Tolkien pleaded in favor of King Finn
Updated: Jun 26
Between AD 450-455 at the southern coast of the North Sea a betrayal took place that has not been forgotten eversince. And it never will. It is the bloody battle at the citadel of Finn. Or, Fin Folcwalding Fresna cynne, as he was named in the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith. A poem dating from the early tenth century. Finn, son of Folcwald, and young king of the Frisian tribe. A battle that shook the North Sea world. But why was, and is, it a battle to be remembered? And, who was this Finn anyway?
After the heroic story had been sung by minstrels and bards and orally passed on for centuries, it was finally put into writing as well. Two early-medieval texts report about the famous battle in which 'the edge of a sword sealed Finn's doom,' namely the monumental Old-English epic poem Beowulf and the so-called Finnsburh Fragment. The latter, the Fragment, is a leoð being a heroic poem that was sung. The Fragment also happens to be the oldest surviving pagan poem in Old-English. The word leoð is similar to the current Mid-Frisian (spoken in province Friesland in the Netherlands) word liet for song, or Lied and lied in respectively German and Dutch languages.
Finnsburh is also written as Finnsburg, Finnesburg and Finnsburuh. Here we shall use Finnsburh. The name Finn is sometimes written as Fin. Here we shall use Finn.
The whole affair is called freswæle too, meaning 'Frisian slaughter' in Old-English. In the story of Beowulf the fight at Finnsburh is one of the tales told when warriors gathered and celebrated their heroic deeds. Apparently, it was a legendary story worth reciting during feasts in halls of lords, kings, overkings and other big men. And, who knows, in houses of common people on terps (raised dwelling mounds on the treeless tidal marshlands; read our blog post on this phenomena) in Frisia too during the long, wet and windy winters. Although, the Frisians might have had a different version of the course of events of the freswæle than that of their contemporary Anglo-Saxon and Danish cousins. You will understand why, after you have red this blog post.
ða wæs heal roden feonda feorum,
swilce Fin slægen,
cyning on corþre,
ond seo cwen numen
the hall was reddened with blood of foemen,
and Finn was slain,
king amid clansmen,
and the queen was taken
1. The name Finn
The name Finn is widely known. A Swedish legend has it 'Finn the Giant' built the cathedral of Lund in southern Sweden near Malmö. This Finn is said to be depicted on a pillar in the crypt of this cathedral dating early twelfth century. In Danish folklore, however, the figure Finn was not a giant but an ugly troll instead. A bit more to the northeast from Denmark a whole country is filled up with witchy Fins. Indeed, Fins and witchcraft are one an the same. Back to Denmark. At the Danish island Fyn (also named Funen) near the village Gudme, the most important so-called central-place-complex has been discovered known today. The area flourished between ca. AD 400-600. Indeed, the time of King Finn. Kilos of gold have been found and big halls similar to those described in the epic Beowulf. One hall measured an amazing forty-seven by ten meters. These southern Scandinavian type central-place-complexes have been identified in what is now the Netherlands as well, especially around the towns of Rijnsburg and of Egmond in respectively province Zuid Holland and province Noord Holland. Further below we shall dig a bit deeper into these central-place-complexes.
Furthermore, the name Finn is a common Anglo-Saxon name. In this respect, since the character Finn Dandridge appeared in the highly popular tv-series Grey’s Anatomy around 2005 -and this Finn clearly was not an ugly Danish troll- the name Finn became a hit in the Netherlands. Thus this country is filling up with Finns too. Concerning Mark Twain's book Huckleberry Finn we will come back to you. It still needs some research, especially the history of the Frisians as well-known slave traders in the Early Middle Ages. In Ireland and Scotland the name Finn surfaces from the black peaty waters with Loch Finn and Glenfinnan. But, maybe also related to fen or fenland. And a ffynnon is a well or spring in Welsh language. Of course, we must nog forget to mention the Celtic hero Finn, also known as Fionn mac Cumhaill. The Irish hero who got his wisdom from his thumb.
Lastly, a finne in modern Mid-Frisian language is a kind of meadow that is rarely or never mowed (AJO, Frysk Wurdboek, 1992).
In sum, not much coherence at all with this very arbitrary overview, except the fact that the name Finn is found in the wider North Sea area. Maybe one of the best etymological explanations of the name Finn is the Old-Germanic finnaz meaning 'breathing/ inspired/ invested', in other words the inspirator (Van Renswoude, 2017). And, whereas the Celtic Finn stems from fionn, meaning light.
In Tolkien's book The Silmarillion one of the three forefathers of the elfs is King Finwë, of the House of Finwë and king of Noldor. Probably Tolkien took the Old-Germanic finnaz as inspiration, or maybe directly the name Finn since he made a full study into this Frisian king. King Finwë had many descendants bearing his name: Fingolfin, Fingon, Finarfin, Finrod, Finduilas and Curufin. The Silmarils are three briljant ornaments that were stolen. It was Fëanor, son of Finwë, who created the Silmarils. The central role beautiful crafted jewels or ornaments could play in pre-medieval mythology is illustrated with the Brísingamen, also mentioned in the Beowulf but in other old sources too. Read also our blog post Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay how the Brísingamen, King Hygelac's neck-ring, has been retrieved in Frisia.
2. Finn the legend
The fact a Frisian king is mentioned in the monumental epic Beowulf, his name is confirmed in several other early-medieval texts, the events at the citadel Finnsburh have taken place in Frisia, and was of inspiration for Tolkien, is unique in itself. Sadly, this piece of history receives little to no attention in history lessons at high schools in the Netherlands. We do not how it is in Lower Saxony or Schleswig-Holstein, so please do fill us in. Let's just conclude for now that the metre and the non-straightforwardness of the Old-English verses of the epic Beowulf are not only for pupils very difficult to understand. Maybe this blog post can help out teachers a bit. To their defense, it took the Brits also very long to appreciate the epic poem Beowulf. Actually, not before the Second World War had ended.
So, let's tell more about King Finn, for the history of the world is but the biography of the great. Or, not?
