Island the Walcheren: once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea
In contrast to the Sunday's rest of today, for centuries the Walcheren was a pagan retreat and safe haven for the Vikings with their slightly aggressive business model. Heathendom was rooted deeply here. Even in the eleventh century AD the Catholic church still feared its inhabitants would return to their former pagan gods and rituals. The Walcheren was also a bridgehead of the Scaldingi. These were the Scheldt Vikings led by the feared Ubba the Frisian. Ubba was even one of the commanders of the legendary Great Heathen Army that ransacked England. Yes, this army partly departed from the Walcheren.
The result of its pagan history is that the beaches, dunes and soil of the Walcheren are soaked with pagan remains; stones and bones. Because of the ever-changing sea and coastline sometimes these remains literally emerge as zombies from their graves. Bellow you'll receive some tips in case you have an encounter with these spooky remains, e.g. when swimming in the North Sea at the Walcheren.
The story in this blog post is about the Walcheren in present-day province Zeeland, the Netherlands and once part of Frisia. It's about how the Walcheren at the mouth of the River Scheldt was a strategic spot both from a trade and a military point of view, from the Roman Period until the Early Middle Ages. During the reign of the Romans, sea ports were located near the modern town of Domburg, being important sea hubs for crossing the North Sea to the Britannia. Walichrum, as the settlement near Domburg was named in the Middle Ages, again became an important trade settlement and a garrison of the Frankish kings. The Walcheren island in particular was caught up in the middle of Frankish politics, Danish warlords and Frisian trade interests.
Centuries passed and the town of Walacria (predecessor of Domburg) was slowly swallowed by the sea, as has happened to much more soil of Frisia. But who knows it will raise its ugly head from the depths of the cold brown sea once more.
Read below to find out what we mean.
Early in January in the year AD 1647. After a heavy storm and a rough sea, the waterwolf had eaten big chunks of dune near the town of Domburg at the Walcheren. It uncovered ancient stones. Stones with images of, among others, the goddess Nehalennia. Four years later again fragments of altars and sculptures were disclosed. In the centuries that followed all in all thirty-four votive altars were collected of which twenty-seven are dedicated to the goddess Nehelennia. Others are dedicated to the gods Jupiter, Neptune, Hercules, Victoria and Burorina. All these finds were part of a temple complex between ca. AD 150-250 but possibly already from the first century AD.
south-west of the Netherlands - Roman Period
In the '70s of the twentieth century at the Colijnsplaat in the River East-Scheldt (north-east of the Walcheren) fishermen caught stone instead fish. Again it were votive altars dedicated to the goddess Nehalennia. In total 330 altars and altar fragments were recovered. Perhaps this temple complex was part of the Roman port named Ganuenta. This temple complex is also dated between ca. AD 150-250.
altar of Nehalennia
Nehalennia was being worshiped in Roman times. She was a native Celtic-Germanic goddess. The name means probably 'goddess who lives by the water' and she was the guardian of skippers and traders who dared the crossing from the Walcheren and the Colijnsplaat to Britannia. Traders from especially Cologne, but also from present-day Nijmegen, Tongeren, Trier, from northern and central Gallia, all offered here to the goddess Nehalennia for a safe passage. Offerings could consist of breads, dolls of dough, fruits et cetera. One of the inscriptions reads:
DEAE NEHALENNIAE OB MERCES RECTE CONSERVATAS
M SECUND SILVANUS
NEGOTIATOR CRETARIUS BRITANNICIANUS S L M
To the goddess Nehalennia for the protection of
M. Secund Silvanus'
merchandise in pottery to Britannia, rightful and just
The trading goods were among others locally produced salt, allec (a kind of garum or fish sauce) and chalk, but also the transport of wine from the Rhineland to Britannia. And not solely merchants made the crossing. Also Frisian tribesmen on their way to -for example- Hadrian's Wall to join the Imperial Roman Army as mercenaries; read our blog post about Frisian mercenaries in Britannia. The Walcheren and the Colijnsplaat being a crossroad of peoples and goods from the upstream river areas of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt, from the populous salt-marsh area in the north of the Netherlands and of Germany and vice versa from Britannia.
