• Hans Faber

In debt to the beastly Westfrisians



This post is about the harsh history of the ‘beastly’ Westfrisians, and especially those of the town of Medemblik. Medemblik, grande dame of region Westfriesland in province Noord Holland in the Netherlands. There are many legends about Medemblik. For examle that it was the city where King Radbod resided. But, above all it is a history of a stubborn and centuries-long fight. A fight of the bestiales Fresones against both the elements of nature, and the elements of worldly, political powers.


Note that the terminology in this post can be a bit confusing, but it is essential to use it right, especially since mixing up the names in an encounter with a beastly Westfrisian can be deadly dangerous.

  1. The name West Frisia is reserved for the area of medieval Frisia that used to be more or less the combined present-day provinces Noord Holland, Zuid Holland and Zeeland, including the northwest coast of West Flanders and the lower reaches of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Stichtse Vecht. The latter being the pagus ‘district’ Nifterlake.

  2. The name Westfriesland is reserved for the region within province Noord Holland. Westfrisians, or in Dutch language Westfriezen, are the inhabitants of region Westfriesland. They are the topic of this post.

  3. The name Westerlauwers Friesland, sometimes also named West-Friesland, is the current province Friesland. It is the area west of the River Lauwers. Westerlauwers Friesland, when being refered to in the Middle Ages, is also named Central Frisia or Mid Frisia, since it is located east of West Frisia and west of East Frisia. The latter is today’s region Ostfriesland in the northwest of Germany.

Still up for it? Because we are about to tell the brutal story of the grande dame, of the town of Medemblik and the wider region Westfriesland? Before telling you the truth, we start with fiction.


1. Fiction

In the year 2017, it was exactly 500 years ago that Cornelius Gerardi Aurelius wrote his Cronycke van Hollant, Zeelant ende van Vrieslandt ‘Chronicle of Holland, Zeeland and Friesland’ also known as the Divisiekroniek. These three provinces were formerly known as Frisia. The Divisiekroniek included the famous fabrication that the people of Holland descended from the so-called freedom-worshipping Batavi or Batavians. A people that lived in the river Rhine area, during the Roman occupation of the south of what is today the Netherlands. Although it was Aurelius who wrote the Divisiekroniek, it were the monks of the scriptorium ‘library’ of the Abbey of Egmond, the most influential abbey of the County of Holland, who created the link between the Batavi and the Dutchmen: the Batavian myth. If interested in the role of the Abbey of Egmond in the emergence of the county Holland, read our post The Abbey of Egmond and the rise of the Gerulfing Dynasty.


The Divisiekroniek and its myths, amazingly, would be taught with a poker face for the next four 400 years at Dutch elementary and high schools as historical truth. Yes, for 400 hundred years. Four centuries long. Let the seconds and ages sink in. We seriously do not rule out there are still people in the Netherlands who think the Batavi are in some way relevant for their origine. Well, besides perhaps for the people from the area called Batavia, in Dutch language Betuwe, in central Netherlands, they are not. Period.

This chap Aurelius also produced the myth that the town of Medemblik was the seat of the much feared king of Frisia Radbod, also widely known as Redbad. But variations exist, like Rathbold, Rathbodus, Radbodus, Redbodus, Redbald, Radboud, Rabbodus, Rebbolt, Rambault, Rembauz, Robuet, Rabel, Rabeu, Rapoto, Reinbaldr, Rabeu, Richoldus, Ritzert, Ritsaert etc. Inspired by Aurelius’ chronicle, Martinus Hamconius wrote in 1609 the ‘Frisia seu de viris rebusque’. It tells, or better lies, about the first duke of West Frisia namely Diederik Haronis. Duke Diederik supposedly was a grandson of king Radbod and founded Medemblik in the year 300. In 330 this dude Diederik proclaimed himself king of Frisia. Just like the Batavi origin myth, utter nonsense too, of course.


