The Lion of Flanders

by Hendrik Conscience

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First published: De Leeuw van Vlaanderen, 1838 (English translation, 1855-1857)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical romance

Time of work: 1298-1305

Locale: Flanders

Principal Characters:

Peter Deconinck, the dean of the clothworkers’ guild at Bruges

Jan Breydel, the dean of the butchers’ guild at Bruges

Count Robert de Bethune, called the Lion of Flanders

Count Guy of Flanders, Count Robert’s elderly father

Lady Matilda, Count Robert’s daughter

Adolf of Niewland, a Flemish knight in love with Lady Matilda

The Story:

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, Philip the Fair ruled as King of France, along with his queen, Joanna of Navarre. At the time, the French treasury was almost depleted from the cost of many wars, and Philip hoped to refill it with treasure and tax money from the rich cities of Flanders. The burghers, jealous of their privileges, refused to pay, even when asked to do so by Count Guy of Flanders, Philip’s vassal. Count Guy found himself the victim of the king’s displeasure, with his lands confiscated and his daughter Philippa imprisoned in the Louvre. In hopes of aiding Count Guy, Charles de Valois, King Philip’s brother, took the Flemish barons to the king to effect a reconciliation. Despite the safe conduct guaranteed by his brother, the king imprisoned the nobles. He was led to that unworthy deed by his queen, who hated the Flemings, nobles and commoners alike. Chagrined by his royal brother’s unknightly conduct, Charles de Valois broke his sword and vowed not to serve France until his brother’s reign was ended.

Only one Flemish noble, Sir Diederik die Vos, nicknamed the Fox, escaped. Disguising himself as a palmer, he set out to return to his native province where he hoped to lay plans to help his fellow Flemings. The French took over Castle Wynandael, the home of Count Guy. Lady Matilda, Count Robert’s daughter, fled to Bruges and found asylum in the home of Adolf of Niewland. Another of her protectors was Peter Deconinck, powerful dean of the great clothworkers’ guild in the city.

At the time the Flemings were divided into three groups. One, the Lilyards, favored collaboration with the French. Another, made up chiefly of commoners, favored supporting Count Guy and independence, even though the count was the French king’s prisoner; this group was known as the Clawards, after the claws of the heraldic device of Flanders, a lion. The third group, made up of nobles, held back from participation in the disagreements; because the commoners were involved, they did not consider this a conflict in which they could become involved with honor.

Determined to subjugate the Flemings, Philip the Fair entered Bruges with a military force and appointed his queen’s uncle governor of Flanders. After the king left, a per capita tax was laid on the citizens to pay for the cost of the visit. Peter Deconinck advised his clothworkers not to pay the tax; for his rebellious counsel, he was placed in prison. Jan Breydel, dean of the butchers, went to Deconinck’s rescue and freed him. In retaliation the Lilyards and the French governor planned to hang both Deconinck and Breydel as the first step in forcing the guilds and the people to submit entirely. The two deans of the guilds made battle plans and met force with force. The Lilyards were forced into the confines of the castle, but at last the threat of pillage by the French forces outside the city forced the Clawards to submit. The French entered the city, freed the Lilyards, and held the people of...

(This entire section contains 2061 words.)

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Bruges at their mercy.

One day as Adolf of Niewland walked in the countryside outside the city walls, he met Sir Diederik die Vos in the disguise of a friar. The nobleman brought word that the French vassal who guarded Count Robert de Bethune, called the Lion of Flanders, was willing to grant Count Robert freedom for a time if someone else would take his place. Adolf of Niewland agreed to do so.

Some weeks later the French, led by a disloyal clothworker, arrested Lady Matilda and prepared to take her off to prison in France. Lady Matilda had displeased Queen Joanna, and this was the queen’s revenge. As soon as he learned what had happened, Jan Breydel set off to rescue Lady Matilda. He was captured but managed to escape. Returning with several hundred followers, he burned the castle at Male. A small band of French knights escaped, taking Lady Matilda with them. A short time later they met a knight in black armor who rescued the girl. The knight was Count Robert in disguise. He was so pleased with the conduct of Deconinck and Breydel that he left word that they were to be knighted at the first opportunity.

On his return to Bruges, Breydel found that many citizens were fleeing to the country, the Clawards deeming it unsafe to remain in the city. They were led by Deconinck, who hoped to join forces with some nobles who were ready to support actively the cause of Count Guy of Flanders. At a council of war, Count Robert advised that they prepare as quickly as possible as large a force as they could, for the French king was gathering an army of seventy thousand men to subdue Flanders. He also brought word that his sister Philippa had been poisoned in prison.

