The Ghent magistrates beg Philip the Good for mercy after the Battle of Gavere. Miniature of about 1454 | Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Power & Resistance
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The Battle of Gavere

The Burgundians

On 23 July 1453 Ghent militias advanced on Gavere to attack the army of the Duke of Burgundy. When their own supply of gunpowder threatened to blow up, the men of Ghent scattered. Many fleeing soldiers jumped into the Scheldt and drowned, others were killed. The Burgundians defeated the Ghent troops and so were able to strengthen their position in the Low Countries.

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The towns in the county of Flanders had built up a lot of power. They enjoyed a great deal of freedom and could take a relatively independent attitude to their rulers. This was not to the liking of the ambitious Burgundian duke Philip the Good, who wanted to centralise power as far as possible on the Burgundian court. Concerned about the retention of their autonomy, the towns rebelled against the duke.

Of all the rebellious townspeople the Ghent tradespeople were the most persistent. In 1451 their intransigence led to open war with Philip the Good. The battle of Gavere was the culmination of that long struggle. Because of its defeat Ghent had to relinquish a large part of its traditional freedoms.


Chroniques de Hainaut, Brussels, Royal Library of Belgium, MS 9242, fol. 1r

This miniature by Rogier Van der Weyden shows a writer presenting a book to Philip the Good. The Burgundian dukes built a huge collection of books: the Library of Burgundy. Their library laid the foundation for the present Royal Library of Belgium.

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The Burgundians

The Burgundian dukes were in fact vassals of the French king, but in the late Middle Ages began to steer an independent course. A marriage between Philip the Bold of Burgundy and Margaret of Male, daughter of the count of Flanders, also gave them a firm base in the Low Countries. When the Flemish count died in 1384, Philip the Bold gained authority, via his wife, over the wealthy and highly urbanised Flanders.

Using a well-planned marriage policy, purchases and wars the Burgundians systematically expanded their territory. Philip the Good, grandson of Philip the Bold, particularly, acquired a considerable area. He subjected a large number of principalities to his authority and so achieved the political unification of a large part of the Low Countries. Only the Prince-Bishopric of Liège, with the county of Loon, remained beyond his grasp. In the 15th century the Burgundian empire grew into a new great power, squeezed between France and the German territories.

Philip the Good did not want to rule only in name over his territories, he wanted direct control. To achieve that aim, he needed an extensive court, judges and officials, and stable tax incomes to be able to pay all those people. Thus began a process of centralisation and state building which – despite repeated resistance from his subjects – gradually put an end to the autonomy and privileges of the towns of the Low Countries.

Focal points


Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

The Coudenberg Palace in Brussels. Painting by Jan Breughel the Younger, about 1627.


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The Burgundian Court

The Burgundian dukes took important political decisions in their own names, but they surrounded themselves with advisers and assistants. Together, the duke and his extensive entourage formed the Burgundian court.

That court spoke to the imagination. Since the Burgundian empire had no capital, the whole court was constantly on the move, from castle to country estate. Under Philip the Good his favourite bases included the Prinsenhof in Ghent and Coudenberg palace in Brussels. Great feasts and ceremonies, such as his marriage or the solemn sessions of the Order of the Golden Fleece, he organised mainly at his other ‘Prinsenhof’ in Bruges. Philip had founded the Order of the Golden Fleece to increase his prestige and to bind the highest nobility from the various areas to him.

The pomp and ceremony and the banquets soon became legendary. Behind that ‘Burgundian’ lifestyle was a political strategy. By making such a show of abundance the dukes hope to win over influential subjects. The Burgundians were excellent at propaganda. For example, they embraced the ideology of the crusades and were fond of depicting ‘the Turks’ as the enemies of the Christian world. Chivalric romances with Oriental motifs were very popular.

Graf Maria van Bourgondië.

Pensionado, Columbus Travel

Mary of Burgundy died in 1482, scarcely 25 years old, after a fall from her horse while hunting. Her grave and that of her father Charles the Bold are in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges.

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The Great Privilege

After the death of Philip the Good his son Charles the Bold continued his policy of centralisation. However, in the States-General, a new consultative body for the territories of the Low Countries, discontent grew.

