Short history of the Royal and Princely Guild of St-George in Bruges.
According to old chronicles there were crossbowmen in Bruges by the beginning of the 14th century. With their captain, they reviewed the city militia on the Market Square as it set out to go to battle with the armies of the King of France in 1302. Standing on the defensive, they inflicted heavy losses on the charging knights, the crossbow’s sharp and heavy bolts being able to pierce the plates of steel worn over the chain mail .
The Flemish victory at Courtrai was heralded far and wide and, in recognition of their services, the crossbowmen were granted the privilege of using St-Peter’s Chapel in the Keersstraat to hold religious services.
As in other Flemish cities the protection of the inhabitants and the maintenance of law and order fell to the crossbowmen. Their training took place near the mills between the Kruis and Damme gates, near the site of the present-day guild house. Their weapons being both reliable and precise, the crossbowmen formed the city militia’s elite companies in time of war and revolt.
Pomp and Pageantry
In order to become a member one had to prove oneself a good crossbowman and swear allegiance to the guild’s statutes and regulations. In the 14th century the ceremony took place in St-Peter’s Chapel; later the guild had its own meeting room, chapel and shooting gallery in the Vlamingdam.
With membership exploding towards the end of the 14th century, the guild split into a “young” and an “old” court, each court having its own guild house. Every year there was a festive occasion called “the royal shooting”. The aim was the hitting and bringing down of the so-called “parrot” or “honour bird”. The shooting was preceded by Mass attended by all members in full dress, and followed by a sumptuous dinner.
Because of their countless services, the city magistrates and monarchs granted the crossbowmen all kinds of rights and privileges. They were ecempt from guard duty and from certain forms of taxation. On top of that, the “sire” or best marksman was entitled to some special privileges.
The Heyday of the crossbow
Whenever the interests of king or country were at stake, the crossbow companies were at hand. They saw action in every major battle fought in Northern France between 1302 and 1487. The 14th century was their real heyday. In 1346 the Bruges companions of St-George were in action against the army of Edward III at the Battle of Crécy during the Hundred Years’ War.
Ironically, it was Crécy which was to sound the death knell of the crossbow as an effective weapon; The English used a new weapon for the first time, be it meekly and tentatively: gunpowder. Eventually, archers and crossbowmen would be shot to pieces by guns while they stood waiting for the enemy to charge. At the battle of Crécy itself, however, the use of cannon was still ineffective. One of the main reasons for the French defeat was the use by the opponent of the longbow.
Measuring 6 to 8 feet, the longbow had a range of up to 300 yards. In skilled hands its frequency was up to 10 arrows a minute, whereas the crossbow’s was only two. Its three-foot arrow was supposed to hit the bull’s eye at 200 yards.
Its penetrating power was far less than that of the crossbow-it could not pierce the armour worn by the knight-the longbow’s fearful hail shattered and demoralised the French and their allies.
Crossbow Shooting Becomes Fashionable
Being counted out on the battle field as an effective fighting force, the crossbowmen were undaunted but gradually turned to more peaceful and enjoyable occupations. They started exchanging visits with other guilds. These visits developed into well-organised tournaments of regional, interprovincial or international nature. Prizes were not only awarded to the top shooters but also to the guilds that had covered the longest distance or were dressed in the most lavish and resplendent costumes. By and large, the Bruges guilds always got the best prizes for their stylish, long and colourful pageants.
Nothing ever parallelled the pomp and pageantry of the Burgundians era. The Bruges guilds took part in tournaments in places as far apart as Marlines (1404 ) and St-Omer in France (1427 ), in an age when travelling was both difficult and dangerous. On each successful return – they came back with the best prizes on account of their outstanding marksmanship – they were met by the bowmen or archers of the rival St- Sebastian’s guild and the ‘Rederijkers’(intellectuals engaged in the literary arts ). These would rise to the occasion and organise huge festivities. Wining and dining had become the order of the day. Shooting with the crossbow was to become so fashionable that every self-respecting city or town soon had its own guild.
The Guild Today
The Guild of St-George keeps all the old traditions alive. It is the oldest of the three remaining in the country and unique in that it is the only one where shooting is practised all year round.
In winter there is target shooting inside a gallery at a distance of 20 metres. A sharp bolt is shot horizontally with a so-called balance bow. In summer, unlike anything seen in the British Isles, open-air shooting is practised vertically with a normal crossbow. The aim is to hit and bring down feathered brass weights, called ‘birds’, from a rake on a 36-metre mast. This is done with blunt bolts. Overall membership stands at 70. An average of 30 members are actively engaged in the weekly (winter) or twice-weekly (summer) competitions.
Situated in beautiful surroundings, the guild house has a valuable collection of crossbows, archives and paintings.
The premises are open to the general public except on Wednesdays and Sundays. Trespassing is strictly prohibited when shooting is in progress. Falling bolts can cause serious injuries.
The crossbowmen themselves are advised to remain near or under the protective cover when shooting is in progress.