Frontispiece of De Leeuw van Vlaenderen, of de Slag der Gulden Sporen (The Lion of Flanders, or the Battle of the Golden Spurs, 1838). Designed by Gustaaf Wappers (1803-1874) | Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen. Letterenhuis

Borders, Language & Territory
Read aloud

The Lion of Flanders

Hendrik Conscience and the Flemish Movement

Why does the Flemish Community celebrate on 11 July, why does the Flemish anthem honour a proud lion and why does the same animal decorate the Flemish flag? It all dates back to the success of one book: De Leeuw van Vlaenderen (the Lion of Flanders) by Hendrik Conscience.

Read aloud

In 1838, from old chronicles and a good dose of fantasy Conscience concocted a novel about the tensions between France and the county of Flanders in the early 14th century. We make the acquaintance of Guy of Dampierre, the wise count, and his son Robert of Béthune, whose nickname is the ‘Lion of Flanders’. Equally unforgettable are Pieter de Coninck and Jan Breydel whom Conscience places at the head of the Bruges craft guilds. On 11 July 1302, side by side with the Lion of Flanders, these popular leaders defeat the French army. Thanks to the novel the bloody battle near Kortrijk is known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs.

Conscience regularly took liberties with the historical facts. He wanted not only to entertain his readers but also to impart a Flemish self-awareness. His aim succeeded: De Leeuw van Vlaenderen conquered many readers’ hearts and laid the basis for Flemish national symbolism.

Hendrik Conscienceplein.

Wikimedia Commons

Hendrik Conscience was honoured during his lifetime with a statue by Frans Joris (1851-1914) in the Antwerp square that was named after him. He died shortly after the inauguration in 1883.

Read aloud

Hendrik Conscience and the Flemish Movement

Hendrik Conscience, born in Antwerp, began his writing career in French. That was fairly logical: his father was an émigré Frenchman and in the newly-created Belgium French seemed destined to become the only official language. Nevertheless, Conscience switched to his mother’s language, Dutch, at the time called Nederduits or Vlaams. He had become convinced that his own mother tongue and that of the majority of Belgians deserved an official status and a literature of its own.

Other authors followed in the footsteps of Conscience. In this way in the 19th century literature was the engine of the Flemish movement. That movement appealed in the first instance to bilingual intellectuals from the lower bourgeoisie. It fought for the recognition of the Dutch language in public life and promoted a Flemish cultural identity. A great contribution to this Flemish cultural awareness was made by the liberal Willemsfonds (named after Jan Frans Willems) and the Catholic Davidsfonds (named after the Leuven professor and priest Jan-Baptist David). These organisations published books, founded libraries, encouraged language study and stimulated Flemish music and theatre.

Flamingants focused on language and culture, but were not blind to the great poverty and poor working conditions in Flanders. Like Liberals and Catholics, however, they proposed solutions that went no further than charity. The causes of social inequality, partly under the influence of the rise of socialism, found their way only later onto the political agenda.

Focal points

Bavo en Lieveken.

Roeselare, archief Klein Seminarie

At the Minor Seminary of Roeselare the Romantic experience exemplified by Conscience was passed on from teacher to pupil. In 1875 Albrecht Rodenbach (1856-1880) (top right), as a pupil in the ‘poesis’ class and inspired by the novel De Kerels van Vlaanderen (Men of Flanders), wrote his Lied der Vlaamsche zonen (Song of the Sons of Flanders). It became the battle song of the Catholic Flemish student movement. This is a photo of the ‘retorica’ class of 1875-1876, the so-called ‘wonder class’ taught by the priest and teacher Hugo Verriest (1840-1922) (centre).

Read aloud

Flanders, an ‘Imagined Community’

‘You, Fleming, who have read this book, consider […] what Flanders once was – what it now is – and still more what it will become if you forget the sacred examples of your Forefathers!’ In the final sentence of De Leeuw van Vlaenderen Conscience appoints his Flemish readers as the heirs of the medieval heroes from his   novel. In the preface it had already been clear that the writer was addressing all Dutch-speaking Belgians (and hence not only to the inhabitants of the old county of Flanders). In this way literary imagination contributed to the credibility of a separate Flemish people with an illustrious past. More than that, partly through the gripping tales by Conscience many Dutch-speaking Belgians gradually began feeling Flemish.

Conscience campaigned for the rights of Dutch in the administration, the judiciary and education. The bilingualism of Belgium gave the whole country its unique quality. As with flamingants in the 19th century, with Conscience too pro-Flemish sentiments and Belgian patriotism went hand in hand. In 1881 the writer quoted in agreement the verse of Antoine Clesse: ‘Flamands, Wallons ,ce ne sont là que des prénoms, Belge est notre nom de famille.’ (Flemings, Walloons, those are only first names, Belgian is our family name.) When he died two years later, Hendrik Conscience was given a state funeral and an impressive monumental grave.

Bavo leert Lieveken lezen.

Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis, D89/I, Map I

In the novel Bavo en Lieveken (1865) Hendrik Conscience promoted education for boys and girls. The illustrator Edward Dujardin (1817-1889) depicted how the Ghent working man’s son Bavo teaches Lieveken, the girl next door, to read.




Read aloud


Hendrik Conscience is still known as ‘the man who taught his people to read’, and he wrote more than seventy books. Besides De Leeuw van Vlaenderen, other popular books included Baes Gansendonck (The village innkeeper), De Loteling (The conscript), De Boerenkryg (Veva, or the war of the peasants), Bavo en Lieveken and De Kerels van Vlaanderen.