Another myth concerns the medieval castle in Medemblik, named Kasteel Radboud. It is the legend that king Radbod had his castle built at Medemblik in the seventh century, on the spot where six centuries later count Floris V of Holland would erect one of his five hated coercion castles, in an effort to finally submit the beastly Westfrisians. In his fight against the Christians, heathen king Radbod threw his prisoners of war in a pit inside his castle. Radbod’s daughter, however, tried to help the miserable victims of her father. She got caught by her father, and he threw her in one of his dungeons too. He also made her wear a crown of thorns. After Charlemagne defeated the Frisians, king Radbod fled to Denmark, and his daughter was freed, so the cruel legend ends. In reality, king Radbod died at the height of his power in the year 719, after a lingering illness. There is still a part of the former impressive medieval castle standing in Medemblik, dating from 1288.



Another legend about Radbod is the origin of the Gravinnenweg ‘countesses road’ in province Friesland. This is a drowned, stone road at the bottom of lake Sneekermeer. This ‘road’ was built by a countess to support the movement of an army, according to legend. Others say it was not Gravinnenweg, but originally Gegravenweg meaning ‘dug-road’, ordered by king Radbod. When strong winds cause low water levels, skippers can still hit this stone road with the floor of their ships. Truth is, the ‘road’ is a residue of a long, straight-lined moraine at the bottom of the lake created during the last glacial period.


If we make an excursion to about where king Radbod actually might have resided, than one of the best speculations comes from historian Dijkstra (2011). Upfront, he explicitly classifies his theory as speculation. No scientific misunderstandings there.


According to Dijkstra’s construct, you very well can assume the presence of a powerful family around present-day Rijnsburg in province Zuid Holland. This is a settlement that was called Hrothaluashem or Rodulfsheim in the eighth century. Rodulfsheim translates as ‘homestead of Rodulf’. Rodulf is also know from extending gifts to the Church of Utrecht in the eighth century. A big man, indeed. Later, shortly after the Viking rule of Rorik of Dorestad and Godfrid the Sea-King had ended in West Frisia, it was count Gerulf the Elder of West Frisia who had possessions in the area of Rijnsburg too. This was in the ninth century. Gerulf’s grandson was named (drum roll) Radbod. Furthermore, there were close ties between the House of Gerulfings and the bishopric of Utrecht. A ninth/tenth century bishop of Utrecht was named (drum roll) Radbod.


What at least is evident, that the mouth of the River Old Rhine has been a locaction of great strategic importance, and thus a base for ruling elites. We refer also to our posts Foreign fighters returning from Viking war bands and Tolkin pleaded in favor of King Finn where more is said about Rodulf and Rijnsburg.


Old-Frisian law codices, specifically Codex Unia of the thirteenth century, go even further, and make of Redbad the heathen king of the North: thi koning fan Danemercum 'the king of Denmark'. The saga is about the Danish king Radbod meeting Charlemagne in the present-day town of Franeker in modern province Friesland. The part of this Radbod-Charlemagne saga that deals with the twelve asegas, is intriguing. An asega can be described as an expert of law who guided judicial processes in the Middle Ages during the gathering of the thing or ding in Frisian language. A meant 'law' and sega meant 'to say'. The saga is even more interesting, because a preserved seal of Medemblik dated 1294, depicts a ship with thirteen passengers. So, we are back at grande dame Medemblik.


seal Medemblik 1294

Anyway, back to the saga. Charlemagne ordered the twelve asegas from the Seven Sealands to appear before court, and to choose the new laws of Frisia. The Seven Sealands, Sawen Selandum in Old-Frisian language, were free peasant republics which formed the loose federation Frisia. Stretching from region Westfriesland to region Ostfriesland at the mouth of the River Weser. The twelve asegas refused five times to appear before Charlemagne. Ultimately, on the sixth day the asegas confessed to Charlemagne they were incapable to choose new laws. Now, Charlemagne gave them three choices: (1) to be beheaded, (2) to become un-free, or (3) to be put on a rickety ship "and that sunder allerhanda rower anda rema anda towe" (translated as: and that without rudder and oar and rope). They chose the third option, the rickety ship. Smart choice, but still one that was not hazard-free.


