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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea. The era of the Crusades

Capture of Damieta, Egypt

When it comes to de-radicalization of foreign terrorist fighters, Frisians (in this context the modern regions of Ostfriesland and Land Wursten in Germany, and the provinces of Groningen and Friesland in the Netherlands) do not have a good track record, and not much expertise to offer either. The only thing they can contribute to today's challenges of combating terrorism is to illustrate its destabilizing and destructive effects in Frisia in the High Middle Ages. We go back in time, to the era of the crusades.

1. Fighters off to foreign lands

A novum was created by the Roman Church at the end of the eleventh century: the Holy War. Not just your average regular war, but a holy one. A war to conquer the Holy Land. Creating the concept, frame or truth -whatever you prefer- of a bellum iustum 'legitimate war'. It was also a refined strategy of propaganda with the purpose of mobilizing knights and soldiers, and generating money to finance the costly endeavor a war simply is. Albeit being blessed, a holy war remains pricey. The whole thing meant also a balance had to be found between the pacifist gospel on the one hand, and the need felt to defend Christianity with arms and violence on the other hand. No, not actually turning your other cheek (Matthew 5: 38-40). Crusades, therefore, are an example of complex planning and timing, communications and propaganda, of generating financial and human resources, etc. To quote Tyerman (2015):

[medieval] Reason made religious war possible, a conclusion that might give anyone pause in the twenty-first century

Deus vult 'God wills it'. Pope Urban II‘s successive call for battle and killing in the year 1095 against the Turks and the Arabs, and to conquer the holy city Jerusalem, had not been in vain. Crusade tax collectors, preachers and legates were send all over the lands to preach hate about Muslims, and to get as many volunteers to take the Cross as possible. Speaking less of the Commandment Thou shalt not kill, and more of thou shalt kill. Back then, no entry visas were denied to these hate-preachers, to these Peter the Hermits. They travelled freely throughout Europe.

Pope Urban II's speech at Clermont to reclaim Jerusalem, 1095

The transformation of monastic orders of hospice into military orders, supported the crusades. The main orders were the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (commonly Order of the Knights Templar), the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem (commonly Teutonic Order), and the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (commonly Knights Hospitaller). The Teutonic Order and the Knights Hospitaller had a strong presence in Frisia as well, although their houses and monasteries were mainly inhabited by slay-sisters. No knights, therefore, since in Frisia no knighthood had developed anyway in the Middle Ages.


Knights Templar - It all did not end very well for the Order of the Knights Templar. Despite their sacrifices for Rome, it was King Philip the Fair of France, with consent of Pope Clement V, who accused the Knights Templar of heresy on Friday October 13, 1307. French rulers always had a way with spending money. Confiscating the properties of the Templar helped to supplement the king's empty treasury. The Order was dissolved, many were tortured, killed and burned at the stake by the Inquisition. A big thank you for all their efforts during the crusades.

fresco from San Bevignate of the Knights Templar at the Battle of Nablus (1242)

The revenues generated from arable land and other assets in Frisia, of the houses and monasteries of especially the Teutonic Order and of the Knights Hospitaller, were taxed by their grand masters to finance the crusades. For example, in the present-day province of Groningen, the region of Ommelanden, prosperous cloisters existed, like the one at the village of Warffum. In the High Middle Ages, we have a clear picture of this cloister. Its inhabitants were sixty nuns who were even led by a female prior. This house possessed ca. 2,250 hectares of both arable and grassland. During the crusades, the revenues of their lands were taxed to contribute to the wars.

Not only money was needed, also men. Cannon fodder, we would call them today. The concept of a holy war worked very well with the young men of Frisia. The Roman Church even spoke of the "Frisones et Teutonici" marking the specific contribution of the Frisians within the Germanic peoples. Again, meaning the Frisians from the present-day provinces of Friesland and Groningen, and of the regions of Ostfriesland and Land Wursten.