The text of Beowulf dates from around AD 850. That is already pretty old. But the persons appearing in Beowulf are even much older and go back to the period of the Wandering of the Peoples also known as the Migration Period. The main character warrior Beowulf is a nephew of King Hygelac, who is king of the Geats. A people that lived in the southeast of present-day Sweden. Hygelac is indisputable historic and recorded by historians in the sixth century already. According to historian Gregory of Tours, Hygelac was killed during a raid at the (old) mouth of the river Rhine. It must have been in AD 516. This might have been at Rothulfuashem or Hrothaluashem, meaning Rothulf's or Radulfus' home, as the settlement at the mouth of the river Rhine was known in the eight century, In the ninth/tenth century is was renamed Rinasburg 'Rhine burg'. The name Rinasburg was given to the settlement after a ring fortress had been build. Possible as defence against the Vikings. Today, the town of Rinasburg is known as Rijnsburg. According to other sources Hygelac was killed by the Franks between AD 516 and AD 534, a bit more upstream the river Rhine basin near the present-day city of Nijmegen in province Gelderland of the Netherlands. Read our blog post Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay to learn more about King Hygelac's adventure in Frisia.
Thus, Beowulf's nephew might have been killed by the Frisians although the Salian Franks can be held responsible too. We leave it to the prosecutor's office who was guilty. Not long after these events, in this river land at the river Rhine, the Frisians would establish an unprecedented big trade emporium named Dorestat with about 10,000 inhabitants. This was at the present-day town of Wijk bij Duurstede in province Utrecht. To attain this 'Jewel of the Rhine' the Frisians and the Franks would engage in a long and bloody competition during most of the seventh and eighth centuries. Topping it off with many heavy Viking raids in the ninth century, ravaging Dorestat year after year. The emporium Witla at the mouth of the river Meuse would never recover from the Viking attack in AD 836. Check out our blog post The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe to learn more about Dorestat.
The exact spot where the stronghold Finnsburh was located, will probably stay unknown forever. But we can safely assume it must have been within western Frisia territory. In the late fifth century, Frisia stretched from the northern coast of the Netherlands to the northwest coast of Germany until to the river Weser. Furthermore, the estuaries of the rivers Rhine and Meuse, and the basins of the rivers Rhine and Vecht, also belonged to Frisia already in the fifth century. The raid of King Hygelac was in western Frisia where the river Rhine flowed. We think especially the central river lands, and the river Rhine in particular, contest for the seat of Frisian big men or (over)kings. It gave them control over important trade networks and at the same time being connected to the elite network of the wider North Sea that had developed from the sixth century onward. As said, battles at the mouth or upstream the river Rhine have been recorded during this era (Hygelac) and archaeological finds (e.g. coinage of ca. AD 600 of Audulf a 'king' of Frisia upstream the river Rhine) are indications. Lastly, very practical, the area supplied local rulers with plenty of stone remnants of former Roman fortresses of scarce stone that were part of the limes ('border') a few centuries earlier. Who knows, future archaeological research in the area of Rothulfuashem (Rijnsburg) might disclose more about rulers immediately after the Migration Period.
The river Vecht basin in province Noord Holland has also strong claims for being the seat of kings or big men. The river Vecht being a crucial and lucrative connection between the Frankish hinterland and southern Scandinavia. From different early-medieval sources we know part of this pagus 'shire' called Niftarlake, was 'property' of Frisian elites, the family Wurssing at the end of the seventh century. The Wursing family had their familiy estate at the present village Nederhorst ten Berg, then called Werinon. The person Wurssing was also the grandparent of Saint Ludger who would later convert his own people. Many place names, particular in the northern area of the river Vecht basin, are of Frisian origin or have a Frisian predecessor (read also our blog post Take a virtual hike through Zuid Holland and Utrecht). It was in the settlement of Attingahem, 'home of Atto' (a Frisian first name still being used) where Saint Boniface founded his first church around AD 720. Today, the name Attingahem is replaced by the non-Frisian place name Breukelen. Also, the so-called asega law tradition was applicable in this area, which is a typical Frisian practice. From AD 719 this area became under Frankish control, after which much of the shire Niftarlake became under the jurisdiction of monastery of Werden. Later, in the course of the tenth century, (much of) it became under controle of the counts of Hamaland and was renamed as Naerdinclant. Read our blog post Attingahem Bridge to learn more about the importance of shire Niftarlake.
The importance of the river Vecht basin might date back at the times of Bronze Age heathenism. In this area between three to six so-called table mountains have been identified, namely at the Tafelberg near Blaricum, the Eukenberg and Sijdjesberg near Huizen, and possibly the Leeuwenberg near Oud Valkeveen, the Trapjesberg near Huizen and the Zwarte Berg near Hilversum. Quite a high density, and that is an understatement. These mounds are, or were (since several have been dug up), all conical shaped artificial mounds with a flattened top, often surrounded at its base by an earthwork. Unsure what their purpose was -religious, military or political- and although very old, dating the table mountains is quite impossible. But, they are assumed to be prehistoric. From written sources we know these mounds existed at least at the tenth century. A similar mound is known in southern England, namely Silbury Hill.
To dig a bit deeper, Rothulfuashem was part of a central-place-complex similar to those existed in southern Scandinavia (Dijkstra, 2011) and on island Fyn in Denmark mentioned above already. Underlining the influence of Scandinavian culture in Frisia as well as kinship between the two. But this aside.
A central-place-complex was an area with a diameter varying between five and twenty-five kilometers, mostly strategically located at a river mouth. Within this area different functions were located, all belonging to one social-political entity. These different functions were: the residence of the elite or Gefolgschaft (i.e. a large building called a 'hall/ hal' or a 'sal/ seal/ zaal'), the place for craft (e.g. a blacksmith or a mint for coinage), the location for trade or vicus mostly along the river banks, the place of heathen cult, the place of burial, the fortifications or military stronghold, and the location of the ting. A ting, or thing, being a place on a hillock for assembly and judgement. The Icelandic parliament is still called the Alþingi. Another famous, Frisian, ting is the ting at Aurich in East Frisia (viz Ostfriesland) in Germany.