Halfway through the 19th century, however, well over half of Belgians were illiterate. Most children did not receive proper primary education. The northern provinces were worst off. However, people who could not read came into contact with stories in other ways. Books were read aloud and stories retold, or their content was spread via theatrical adaptations and songs. The Ghent theatre-maker Hippoliet van Peene not only distilled popular drama from Conscience’s work, but in 1847 conceived the text of ‘De Vlaamse Leeuw’, a song that was set to music by Karel Miry.

Compulsory education – to the age of 14 – came only in 1914. Yet in the 19th century there were already initiatives to encourage literacy. A few progressive industrialists set up schools for their employees. Equally important were the people’s libraries that lent out books at cheap rates, and sometimes even for free. Far and away the most popular author in these libraries was Hendrik Conscience. So it is not totally unjust that we should commemorate him as the man who taught his people to read.

Portret Hendrik Conscience.
Antwerp, FelixArchief

Louis Tuerlinckx, portrait of Hendrik Conscience, engraving around 1850.

Jean Baptist David.
Elly Wijnen

The Leuven professor and priest Jan-Baptist David (1801-1866) devoted himself to furthering the use of a uniform, polished Dutch in schoolbooks. However, he had a problem with the oeuvre of Conscience, which he regarded as not Catholic enough. In 1875, after David’s death, the Catholic cultural association the Davidsfonds was set up. David was given a statue in his birthplace of Lier.

Schilderij De Guldensporenslag.
Stedelijke Musea Kortrijk, Wikimedia Commons

In 1836 Hendrik Conscience saw the painting of The Battle of the Golden Spurs by Nicaise de Keyser (1813-1887). The work inspired him to write on a theme that was popular with both Dutch-speaking and French-speaking Belgians. The monumental original (6 x 5 m) was destroyed during the Second World War.

Praalgraf Hendrik Conscience.
Wikimedia Commons

Monumental grave of Hendrik Conscience in the Schoonselhof in Antwerp Hoboken.

Vlag Graafschap Vlaanderen 14de eeuw
Wikimedia Commons

The current flag of the Flemish Community resembles the old flag of the county of Flanders (shown here). Very similar also is the flag of the département du Nord in France, to which French Flanders today belongs.

Vlag pagus.
Wikimedia Commons

Since 1973 the red-tongued and red-clawed lion has been the official flag of the Flemish Region and the Flemish Community.

Still uit De leeuw van Vlaanderen van scenarist en regisseur Hugo Claus, met Jan Decleir als Jan Breydel en Julien Schoenaerts als Pieter de Coninck. De film uit 1984 was de duurste Nederlandstalige productie tot dan, maar werd geen succes, noch in de bioscoop, noch op de televisie, waar hij in vier afleveringen werd vertoond.
Brussels, VRT

Still from the film De leeuw van Vlaanderen by screenwriter and director Hugo Claus, with Jan Decleir as Jan Breydel and Julien Schoenaerts as Pieter de Coninck. The film (1984) was the most expensive Dutch-language production up to then, but was not a success, either in the cinema, or on television, where it was shown in four episodes.

Discover more on this topic


Absillis Kevin
Het slechte geweten van Vlaanderen. Nationalisme, racisme en kolonialisme in de tijd van Hendrik Conscience

Davidsfonds Uitgeverij, 2022. 

De Maesschalck Edward & Vints Luc
Davidsfonds. 1875-2000

Davidsfonds, 2000. 

Janssens Jeroen
De Belgische natie viert: de Belgische nationale feesten, 1830-1914

Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2001. 

Morelli Anne (red.)
De grote mythen uit de geschiedenis van België, Vlaanderen en Wallonië

EPO, 1996. 

Seberechts Frank
Onvoltooid Vlaanderen. Van taalstrijd tot natievorming

Uitgeverij Vrijdag, 2017.

Vanhecke Johan
Voor moedertaal en vaderland. Hendrik Conscience biografie

Vrijdag, 2021. 

Vanlandschoot Romain
Albrecht Rodenbach: biografie

Lannoo, 2002. 

Van den Berg Willem & Couttenier Piet
Alles is taal geworden. Geschiedenis van de Nederlandse literatuur 1800-1900

Bert Bakker, 2016. 

Van Velthoven Harry & Tyssens Jeffrey
Vlaamsch van taal, van kunst en zin. 150 jaar Willemsfonds

Willemsfonds en Liberaal Archief, 2001. 

Willems Gertjan & De Wever Bruno
De verbeelding van de leeuw. Een geschiedenis van media en natievorming in Vlaanderen

Peristyle, 2020. 

Wils Lode
Van de Belgische naar de Vlaamse natie: een geschiedenis van de Vlaamse beweging

Acco, 2010. 


Biddeloo Karel
De Rode Ridder – De Leeuw van Vlaanderen

Standaard Uitgeverij, 1984. (stripverhaal) 

Conscience Hendrik & Vanhoutte Edward (red.)
Hendrik Conscience, De Leeuw van Vlaenderen of de Slag der Gulden Sporen

Lannoo, 2002. 

Gezelle Guido & Billiet Daniel
Een puit met hete pootjes: gedichten van Guido Gezelle voor kinderen van alle leeftijden

Bakermat, 1993. (9+) 

Nu kijken

De Grootste Belg

Over Hendrik Conscience (2005)

Fans of Flanders
Over Conscience en De Leeuw van Vlaanderen

Deel 1

Fans of Flanders
Over Conscience en De Leeuw van Vlaanderen

Deel 2

Fans of Flanders
Over Conscience en De Leeuw van Vlaanderen

Deel 3

Bijkomend kijk/luister materiaal

De Leeuw van Vlaanderen