LOW COUNTRIES (1297-1478 AD)
DBA IV/57

By Marc Lauterbach

> Armies > Resources > Fanaticus

This list covers the armies from the ancient county of Flanders and what was once called the Low Countries in the high and late medieval periods, roughly corresponding to the modern states of Belgium, Holland, and northern France. While this was not a homogenous state at the time (even by the relatively lax standards of the medieval period), the armies from this region did tend to show a surprising degree of similarity to one another in terms of composition and political alignment. As such they may be safely grouped together in this list even though they would have most likely considered themselves distinct from one another both in terms of language, ethnicity and political alignment, as well as in terms of self-identification.

The list covers roughly three periods, beginning with the attempts of the French king Phillip the Fair to confiscate the county of Flanders from his vassal, Guy of Dampierre (a. 1297-1329), the intermediate period of rule by the Count of Flanders as a quasi-independent state (b. 1330-1410) and the final period encompassing the period of the Burgundian Netherlands (c. 1411-1478). The list ends with the defeat and death of Charles the Bold of Burgundy at the hands of the French king, and the subsequent passage of the territory to the Habsburgs though the marriage of Mary of Burgundy and Maxmillian of Austria.

The history of the Low Countries/ Flanders is a long and complex one, but it is possible to pick out several recurring themes. The County of Flanders was established in 864 by the Holy Roman Emperor and King of France Charles the Bald and was given to Count Baldwin the Iron Arm to hold in vassalage. Over the centuries, the Counts of Flanders would engage in shrewd diplomatic maneuvering and marriages of convenience and were able to add several surrounding counties to their lands, including those of Hainault, Nevers, Namur, and others. This coupled with the already rapidly-growing power of the region’s industrial and mercantile areas made the counts of Flanders very rich and powerful men, despite their theoretical allegiance to the kings of France. This would result in numerous conflicts between the French crown and the various powerful figures in the Low Countries, ultimately resulting in the annexation of Flanders to the Holy Roman Empire in the late 15th century.

However, the power and prestige enjoyed by the counts of Flanders due to their possession of some of the best developed land in Europe was in many ways illusionary. For while other parts of Europe were largely rural and organized along a very centralized, top-down model of direct governance on the part of the nobles, the Low Countries by virtue of their geography and socio-economic status began to exhibit an independent streak very early on. Along with the cities of Northern Italy, Flanders became the cradle of the urban commune and due to its high (for medieval standards) population density, rich, fertile lands, excellent trade routes, and superior manufacturing sectors (especially with regards to the textile industry), the urban centers of the Low Countries such as Laon, Brugges, Ghent, Ypres and others rapidly rose in power and increasingly asserted their autonomy from the Count of Flanders’ feudal rule. Thus the political situation in Flanders was somewhat less than stable or centralized, with the counts and landed nobility on the one hand attempting to control and strengthen their feudal authority of the wealthy industrialized towns, and the towns seeking more and more autonomy and independence from not only their noble overlords, but from each other based on regional, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic differences.

It is therefore appropriate that this list begins with just such a conflict- only this time one which would have international consequences. Fueled by a crippling trade war between Flanders and England, and in the context of heightened count-king tensions, the count of Flanders, Guy de Dampierre, attempted to enlist the help of Edward I of England in his struggle against the French king Phillip the Fair. Using this as a pretext, Phillip imprisoned Guy and declared that the Low Countries were to be officially annexed to the lands belonging to the French crown. The Flemish burghers, however, despite their generally strong dislike for the Count of Flanders, found direct rule to be more oppressive than that of their Count and so rose in rebellion. After a series of battles including some spectacular highs (the battle of the Courtrai in 1302) and some disastrous lows (the destruction of the entire Flemish fleet at Zierikzee in 1304 and the tactical French victory at Mons-en-Pelev), peace was made with the treaty of Athis-sur-Orge in which the Flemings were allowed to keep their independence (such as it was) in exchange for the cities of Lille, Douai, and Bethune.

The Count of Flanders as the Horseman of the Apocalypse

Subsequent years would result in an eventual French-Flemish reconciliation and a tenuous peace (with the Count of Flanders Louis I being killed at the Battle of Crecy in 1346), but this would not last. Numerous rebellions and uprisings by angry townsfolk and burghers against the nobles in the late 14th century would lead to a hostile Flemish public and would result in the passage of the Count of Flanders to John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy in 1405. However, Flemish cities would do little fighting outside of the County and could most often be found fighting either each other in civil wars, against their lords in anti-Burgundian uprisings, or against invading armies- especially the French after the resurgent power of France and the waning of Flanders’ traditional ally, England, as the 15th century wore on.