Many of these functions within a similar area can be identified in the Netherlands too. Firstly, in the area Katwijk - Rijnsburg - Valkenburg - Oegstgeest, with De Luttele Geest being the location of the former ting. A second area is Hargen - Egmond - Egmond aan Zee - Egmond Binnen (formerly called Hallem) - Heiloo - Velsen in province Noord Holland. This might be a former central-place-location too, with De Schepelenberg near the town of Heemskerk as the location of the former ting. The former place name Hallem of present-day Egmond-Binnen, indicates the presence of a hall. The place name Hargen is related to Old-Germanic hearg, like Harrow north of London is as well, and means 'heathern shrine'. Another, third, central-place-complexe is suspected at the mouth of the river Meuse but because much land disappeared into the sea here, this will stay speculation for ever probably.
Lastly, research (Nicolay, 2005) suggest that the northern part of shire Westergo (orginally Uuistrachia 'western island') in province Friesland can be considered a central-place-complex too. That would be the fourth. This because of the amount of gold (a sloppy 1.5 kilo in total) that has been found in its fat clay over the years, the evident connections with the elites of Jutland and later Kent, the political-religious expressions through the jewelry and runes found, production of high-end goods and the geographical central (trade) position the area has between southern Scandinavian and, finally, the east Anglo-Saxon world at the British Isles.
Increasing evidence is piled up in neigboring shire Oostergo (originally Austrachia 'eastern island') that here too a power base existed. The remains of a sixth-century vendel helmet (see further below) and the sixth-century silver rings of a sword pommel, are strong indication. The remains of the vendel helmet were found at the village of Hallum (not to be confused with the Hallem in province Noord Holland, mentioned earlier) and the remains of a ring-sword (i.e. silver rings moulded to the pommel of the sword) near the town of Dokkum. Again, the place name Hallum here too indicates the former presence of a hall of a big man. Or, belonged Uuistrachia and Austrachia to the same central-place-complex, to the same big man or king? The moulded rings, also found in Kent, might have been gifts demonstrating a warrior's fealty to his lord (Brooks and Harrington, 2010).
More can be speculated about the person Radulf after whom the settlement Rothulfuashem was named. Was he just a so-called big man or even a (small) king? He must have lived in the eighth century. We know he had possessions in Hoverathorp, near the present-day town of Katwijk, too, together with a person named Erulf or Herulf (family?). This Herulf in turn had possessions more upstream the rivers near the present-day town of Houten in province Utrecht in the Netherlands. Radulf together with (his wife?) Aldburga also gave donations to the bishopric Utrecht. Later, in the ninth century, possessions around Rothulfuashem were in hands of the nobles Gerulfings, the future counts of West Frisia after the Viking Rule in western Frisia had ended late ninth century. In AD 1101 this dynasty of the Gerulfings would rename themselves counts of Holland. Are therefore the Gerulfings descendants of big man Radulf? Read also our blog post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise if the Gerulfings.
Taking into account the fact the events of Beowulf can be traced back to the beginning of the sixth century, the fact the grandson of Odin, the famous Hengest, himself was present at the scene and the fact this lone warrior together with Horsa must have staged his invasion of Britain between AD 449 and AD 455, King Finn therefore is commonly placed around the year AD 450. Only a few decennia before, at the end of the Migration Period, the abondoned salt marshes of the north were re-populated with peoples and tribes from the south-eastern North Sea coast and from southern Scandinavia, mixing with the very few existing (original) Frisians (Frisii) still left. The new peoples later called themselves Frisians too. And that without any integration policy. Maybe the father of King Finn, Folcwald, was one of the early immigrants re-populating Frisia. Check our blog post It all began with piracy to find a theory as to way the name Frisia sticked.
Wandering of the Peoples
Research is pretty conclusive about the fact the salt marshes of northern Netherlands, especially those in present-day province Friesland (Mid Frisia), were nearly abandoned during the period ca. AD 325-425. Neither the collapse of the Roman Empire nor the arrival of the Huns in Europe caused the coastal people of the tidal marshlands to move. Climate change, however, did. It was the deterioration of the environment that had a major impact on living conditions. The sea level rose in the fourth century, making drainage of sweet water from the hinterland difficult and causing the interior to turn into malaria-infected swamps, no longer suitable for living and for agriculture. People emigrated from there. The disappearance of inland habitation affected habitation at the sea shores as well, since village-networks were essential to survive.
Having said that, some terps (artificial dwelling mounds) in present-day province Friesland show continuation of (modest) population throughout the Migration Period, like the terp-villages Driesumer-terp, Hatsum, Hoogebeintum, Jelsum, Marssum and Wijnaldum-Tjitsma. And, although habitation on terps like Dongjum and Peins discontinued, these (higher and fertile) terps were still being used as arable land during this era, indicating modest habitation in the surrounding area too.
Habitation in the terp region of the Ommelanden in the northeast of the Netherlands decreased strongly -like the excavation of the terp Ezinge demonstrated- and in the terp region of northwestern Germany, But, both regions were lesser affected than the area of province Friesland during the fourth century. Archaeological research has shown habitation that continued at the terp of Fedderson in Germany, for example.
The environment of the Frisia-area along the North Sea coast what is more or less the present-day western region Kennemerland and the (former) islands Texel and Wieringen, deteriorated too in the fourth century. This might be due to land-loss because of a North Sea moving east, combined with a period of drought and -thus- stronger dune formation making the coastal zone useless for agriculture. This was also the case for the area further to the south between the mouth of the river Rhine and the mouth of the river Meuse. A significant decrease of population occurred here as well and is therefore comparable to the salt-marsh area in the north. However, habitation continued modestly along the North Sea coast, for example as it did at Oosterbuurt near the town of Castricum, at Dorregeest near the town of Uitgeest and close to the town of Schagen.