In the year AD 1715 extreme weather struck again. And again the pagan past of the Walcheren revealed itself. This time at a very low tide an image of the Roman goddess Victoria was presented together with some remains of a temple. Although she's the goddess of victory she missed her head. The decapitated image stood on the beach for some time before it was placed in the thirteenth century AD church of the village Domburg nearby. An act of paganism still?
In the year AD 1848 the church was -understandably- struck by lightning (find out here why lightning strikes Frisia so often) not only destroying large parts of the church, but also the remaining body of the pagan goddess Victoria and many of the votive altar fragments found earlier, which were stored in the church too. This struck of lightning proofs by the way why we shouldn't buy the experiments and scientific explanations of Benjamin Franklin on electricity two centuries ago.
The goddess Burorina is like Nehalennia a local goddess too, but not much is known about her to date.
The current province Zeeland including the island the Walcheren depopulated in third quarter of the third century AD. This mainly due to deterioration of the landscape. It's the time the Romans also retreat more inland and south. Only with at the end of sixth century AD the area repopualted again, starting with the Walcheren.
Alucin, chronicler at the court of Charlemagne and author of the Life of Saint Willibrord, described Willibrord's missionary achievements in Frisia at the end of the seventh century AD. Also how Willibrord destroyed a representation of an idol on the island the Walcheren. It didn't went off without a hitch. Saint Willibrord was hit on his head by the sword of one of the guards of the temple of this idol. It migth have been Westkapelle where the manly performance of Willibrord took place, because the eleventh century AD chapel used to have a piece of stone of the temple with a stain of blood of Willibrord, and the fact some bone fragments of Willibrord were donated to this chapel by the monastry of Echternach where Willibrord is buried. Furthermore, for long a well in the dunes nearby was named after Saint Willibrord.
Also, concerning the persistent heathen practices of the people at Walcheren, in the ninth century AD bishop Frederick of Utrecht was ordered by Emperor Louis the Pious to travel to the island in order to refrain the island-people turning back to heathendom. Rumor had it men at the Walcheren married their own sister or even their own mother. Even until the eleventh century AD it was well-known the population of the Walcheren were prone to return to pagan and superstitious practices of their ancestors still. It all shows how attached the people were to their heathen practices.
It’s a Dutch saying ‘seagulls on land, corpses at strand’ as seagulls only shelter on land during heavy storms while fishermen drown at sea and their bodies will be washed on the beach soon.
In the year AD 1687, after a foul storm, the heathen history of the Walcheren revealed itself yet again. This time it were skeletons and coffins made of thick wood. The coffins contained grave gifts such as necklaces with coins as amulets, drinking cups and silver knives. Grave goods are a pagan practice and the graves probably date before ca. AD 700. The salty water returned and hid the zombies and their coffins back in the depths of the dark brown sea again. A few more times the remains of the graves and the settlement emerged from the sea, namely in the years 1795, 1817, 1832 and 1866. Since then they seemingly have disappeared forever.
But more early-medieval cemeteries have been found around Domburg, namely at Hooge Hil, Duinvliet, Westhove and at Berkenbosch. These graves contained grave goods as well, like fibulae, keys of women, pottery and money coins, mostly the Frisian so-called Porcupine type sceattas. Read also our blog post How the Porcupine gave birth to the US buck.
For decades now, the beaches around beach town Domburg are a very popular holiday destination. People from Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands again flock in large numbers to the Walcheren. But be warned. When standing in the sea and something tickles your feet don’t immediately think it's an angry crab attacking you. It might just as well be an innocent Viking zombie raising its ugly head to say hello. Probably the water is too dark to see what it is, so you will never know anyway.