The Crusades

During the First Crusade, from 1096 to 1099, no kings were involved on the battlefields, and therefore there was no evident leadership. In total, there were four different armies. One of these armies came from Northern France. One of the leaders of this army was Count Robert II of Flanders, nicknamed Robert of Jerusalem. Robert II eventually controlled a force of circa eight hundred knights and a few thousand foot soldiers. Among them were many Flemish and Frisian bowmen (De Maesschalck 2012). Count Robert II and his men fought in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and together with the army of Godfrey of Bouillon, they conquered the sacred city of Jerusalem, the highest goal of the Crusade. This is also how Robert II earned his illustrious nickname. Frisians also participated in the Second Crusade, from 1145 to 1149. It was Frisians, under the command of Popte Ulvinga (see further below), who led the way to take the city of Lisbon,

the Siege of Jerusalem by the armies of Robert II of Flanders and Godfrey of Bouillon in 1099

Although they participated in the first two crusades already, with the Third Crusade the pope's call for battle got the full intended effect among the Frisians. Many Frisian men took the Cross. In modern terminology, many radicalized and became a foreign fighter. During the Third Crusade, from 1189 to 1192, Landgrave Louis III of Thuringia gave the war horse of a defeated Saracen emir to a strong and brave Frisian leader (Savelkouls 2016). Hence, testifying of the (noticeable) participation of Frisians during this crusade too. And, of course, Frisians fought in the Battle of Damietta in Egypt, during the Fifth Crusade from 1217 to 1221.

From 1097 until 1270, they fought in no less than seven crusades. Sometimes in Frisian maritime fleets of fifty or eighty so-called cog ships. Crusaders cruising the Mediterranean, but not on a holiday. They attacked, conquered, burned and sacked cities like Acre, Alcácer do Sal (Lisbon), Alvor, Antakya, Cadiz, Faro, Rota, Santiago, Silves and El Bahira in Tunisia. Sparing in many cities no mosque and no Muslim's life, not even those of civilians. Raiding the coast of the al-Andalus 'Andalucia' was a regular part of the itinerary when sailing to the Holy Land from the north, and in which the Frisian and Rhenish fleet played a big part too. These raids fitted within the greater scheme of the Iberian Reconquista.

Concerning Tunisia, they were Frisians from the regions Ommelanden and Ostfriesland who assisted King Louis IX during the Eighth Crusade in the year 1270. The Battle of El Bahira in modern Tunisia in 1270, as described in the Cronica Floridi Horti, also gives a unique glimpse of how Frisian crusaders operated.

When they arrived with their ships from the island of Sardinia, the Frisians immediately wanted to confront the Saracen Army. This because Frisians by nature possessed not much patience. The crusade command barely was able to control the belligerent Frisian chapter. After the crusade army had taken its positions, the commander approached the Frisians like a hen approaches her chicks. He pleaded not to charge recklessly in front of the cavalry at the enemy, but to attack at the same time. This succeeded, and this is how the Frisians achieved a great victory. Next would be the attack on the strong city of Tunis. But here the crusade command hesitated, seeing the impressive fortifications. Frisians did not want to wait and waist their time to an unrealistic mission, and left with their cog ships for the Holy Land to fight. Note that the Frisians were not tied to any authority and thus free to chose where the wanted to fight.

Especially the participation and deeds of the Frisians in the Fifth Crusade is quite well documented in contemporary texts. These are primarily the De itenere frisonum, part of the Chronicle of the monastery of Bloemhof 'Floridi Horti' at the village of Wittewierum in Frisia, the Gesta crucigerorum rhenanorum, and the Chronicle of the Conquest of Damietta by Oliver of Paderborn. Oliver was a German cleric, later bishop of Paderborn, and he was relevant in recruiting fighters from the various Frisian lands. Oliver probably did not travel via sea with the Frisian and Rhenish fleet to the Holy Land, but made the journey overland instead. An impressive Frisian fleet of eighty cog ships departed in the year 1217 from the mouth of the River Lauwers, where today's village of Zoutkamp in the modern province of Groningen is located.