Most research adopts a two-migration-wave theory during the end of the Migration Period. The first wave was that of the Angles and the Saxons at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries. Especially the Elbe-Weser triangle was an important cradle of the new settlers, the new Frisians. Probably they mixed with the few original Frisians (Frisii) left. The second wave followed closely around the second half of the fifth century, and was composed of Jutes and southern Norwegians. Probably they mixed with the previous mix. These immigrant waves filled the near empty lands with, as said, some small pockets of original, pre-Roman Frisians still being there. The originals being a people of maybe mixed Celtic and Germanic composition. This could explain why according to language research Celtic vowel systems have remained in the Frisian language. If you want to know more about this Celtic-Frisian heritage, read our blog post There is no dealing with the Wheel of Fortune. Other theories suggest Old-Frisian tribes re-entered the tidal marshlands from what is now the northern part of province Noord Holland in the Netherlands. From the Frisian pockets, as described above, where habitation had continued during the Migration Period. This secondary migration movement does not exclude the two-migration-wave theory. It can have been a mixture of both. Old tribes from what would soon become West Frisia (Noord Holland) and Saxon and (to a lesser extent) southern Scandinavian tribes re-populating the fertile salt marshes.
So, making the Frisians a cocktail of old Celtic-Frisians (Frisii), Saxons, Angles, Jutes and Scandinavians re-populating the coastal zone from Belgium in the south all the way to the Weser in Germany in the north, including the lower central river-lands in the Netherlands, in the fifth century. Read also our blog post Have a Frisians Cocktail.
When looking at the golden and silver artifacts the new Frisians produced, it combined style elements of the different cultures around them, resulting in for example the beautiful fibulae in the second quarter of the seventh century. A specific style element in fibulae was the so-called 'kidney shape'. This suggests by then a solid, new identity was established and the new Frisians were detached from the dominant Scandinavian elite of Jutes and southern Norwegians. It is also the century Frisia politically expanded all the way to Belgium and the period Frisia started wrestling with its (at the end too powerful) Frankish opponent in the south. This was a period of social and political change, resulting too in increased soil depositions and grave gifts, especially swords. It was an expression of the emphasize that was placed within the communities on the warrior culture and the communication with the world of the gods.
The modest presence of the original Frisians explains perhaps the survival of the name Frisia. Although, scholars (Bazelmans, 1998) suggest it were the Franks that reintroduced the name Frisia for the newcomers. An other intriguing question in this context is why the people of Ostfriesland (East Frisia) in Germany, after the Migration Period, started to name themselves Friesisch since during the Roman Period this was not the territory of the Frisii but that of the Chauci. It is not likely the Chauci were replaced by the Frisians from the west.
It should be noted that the dispute and often-named 'the inconvenient truth' about the hiatus and origine of the Frisians during the fourth century, concerns mainly archaeologists and historians within the province Friesland in the Netherlands. Surprise surprise, we hear you think. Yes, the study of history is first of all politics. Archaeological research in the terp regions of northwestern Germany is, as yet, lesser developed and could in time of course give us new important insight on these aspects too. Let's hope for that. Thank the Valletta Treaty of 1992.
Whatever the exact story, try to picture the new tribes entering the nearly deserted, wet and treeless salt-marsh area with everywhere old abandoned house platforms, terps and low tidal dykes. Sometimes the remains of old houses still visible and abandoned terps being used as fields for producing crops. The newcomers bringing in their livestock and re-occupying and repairing and enlarging the former house platforms and terps. And, how went the encounters with the few original Frisians still present?
Even if King Finn never existed, although the odds are otherwise, he and his story was (and is) legendary in the North Sea culture all the same. It became part of the new ancestral tales of the shaken-and-stirred peoples of the North Sea following the turbulent Migration Period. Know, however, that this picture of massive shifts of peoples during the Migration Period has been nuanced by scholars. Nevertheless, the slaughter of King Finn was an event even before the Middle Ages had started. And, it was well-known. Obviously, because the tale concerned both a king of a strong maritime confederacy of sea-people, the Frisians, and the legendary future invader of Britain, Hengest (and Horsa).
The Frisians were a people that had emerged during the Migration Period as the most prominent tribe dominating the North Sea with their ships, sails, nautical skills, cultural background and goods. Trading and maintaining relationships, including between the British isles, southern Scandinavia and the Continent. A sea that was named mare Fresicum all the way through the Early Middle Ages.
At ipsi, cum navigarent circa Pictos, vastaverunt Orcades insulas, et venerunt et occupaverunt regiones plurimas ultra Mare Frenessicum usque ad confinium Pictorum.
But when they sailed around the Picts, they wasted the Orkney islands, and they went and occupied many regions past the Frisian Sea till the border of the Picts (Historia Britonum of Nennius, ninth century quoting Gildas, sixth century)
Mare Fresicum, id est quod inter nos Scottosque est.
The Frisian Sea, that lies between us and the Scots (Historia Britonum of Nennius, ninth century)
This water-people would expand and hold this position at sea for the next centuries, despite the upcoming power of their other cousins, their neighbors the Vikings together with the Franks. The Frisian trade networks survived. The importance of the Frisian free-traders finally faded in the High Middle Ages. Although, the Frisians sea traders kept a strong position with the Baltic Sea all the way till the nineteenth century.
It were not only the Frisians who emerged in this region at the end of the Migration Period. Also the Germanic Salian Franks or Salians, mentioned already, entered into history but then on land. More inland south of Frisia, Hamaland in current province Gelderland in the Netherlands, was the cradle of the Merovingian empire. From here the Salian Franks expanded south to present-day Belgium, after the Romans retreated, laying there the foundation of Francia and France. Do not tell the French and Belgians!
Now, how unique is all the above already? And you still have to read the story of the historic battle below. Try to visualize all of the above and how it must have looked like. Tolkien did. He (re)created in his books an ancient, mythical world and he specifically studied the dramatic story of King Finn. Tolkien's study 'Finn and Hengest' was posthumously published.
3. The content
Where was the fuzz all about in the hall of young King Finn 1,500 years ago? Was it an ordinary power struggle? Or, was it just (usual) treacherous family-in-law? Or, was it a tragic love story? Or, was it the famous Hengest, founder of the Kentish royal dynasty Oiscingas, who had bigger plans?