Walichrum a Viking bridgehead
After the Romans had retreated inland southward in the course of the third and fourth centuries AD the (new) Frisians took advantage of the opportunity. From around the sixth century AD they expanded their influence south of the River Rhine. That meant the stretch of coastline from present-day town Rijnsburg (a name meaning 'Rhine-fortress') in the Netherlands to Sincfal in Belgium belonged to the sphere of influence of Frisia as well. Frisian law, the Lex Frisionum, was the ruling law in these areas. Sincfal is where estuary the Zwin Nature Park in Belgium is today.
Extending their control south shouldn't be considered too much as a heroic achievement. Most of the land that aligns the North Sea of modern province Zuid Holland was at the time sparsely populated. Some argue possible the Suevi had colonized the Walcheren in the beginning of the sixth century AD as well, but maybe this is based too straightforward on the similarity of the names Zeeuw (Dutch name for the people of Zeeland) and Seuvi. A more plausible (but still) speculation about the origins of the Zeeuw people would be that the tribes that lived in the southwest of present-day the Netherlands were a tribe akin the Frisii from the north or even belonging to the same tribe as Frisians because they were partly descendants of the Frisiavones that still lived here. Maybe also attributing why the Frisia emerged after the Migration Period as an area stretching along the Netherlands and German North Sea coast.
The archipelago of what is now province Zeeland in the Netherlands must have been a familiar habitat for the northern Frisians and comparable with the salt marshes of the terp region in the northwest of Germany and of the north of the Netherlands. Control over the mouths of the major rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt in the west, but also the rivers Ems and Weser in the north, was very lucrative for the seafaring and trading Frisians. The island of the Walcheren in the River Scheldt (the River West-Scheldt was not much more than a modest stream called Hunte) was no exception. Numerous, more than a thousand, scaettas (silver coins, pennies) have been found of which the majority are of Frisian origin.
The magnitude of the trade between the continent and the British Isles during the early Middle Ages (between ca. AD 600-900 ) is slowly becoming clear from archaeological research. And given the size of Frisian-type coin production, Frisian merchants were central interlocutors in this free trade. Coins were minted especially at emporium Doretstat, the northern terp region and at Walichrum and were meant for financing the export of items from a.o. England to the Continent. The coin numbers are mind-boggling and may add up to a staggering 50 million sceattas, mostly from Frisia. Read more about the Frisian trade in our blog post How the porcupine gave birth to the U.S. buck.
The settlement Walichrum was probably located between modern Domburg and modern Oostkapelle, where the thirteenth century AD castle Westhove stands today. Walcheren had an additional strategic value compared to other trade settlements because here the North Sea could be crossed best to the British Isles. And you had control over the mouth of the rivers Scheldt and Meuse. The strategic importance was already recognized by the Roman Empire, as described above. And the island Walichrum could be defended effectively as well. It was located on a high ridge behind dunes, via a creek connected to the River Scheldt and surrounded by tidal marshlands and the sea. Count Robert II, count of Flandres, experienced this too when in AD 1084 about 3,000 islanders of the Walcheren triomphed over his army of thirty legions. In 1809 the British army tried to invade the island in order to get control over the River Scheldt. It was an utter disaster and they were defeated by the 'Zeeuw natives'. Even as recent during the Second World War, the German army had nested itself at the Walcheren controlling the River Scheldt and hindering the advancement of the Allied Forces in the autumn of 1944. In other words, a wanna-have island and it flourished especially in the seventh and eighth centuries AD.
island the Walcheren, Zeeland ca. AD 1600
The area of the great rivers was an apple of discord between the Frankish kingdoms of West, Middle and East Francia, the Frisians and the Danes. Empires, kingdoms, Christianity, heathendom, trade, tribes and peoples all came together in this relatively small but lucrative area. You could say, it was the Balkans of Western Europe. And not the least were involved: Charlemagne, Louis the German, Charles the Bald, Louis the Pious, Lothar, Rorik of Dorestad, Ubba the Frisian, Ivar the Boneless, Rodulf Haraldsson, Harald Klak Halfdansson, Godfrid the Sea King, Wilibrord Apostle of the Frisians et cetera. Undoubtedly -but strictly speaking this is speculation- also the famous Frisian kings or overkings Aldgisl and Redbad might have had some involvement in the early days. The Walcheren, like the trading ports Dorestat, Medemblik, Witla and to the east Meinerswijk, were too important for an overking to remain indifferent to,as we shall see below.