In 1477, John the Fearless was killed leading his army against an alliance of Swiss and Lorrainers at the battle of Nancy when a Swiss Phalanx tore into his army and he was felled by a Swiss Halberdier’s blow to the helm. With his death, the County of Flanders (and the Duchy of Burgundy) passed to John the Fearless’ only child, Margaret of Burgundy, who would hold the reigns of power until her untimely death falling from a horse in 1482, whereupon the Low Countries would pass to her husband, Maxmillian of Austria and would be held by the Habsburg house until Holland’s final independence at the end of the 80 Years’ War in 1648.

Enemies

Despite having three lists to choose from covering three different time periods, enemies remain relatively unchanging. This is due to the relative interventionist nature of the surrounding powers, the continual interest of the French in the Low Countries (first as vassal states and later as pro-English hostile neighbors), and in the continual bickering and internal hostilities between the various city states and their overlords, as well as the cities states and each other.

Enemies for list A. (1297-1329) include the Feudal French (IV/4b 1151-1330) and the Medieval Germans (IV/13b 1236-1450).

Enemies for the second list (1330-1411) are the Feudal French again, the Low Countries for a civil war scenario (IV/57b), the Medieval French from 1330 until 1418 (IV/64a, b), and the Early Burgundians (IV/76 1363-1471). These last two enemies no doubt represent the various interventionist expeditions mounted by the various powers on behalf of the counts of Flanders against the cities, and in the case of the former, the various military campaigns against the English-aligned Flemish cities during the 100 Years’ War.

Enemies for the final list (1411-1478) are the Medieval Germans again, this time from 1236 until 1478 (IV/13b, c), the Medieval French again, this time from 1346 until 1445 (IV/64b, c), the Early Burgundians again, and the Burgundian Ordonnance from 1471-1477 (IV/84


Flemish Knight circa 1480 AD

Composition

The armies of the Low Countries were very distinct from the majority of armies in the 14th and 15th centuries. While earlier armies of other kingdoms were generally based on feudal retinues or on units of hired professional soldiers (especially in the 15th century), the armies of the Flemish cities represented some of the first citizen armies in Europe. As a condition of their communal organization, cities were expected to provide a number of units for their overlord when called upon to do so. These armies were primarily composed of junior guild members, apprentices, and other urban laborers, with each guild providing equipment for a certain number of men or the means to do so. Guild membership was often contingent upon semi-regular military obligation, and most guild members would have served in the city militia if not on campaign at some point in their lives.

Due to their high level of organization and unique social demographics, unsurprisingly the majority of Flemish armies (as was the case with many other urbanized forces) comprised of units of footmen, similarly armed, and relatively well-drilled. Training sessions were usually held several times a year and while these armies lacked the hard-hitting power of mounted, armored knights or the sheer ferocity of the similarly-armed Swiss, time and time again the Flemings proved that when given ground of their own choosing and competently lead, they were more than a match for the traditional noble-heavy armies of their more traditional feudal armies, as demonstrated at the famous Battle of Courtrai at which an army comprised almost entirely of Flemish pikes and missile troops defeated an army of heavy French knights, inflicting casualties at a ratio of 10 to 1.

For ease of use, I shall deal with the unit types and each list’s composition separately. First, some historical notes on the elements in play.