Unfortunately it is difficult to reconstruct exactly what happened. Especially since the bard or minstrel who tells or sings the story of Finnsburh to Beowulf and the other gathered warriors, assumes his mead-drinking audience had a general knowledge of the story already and therefor skips a lot of context. Modern bureaucrats woulds say: "Give me only a few bullits." This compression by the poet of Beowulf makes understanding the tale difficult. Read also our blog post about these Frisian bards. Nevertheless, here is a valid historical version of the course of events:
King Finn, son of Folcwaldan, and young king of Frisia, is married to Hildeburh. Queen Hildeburh is a daughter of king and Haelfdane Hoc, descendant of the heraldic Scyldingas and ruler of the Hocingas. It is unclear who the Hocingas exactly were but they were a Danish people.
When the young prince and Haelfdane Hnaef, brother of Hildeburh and thus brother-in-law of King Finn, stayed at the stronghold of King Finn in Frisia for the celebration of Yule, a first fight broke out between the Danes and the Frisians.
Reasons for this initial fight are not given. But daring politics of King Finn may have played a role. Finn established an alliance with the Danes through the marriage with Hildeburh. At the same time it was King Finn who accepted the Jutes in his land and in his service. The Jutes had lost their last king and were on drift in the region. The fact Hengest accompanied the Danes provoked the Jutish party of Finn. Hengest was not a nobody. He would later, together with his brother Horsa, lead the invasion of Britain. More importantly in this Shakespearean drama, Hengest was of royal stock and even descendant of King Wihtlæg of the Angles. And it was King Wihtlæg who exterminated the dynasty of the Jutes only a couple generations before. So, the Jutes might still have had some resentment towards Hengest.
The battle lasted five days in which prince Hnaef, the son of Finn and sixty other warriors were besieged in the hall by Jutish warriors in service of King Finn. It might very well be that King Finn gave the hall to prince Hnaef and his men in order to be able to defend themselves against the Jutes. At the end of the battle prince Hnaef was killed. King Finn suffered the loss of many men and even of his son. A son born out of the marriage with Hildeburh and who probably was raised by Hnaef with the Danes. No name of the son is given, alas.
Famous adventurer Hengest took over command from prince Hnaef. King Finn and Hengest himself agreed on a peace treaty, whereby Finn had to give treasure to the Danes to compensate for the death of prince Hnaef and to keep the peace. Prince Hnaef and the son of Finn were cremated side by side on a pyre in Frisia (see note below) and the Danes returned to their lands. Hengest, perhaps exiled already before the battle by his own people the Angles, stayed the winter with queen Hildeburh at the hall of Finn.
After the winter the Danes returned. They demanded loyalty from Hengest and therefore that he would avenge yet prince Hnaef despite the treaty made with King Finn. Hengest choose side with the Danes. In this second fight King Finn was slaughtered. After the fight, Hengest and the Scyldinga warriors took Queen Hildeburh back to the raiders' home; home of the Danes.
The above is based on the texts Beowulf, the Fragment and on the research of especially Tolkien and of Bliss. We avoided naming too many names of warriors et cetera because it would become very confusing.
According to Tolkien, King Finn and prince Hnaef were caught up by the circumstances of an internal Jutish feud. Tolkien thought both the Danes and the Frisians had contracted Jutes in their armies and these Jutish parties were having a feud among each other. Tolkien suggests Hengest played a double role by breaking the treaty and not upholding his oath. This in contrast to King Finn. So, Tolkien chose the side of Finn.
But maybe we should give Hengest some more credit. When it comes to Hengest's role we find the arguments of Bliss more convincing, namely that Hengest was an Angle and descendant of the Angle dynasty and not a Jute. Tolkien, namely, assumed Hengest was a Jute since Old-English historical sources say it were the Jutes that invaded Kent. If Hengest was an Angle, he too might have been caught up by the circumstances and his loyalty was literally demanded with significant pressure by the Danes to avenge the death of prince Hnaef. Hengest situation after the battle became or stayed precarious. Not wanted anymore by the Frisians, the Jutes and probably earlier already not by his own people the Angles too. And only a decade earlier, around AD 410, Briton chiefs had recruited (also) Jutes, Angles and Saxon mercenaries to defend themselves. After word had spread by Saxon mercenaries that the land overseas was fertile and the Britons were cowards. Just a few years after the battle of Finnsburh Hengest and his brother Horsa staged their attack at Britain. Coincidence?
But, if you do not like politics,
it can still be a tragic love story,
between Hildeburh and Finn.
It is up to you!
Became curious and want to read it yourself? Please find below the two original texts of the Finnsburh Fragment and of the Beowulf's Finnsburh episode together with a modern English translation.
We can also very much recommend you to read the (translated) Beowulf if you want to have a vivid picture of how the (strongly related) culture of the Frisians must have been in the pre- and Early Middle Ages. Not without reason Tolkien, creator of the Lord of the Rings, had a special interest in the battle of Finnsburh as described in the epic Beowulf. For example, reading Beowulf you will learn that pre- and early-medieval society was a gift economy. Rings, actually bracelets, of silver or gold were broken and the pieces were given as part of building or reinforcing alliances. Overmore, swords of important warriors or king had two rings attached to the pommel, the so-called ring-swords mentioned earlier in this blog post. In the area of the town of Dokkum in the north of the Netherlands, former Mid Frisia, a silver specimen of ring-sword pommel has been found, dated sixth century. Kings, overkings and other chiefs were therefore often alternatively described as 'ring giver' or 'ring breaker'. Indeed: lords of rings. Who does not want to belong to the inner circle? Now you will understand too why a marriage in the North Sea area is an alliance of consent sealed with the giving of rings till this very day.
Note 1: The first king of Frisia to appear clearly after King Finn, is King Aldgisl in the seventh century. Maybe the father of King Redbad. Read our blog post The biography of Aldgisl, unplugged. King or local ruler Audulf (Latin Audulfus) is probably a 'predecessor' of Aldgisl and only known from coins found in a.o. the central river area of the Netherlands dated ca. AD 575-600.