Half a century later, in the year 1269, another impressive fleet departed from Frisia. This time a fleet of fifty ships, departing from the island of Borkum in the modern region of Ostfriesland (Jansen & Janse 1991).

medieval kogge or cog ship
medieval cog ship or kogge

Converted to Christianity only relatively recent, the opportunity to join an army and to fight again apparently was a big pull for the young men of Frisia. Just as they had done before when volunteering the ranks of the Roman Imperial Army (read our post Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army for this piece of violent history) to fight the Picts on the British islands. Later again, joining the fleets and war bands of their northern cousins the Viking (read our post Foreign Fighters returning from Viking war bands and be filled with horror) causing havoc and tears to many coasts of western Europe. Or, lastly, manning the English fleet of King Alfred the Great to fight the very same Vikings (read our post They want you as a new recruit).

The Church knew exactly how to press the right buttons and spoke about "the honour of Christ that had been affected by the Saracens, i.e. Muslims from northern Africa, and the Mamluks." Or, in the words of Pope Innocent III (1161-1216), "perfidious Saracens." Honour was a very big thing, especially for the Frisians. A people still living in one of the last official feud societies of Europe. Of course, the full indulgences and booty promised by the Church, contributed to their motivation too.

During the crusades, the Frisians were known for their impatience and eagerness to fight and kill. In the year 1214 a contemporary wrote:

Frisians would be ashamed if they would flee from the Saracens and therefore their only option was to kill or to be killed.

Stories have been passed on about Frisians leaving the battlefield to fight elsewhere when the crusade command stalled the attack too long. Like the night at the city of Faro in 1217, where the Frisians, because of their boisterous nature, and after having sung together, attacked the Saracen Army on their own during the night. And with success. The other chapters of the crusade army were still debating whether or not to attack.

The common thread running through thirteenth-century texts about the Frisian fighters was their impatience, their speed in charging at the enemy, and their ferocity during battle. They were real Berserks or barbarians. See further below, at the end of this post, how Frisian fighters were equipped, and why indeed they were fast in charging at the enemy. Frisians in amente prevolans 'flying madly ahead', as it was written in a clear warning of Emperor Frederick I to his opponent Saladin, the sultan of Egypt, in the year 1188 (Mol 2002). In 1247, the king of France, in preparation of the Seventh Crusade, askes Pope Innocent IV to mobilise the Frisians to fight again (Jansen & Janse 1991). In 1250, Pope Innocent IV specifically calls for the Frisians to participate in the Seventh Crusade, because they have proven to be successful fighters in the Holy Lands. In the year 1268, when King Louis IX of France was preparing for the Eighth Crusade, he specifically encouraged the Frisians to join him.

It is clear Frisians had gained the reputation during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as accomplished and brave warriors. Fighter who had conquered, among other, the cities of Lisbon and Damietta from the Saracens, and freed the city of Aachen from heretics (Janse 1991).

Concerning the siege of Aachen in the year 1248, Abbot Menko of the monastery of Wittewierum writes that after armies of Brabant, Gelre, Hainaut, Holland and Zeeland had besieged the city during the whole summer without success, Frisians came to help. The Frisian chapter encamped in the open field before the city gate on the north-western side of the city. Thus far none of the armies had dared to camp there. With this, Aachen was completely surrounded. After most of the city was flooded as well by damming the river, the city surrendered.

At the same time, Frisian crusaders were realistic about what was achievable. When in the Fifth Crusade they were asked to take the strong city of Lisbon, the Frisians opposed to the Portuguese and the Dutch-Rhenish chapters of the crusade fleet, because they thought it would be too time-consuming both to take the great city and arrive in time in Italy. Fighting in the Levant was considered more priceworthy to them. Instead, the Frisian chapter left the fleet and continued to sail to the Mediterranean on its own, and successively raided the more manageable Muslim cities of Faro, Rota and Cadiz. The logic of the Frisian Alleingang might be explained by the fact they were participating primarily for their individual, personal benefit. To fulfil their vows. After all, as said, high-medieval Frisia was a republican affair without having feudal lords to obey.