At high sea, the twelve asegas started praying, when a thirteenth person joined them out of nowhere. The fellow carried a golden axe. With it he steered the rickety ship back to safety, to the shores at a place called Eswei. There he dug up a sod with his axe, and immediately a sweet well sprung up. Just like Moses did with his rod on rock in the Sinai desert. The place was named Axenshove ever since. Furthermore, and most importantly, all what the thirteenth person taught the other twelve asegas was considered law. After he finished his teachings, he disappeared.

The Saga of the Twelve Asegas

This andera deis het hi, that se fore that riucht come. Tha comen se and keren foresprecan, tolif fan tha sawen selandum. Tha het hi, that se riucht kere. Tha jaraden se ferstis. Dis tredda deis het hi se koma. Tha tegen hia nedscin, ther thi fria Fresa mit riuchte mei hava. Dis sexta deis het hi, dat se riucht kere. Da spreken se, hye ne kude. Tha sprack thi konigh: “Nu lidze jc hit jo tofara thre karan, hoder jo liawera se, that ma jo alle haudie, than j alle ain wirde, thanna jo en scip jowe, also sterck, ther anne ebba ende een floed mey witstan, and that sunder allerhanda rower and rema and towe”. Tha keren hya dat schip ende folen wt mitta ebba also fyr, dat se neen aland ne muchten sian. Tha was him leithe to mode. Tha sprack thi ena, ther fan Widekinesslachte was, thi forma asega: “Jc habbe herd, that ws Hera God, da hi an erdrike was, tolif jungeran hade, and hi selva threttundista ware, and hi to himmen come al bislotena dorum, and traste se and lerde se. Hu ne bidda wi naut, that hi ws anne threttundista sende, the runs riocht lere and ti lande wise”. Tha folen hia alle an hara kne and beden inlike. Da se da bedinge heden deen, tha segen hia anne threttundista an there stiorne sitta, and ene goldene axe up siner axla, ther hi mede to lande wether stiurde wit stram and wit wind. Tha se to lande comen, tha warp hi mitt her axe up that land, and warp ene ture up. Da ontsprongh deer een burna. Aldervmbe hat that ti Axenshove, and et Eswei quamen hia an land, and seten vmbe tha burna, and hot so him thi threttundista lerde, that nomen hia riuchte. Tach ne wistet nemma under tha fluke, hot thi threttundista ware, ther to him komen was, also lic was hi aller ekum. Tha him that riucht wisid hade, tha neren ner tolif. Aldervmbe scen in tha lande threttene asegan wasa, and hara doman agen hia to delane et Axenshove and et Eswei. And hwerso hia an tua spracat, so achten tha sawen the sex in ti haliane. Aldus ist landriucht alra Fresena.


Of course, the thirteenth asega was Christ. And, because it was Jesus who chose the laws himself, the laws of Frisia were of divine nature. Similar to how Moses received laws for his people from his god as well. In other words, the whole story is very much inspired by the gospel of Luke. The devine nature of laws originates are connected with the sacral nature of the thing, also called ding or þing or ting. These where the Germanic gatherings where, among other, the so-called better laws were chosen. Read our post The Thing is... to learn more about the thing gatherings, and that the Frisians had a more than modest contribution to the history of the thing.


The locations Eswei and Axenshove of the saga never have been identified, though. Eswei might translate as 'the way or paths of the gods', And, why Medemblik used to have a city seal depicting this story, we do not know either. Nevertheless, it is intriguing that these stories fit the origin myth of the Frisians, namely that a stranger king, who came with a ship from overseas, established new laws and founded a new people. Similar origin myths exist about the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. But also about king Ælla of the South-Saxons, landing in England in the year 477, according to the late ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. All these origin myths might be traced back to the events during the Migration Period (IJssennagger 2017). Read more about these ancient social memories in our post We'll drive our ships to new land.


