Frankish travelogue – Frisia, under the Lamb

While spiritual battles raged in Frisia, secular affairs were no less intense. King Radbod and Pippin came to some kind of a peace agreement, and Radbod’s daughter Theudesinda married Pippin’s son Grimoald in 711. The new in-laws, however, did not make peace in their hearts. When Pippin fell deathly ill early in 714, “his son Grimoald hastened to visit him and, as he proceeded to prayer in the basilica of St Lambert the Martyr, and as he persisted a long while lying face down in his prayer, he was run through with a sword by a most evil man named Rantgar and he died.”1.Late Merovingian France, Annals of Metz, p.364. Other sources tell us that Rantgar was a Frisian.

Upon Pippin’s death later that year civil war broke out in Francia, and the Neustrian nobility made common cause with Radbod against Pippin’s Austrasian family. Radbod battled and defeated Pippin’s son Charles Martel, but that was Charles’ last defeat in the civil war (and, for that matter, in his life), and Radbod’s plan to recover his lost territory was destroyed. After that most of Frisia was considered a province or county of Francia, but it cannot be said that everything was peaceful.

In 754 the great missionary St. Boniface was murdered while preaching in Frisia. Boniface was another English monk who first came to the continent to preach in 716, and even stayed with Willibrord in Utrecht. But with the civil war raging Boniface retreated to England. He later returned to the continent and spent most of his life among the Saxons, but at the end, close to age 75, he again entered Frisia. He found some success, but one day he and his party were attacked and killed by robbers. His vita reports that he held up a gospel book against the swords and axes of the Frisians, and so truly did he “take up the shield of faith.”2.Ephesians 6:16.

While the primary sources are pretty quiet on Frisia through the middle of the century, evidently pacification and assimilation proceeded apace. It is true that in 784, “[t]he Saxons rebelled again as usual and some Frisians along with them.”3.Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals, p.61. But just five years later the tone had changed completely. In 789 Charlemagne led an assault “into the land of the Slavs who are called Wilzi.” In the attack, “[b]oth Franks and Saxons were with him in this army. In addition, the Frisians joined him by ship, on the River Havel, along with some Franks.”

Alcuin wrote to a friend in 790, reporting that, “[f]or the Old Saxons and all the peoples of the Frisians have been converted to the faith of Christ under pressure from king Charles, who has won some over by rewards, others by threats.”4.King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, Letters, p.308. This spiritual connection was matched by actual blood commitments. In 791 Charlemagne decided to attack the Avars, “[a]fter deliberating with Franks, Saxons, and Frisians they decided on a campaign… The king marched on the south bank of the Danube, the Saxons with some Franks and most of the Frisians on the north bank…”5.Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals, p.69. In 793 part of Charlemagne’s army was ambushed on the road through Frisia, but not by Frisians.

Apparently there was a last rebellion in 792, but by 797 those fires had been quenched. After destroying a Saxon stronghold, “once he had taken either hostages or as much as he wanted from them [the Saxons], and likewise from the Frisians, king Charles went back to Francia.”6.King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, Lorsch Annals, 797, p.142. The Frisian assimilation into Christendom was so far advanced by the end of the century that there was a Frisian schola in Rome, a sort of a church and hospice for Frisian pilgrims.7.Liber Pontificalis, 98, Leo III, ch.19, p.189.

Unfortunately for Charlemagne, all the pacification of one peoples meant was that the next set of pagans was now on his border. Charlemagne may have foreseen the troubles to come when he issued a capitulary in 806 that specifically called on the Frisian “counts, vassals of ours who are seen to hold benefices and horsemen are one and all to come to our assembly, properly equipped. But as for the rest, the poorer men, let six equip a seventh and in that manner let them come to the announced assembly, properly equipped for a campaign.”8.King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, capitulary 20, ch.3, 806, p.257.

The Danes, whom we know as the Vikings, had started raiding along the northern coast. Charlemagne prepared a land campaign against this newest adversary, the much feared northmen and their king Godobrid. Charlemagne built a fortress on the far side of the Elbe, at the base of the Jutland peninsula. Perhaps Charles saw too much of himself in this new foe, and did not see him for what he truly was, a seafarer.

[W]hile the emperor was still at Aachen, considering an expedition against King Godofrid, he received the news that a fleet of two hundred ships from Denmark had landed in Frisia, that all the islands off the coast of Frisia had been ravaged, that the army had already landed and fought three battles against the Frisians, that the victorious Danes had inflicted a tribute on the vanquished, that already one hundred pounds of silver had been paid as tribute by the Frisians, and that King Godofrid was at home.9.Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals, 810, p.91.

While Charles was trying to organize a response, “It was reported that the fleet which had ravaged Frisia had returned home and King Godofrid had been murdered by one of his retainers.”10.Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals, 811, p.92. Hmmm, some problems solve themselves. For Frisia, there would continue to be problems with Vikings in the decades to come, but they were firmly in the bosom of the Carolingian Empire.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Late Merovingian France, Annals of Metz, p.364.
2. Ephesians 6:16.
3. Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals, p.61.
4. King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, Letters, p.308.
5. Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals, p.69.
6. King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, Lorsch Annals, 797, p.142.
7. Liber Pontificalis, 98, Leo III, ch.19, p.189.
8. King, Charlemagne: Translated Sources, capitulary 20, ch.3, 806, p.257.
9. Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals, 810, p.91.
10. Carolingian Chronicles, Royal Frankish Annals, 811, p.92.

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