When Halley’s Comet almost hit earth
In AD 837 Halley's Comet, visible every seventy-five years or so, passed little earth again. This time it may have passed as close as five million kilometers, which is by far its closest approach ever. Thank all possible gods our planet is so tiny and thus difficult to hit. Sightings have been recorded in China, Japan, Germany, the Byzantine Empire and the Middle East those days. The Annals of Xanten tell us the following about the event:
"Immense whirlwinds frequently erupted and a comet has been seen with a great train of light in the east about three cubits long to the human eye, and the pagans laid waste the Walcheren and abducted many captive women as well as an immense amount of various goods"
It was 17 June 837 when a Viking army lead by the two warlords Rorik and Harald Junior attacked the Walcheren, by then a military stronghold of the Franks.
After the successful Frisian expansion southward after the Migration Period until the Early Middle Ages, the Frisians had suffered multiple defeats against the Franks in the eighth century AD.
In AD 736 (or so) the heathen Frisians and their chief or king Bubo were defeated deep in their own heartland at the River Boarn (read our blog post The Boarn Supremacy). That hurt. Irritated and naive the Frisians murdered the highly influential archbishop Boniface in AD 754 near the present-day town of Dokkum. In AD 772 Charlemagne destroyed the sacred tree Irminsul of the neighboring Saxons. After a decade of fighting Charlemagne beheaded 4,500 Saxons at Verden at AD 782. Despite or because of these atrocities the Frisians stubbornly joined the large scale up-rise of their cousins the Saxons under command of the famous nobleman Widukind in the years AD 784 and 785. But at the end the Franks were victorious against the Saxons and the Frisians.
We can conclude that the eighth century AD was a very bloody mess in the northern regions and must have given the Franks a certain image. But they achieved where the Romans had failed: to conquer the land north of the River Rhine.
The defense of the Walcheren in AD 837 was the responsibility of count Ekkehard and -interestingly- the Danish commander Halfdan Hemming. Both were killed and the Walcheren was lost for the Franks. The Vikings would remain the de facto rulers of the Walcheren for the rest of the ninth century AD. It put a precedent in the Viking’s strategy that they would apply soon at the mouths of the rivers Thames, Loire and Seine too.
The defeat was not a little detail for the Franks and their large and proud kingdom. Louis the Pious postponed his travels to Italy and immediately went to his kaiserpfalz in Nijmegen (a town in present-day the Netherlands). Locals, Frisian skippers and Frisian dukes were blamed by Louis for the whole disaster. They would have been too slow to organize the defense and didn’t make their ships available to the Franks. The Frisian count of Westergo, Gerulf the Elder, was blamed for conspiracy with the Danes and his fiefs in villae Cammingehunderi, Mid Frisia (the area between the current towns Franeker and Berlikum in province Friesland in the Netherlands) were taken away from him. All Louis' accusations might have been true. Why would the pagan Frisians be disloyal to their pagan Danish cousins with whom they were also entangled in maritime trade for so long? To help the Franks they had resisted and feared for so long? No, the Frisians were no integrated, Christian Franks (yet) and sabotage could have been the strategy indeed.
Those Frisian sailors were not darlings, by the way. Alpertus, monk and a ninth century AD contemporary, did not award them good reviews. The Frisians were already drunk in the morning, were indulgent in adultery -as long as the woman kept her mouth- and they used rough language. Furthermore, they formed an unusually close community, according to Alpertus. In oath they were obliged to support each other's stories (read: lies). When binge-drinking, money was put together to pay for the wine. And they did the same when sharing profits.
of course all this does no longer apply to the Frisians of today...
