Frankish travelogue – Frisia, untamed

Frisia is the area that is today called Holland, part of the Netherlands, but north of the Rhine River. It is flat, marshy, and at the sea land and water blur together, as befits an area also known as the Low Countries. Frisia is notably mentioned in Beowulf, when a bard sings of Finn, the Frisian king, and his battle with the Danes at Finnsburg.1.Heaney, trans., Beowulf, lines 1070-1157.

In the 7th century Frisia was a trading center, particularly the town of Duurstede, south of Utrecht. Duurstede was the port where gathered and traded the merchants of Paris, London, Cologne, and up towards the Danes. Frisian coins have been found near London, and as far south as Lake Constance. As Frankish trading patterns grew the Frisians became a people of interest.2.Geary, Before France and Germany, p.177-78. Not all of the trade was of the most beneficent kind. In 679 Imma, a thegn of the Mercian king, was captured after a battle by another Englishman, who later “sold him to a Frisian in London.”3.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk.4, ch.22, p.242.

As I have noted before, religion often seems to follow trade, and some of the first missionaries began to show up in Frisia late in the 7th century. But Frisian resistance to the spiritual appeals of their neighbors across the sea to the west were a precursor of what the Saxons would do as well.

St. Egbert was the first of the Irish-educated English to travel to Frisia to “attempt to snatch some of them from Satan.” Egbert was unsuccessful, but he sent St. Wigbert, who “took ship and arrived in Frisia, where he preached the word of life constantly for two years to the people and their king Radbod; but his great efforts produced no results among his barbaric hearers.”4.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk.5, ch.10, p.278. Change was coming, but from the sword, not the pen.

To the south the Frisians faced a more immediate foe than a few English missionaries. Pippin of Herstal had united the Frankish lands under his leadership. As Mayor of the Palace for Neustria, Burgundy, and Austrasia, he was technically under the command of the Merovingian kings, but it was Pippin who ran the realm. In 689 he decided to extend his domain to the north, and joined battle with the Frisians at the trading outpost of Duurstede.

Pippin ordered the whole army of the Franks to unite. With plans for the well-being of the realm having been drawn up, he went out to oppose the pride of Radbod, leader of the Frisians, who was so enveloped by a fog of stupidity that he presumed to prepare for battle against the unconquerable leader Pippin. Defeated, however, and put to flight in [the battle], he lost the greater part of his army. Led by a belated repentance, he sent legates to Pippin, sued for peace, and place himself along with those whom he ruled under his authority. With hostages also being given, he becomes a tributary of Pippin.5.Annals of Metz, Late Merovingian France, p.359.

This battle is mentioned, albeit with only a couple of sentences, in the Continuations of Fredegar. For reasons that are not clear to me, the Annalist of Metz describes the battle a second time.

[T]he leader Pippin led an army against the Frisians and Radbod, their savage and pagan leader, who had often defied the orders of the leader Pippin and was troubling the borderlands of his territory with frequent invasions. Therefore, with this army assembled, he pitched camp near the stronghold called Durstede. And Radbod went out against him with a strong and haughty band, and, drawing up their lines against each other, they joined in a mighty battle where the Frisians were struck down in a great defeat. Since their leader Radbod fled, Pippin emerged the victor. Having taken many spoils, the victor returned to his own lands.6.Annals of Metz, Late Merovingian France, p.360. The annalist, writing more than one hundred years after the fact, probably had several descriptions to choose from, and thought they described more than one event.

With southwest Frisia under Frankish control, the missionaries saw more success. The unsuccessful Egbert, now back in England, sent one Willibrord over the water. Willibrord wanted to preach “in the northern regions of the world where the harvest was great but the laborers few.”7.Soldiers of Christ, Life of Willibrord, ch.5, p.195. Willibrord first paid his respects to Pippin, who commended his efforts and sent him into the spiritual fray, as well as giving him Utrecht, an old Roman fortress, as a base for his efforts. Before his trials began before the pagans, however, Willibrord continued south to visit the Pope Sergius in Rome. “He also hoped to obtain from him relics of the blessed Apostles and martyrs of Christ, so that when he had destroyed the idols and built churches among the people to whom he preached, he might have the relics of the saints ready to put in them.”8.Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk.5, ch.11, p.283.

Thus equipped, Willibrord preached among “the Frisian people, among whom the fort was located, and Radbod, their king, still defiled themselves by pagan practices.” But Frisia was a tough nut to crack. “[T]hough the Frisian king received the man of God in a kind and humble spirit, his heart was hardened against the Word of Life. So when the man of God saw that his efforts were of no avail he turned his missionary work toward the fierce tribes of the Danes.” There is an excellent story from around this time about Willibrord and Radbod. The king was taking biblical instruction from the priest, when he asked if his ancestors were in heaven or hell. Willibrord was forced to explain that, being pagan, they were no doubt suffering the tortures of the damned, but that he, Radbod, was sure to go to heaven. At that point Radbod declined further instruction, stating that he could not face the afterlife without his ancestors, and would join them in hell.9.Geary, Before France and Germany, p.215.

Eventually Willibrord returned, was made bishop of Frisia, and lived in Utrecht until his death in 739. Unfortunately for Radbod, he may have joined his ancestors, but his grandchildren probably didn’t.

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Heaney, trans., Beowulf, lines 1070-1157.
2. Geary, Before France and Germany, p.177-78.
3. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk.4, ch.22, p.242.
4. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk.5, ch.10, p.278.
5. Annals of Metz, Late Merovingian France, p.359.
6. Annals of Metz, Late Merovingian France, p.360. The annalist, writing more than one hundred years after the fact, probably had several descriptions to choose from, and thought they described more than one event.
7. Soldiers of Christ, Life of Willibrord, ch.5, p.195.
8. Bede, Ecclesiastical History, bk.5, ch.11, p.283.
9. Geary, Before France and Germany, p.215.

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