In a way, to mark their barbaric heroism, the still existing Church of the Frisians in Vatican City was enlarged in the year 1141. To this very date its pious, Romanesque tower is the oldest in Vatican City, even of the eternal city of Rome as a whole. Amen, indeed. Read also our post Magnus’ Choice: The Origins of the Frisian Freedom to learn more about the medieval history of Frisians in Rome.

coat of arms Roorda with Moor's head

Names of, partly allegedly, Frisian foreign terrorist fighters have been recorded: Aylva, Beyma, Botnia, Cammingha, Fatema, Rainers lo Frison, Galama, Hermana, Hettinga, Jarich of Hogebeintum, Thithard Jelgera, Joulsma, Dodo Kempinga, Lambertus of Katrijp, Liauckema, Martena, Ockinga, Popta, Popte Ulvinga (or was Popte, in fact, Hendrik of Bonn, a German knight?) and, of course, the famous Roorda van Genum. The coat of arms of the Roorda family still bears a black Moor's head, as Roorda van Genum used to decapitate his opponents, so it is told. The same Moor's head is depicted in the flag of Corsica. Check out our post Support of the Corsican Cause in Jeopardy to understand more about these macabre flags.

Crusader Hayo with the flail

Among the crusade tales, the most brutal of all was without a doubt Hayo de Violgama, also known as ‘Hayo with the flail’.

legend of Hayo de Violgama aka Hayo with the flail

Hayo supposedly came from one of the many insignificant villages in rural Frisia, namely Wolvega, now in the province Friesland. For the record, of course Wolvega is no longer insignificant. Others say Hayo came from the district Fivelgo in current province Groningen. Whatever his exact place of origin, legend has it Hayo had fought in the Fifth Crusade of 1217 and became famous for seizing the standard of the enemy during battle against the Saracens in 1218. Apparently standards were a highly valued commodity back then.

By the way, in the year 732, Frisians fought in the Frankish Army in southern France against the Arabs, and one of these battles under the command of Saint Fris 'the Frisian' was named the Bateille de l'Étendard 'battle of the standard' (check our post Like Father, Unlike Son). Indeed, what is the deal with those colours, banners and flags?

Moreover, Hayo did not fight with a sword or spear. No, the trading mark of this fanatic was his Morgenstern 'flail' he had taken with him from the farm (see image above). And, it was Hayo who jumped as the first, or as the second since stories differ, onto the mighty tower of the city Damietta in the Nile Delta.

Although the story of Hayo is pure fiction, the siege of Damietta by a large Frisian fleet is not. The Frisians, being a true maritime people, managed to convert their cog ships into a evenhoghe 'equally high', a pontoon bridge as high as the Damietta tower. True knights of the sea (De Graaf 2004). And no, the citizens of the town of Haarlem in the province of Noord Holland had no part in these fights at all, despite Netherlands' history lessons on high schools taught otherwise until quite recently. Instead, Haarlem people were friendly law-abiding, nine-to-five citizens, earning a modest and honest living. Take that as a compliment, when reading this post. Nevertheless, the room of the Vroedschap, i.e. the medieval city council, in the old town hall of Haarlem is dedicated with impressive paintings to the heroic deeds of the people of Haarlem at Damietta.

Concerning Damietta, during the Seventh Crusade between 1248 and 1254, this port was a well-established Saracen pirate's lair. In 1249, Damietta was briefly conquered by the Europeans, but handed back to the Egyptian Mamluks, after which Saracen pirates resumed their livelihood (Lehr 2022).

Crusader Popte Ulvinga

Crusader Popte Ulvinga, also known as Poppo or Poptetus Ulvinga, deserves elaboration too. He came from the village of Wirdum in the current province of Friesland. In the year 1147, during the Second Crusade, crusaders took part in the siege of the Moorish city of Lisbon. The Moors were beaten. This victory is regarded as one of the turning points for the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula.

