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 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...
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