal drill had been introduced into the ordonnance companies of Duke Charles, so it was possible that the practice was continued, if not only to stop 'the devil making work for ideal hands'.  

Traditionally the Flemish preferred to take up a defensive position behind a natural obstacle; a hedge, a ditch, a wall, or a stream would do equally as well, anything that might break up the charge of their usually mounted enemy. With polearms and varying lengths of pikestaff, it is possibly the case that the enemy faced more than the usual number of weapons ahead of the body they faced. Things did not always go the way the Flemish wished and this war forced them to go on the offensive on occasion, which was seemingly not their forte.  


While not guilds in the same way as the schuttersgildes were, the municipal artillery were included within the wider group of schutterij in contemporary accounts. In the Fifteenth Century, the term 'artillery' not only referred to the bombards, guns and other 'heavy weapons', but also to the equivalent of the logistics, ordnance, engineer and other 'tail' elements that an army might require and with individual units' baggage too, might form a considerable entity in itself. Generally the key posts within this body were full-time and cities usually maintained quite a few staff, as well as considerable amounts of weapons and other items, more than might usually be expected. The cities were also quite pragmatic and would happily employ a foreign specialist of proven ability in lieu of a somewhat less able local man.

Bruge's 'Artillery' consisted of a Master of Artillery, 6 Master Gunners and their jongen (serving boy/apprentice), 24 Busschiers (gunners) and Matroosen (assistants), 78 horses to tow the Serpentijnes and Ribauds, 106 various wagons to support the artillery, a Captain of sappers, 5 disenier of sappers, 45 sappers, 2 carpenters and a farrier, along with 18 wagons (with 73 horses) for the supplies and tools of the sappers and craftsmen. Various tents and pavilions for the senior commanders, including one for 'staff meetings' were also bought by the municipality. The ordinary soldiers, junior commanders and others, presumably made their own arrangements.

Serpentijn where the most commonly mentioned 'field guns' in Flemish sources, although cities generally had some heavier pieces for use in sieges.
All of the above were employed by the city and were issued the city's livery. Besides these, each group of twenty infantry and each lance, were allowed a wagon for their own needs, to be paid for out of their own pockets, but nevertheless had to be inspected (to assess compensation if 'lost') and approved sturdy enough for service. The Poorters, who were the 'lance' commanders and the various captains and commanders of a force, were also allowed a wagon for their personal needs and camp equipment, also to be paid for out of their own funds. Each voud therefore, might have around fifty wagons for its own personnel and even if not municipal vehicles, were the overall responsibility of the Marshal appointed to oversee them.


Flemish troops despoil a French encampment, from a late 15th Century edition of Froissart.

While each city raised their troops in different ways, they seem to have at least used a common organisation pattern, which in many ways was not so different to that of their enemies. The smallest element was the vilj (file) of five men, two of which formed a rot of ten men, the tenth man being the hoofdman in Bruge or the tienman in Ghent (head man or ten man). Bruge formed coningstavelrijen (constabularies) of fifty men under a coningstavel (constable), all from the same parish, while Ghent had smaldeel led by a hoofdman, all from the same guild. These 'platoon leaders' wore a 'wimple' (a bannerole or streamer) on their helmets and each unit had a small pennon.

These units would then be formed into vaandel or vendelen (companies) of 100 - 150 men, each led by a captain drawn from mid-level civic or guild officials (e.g. a deken) and drawn from the same source was a cornet (lieutenant) as his assistant. Typically each company also had a kwartiermeester (quartermaster), a standard bearer, a clerk, a chaplain, one or two musicians and a chirurg (barber-surgeon), with or without attendants. Company sizes were flexible as the Weavers of Ghent supplied 320 men at one point, which is to be imagined that they formed two companies of 160 men. Smaller guild contingents are known to have been amalgamated into companies, but apparently were never split from their fellows.

The traditional title of voud was used back in the 14th Century to describe a 'battalion' type formation of 500 men. While this has been translated as 'fold' (as in material), it also means 'multiple' in Flemish. Whether or not this title remained in use in the 15th Century or not, it does seem that larger groups of around 1,000 to 1,500 men typically had a commander for each 500 men. Typically schepenen are named, with a raden as their vaandrig ( 'banner bearer' or lieutenants, although they did not actually carry the banner).

Each group of 'vouden' typically had an overall commander, the Kapitein, with a standaarddrager as his second in command (although again he didn't actually carry the standard) and a maarschalk (marshal) who was responsible for the artillery train, baggage train and supplies. A number of clerks and other assistants, including trumpeters, drummers, surgeons, chaplains and usually a contingent of kaproenen rounded out the 'general staff'. Usually there was also a mounted contingent, although its size bore no relation to the size of the foot contingent.


  1. Another fascinating post Jim, I look forward to seeing the figures you collect to represent these forces.

    I remember you mentioning before that the Longbow/Warbow was used by these city militias - the weapons ordered for this campaign certainly back that up as well.

    1. Thanks Oli. I also look forwards to seeing the figures I collect too lol... I'm not currently in a position to do much modelling and collecting though, hence the copious amounts of research.

      The longbow was surprisingly common across North-West Europe, North of the Seine, although it was more a 'hobby weapon' albeit a widespread and very popular hobby. Unlike England though, the weapon of the ordinary man was pike or polearm, so there were never the numbers to have them massed.

  2. Great posts Jim - very informative reads for regions of 15th century not easily accessible for info etc.

    1. Thanks Simon... truth told I think that the lack of accessibility is a lot of the appeal for me too. It's a case of constantly discovering something fresh and new to write about, rather than going over the already well-trodden ground of 'Longbow World'.