The German knight and crusader Henricus of Bonn died during this battle. At the spot where he was buried, miracles occurred. A palm tree on his grave was medicinal for whatever ailment people might have. When the remains of Popte were unearthed, they saw the palm tree had grown out from his heart. According to the journal of an unknown Frisian clergyman who travelled with the crusader's fleet to Acre in 1217-1218, this palm tree, in fact, grew on the grave of Poptetus from Wirdum. Poptetus had renamed himself as Henricus, also written as Hendrik, and was the commander of the Christian army and bearer of the standard. So, Wirdum and not Bonn.

the siege of Lisbon in 1147

The journal of the unknown clergyman was incorporated into the thirteenth-century Cronica floridi horti ‘Chronicle of [monastery] Bloemhof’. Monastery Bloemhof 'flower garden' was located near the village Wittewierum in Frisia, of which Emo of Friesland was one of the founders. Abbot Emo of Friesland, by the way, was not a nobody but the first foreign student at the University of Oxford in 1190, among other.

Fighting the Cathars

Besides fighting in the Mediterranean and the Levant, Frisians also participated in the crusade against the Cathars in southern France, especially in Occitania (Moolenbroek 2021). The Frisian word ketter and German Ketzer, meaning heretic, derive from the word cathar. The civil war known as the Albigensian Crusade. Catharism was a religious, dualistic Christian movement between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, heavily suppressed by the Catholic Church. Dualistic in the sense the Cathars believed in a feminine god. A monk of the monastery of Saint Pantaleon in Cologne, probably in light mood, reported that in the year 1212 many men from Saxony, Westphalia and Frisia went off to fight the heretics in southern France. The prior of the monastery Saint James in Liège, Belgium, reported that in total 30,000 Frisians went to fight in 1212. This number, however, is probably a little too much for being realistic. But, mistakes can be made, especially when you are in such a light and euphoric mood.

In the year 1210, the Frisians fought in a crusade army and took the strongholds of Minerve, near the great walled city of Carcassonne, and of Termes. In 1211, Frisians fought at Cabaret, Lavaur and Montgey. At Montgey the crusaders were defeated and 5,000 Germans and Frisians were slain. Although, the tragedy at Montgey might also have been the slaughter of a 1,000 pilgrims, among them probably also Frisians. This slaughter of pilgrims might have been an additional motivation for Frisians to go berserk on the Cathars the following years (Moolenbroek 2021). In the year 1212, Frisians successively participated in the sieges of the citadels of Saint-Antonin, Penne d'Agenais, Biron and Moissac. Also, in the year 1213, Frisians fought in Occitania, only unknown where exactly. From the siege of Toulouse in 1217-1218, the name of a Frisian cavalryman has been preserved, namely Rainers lo Frison, also written as Rainaut lo Frizos. If you think Frisians serving in cavalry units is surprising, it actually is not. Check our post Like Father, Unlike Son.

A high-medieval, epic poem in the Occitan language, commonly known as Chason de la croisade albigeoise, written by William of Tudela (who lived around 1200) and an unknown writer, testifies of Frisians fighting against the Cathars. The list of regions of provenance in the Chason is long: Alaman e Bavier e Saine e Frison, Mancel e Angevi e Norman e Breton, Logombart e Lombart, Proensal e Gascon (‘Germans and Bavarians and Saxons and Frisians, men from Maine and Anjou and Normans and Bretons, Langobards and Lombards, Provençals and Gascon’). But also:

Aqui ac mot Frances e Norman e Breton, E i ac mot Alaman, Loarence e Frizon, E mot baro d’Alvernhe e mot ric Bergonhon

They are the French, Normans, Bretons, and they are the Germans. the Lorrains and the Frisians, and they are the barons of Auvergne and the powerful Burgundians.

Other Crusades

In the 1230s, Frisians also fought against rebellious Drents and Stedingers, i.e. the delta of the River Weser north of Bremen. In 1248, warriors of Tota Frisia also participated in the siege of Aachen (Mol 2002).

2. Fighters return from foreign lands

But all good things come to an end, eventually. At the end of the thirteenth century, after the last crusade, the Frisian foreign fighters too left the battle grounds of Palestine, Livonia, Prussia, northern Africa, southeastern France, Portugal and of southern Spain behind. For the tall big men of the north, as they were described together with the Danes that time, the fighting and glory was over. Those cruisiati who had survived, returned with their booty to Frisia.