Meanwhile, the Clawards left in Bruges were severely mistreated. On May 13, 1302, in an attempt to cow the population, the French governor and the Lilyards picked out eight men to be hanged. Only one of the eight was saved—the father of Jan Breydel, rescued by his son at the last minute. In immediate retaliation, the French killed all the Clawards they could find and pillaged their homes; among the victims were the mother and sister of Jan Breydel. Then the Clawards returned to the city in force and killed seven thousand Frenchmen and many Lilyards. Only a handful of the French escaped. When the city was restored to order, Lady Matilda and Adolf of Niewland returned to the latter’s home. Soon after, Lord Guy, the younger brother of Count Robert, arrived with a body of troops to help protect the city.

Philip the Fair, undaunted by the setback at Bruges, raised a large army for the invasion of Flanders. The Flemings, seeing that their land must be laid waste by the French or defended to the utmost, took an oath to stand together and gathered their forces to resist the French. Soon the two armies, each in excess of sixty thousand men, advanced to meet in battle. The Flemish took up a defensive position before the city of Courtrai. There, in the full view and hearing of all, Lady Matilda and Lord Guy, her uncle, invested Peter Deconinck and Jan Breydel with knighthood, as Count Robert had commanded. Meanwhile, the French army had camped near Lille. The French leader, Count Robert d’Artois, was so eager to do battle that he failed to reconnoiter the Flemish position. His vows of bloody revenge were so terrible that part of his force deserted, preferring to fight with the Flemings rather than dishonor themselves.

The French advanced from Lille to the attack. At first the advantage was on their side, but their failure to make a reconnaissance left a trap for their cavalry. Before the city of Courtrai was a large, deep marsh, into which wave after wave of the French horsemen sank, to be ridden over by their comrades who followed and to be decimated by weapons of the Flemish forces. Even so, for a time the battle seemed to go against the Flemings, until a knight in gold appeared. He was Count Robert, the Lion of Flanders, freed again from his prison for a time and hurrying to the aid of his people. Under his leadership the Flemings won the victory. After the battle Count Robert returned to his prison, knowing that the French would not dare kill him, lest hostages held by the Flemish army be killed in reprisal. Before he left, Count Robert promised that Lady Matilda should become the bride of Adolf of Niewland. The young knight had fought bravely in the battle. Badly wounded, he was recovering in the monastery in which Lady Matilda had taken refuge.

After the battle at Courtrai, called the Battle of the Golden Spurs, Flanders was safe; trade and commerce flourished again. The French still tried to subdue the Flemish people, but several such attempts ended in failure. Philip the Fair dishonored himself in one truce to write a treaty, but additional French defeats forced him finally to give up all hope of subduing the stubborn, independent Flemish. Old Count Guy of Flanders died while waiting for the treaty to be signed and thus was never released from his prison; but Count Robert, the Lion of Flanders, was set free after the signing of the treaty in 1305, and until his death seventeen years later, he ruled over his free people.

Critical Evaluation:

When the Kingdom of Belgium earned its nationhood in 1830, it was only after centuries of foreign oppression; but throughout that time, the inhabitants of the Low Countries had somehow managed, in spite of incredible outside pressures, to retain a sense of nationality. Nevertheless, the feeling of unity in the artistic sphere was precarious and in danger of extinction when Hendrik Conscience began his drive to bring the Flemish language to life throughout a national literature.

When he began, Conscience was working with a debased dialect, scorned by the French and Walloon and rejected by the French-speaking educated Fleming; it was the language of the peasant, incapable of expressing complex ideas or emotions or painting beautiful images, and barely sufficient for dealing with the basic needs of everyday life. By the time of his death in 1883, Conscience—through his one hundred books translated into all the major European languages—had transformed this uncouth dialect into a language beautiful and lyrical, strong and sensitive, flexible and adaptable to all the demands of sophisticated literature.

Conscience’s fiction falls into two main categories. The first, which includes his most popular novel, THE LION OF FLANDERS, is made up of stories in the historical romance tradition reminiscent of Sir Walter Scott. These novels are generally set in Belgium’s medieval period; they are filled with scenes of colorful pageantry and heroic, daring deeds and were intended by the author not only to demonstrate the beauties of the Flemish language but also to inspire pride in Flemish readers by dramatizing their illustrious heritage. Because Conscience’s historical novels have enjoyed the most popularity abroad, his other works have suffered some neglect; these are the novels detailing contemporary Flemish life and culture. In these stories, which have all the color, vividness, and rich texture of a seventeenth century Dutch painting, Conscience demonstrates his abilities as a first-rate realistic writer. His sympathy and affection for his subject, as well as his intimate knowledge of the simple and homely scenes he describes, give the stories a charm and glow all their own.


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