Legends about king Radbod also have survived in northwestern Germany where he often is nicknamed Wilde Jäger 'wild hunter', associating him with the god Wodan. A first legend is that during storm and thunder, king Radbod on his black horse gallops along the coast at Norden in Ostfriesland. Another legend about Radbod is that in Leer in Ostfriesland, so-called eerdmantjes 'goblins' guard over Radbod's treasure. Also in Ostfriesland, in Berumerfehn, the story exists that king Radbod was buried in the Radbodsholz there, translated as 'Radbod's Woods'. In Dunum, also in Ostfriesland, a burial mound is named Rabbelsberg or Radbodsberg, meaning 'Radbod's Hill'. The ghost of Radbod makes the swamps nearby still unsafe, according to locals. Another legend has it that king Radbod was buried more to the south in Germany, in Hasseberg. A complete different location where Radbod might be buried, according to yet another legend, is the Frisian, rocky island Heligoland in the German Bight, far at the North Sea. King Radbod supposedly had a stronghold at this mystical, red island.


Interestingly, the legend of Radbod did not stay within the territories of former Frisia. Even in the very south of France, not far from Lourdes, Saint Fris of Bassoues is being worshiped as a martyr to this very day. According to tradition, Saint Fris supposedly is a son of king Radbod. Maybe this goes back to the Vita Vulframni 'the life of Wulfram'. Saint Wulfram of Fontenelle lived in the second half of the seventh century. Wulfram assisted bishop Wilibrord to convert the Frisians. King Radbod is said not to have opposed to their activities. Even his son was baptized. And, as soon as his son was lifted out of the font, he was freed from the flesh. Better believe it! Read our post Like Father, Unlike Son about this Franco-Frisian soldier-saint.


We stop here with telling about random myths that exist around Radbod, and of which quite a lot are connected to Medemblik. Knowing that there are probably many more sagas and legends. Even today, new stories about Radbod are being created, like the book Radbods Schwert, published in 2017. Somehow, this king was worth to be remembered throughout many generations. Maybe he was not that horrible. It might just as well be that Radbod, despite being portrayed by the Franks as a pagan and thus violent man, in reality was an influential aristocrat with close ties with the Frankish court, of which the marriage of his daughter Thudsinda with Grimoald, who was the successor of the maior domo of the Frankish kingdom, appears to be a striking indication (Van der Tuuk 2018). Maybe, and now we have to speak with a soft voice, Radbod was not even heathen anymore. And with an even softer vice, maybe not even a king.


2. Truth

The settlement Medemblik has had many names. It evolved from Medemolaca into Medemblik. In between, it was named Medemelacha, Medenblec, Medemblick, Memelick, Medenblicq, Medenblick, Medenbliek and Medemleck.


In (Old) Dutch medem means gift or gem, and derives from the Germanic word maiþmaz (Van Renswoude 2021). How nice would this have been to explain the name Medemblik. Its the name has a more down-to-earth origin, however. The oldest name Medemolaca, around 900, is derived from miduma and laku. Miduma meaning ‘middle’ and laku meaning 'stream draining peaty grounds'. Compare it to the English verb 'to leak' or the Dutch verb lekken. Thus, this stream would be the middlemost of three streams. In fact, the oldest names Medemolaca and Medemelacha are toponyms which are even older than place names in region Westfriesland, suggesting continuous habitation from the Roman Period.

The creek ridges (yellow) with the northern branch being the Abbekerk Creek

Medemblik is located on the ridge of the Abbekerk Creek. This used to be a big creek entering from the North Sea in the west flowing through the dunes into the hinterlands of what is currently Westfriesland. The creek ridge runs via the villages Aartswoud, Abbekerk, Twisk, Opperdoes to Medemblik. In comparison with its surroundings, the sedimentation of this former creek was more sandy. When the River Vlie east of Medemblik widened over time, the water of lacus 'lake' Flevo, or Flevomeer (today lake IJsselmeer), could find its way to sea easier. The effect was that peatlands bordering lake Almere were drained during the Roman times. These spongy soils settled and shrank, whilst the old sandy creek-sediments did not. Thus the former creek became an elevated ridge in the lower-laying landscape. To say it chic and with airs: a process of relief inversion.