Once back at their homeland, they did not have to fear prosecution by the redjeva or grietman ‘chosen judge annex prosecutor’ since what they did was not considered a (war) crime, yet. They were soldiers of a honourable Holy Army who had been fighting, killing and beheading Muslims, Latvians and Cathars, and raping their women, in a legitimate war. A bellum iustum. Back home, these veteran Frisian foreign fighters decorated themselves even with golden brooches made of Almohad 'Arabic' coins or copies thereof, to proudly mark they had been fighting in the crusades in the Holy Land (Schokker 2018).

It was not over for the peoples living in the region we now call the Middle East, though. Almost eight centuries later, the Levant is still infected by ransacking, religiously motivated foreign terrorist fighters from all over the world, including some fighters from areas that belonged to former Frisia. Even practicing the same cruel methods as the Frisian havedling (also Häuptling or hoofdeling) Roorda van Genum allegedly did. We bring in mind the coat of arms with a decapitated Morish head.

The rehabilitation process of so many returning foreign fighters into the communal Frisian society became more than a concern. Absorbing this dangerous influenza went on for decades and decades. Nearly for two centuries. The Roman Church too, albeit slowly, became aware of the downsides of their successful radicalization programs. It was the patriarch in Palestine who in the year 1218 pointed out that crusaders had experienced great difficulties. Not only in getting to Jerusalem, but also afterward. That is no rocket science or apple sauce. You can imagine. These outlaws were radicalized, partly war-traumatized men who had to be fit back again into rural society after often three years of fighting in foreign lands. Home meant nothing more than a modest living in a hamlet and doing humble labour. No glory, no status and often no booty. Working the barren land in summer. Strengthening dykes to keep land and houses protected from the sea in autumn and winter.

Moreover, medieval Frisian society was exceptional vulnerable for this deadly influenza as well. Frisia then, being a loose federation of free peasant republics stretching from the present-day province of Friesland to the region of Ostfriesland in Niedersachsen. Unlike the rest of Europe, feudal structures were totally absent in Frisia. Therefore, de-radicalization programs could not be organized, if they would have thought about such programs at all.

On top of the homecoming of killing-happy foreign fighters, the myth of the so-called ‘Frisian Freedom’ fuelled anarchy. This freedom supposedly was granted to them by Charlemagne himself for their heroic deeds in battle to liberate the city of Rome. A myth that told that the Frisians were free from then on, and not subordinated to any lord other than the Holy Roman Emperor himself. They were Reichsunmittelbar. Read our post Magnus' Choice. The origins of the Frisian Freedom for more information about this history. All this, tipping over the already fragile balance between the free farmers republics and an anarchy, even further. The free republics were known as the the Seven Sealands under the treaty of the Upstalsboom (see further below).

the Frisian Sea Lands during the crusades

The Republic TraditionNonetheless, the republican tradition of Frisia remained appealing and was picked up again with the foundation of the federation of the Dutch Republic at the end of the sixteenth century. Again a novum in Europe, next to the city of Venice. And February 1682, it was the States of Friesland, one of the republics within the Netherlands’ federation of Seven Republics, that voted as the second in the world, after France, to recognize the independence of the republic of the United States. Traditions in world history, when talking about republics: the Seven Sealands of Frisia, the United Seven Dutch Republics, the United States of America. Somewhere in between, a revolution in France marketing or selling ‘the republic’ as their noble contribution to the world. In fact, it produced Bonaparte soon after. Read more about the close ties between Frisia, the United States, and the Anglo-Saxon world in general in our posts Porcupines bore U.S. bucks and History is written by the victors – a history of the credits.


Back to the High Middle Ages.