Note 2: In this blog post we followed the general conception warrior Hengest invaded Britain as it is written in historic documents. Recently scholars suggest Britain was not invaded as such after the Romans had pulled out over the course of the fifth century. The material culture of the Brits only became disconnected with the Mediterranean one and re-orientated itself towards the North Sea culture. Thus explaining the northern influences. Hengest and its men were therefore not invaders but presumably mercenaries. Hiring mercenaries from the Germanic continent had been the practice for centuries under the Romans and probably continued (Oosthuizen, 2019). Read also our blog post Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army.
Note 3: Hengest's tribe origin is unclear. Whether he was Jute or an Angle, we do not know. In province Friesland an old saga recounts that the brothers Hengest and Horsa were, in fact, Frisians. Surprise, surprise, we hear you think. They were the sons of Duke Udolph Haaron who ruled over Frisia from AD 360-432. According to this saga Hengist was born in AD 431 and Horsa in AD 433. It was Hengest who went to Britain with three ships manned with Frisians and who was warmly welcomed by King Vortigern. This king gave the island Thanet to the Frisians to build their settlement.
Note 4: Check out also this YouTube animation about the Finnsburh Fragment of History With Hilbert.
Note 5: In the epic Beowulf prince Hnaef and the son of King Finn are cremated on a pyre. This was probably an exceptional practice at the flat, treeless salt marshes of Frisia. If you want to learn more about burial practices of the sea-people in the terp region during this era read our blog post How to bury your mother-in-law?
The Finnsburh Fragment
(...) hornas byrnað? Hnæf hléoþrode ðá heaþogeong cyning: né ðis ne dagað éastan né hér draca ne fléogeð né hér ðisse healle hornas ne byrnað. Ac hér forþ berað, fugelas singað, gylleð gráeghama, gúðwudu hlynneð, scyld scefte oncwyð. Nú scýneð þes móna waðol under wolcnum; nú árísað wéadáeda ðé ðisne folces níð fremman willað. Ac onwacnigeað nú, wígend míne, habbað éowre linda, hicgeaþ on ellen, winnað on orde, wesað on móde. Ðá árás mænig goldhladen ðegn, gyrde hine his swurde; ðá tó dura éodon drihtlice cempan Sigeferð and Éaha, hyra sword getugon and æt óþrum durum Ordláf and Gúþláf and Hengest sylf hwearf him on láste. Ðá gýt Gárulf Gúðere stýrde, ðæt hé swá fréolíc feorh forman síþe tó ðáere healle durum hyrsta ne báere nú hyt níþa heard ányman wolde ac hé frægn ofer eal undearninga déormód hæleþ hwá ðá duru héolde. Sigeferþ is mín nama, cweþ hé. Ic eom Secgena léod, wreccea wíde cúð, fæla ic wéana gebád heordra hilda. Ðé is gýt hér witod swæþer ðú sylf tó mé sécean wylle. Ðá wæs on healle wælslihta gehlyn, sceolde cellod bord cénum on handa, bánhelm berstan -buruhðelu dynede- oð æt ðáere gúðe Gárulf gecrangealra áerest eorðbúendra Gúðláfes sunu, ymbe hyne gódra fæla hwearflícra hráew. Hræfen wandrode sweart and sealobrún. Swurdléoma stód swylce eal Finnisburh fýrenu wáere. Ne gefrægn ic náefre wurþlícor æt wera hilde sixtig sigebeorna sél gebáeran né néfre swétne medo sél forgyldan ðonne Hnæfe guldan his hægstealdas. Hig fuhton fíf dagas, swá hyra nán ne féol drihtgesíða, ac hig ðá duru héoldon. Ðá gewát him wund hæleð on wæg gangan, sáede þæt his byrne ábrocen wáere heresceorp unhrór and éac wæs his helm ðýrel. Ðá hine sóna frægn folces hyrde, hú ðá wígend hyra wunda genáeson oððe hwæþer ðáera hyssa (...)
(...) gables burning? Then proclaimed Hnaef, the battle-young king: This is not the eastern dawn nor is a dragon flying here nor here does this hall's gables burn. But here they bear forth, birds screech, the grey-coated wolf bays, the war-wood clashes, the shield answers the shaft. Now the moon shines, wandering under the clouds; now woe-deeds come to pass which this people's hatred desires to fulfill. But awake now, my warriors, grasp your linden-wood shields, resolve upon courage, trive to the vanguard, be high-spirited. Then arose many a gold-laden thane, girded his sword then moved to the door the noble champions Sigeferth and Eaha, drew their swords, and at the other door, Ordlaf and Guthlaf and Hengest himself came just behind them. Then yet Garulf directed Guthere that he so excellent a life at the first journey to the doors of the hall, armored, should not venture since now one hard in hatred wished to take it away; but he asked over all, openly, the daring-hearted hero, who held the door. Sigeferth is my name, said he. I am a man of the Sedgean, an adventurer widely known, I have endured many misfortunes, fierce battles. Even now appointed here for you which thing for yourself from me you will attain. Then was in the hall the tumult of carnage, the round shield-board must in the hands of the bold, the bone-helm burst -the planks of the fortress resounded- until in the battle Garulf fell the first of all of the dwellers in the land, Guthlaf's son, around him many good mortals' carcasses. The raven hovered sweart and shimmering-dark. Sword-light stood as if all of Finnesburh were in flames. I have never heard that more worthily in battle of men of sixty victory-warriors bearing themselves better nor ever for sweet mead making better requital than to Hnaef gave his retainers. They fought for five days, as none of them fell, the troop-companions, but they held the doors. Then the hero went wounded, passing away, he said that his byrnie was broken apart, his war-garb weak and also his helmet was pierced. Then immediately asked him the protector of the people how well the warriors their wounds survived or which of the young men (...)