One year after a devastating flood of AD 838 and two years after the defeat at the Walcheren, the island was transferred to the kingdom West Francia of Charles the Bald. King Lothar of Middle Francia did not agree and strove to possess all of Frisia, also the areas south of the River Rhine. Therefore, King Lothar illegally gave the Walcheren in fief to Viking warlord Harald Junior. This was against the sore leg of chronicler Prudentius who was of course loyal to his boss. The Annals of Saint Bertin of AD 841 state the following:
"To Harald who with other Danish pirates for a number of years, to his [Lothar’s] advantage, had done so much damage to Frisia and other coastal countries of the Christian world in order to harm his father [Louis the Pious], he gave for this service the Walcheren and the neighboring places in fief (…) A deed which certainly deserves every abhorrence that people who had brought evil on to Christians were placed in charge of Christian countries and people and of Christ’s church"
It was a so-called 'magnificent gift' since from the Walcheren an immense trade could be protected, controlled and exploited. "If you can’t beat them join them," King Lothar might have said. He was successful with this keep-your-enemy-close strategy. After giving parts of Frisia in fief to Danish warlords almost no killings and looting in this part of the empire took place anymore. Instead, the Vikings shifted and intensified their activities to Flanders, West Francia and the British Isles. Poor Flandres, it would stay a battleground for foreign powers for the rest of its history. And King Lothar went even further. He gave West Frisia (more-or-less present-day provinces of Noord Holland and Zuid Holland) and the trade emporium Dorestat to the Danish warlord Rorik. East Frisia (present-day region Ostfriesland in north-west Germany) was given in fief to warlord Harald Klak. So, three Viking warlords wielded ax and power over the estuaries of the rivers Scheldt, Meuse, Rhine and Weser. Well done.
The area of present-day provinces of Friesland and Groningen in the Netherlands (Mid Frisia) remained free from Danish authority. A couple of times Vikings attempted to attack this area, though. But it was always a complete catastrophe for the Norsemen. Siegfrid, a former commander of the Great Heathen Army even and responsible for the siege of Parisiorum (Paris), was killed while trying. The two warlords Björn Ironside and Rodulf Haraldsson, after having raided the British Isles, made the same mistake and found Walhalla in the dark-blue, smelling mud of the salt marshes. Rodulf's attack near Dokkum was in AD 873. No less than eight-hundred men of Rodulf's band were killed by the Frisians under command of the Frisian Count Albdag. The survivors of the Danish army had the pledge never ever to return to Frisia. They didn't. Three strikes out, was the clear message from Mid Frisia.
In the year AD 843, with the treaty of Verdun, Frisia south of the River Meuse was ceded to West Francia, kingdom of Charles the Bald. He lent the Walcheren to warlord Godfrid Haraldsson, who might later have been succeeded by warlord Rodulf Haraldsson. Anyhow, the Vikings could more-or-less freely continue doing their thing at the Walcheren base. Yes, even organize an invasion army and fleet to conquer (most of) the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britannia.
The Great Heathen Army
(Mycel Heathen Here)
In the year AD 865 Norse armies gathered like an enormous thunderstorm to enter what is now England. That was four centuries after Hengest, the famous slayer of the Frisian king Finn, and his brother Horsa invaded the British Isles with their army of the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, very possible departing from the coasts of Frisia as well. This according to the influential Bede's eighth century AD Ecclesiastical History of the English People. And it would be two centuries before 'Britain' would be invaded again. This time by another Viking or Norseman, William the Conqueror, in AD 1066. In AD 1688 Britain would be invaded yet again. Again this invasion was staged from province Zeeland. This time by William of Orange, leaving from the Low Countries for Britain with an impressive army of more than 20,000 soldiers. The Brits didn't even try to resist William. Poor Britain. What was left of the once proud Kentish Invicta? Foreign armies seemingly invading at free will for centuries and we haven't mentioned the Romans yet. So, have some compassion when it comes to the Brexit. It's emotional.