Reboelje 'turmoil' and civil war soon followed in Frisia. The fight between the Schieringers 'speakers' and the Vetkopers 'fat-buyers' started a few decades later, around 1300. Flails, pitchforks, shovels and alike were not solely working the barren land anymore. At first, relatively small scale and locally, but a century later it had become a full-fledged civil war with warlords (hovedling in the Old Frisian language, haadlings in the Mid Frisian language and Häuptlinge in the German language) and armies from the River Vlie in the Netherlands to the River Weser in Germany. A period known as the Great Frisian War. This weakness from inside, left Frisia prey for its hostile neighbours who would soon feast on it. Ironically, these Teutonic neighbours were supported by the same church and clergy that had praised the sky for the Frisian achievements during the crusades, not long before. The thanks they got.

The free republics of the Seven Sealands of Frisia tried to organize themselves within a collective defence mechanism called the Upstalsboom treaty. Similar to NATO seven centuries later. But it failed completely. Read our post Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective. Fascinating history, we think.

Thus, when hiking the Frisia Coast Trail and everything looks peaceful and is quiet, remember this used to be the Failed State at the Wadden Sea. Like standing on the shores of the Gulf of Aden today.

3. What did these warriors look like?

For those readers wondering what these foreign fighters must have looked like, please find below a mural from the church in the village of Westerwijtwerd in the province of Groningen, dating from the fourteenth century. It is thought to be a copy of a much older image, dating from the twelfth century. Indeed, the period of the crusades. Its church is still standing, although serious earthquakes due to heavy gas mining do threaten it anno 2019. Watch our vlog visiting the church of Westerwijtwerd.

fighters of Westerwijtwerd, fourteenth century

Typical features of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries fighters of Frisia were the heavy long, fish-skin like coats made of leather strips (called a schobbejak in Dutch language) and their heads shaved almost bold. The higher the hair was shaved off, the higher the status of the warrior.

...mith egge and mith orde and mith tha bruna skelde.

...with sword and with spear and with the brown shield. (First Riustringer Codex)

Weapons they were carrying were: a small round shield, a sword, called a truchslayn in the Old Frisian language, and a long gaff annex spear called a kletsie in the Old Frisian language. At the same time, this spear was used as a jumping pole to leap over the numerous ditches and small creeks in Frisia. The medieval images show that the spears had a disk or steel trident at the lower end. Just as for example the modern leaping poles, called a klootstock in Nordfriesland in Germany, or polsstok in the Netherlands being used to this day. Therefore, reckon these spears were at least 3.5 or 4 meters long. In German language this weapon is called a Sprungspeer. Four of steel tridents have been preserved in the Netherlands. For long these tridents were regarded candle holders for travel (Historiek 2022). The warriors did not wear helmets, neither did they wear shoes. So, they were light and able to move and charge fast. ‘Naked’ as in unprotected, as they were described in the Middle Ages.

The long pole-spears bear resemblance with the well-known fifteenth-century Swiss pikes, but Frisians were using these spears much earlier. A report of the Battle of Kuinre against Holland in the year 1397, illustrates one of its functions. It recounts how the Frisians had driven their steel-tipped poles into a bulwark with the points facing upwards in a slant (Mol 2022). The steal trident made sure the spear would hold its position against the enemy. Our guess is that the name chevaux de frise 'Frisian horses', which were military defensive obstacles previously used in the US against cavalry, but till recently also known in the UK during railroad constructions to prevent people from walking onto the railway track, derives from the Frisian pike formations. In Dutch language a cheval de frise is called a Friese ruiter 'Frisian horseman'.

Similar late-medieval murals concerning their appearance exist in other churches in the province of Groningen as well, namely those of Den Andel, Stedum and Woldendorp. Walking barefoot was probably customary for the Frisians living at the salt marsh. A tradition that survived among the Frisians living at the Hallig islands in the region of Nordfriesland even until the nineteenth century (Knol 2021).

an image of a seal of Upstalsboom treaty

The image in the church of Westerwijtwerd corresponds with many more images of Frisian fighters on several seals of the Upstalsboom treaty (read our post Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective) and of seals of Landesgemeinden or medieval districts like Rüstringen, Hunzingo-Oosterambt, Mormerland, Opsterland and Oostergo. It also corresponds amazingly well with the written observation we referred to earlier this post already, of a contemporary in Liège n the year 1212, when he was watching Frisian warriors going to fight a holy war:

Their hair shaved-off with only a tuft of hair left.