The wider area, including the area northeast of Medemblik toward to Stavoren, was called Westflinge. This name translates as ‘west of Vlie’, by then the River Vlie was still a normal sized river. Later, much of Westflinge would disappear and swallowed by the sea. The area Westflinge was therefore bigger than current Westfriesland. Probably a peat landscape full with little streams and islands. The people of this area were named the Westlingi, the origin of the Westfrisians.


It was in the second half of the seventh century, people founded the settlement that became Medemblik, at the ridge of the Abbekerk Creek. It was the time local markets or trading sites named a wic (also wijk, vik, wich, originating from the Latin word vicus) and bigger trade emporia emerged. This wic was well connected to lake Almere and to the River Vlie via the Medemolaca Creek. A creek that was about thirty meters wide at the time. The settlement developed into a so-called Langwurt in German language, meaning an oblong-shaped, elongated terp. A terp, or Wurt in German language, is an artificial settlement mound. Read our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps to have more information about terps. The specific elongated terps, or Langwurte, were typically situated close to an estuary or bay with rivers or creeks, connecting them with the interior. A famous former Langwurt is Emden. The settlement of Medemblik was more or less 400 meters long with shipyards, quays and scaffolds. Houses were located about ten meters from the banks and placed in a right angle. The Langwurt and the street plan is considered by some scholars as typical for early-medieval Frisian trading towns.


early-medieval Medemblik

The old age of Medemblik is also confirmed by the original patron of the church, namely Saint Martin. The Franks, when subduing the Frisians in the first quarter of the eighth century, had Saint Martin as their patron saint. The oldest traces are a tuff foundation of the twelfth century. A church that measured 45 by 20 meters, which was significant then. This tuff-stone church wase placed upon a wooden predecessor. The church in Medemblik would become the main church in West Frisia, and also the church for ecclesiastical justice, a seendkerk in Dutch language. Today, it is the Saint Boniface Church.


A Church built with the help of Wodan


After the heathen king Radbod was defeated, the Germanic gods were not yet. When the people of Medemblik started to build the Saint Martin church, the foundation of the tower kept being washed away. Even after they chose another spot to build the tower, it kept being washed away or sank into soil. And when it happened, they smelled the scent of sulpher. Then, Wodan appeared at the master builder. If the master builder would sacrifice twenty oxen, Wodan promised to help him out. After all the beasts were sacrificed, Wodan said to take the hides and to put them underneath the foundation. So the master builder did, and the tower could be built, finally.


From mid-eighth century, the influence of the Franks on West Frisia grew. The period between 800-1050 can be described as the Frisian-Frankish period. With the emergence of the counts of West Frisia/Holland, the Frankish influence waned in the wider region of West Frisia. It gave region Westfriesland the opportunity to take matters in their own hands and become a lordless area. At the end of the tenth century, the counts of West Frisia started to try incorperating Westfriesland under their sphere of influence. It took them a few centuries to accomplish this. We come to it later in this post.


Besides that the population of the Frisia terp region along the Wadden Sea had increased strongly, the (new) Frisians extended their influence during the sixth and seventh century south of the River Rhine, all along the North Sea coast to Sincfala (current inlet the Zwin) in Flanders. The second half of the seventh century was, as said, also the period trade emporia emerged along the important trading routes. These were Quentovic (near Pas-de-Calais, France), Hamwic/Hamwih (modern Southampton) and Sliaswic (later Haithabu and Hedeby) near Schleswig in northern Germany, and the biggest of all Dorestat (modern Wijk bij Duurstede). Dorestat stretched a staggering three thousand meters along the banks of the River Old Rhine. Read our post The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe to learn more about the history of Dorestat.


Around these emporia, regional trading towns developed, like Birka (near Stockholm), Dispargum (modern Duisburg), Gipeswic (modern Ipswich), Hoei in Belgium, Eburacum/Eoforwic/Jórvík (modern York), Lundenburth/Lundenwic (modern London), Ribe, Stavoren, villa Walichrum/Walicras/Walacria (modern Domburg), Witla, and, of course, grand dame Medemblik. Witla still is not located but was situated in the eastuary of the River Meuse, probably near present-day Voorne. These were all principal sites where often silver coins were being produced and used, although the actual minting of coin has never been established for Medemblik to date. By the way, did you notice all the wics and vics in the names?