When Charles the Bold was killed in battle in 1477, he was succeeded by his young and inexperienced daughter Mary of Burgundy. Many towns and territories in the Low Countries felt that the moment had now come to regain their political influence, since to arm herself against France the duchess needed the support of the States-General.

The States-General exploited the situation and forced Mary to sign the Great Privilege. This was a charter that limited ducal power and gave back to the territories the freedoms that Charles the Bold had taken from them. The towns also profited from the deal. For example, Ghent regained the privileges it had had to relinquish after the battle of Gavere. In exchange the States-General agreed to new taxes and swore allegiance to the duchess.

The agreements in the Great Privilege held good for only a few years. Still, it was an important precedent because, rather like a modern constitution, it imposed well-defined limits on the power of the ruler.

Filips de Goede.
Bruges, Musea Brugge, Groeningemuseum

Philip the Good united a large part of present-day Belgium and the Netherlands under his rule. For that reason, the humanist Justus Lipsius called him conditor Belgii or unifier of the Low Countries. Portrait of Philip the Good, after Rogier van der Weyden.

Banket van de Fazant.
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, SK-A-4212

During the Banquet of the Pheasant Philip the Good and his guests swore a solemn oath to undertake a crusade. The Burgundian dukes liked to see the Turks as the great enemy. In that way they tried to justify their own political power.


Val van Constantinopel.
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, f. fr. 2691, fol. 254v

Burgundian efforts to reconquer the Holy Land came to nothing. Quite the reverse: in 1453, the same year as the Battle of Gavere, the Osmans captured Constantinople, finally to be known as Istanbul. Miniature ascribed to Philippe de Mazerolles, court painter to Charles the Bold.

Karel de Stoute.
Nancy, Musée Lorrain

Charles the Bold is killed in battle at Nancy (1477). In the 19th century both Belgium and France regarded the Burgundian age as an important period in the development of their national consciousness. In paintings and books historians and artists in both countries situate ‘the roots of the unification of the nation’ in the Burgundian period. Charles Houry, The Death of Charles the Bold at Nancy, 1852.

Groot Privilege.
The Hague, National Archives

After the sudden death of her father Charles the Bold (5 January 1477), Mary of Burgundy was confronted with revolts in the towns and the claims of the French king. To win support for her recognition as the legitimate ruler she saw herself obliged to give way to the demands of the States-General and to acknowledge the rights of the regions. This she did in the Great Privilege (11 February 1477).

Portret van Karel de Stoute, toegeschreven aan kunstschilder Rogier van der Weyden.
Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

Portrait of Charles the Bold, attributed to Rogier Van der Weyden.

Rond het Bourgondische hof ontwikkelde zich een nieuwe elite van raadgevers en ambtenaren. Eén van hen was de Bruggeling Pieter Bladelin (1408-1472). Hij had een uitgebreid internationaal netwerk en was zodanig vermogend dat hij naast een stadspaleis (vandaag Hof Bladelin) ook een eigen stad en kasteel liet optrekken: Middelburg-in-Vlaanderen (nu deelgemeente van Maldegem). In het kasteel liet hij deze gepersonaliseerde vloertegels uit Valencia leggen met daarop zijn initialen en symbolen, op één tegeltype zelfs in verband met deze van de orde van het Gulden Vlies.
Private collection Paul Verstraete

A new elite of advisers and officials developed around the Burgundian court. One of these was Pieter Bladelin (1408-1472) from Brugge. He had an international network and was so rich that besides a town mansion (today Hof Bladelin) he had his own town and château built: Middelburg-in-Vlaanderen (now a sub-district of Maldegem). In the château he had these personalised floor tiles from Valencia laid, with his initials and symbols on them, on one type of tile even linked with the symbol of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Discover more on this topic

Bourgondische feesten
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Bron: VRT archief, De Mensen – 29 jan 2023

Coudenberg paleis
Het verhaal van Vlaanderen – Zwarte dood en gouden tijden

Bron: VRT archief, De Mensen – 29 jan 2023

Filips de Goede
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Graafschap Vlaanderen
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Maria van Bourgondië
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Bron: VRT archief, De Mensen – 29 jan 2023


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