the Beowulf episode
(...) þær wæs sang ond sweg samod ætgædere fore Healfdenes hildewisan, gomenwudu greted, gid oft wrecen, ðonne healgamen Hroþgares scop æfter medobence mænan scolde be Finnes eaferum, ða hie se fær begeat, hæleð Healfdena, Hnæf Scyldinga, in Freswæle feallan scolde. Ne huru Hildeburh herian þorfte Eotena treowe; unsynnum wearð beloren leofum æt þam lindplegan, bearnum ond broðrum; hie on gebyrd hruron, gare wunde. þæt wæs geomuru ides! Nalles holinga Hoces dohtor meotodsceaft bemearn, syþðan morgen com, ða heo under swegle geseon meahte morþorbealo maga, þær heo ær mæste heold worolde wynne. Wig ealle fornam Finnes þegnas nemne feaum anum, þæt he ne mehte on þæm meðelstede wig Hengeste wiht gefeohtan, ne þa wealafe wige forþringan þeodnes ðegna; ac hig him geþingo budon, þæt hie him oðer flet eal gerymdon, healle ond heahsetl, þæt hie healfre geweald wið Eotena bearn agan moston, ond æt feohgyftum Folcwaldan sunu dogra gehwylce Dene weorþode, Hengestes heap hringum wenede efne swa swiðe sincgestreonum fættan goldes, swa he Fresena cyn on beorsele byldan wolde. ða hie getruwedon on twa healfa fæste frioðuwære. Fin Hengeste elne, unflitme aðum benemde þæt he þa wealafe weotena dome arum heolde, þæt ðær ænig mon wordum ne worcum wære ne bræce, ne þurh inwitsearo æfre gemænden ðeah hie hira beaggyfan banan folgedon ðeodenlease, þa him swa geþearfod wæs; gyf þonne Frysna hwylc frecnan spræce ðæs morþorhetes myndgiend wære, þonne hit sweordes ecg seðan scolde. Ad wæs geæfned ond icge gold ahæfen of horde. Herescyldinga betst beadorinca wæs on bæl gearu. æt þæm ade wæs eþgesyne swatfah syrce, swyn ealgylden, eofer irenheard, æþeling manig wundum awyrded; sume on wæle crungon. Het ða Hildeburh æt Hnæfes ade hire selfre sunu sweoloðe befæstan, banfatu bærnan ond on bæl don eame on eaxle. Ides gnornode, geomrode giddum. Guðrinc astah. Wand to wolcnum wælfyra mæst, hlynode for hlawe; hafelan multon, bengeato burston, ðonne blod ætspranc, laðbite lices. Lig ealle forswealg, gæsta gifrost, þara ðe þær guð fornam bega folces; wæs hira blæd scacen. Gewiton him ða wigend wica neosian, freondum befeallen, Frysland geseon, hamas ond heaburh. Hengest ða gyt wælfagne winter wunode mid Finne eal unhlitme. Eard gemunde, þeah þe he ne meahte on mere drifan hringedstefnan; holm storme weol, won wið winde, winter yþe beleac isgebinde, oþðæt oþer com gear in geardas, swa nu gyt deð, þa ðe syngales sele bewitiað, wuldortorhtan weder. ða wæs winter scacen, fæger foldan bearm. Fundode wrecca, gist of geardum; he to gyrnwræce swiðor þohte þonne to sælade, gif he torngemot þurhteon mihte þæt he Eotena bearn inne gemunde. Swa he ne forwyrnde woroldrædenne, þonne him Hunlafing hildeleoman, billa selest, on bearm dyde, þæs wæron mid Eotenum ecge cuðe. Swylce ferhðfrecan Fin eft begeat sweordbealo sliðen æt his selfes ham, siþðan grimne gripe Guðlaf ond Oslaf æfter sæsiðe, sorge, mændon, ætwiton weana dæl; ne meahte wæfre mod forhabban in hreþre. ða wæs heal roden feonda feorum, swilce Fin slægen, cyning on corþre, ond seo cwen numen. Sceotend Scyldinga to scypon feredon eal ingesteald eorðcyninges, swylce hie æt Finnes ham findan meahton sigla, searogimma. Hie on sælade drihtlice wif to Denum feredon, læddon to leodum. (...)
(...) Then song and music mingled sounds in the presence of Healfdene's head-of-armies and harping was heard with the hero-lay as Hrothgar's singer the hall-joy woke along the mead-seats, making his song of that sudden raid on the sons of Finn. Healfdene's hero, Hnaef the Scylding, was fated to fall in the Frisian slaughter. Hildeburh needed not hold in value her enemies' honor! Innocent both were the loved ones she lost at the linden-play, bairn and brother, they bowed to fate, stricken by spears; ‘twas a sorrowful woman! None doubted why the daughter of Hoc bewailed her doom when dawning came, and under the sky she saw them lying, kinsmen murdered, where most she had kenned of the sweets of the world! By war were swept, too, Finn's own liegemen, and few were left; in the parleying-place he could ply no longer weapon, nor war could he wage on Hengest, and rescue his remnant by right of arms from the prince's thane. A pact he offered: another dwelling the Danes should have, hall and high-seat, and half the power should fall to them in Frisian land; and at the fee-gifts, Folcwald's son day by day the Danes should honor, the folk of Hengest favor with rings, even as truly, with treasure and jewels, with fretted gold, as his Frisian kin he meant to honor in ale-hall there. Pact of peace they plighted further on both sides firmly. Finn to Hengest with oath, upon honor, openly promised that woeful remnant, with wise-men's aid, nobly to govern, so none of the guests by word or work should warp the treaty, or with malice of mind bemoan themselves as forced to follow their fee-giver's slayer, lord-less men, as their lot ordained. Should Frisian, moreover, with foeman's taunt, that murderous hatred to mind recall, then edge of the sword must seal his doom. Oaths were given, and ancient gold heaped from hoard. The hardy Scylding, battle-thane best, on his bale-fire lay. All on the pyre were plain to see the gory sark, the gilded swine-crest, boar of hard iron, and athelings many slain by the sword: at the slaughter they fell. It was Hildeburh's hest, at Hnaef's own pyre the bairn of her body on brands to lay, his bones to burn, on the bale-fire placed, at his uncle's side. In sorrowful dirges bewept them the woman: great wailing ascended. Then wound up to welkin the wildest of death-fires, roared o'er the hillock: heads all were melted, gashes burst, and blood gushed out from bites of the body. Bale-fire devoured, greediest spirit, those spared not by war out of either folk: their flower was gone. Then hastened those heroes their home to see, friendless, to find the Frisian land, houses and high burg. Hengest still through the death-dyed winter dwelt with Finn, holding pact, yet of home he minded, though powerless his ring-decked prow to drive over the waters, now waves rolled fierce lashed by the winds, or winter locked them in icy fetters. Then fared another year to men's dwellings, as yet they do, the sun bright skies, that their season ever duly await. Far off winter was driven; fair lay earth's breast; and fain was the rover, the guest, to depart, though more gladly he pondered on wreaking his vengeance than roaming the deep, and how to hasten the hot encounter where sons of the Frisians were sure to be. So he escaped not the common doom, when Hun with "Lafing," the light-of-battle, best of blades, his bosom pierced: its edge was famed with the Frisian earls. On fierce-heart Finn there fell likewise, on himself at home, the horrid sword-death; for Guthlaf and Oslaf of grim attack had sorrowing told, from sea-ways landed, mourning their woes. Finn's wavering spirit bode not in breast. The burg was reddened with blood of foemen, and Finn was slain, king amid clansmen and the queen was taken. To their ship the Scylding warriors bore all the chattels the chieftain owned, whatever they found in Finn's domain of gems and jewels. The gentle wife o'er paths of the deep to the Danes they bore, led to her land. (...)