Back to the particular invasion of AD 865. The Viking armies would unite into the much dreaded Great Heathen Army and this army would ransack England for a stunning fourteen years. It's generally accepted that not only Norsemen went raiding, but men of other tribes joined Viking gangs as well. Notably the Frisians. For example, in AD 855 an army of Dani et Frisones 'Danes and Frisians' landed on the island of Sheppey eastern England, according to the Annales Lindisfarneses. But Old-Frisian codices and law books from for example the shires Rüstringen in Germany and Fivelgo in the Netherlands dating from the around the thirteenth century AD, also still made reference to the Frisians participating in overseas raiding campaigns of their neighbors the Vikings, whether these men were forced to participate or joined as adventurer. Read more about these fighters in our blog post Frisian fighters returning from Viking war bands.
The three commanders of this heathen army were Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan and Ubba the Frisian or Ubbi fríski. He was also recorded as Ubba dux Fresciorum and as Ubbo Fresicus of Saxo. Whatever his name was and whether or not he was one of the sons of Viking Ragnarr Loðbrók, Ubba gathered his Scaldingi in West Frisia and crossed with his fleet to England from 'stepping stone' the Walcheren. Scaldingi, or Scaldi, was the name for the Scheldt Vikings. Indeed, the river had been named Vikings after itself. Nice achievement!
Remember these facts when crossing the Oosterscheldekering (the huge storm surge barrier over the River East-Scheldt): visualize the ships of the Scaldingi -with a shouting Ubba- sailing to England.
Ubba the Frisian fought during his career on either side of the canal and eventually died in battle in AD 878 near Countisbury in Devon, England. According to the twelfth century AD chronicler Gaimar, Ubba is buried in Devon in a mound called Ubbalawe, meaning Ubba's barrow. Local legend has it Ubba is buried in the Wind Hill near Lynmouth in Devon. Or was he one of the 300 Vikings buried at the mass grave in Derbyshire? Maybe the body of a leader with a boar's tusk between his legs.
Anyway, no sea this time to reveal its contents. We must dig. Quick!
Note: Ubba the Frisian got a face with the Norwegian actor Rune Temte in the TV series The Last Kingdom.
Suggestions for further reading:
Bremmer, R.H., "Thi Wilde Witsing" Vikings and Otherness in the Old Frisian Laws (2020)
Heerma van Voss, L., Michael Pye's Edge of the World. Een succesvolle, maar mislukte geschiedenis van de Noordzee (2016)
Henderikx, P.A., Land, water en bewoning. Waterstaats- en nederzettingsgeschiedenis in de Zeeuwse en Hollandse delta in de Middeleeuwen (2001)
Henstra, D.J., Friese graafschappen tussen Zwin en Wezer. Een overzicht van de grafelijkheid in middeleeuws Frisia ca. 700-1200 (2012)
IJssennagger, N., Central because Liminal. Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World (2017) Klaesoe, I.S. (ed), Viking trade and settlement in continental Western Europe (2010)
Klerk, de A., Vlaardingen in de wording van het graafschap Holland 800-1250 (2018)
Leeuwen, van, J., Middeleeuws Medemblik: een centrum in de periferie (2014)
Lewis, S.M., Rodulf and Ubba. In search of a Frisian-Danish Viking (2018)
Looijenga, A. & Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)
Meijlink, B., Silkens, B. & Jaspers, N.L., Zeeën van Tijd. Grasduinen door de archeologie van 2500 jaar Domburg en het Oostkapelse strand (2017)
Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Strijd om West-Frisia. De ontstaansgeschiedenis van het graafschap Holland; 900-1100 (2016)
Pestell, T., The Kingdom of East Anglia, Frisia and Continental Connections, c. AD 600-900, 2014
Pey, M., The edge of the world. How the North Sea made us what we are (2014)
Roesdahl, E., The Vikings (2016)
Rooijendijk, C., Waterwolven. Een geschiedenis van stormvloeden, dijkenbouwers en droogmakers (2009)
Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019)
Tuuk, van der, L., De Franken (2016)
Tuuk, van der, L., Vikingen. Noormannen in de Lage Landen (2015)
Winroth, A. The age of the Vikings (2014)