Another contemporary, Bartholomeus Anglicus, wrote in his De Proprietatibus Rerum, written in 1240, that the Frisians are really different from their neighbours. All the men have shaved off their hair. The higher their hair is shaved off, the higher their status. Lastly, one of the last Free Frisians, was hovedling 'chieftain' Vibo Grovestins nicknamed Skerne 'sheared' Wiebe from Engelum, who had his hair shaved off still in the late fifteenth century. A statement of Wiebe of the former glory days (Spiekhout 2022). A portrait painted in the year 1472 has been preserved.

Now, how unique is all the above!


Note 1 - When Frisians in the year 1214 were motivated to take the Cross during the Fifth Crusade, a miracle happened at the village of Bedum, Dokkum and Wolvega in the province of Friesland. At Bedum a girl saw Christ appear in the sky. Read our post Walfrid, you will never walk alone.

Note 2 – Know that the crusaders Poptetus Ulvinga, Dodo Kempinga, Thitard Jelgera, and Rainers lo Frison will probably be indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal of Frisia (ICTF) in the town of Aurich in the region of Ostfriesland. Read the Press Release about these provisional indictments by the ICTF.

Suggested music

Daliah Levi, Jerusalem (1972)

The Crusaders, Mischievous Ways (1987)

Further reading

Barefoot Blogger, In search of the Cathars (2021)

De Maesschalck, E., De graven van Vlaanderen (861-1384) (2012)

Historiek, Friezen fierljepten vroeger ook op het slagveld (2022)

Janse, A., De waarheid van een Falsum. Op zoek naar de politieke context van het Karelsprivilege (1991)

Jansen, H.P.H. & Janse, A., Kroniek van het klooster Bloemhof te Wittewierum (1991)

Knol, E., For Daily Use and Special Moments: Material Culture in Frisia, AD 400-1000 (2021)

Lasance, A., Wizo van Vlaanderen, Itinerarium Fresiae of Een rondreis door de Lage Landen (2012)

Lehr, P., Pirates. A new history, from Vikings to Somali raiders (2022)

Mol, J.A., De Friese volkslegers tussen 1480 en 1560 (2017)

Mol, J.A., Friese krijgers en de kruistochten (2001); Frisian Fighters and the Crusade (2002)

Mol, J.A., Vechten, bidden en verplegen. Opstellen over de ridderorden in de Noordelijke Nederlanden (2011)

Moolenbroek, van J., Friezen op kruistocht tegen de Katharen in Occitanië (2021)

Moolenbroek, van J., Nederlandse kruisvaarders naar Damiate aan de Nijl. Acht eeuwen geschiedenis en fantasie in woord en beeld (2016)

Nijdam, H., Lichaam, eer en recht in middeleeuws Friesland. Een studie naar de Oudfriese boeteregisters (2008)

Ottewill-Soulsby, S., Hair and the Heir: The Politics of Shaving in Eighth-Century Italy (2021)

Penning, Y., Emo’s labyrint (2010)

Pietersma, J. Friezen op kruistocht (1217-1221)

Readman, K., The Albigensian Crusade: Why did the Catholics start a civil war? (website)

Savelkouls, J., Het Friese Paard (2016)

Schokker, J., Insigne van een kruisvaarder? Over een pronkfibula gevonden nabij Uithuizen (2018)

Siefkes, W., Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten (1963)

Spiekhout, D., Brugge, ter A. & Stoter, M. (eds.), Vrijheid, Vetes, Vagevuur. De middeleeuwen in het noorden; Spiekhout, D., De pracht van middeleeuws Friese dracht (2022)

Tyerman, C., How to plan a crusade. Reason and Religious War in the High Middle Ages (2015)

Villegas-Aristizábal, L., A Frisian Perspective on Crusading in Iberia as Part of the Sea Journey to the Holy Land, 1217–1218 (2021)

Wiersma, J., Noord-Nederland na de bedijkingen (2018)

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