Composition Notes

3Kn or 4Pk (Gen) Urban nobles or rich burghers and guild leaders, as well as the city leadership. Mounted, these could also be used to represent the Count's personal retinue.
3Kn or 4Pk The Flemish elite, either representing the Count's retinue of knights in a feudal army, or a unit of urban nobles/rich burghers in a city army. Alternatively, this element may be fielded as ordinary pike.
4Pk The Flemish rank and file. Better equipped pikemen would probably have been placed in front to give the line additional hitting power.
3/4Bd This could be used to represent dismounted nobles and burghers, or their retinue armed with swords and shields and halberds. Alternatively, it could also be used to represent those common foot soldiers who wielded the goedendag, a distinctively Flemish weapon resembling an extra long, lead-weighted baseball bat with a spike on the end. See the illustrations below.
4Cb City missile troops. Used to defend the town during sieges and also to provide long-range firepower for the vulnerable infantry when on the move or otherwise exposed.
2Ps At the beginning of this list, this would be useful for representing slingers and skirmishing archers. Later in the list the psiloi element could also be represented with hand gunners in the Swiss style. Alternatively, the psiloi could also be used to represent skirmishing light infantry and bucklermen being used as screeners for the pikes.
5Wb The inclusion of a Wb element in this otherwise very ordinary medieval army is something of a mystery. Perhaps this represents the poorly-armed but enthusiastic urban levy, a sort of city equivalent to feudal peasants. However, considering the fact that cities still had a heavy agricultural population living within their walls and farming outside the city, this could represent peasantry from the surrounding areas. Alternatively, this might be used to represent a "mixed" weapons company of recently raised urban militia with minimal training and no real experience of group tactics. It could also be used in city armies to represent the more fanatical wing of the various peasant uprisings of the mid and late 15th century. The possibilities are endless!
Art  Any number of guns could be used to represent this, however it should be remembered that Flemish armies rarely ventured too far from home and were often engaged in sieges. Let this guide your decision.

With regards to the actual army lists, they are as follows:

(a) 1297-1329: 1x 3Kn or 4Pk (Gen), 1x 3Kn or 4Pk, 1x 4Cb, 6x 4Pk, 1x 3Bd or 4Pk, 1x 3Bd, 1x 2Ps

(b) 1330-1411: 1x 3Kn or 4Pk (Gen), 1x 3Kn or 4Pk, 1x 4Cb, 5x 4Pk, 1x 3Bd, 1x5Wb, 1x 2Ps, 1x 4Pk or Art

(c) 1411-1478: 1x 3Kn or 4Pk (Gen), 1x 3Kn or 4Pk, 1x 4Cb, 6x 4Pk, 1x 4Bd or 4Pk, 1x 2Ps, 1x 4Pk or Art

Kn vs. Bd.  French Cavalry pressing home their charge in this early 14th century manuscript. In evidence are the famous goedendag polearm, a billhook, a curved-style falchion sword, and what appear to be defensive works at the feet of the Flemings. Note the relative uniformity of the equipment and the surprisingly well-armored militiamen.

A carving of the Flemish battle line before engagement. Note again the falchion swords and the ubiquitous goedendag. Also note the banners attached to various spearheads, no doubt representing a particular part of the city of guild allegiance.

Painting Tips

Unlike the majority of medieval armies, guild armies such as those of the Low Countries would actually display a fair amount of uniformity. Soldiers were provided with the bulk of their equipment out of guild stores and often guilds were associated with a particular color or banner. As such, painting can be relatively quick and easy. Banners were often guild banners and could display various items associated with the profession: shears for the wool weavers, hammers for the carpenters and the like (note the red banner with the saws or combs in the image at right).

While the noble followers or leaders in the armies and their household retainers would probably have displayed their coats of arms proudly, the bulk of the army would have been either in their civilian clothing or in guild-issued equipment in a predominant color. The arms of the count of Flanders were a black lion rampant on a gold background, often shown with a red tongue and claws (see below).

Tactics

In order to ascertain the tactics of any army, it is first essential to understand the “flavor” of the forces at your disposal. With this in mind, let us examine the armies of the Low Countries in DBA. First and foremost, the Low Countries are a pike army. The various army lists, while customizable, can be made to be very pike heavy, with an absolute minimum of 5 pike elements in the (b) list to a whopping 10 in the (c) list. With nearly half of your army representing pikemen, this should guide your tactical thinking. Their virtual absence of cavalry with the exception of 2 option knight elements (one of which is the general), combined with only 1 psiloi unit per army list means that this is not an army which will excel in bad going or will be able to chase your opponents around the field.

In an ideal situation, you enemy either comes to you and engages you while you are in tight formation, or you manage to reach and pin your enemy while in tight formation and destroy them in short order. In a nightmare scenario, you find yourself chasing your enemy all over the battlefield while he happily stays out of your way and blasts you with artillery. As your army begins to take casualties, you cohesion breaks up, your units get split up, and his cavalry mops up your pike elements one at a time.