Alexander, M., Beowulf. A verse Translation (2001)
Bazelmans, J., By Weapons Made Worthy. Lords, Retainers and their relationship in Beowulf (1999)
Bazelmans, J., Zijn de Friezen wel Friezen? (1998)
Brooks, S. & Harrington S., The Kingdom and People of Kent AD 400-1066. Their History and Archaeology (2010)
Derks, T. & Roymans, N. (ed), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition; Bazelmans, J., The early-medieval use of the ethnic names from classical antiquity. The case of the Frisians (2009)
Dijkstra, M.F.P., Rondom de mondingen van de Rijn en Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3de en de 9de eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)
Goede, de A., Redbad. Koning van Friesland (2018)
Green, D.H. & Siegmund, F (ed), The Continental Saxons from the Migration Period to the tenth century. An ethnographic Perspective (2003)
Hårdh, B. & Larsson, L. (ed), Central places in the Migration and Merovingian Periods. Papers from the 52 Sachsensymposium (2001)
Heerma van Voss, L., Michael Pye's Edge of the World. Een succesvolle, maar mislukte geschiedenis van de Noordzee (2016)
Higham, N.J. & Ryan, M.j., The Anglo-Saxon World (2013)
Hines, J., The Role of the Frisians during the Settlement of the British Isles (2001)
IJssennagger, N.L., Between Frankish and Viking: Frisia and Frisians in the Viking Age (2017)
Koning, de J., Trans Flehum. Wijnaldum, Den Burg, Texel, Westergo: het Vlie als verbinder en grens (2018)
Leyser, H., A short history of the Anglo-Saxons (2017)
Matto, M. & Delanty, G. The Word Exchange - translation of the Exeter Book (2011)
McClure, E., British place-names in their historical setting (1910)
Nicolay, J., Nieuwe bewoners van het terpengebied en hun rol bij de opkomst van Fries koningschap. De betekenis van gouden bracteaten en bracteaatachtige hangers uit Friesland (vijfde-zevende eeuw na Chr.) (2005)
Nicolay, J. & Boer, de J., Roem voor de eeuwigheid. Een vroegmiddeleeuwse zwaardknop uit Friesland (2019)
Nicolay, J., Oortmerssen, van G., Os, van B. & Nobles, G., Een Vendelhelm uit Hallum? Verslag van een archeologische zoektocht (2010)
Nicolay, J. & Pelsmaeker, S., De Vendelhelm uit Hallum: een experimentele reconstructie (2018)
Nicolay, J., Pelsmaeker, S., Postma, D. & Veenstra, H., Hallum: 'nieuwe Friezen' in beeld (2018)
Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Lex Frisionum. Inleiding (2010)
Nieuwhof, A., De lege vierde eeuw. Jaarverslagen van de Vereniging voor terpenonderzoek (2016)
Nijdam, H., A Comparison of the Injury Tariffs in the Early Kentish and the Frisian Law Codes (2014)
Oosthuizen, S., The Emergence of the English (2019)
Pestell, T., The Kingdom of East Anglia, Frisia and Continental Connections, c. AD 600-900 (2014)
Paine, L., The sea and civilization. A maritime history of the world (2013)
Pye, M., The Edge of the World. How the North Sea made us who we are (2014)
Renswoude, van O., Etymologie Finn (2017)
Schiffels, S. et al, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon genomes from East England reveal British migration history (2016)
Schousboe, K. (ed.), Odin with Horns, Birds or Dragons? Medieval Histories (2016)
Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019)
Tolkien, J.R.R., Bliss, A. (ed), Finn and Hengest. The Fragment and the Episode (1982)
Tolkien, J.R.R., The Silmarillion (1977)
Tuuk, van der L., Radbod. Koning in twee werelden (2018)
Versloot, A.P., The Runic Frisian vowel system. The earliest history of Frisian and Proto-Insular North Frisian (2014)
Weale, M.E. & Weiss, D.A. & Jager, R.F. & Bradman, N. & Thomas, M.G., Y Chromosome Evidence for Anglo-Saxon Mass Migration (2002)
Wiersma, J.P., Friesche sagen (1934)
Willemsen, A., Gouden Middeleeuwen. Nederland in de Merovingische wereld, 400-700 na Chr. (2014)
Zantema, J.W., Frysk Wurdboek (1992)
Not suggested for further reading:
Faber, K.P.H. & Faber, L.A., De eerste koningen van Nederland (2007)