The 600 Spartans of Liège (and why it’s nonsense)

1914. King Albert I and the Belgian government are desperately trying to preserve Belgium’s neutrality as Gavrilo Princip’s trigger-happy finger has plunged Europe into war. The German army demanded passage through Belgium to attack France. Belgium refused, knowing that the violation of Belgium’s neutrality by the Germans would draw the United Kingdom into the war.

The German army invaded Belgium nevertheless. The Belgian King Albert I tried to raise the spirit of the Belgian population for the coming battle by invoking heroic examples of resistance against foreign invaders : ‘Flemings, remember the Battle of the Golden Spurs. Walloons, remember the 600 Franchimontois!’ But who were these Franchimontois? (I have written about the Battle of the Golden Spurs here.) And were they well-chosen heroes for Belgium?

Rewind to 1467. Duke Philip the Good had inherited Flanders, but through diplomacy, inheritances and conquests added Brabant, Limburg, Hainaut, Holland, Zeeland and Luxemburg to the Burgundian realm. The Low Countries are united in the person of the Duke of Burgundy, who developed the first central institutions, such as the States-General, the predecessor of the Parliaments of the Benelux countries.

As the darkness of senility started to obscure the mind of Duke Philip the Good, his son Charles took over the reins. He had been raised on the stories of Alexander the Great and dreamt of conquering a kingdom. Behind the lands so carefully amassed by his ancestors, Charles saw the vision of the Middle Empire, Lotharingia, the empire that had once divided Europe from North to South and separated France and Germany. This specter of Lotharingia would haunt Charles’ reign.

Charles was a very different man than his father. His atavistic eagerness to pick up the sword rather than the diplomatic tricks that bore his father so much fruit was reminiscent of his grandfather John the Fearless. Already during his first months at the helm, Charles took audacious risks during a battle and earned his nickname Le Téméraire. In English, this is normally rendered as Charles the Bold, but a more accurate translation would be ‘Charles the Rash’ or ‘Charles the Reckless’.

Charles the Bold by Rogier Van Der Weyden

While his father indulged in all of the pleasures the world had to offer — hordes of women, magnificent feasts, the crude humour collected in the Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles — Charles was a pious, chaste control freak, all work and no play. Disputes with his father had left a bitterness in his character; he seemed to live in a perpetual state of dissatisfaction. ‘I prefer that you hate me rather than scorn me’, he once told Flemish representatives.

Charles’ father had been responsible for much bloodshed during his career, but he had often foregone plundering and looting. This strategic clemency was unknown to Charles. While his father was still alive, he bombarded and burnt down the city of Dinant. 800 citizens were drowned in the Meuse. This was payback because Dinant had spread the rumour that Charles had been conceived out of wedlock.

The new Duke was a vindictive, bitter man, possessed with megalomaniac dreams of conquest. He envisioned himself as a new Alexander, but in truth, he was more of a Nero.

Such a man expected only one thing from his subjects: obedience. Charles foreshadowed the absolutist monarchs of the next centuries. He centralised politics and policies, creating a permanent High Court and a Court of Auditors in Mechelen, which superseded all regional institutions. During Charles’ reign, taxes tripled. The exponential growth of the Duke’s administration was partly to blame for this, but Charles’ endless military campaigns truly drained the treasury. Charles distrusted the city militias which had previously filled the Burgundian ranks and created a standing army, consisting of paid mercenaries.

The Burgundians also tried to get a tighter grip on Liège. Charles’ father had bribed his way to the appointment of a family member as Prince-Bishop. During the first year of Charles’ reign, the citizens of Liège rebelled. Charles took the French King in tow and marched towards Liège. The militias of Liège were routed in a battle and the town lay unprotected, anxiously awaiting the Duke’s wrath. The city had ‘neither gates, nor walls or ditches, and not even a single piece of artillery’.

A 600-men strong division from Franchimont — a small margraviate — decided on an ultimate attempt to save the city. During a nightly raid they attempted to intrude into the Burgundian camp and kidnap the Duke and the King. Quietly, they scaled a steep hill towards the top of the hill, where the Burgundian camp was set up. Today, you can follow their presumptive route on the Bueren stairs, named after their leader.

The Bueren Steps in Liège, overlooking the Meuse (CC: Willy Verhulst https://www.flickr.com/photos/84575872@N07/8345903994/)

Silently, they eliminated the guards. Creeping into the camp, they made the crucial error of not heading straight for the Duke’s lodgings, killing unarmed men on the way. The alarm was raised and the desperate attempt of the 600 Franchimontois to save Liège was thwarted. The 600 were either killed or captured.

Centuries later, the tale of the 600 Franchimontois was mobilised to stimulate the nationalistic feelings of the Walloons and the Belgians. When the German army invaded Belgium at the start of World War I, the Belgian King Albert I tried to raise the Belgians’ spirit for the coming battle: ‘Flemings, remember the Battle of the Golden Spurs. Walloons, remember the 600 Franchimontois!’

Does this make sense (beside the fact that the Battle of the Golden Spurs was fought against France, Belgium’s ally)? Albert I portrayed the Franchimontois as the proto-Belgian equivalent of Leonidas’ Hundred Spartans who fought the barbarian Persians at Thermopylae.

The first thing to consider is the status of Dukes of Burgundy. Were they foreign aggressors, the late-medieval equivalent of the Kaiser’s troops pooring into Belgium? For the Liegeois, they certainly were. But from the point of view of Belgium, this makes no sense. King Albert forgot that his kingdom would not have existed without the marriage diplomacy and the bloodshed of the Burgundians. If you eliminate the Burgundian Dukes from history, Belgium probably would never have existed. It’s no coincidence that the royal palace now stands where the Burgundian palace stood, in the capital they chose.

Seconly, Albert I forgot that the Franchimontois fought for Liège, and Liège alone. The Franchimontois were not proto-Belgians. They were regionalists, fighting to preserve their independence from a centralizing power. They were fighting — in an terribly anachronistic way — not to be part of the future state of Belgium.

Duke Charles wasn’t bothered by what future rulers would think about the episode and the day after the raid, Liège was taken. While the Duke contemplated what to do with the eternally rebellious city, the French King gave him some advice. ‘Outside of my father’s bedroom window’, he recounted, ‘there was a tree where crows always nested and disturbed my father’s sleep with their noise. Twice he had their nest removed, but each time, the crows returned the next year. Finally, my father had the tree chopped down and after that, he slept undisturbed’[i].

Charles took note of the moral of the story. Liège was sacked and burnt down, many citizens were tied together in thrown into the Meuse river to drown. For years, he did not allow the city to be rebuilt. The survivors had to live in the woods, because other cities were afraid to offer them asylum. When Charles finally allowed the city to be reconstructed, he offered a golden statuette of himself to the cathedral. Charles is kneeling, and holds a relic of Saint Lambert - the symbol of the city - in his hands. Behind him stands Saint George, crushing a serpent with his foot. The message was clear. I am the God-ordained ruler; and I will crush those who dare disobey me.

[i] Marchandise, A. ;, Vrancken-Pirson, I., and Kupper J.L. ‘La destruction de la ville de Liège (1468) et sa reconstruction’, in : Destruction et reconstruction de villes, du moyen âge à nos jours, 1996.

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