Ideally, the army should be used in a turtle-like manner, relying on mutually-supporting blocks of pike with blade-protected flanks and using the knights as a mobile reserve. Advance against your opponent and get to grips with them quickly, or hold your position and let them come to you. In either case, you must not allow your pike formation(s) to be broken up. Getting flanked or outmaneuvered by your enemy’s light cavalry is a continual risk. However, if your flanks are properly protected and with a little luck, you should be in good shape. Pikes in double ranks are hand-to-hand monsters with +6 against foot and +7 against mounted, and a pike element supported in the rear with another element overlapping its enemy on the flank is nigh unbeatable. Don’t get too cocky though, knights are still beasts against foot and in a one-on-one encounter between single elements, Knights and Pikes will go even against each other, with the exception that Knights will only recoil from being beaten by pikes, while pikes will be destroyed.

The good news in all of this is that as a 0 aggression army with arable terrain, you should be able to use the board to your advantage. Doing this is essential to your victory, especially against knight and horse-heavy armies which will otherwise ride circles around you. As a BUA is one of your choices for required terrain, you are well advised to use this to your advantage and elect not to place a camp on the map. This will deprive your enemy of a quick-kill victory against your camp and will force him to assault your BUA, a prospect rightly feared by wise commanders.

Camps

As a relatively local army, you may want to work in a town or road into your camp, but this need not be the case. Due to the nature of their relatively slow-moving and static army, the Flemings tended to favor defensive works and used them extensively, building fortresses out of wagons, digging artificial ditches, seeking out and using high ground, and planting stakes. In fact the majority of battles fought between the Flemings and the French in the 14th century revolved around the Flemings holding onto a defensible position and waiting for the enemy to attack them. At Courtrai, it worked and the French cavalry became tangled during its uphill charge and was butchered by the Flemish infantry. At Mons-en-Pevele, it did not, with the Flemings leaving their prepared positions and being caught in the open by heavy French cavalry. As such, a camp featuring wagons, stakes, fascines, pits and the like is entirely appropriate. Feel free to add in well-armed figures and dead bodies impaled on stakes as necessary.

The Arms of the Count of Flanders

Miniatures

Medieval miniatures are relatively easy to find and most generic western European types will do. While militias did tend to be well-equipped by medieval standards, it should be remembered that the guild paid for their equipment and as such it was expected to last a while. As such, the evolution or amour being worn by the bulk of Flemish forces would probably lag 25 to 50 years behind what would be considered the cutting edge at the time. Maille hauberks and padded aketons would be worn alone well into the 14th century, and helmets would be almost invariably of the domed variety without a nasal although the occasional nasal in early armies would not be out of place for archers and the like. In addition, kettle hats would be worn as well.

The only real challenge to this army in terms of modeling is in piecing together an accurate early pike block. While there are many ranges with 15th century pikemen, very few companies exist with early 14th and 13th century pikemen. Perhaps the best thing to do under these circumstances is acquire regular spearmen and modify their pikes. However, if you can find Lowland Scots armies for Scottish War of Independence/Robert the Bruce type infantry, these are idea for earlier Low Countries pikemen.

In my mind, of all the figures I have seen in 15mm, the best ranges for Low Countries armies is Black Hat/ Gladiator miniatures. Not only do they have a number of useful pike ranges, they actually have a pack of men armed with the goedendag (Med 40- Low Country Guildsmen)! Great stuff. Essex has some solid Low Countries army packs in 15mm, however I would strongly recommend ditching their Bd character and replacing it with something more appropriate (the flailman with the pavise, while fine for Eastern Europe, it totally out for 14th century Flanders). For 15th century armies, Peter Pig’s “Bloody Barons” range is good, as is Corvus Belli’s 100 Years’ War range, although their lack of pike figures means conversion work. Feudal Castings has a nice Lowland Scots range which are entirely appropriate for Flemish pike.

In  the Perry Brother’s 100 Years’ War range is good, as is Wargames Foundry’s Swiss range for generic pikemen in the mid 15th century.

Other Resources

Some recommended titles include:

  • "Infantry Warfare in the Early 14th Century" Kelly Devries. 1996. Reprint edition 1998. Univ. of Rochester Pr. ISBN: 0851155715

  • Urban Life in the Middle Ages: 1000-1450” Keith D. Lilley. 2002. Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN: 0333712498

  • The Lion of Flanders. Hendrick Conscience. 1885. Reprint edition 2003. Fredonia Books. ISBN: 1410103927

Mark Baker's Low Countries DBA army is on display as a Fanaticus gallery.


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Thanks to Marc Lauterbach for preparing this essay.

Comments, questions or suggested additions are welcome.
Send to
Chris Brantley, IamFanaticus@gmail.com.

Last Updated: 18 Dec. 2006