The early-medieval international trade consisted of, among other, hides and parchment, bone, wool and cloth (the famous pallium Fresonicum, read our blog post about this expensive commodity), milk products (cheese and butter), eggs, flax and linen, wood, jewelry, pottery (including Tating type being the fine luxurious stuff), glassware (including funnel beakers), arms, spices, gold brocade, Chinese silk, exotic shells, raisins, walnuts, beads, wine from the upper-Rhine area, quern stones from Mayen, whetstones, mortars, furs, walrus ivory, construction wood, salted/dried fish, amber, combs, ore and, of course, slaves. The first Frisian merchant documented in written history, traded in slaves. He was doing business in London in the year 673. For now, we leave the history of flourishing Frisian slave-trade aside, although this trade might have been one of the central pillars of the great trade. Read our blog post Merciless medieval merchants. for a bit more on the slave trade. The quality of the linen of the Frisians, a people once described as ‘the enemy on the other side of the River Rhine’, was already renowned with the Romans in the first century. It was the Roman Plinius who wrote that the women of these enemies wore the most beautiful cloths made of linen.


Many of these goods clearly meant for luxury as well, and were part of the gift economy that had arisen after the Migration Period. The era of ring givers, and an inspiration for the trilogy Lord of the Rings too. Check out our post Tolkien pleaded in favor of king Finn. Finn was another king of Frisia mentioned in a.o. the Old-English epic Beowulf. Thing here to remember is, that Medemblik was connected to this supra-regional trade in which the Frisians were important middle-men, if not the most important middle-men. If you want to read more about the significance and magnitude of the Frisian free-trade, read our post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks.


One very important commodity not yet mentioned, was salt. But, before we go saline, the trading port of the town of Stavoren situated in the southwest of province Friesland needs some additional attention. The Frisian ports Stavoren and Medemblik were known as the twin sisters, located opposite each other on the (former) River Vlie. Therefore, together being the entry point for the Scandinavian trade en route between the Baltic Sea and the Frankish Empire. Stavoren was just like Medemblik a Langwurt and had a similar street plan with (store) houses set in right angles at the river bank. Still recognizable in the street plan today.


Also, both ports traded in salt. Salt that was extracted from the seemingly endless hinterlands of saline peat (besides from peat, salt was also extracted from samphire). The digging-up and burning of peat, had disastrous effects on the landscape. The many great lakes in the southwestern part of province Friesland of today, now enjoyed so much during summer holidays, are, in fact, the scars of this unsustainable commercial activity. Not much later the Frisians in Kreis Nordfriesland in the northern-most part of Germany, learned the hard way what irresponsible commercial use of land and resources can lead to, i.e. the disappearance of a complete towns overnight. Making a fictional Atlantis historical. Read our post about the many Atlantises of Frisia: How a town drowned overnight. Read also our post The United Frisian Emirates and Black Peat to understand the massive commercial exploitation of peat and the social and environmental impact of it during the High Middle Ages.


The western coast of the Netherlands consisted of dunes with estuaries of the (former) rivers Old Rhine, Meuse and Oer IJ. Behind these old dunes were merely impassable peat areas and countless small streams that only became habitable in the tenth century or so. Population was mainly limited along the rivers and in the estuaries, with early-medieval settlements at modern Valkenburg and Rijnsburg. It is estimated that in the late Roman Period along the North Sea coast of modern province Zuid Holland, no more than 300 people lived. In the Early Middle Ages this grew to an estimated 2,000 people. But this was still a modest-sized population when compared to the population living at the tidal marshlands in the north of Germany and the Netherlands, or compared to the central river-area Batavia, more inland. Those populations ran into the tens of thousands. Basically, the North Sea coast in the west was a barren and deserted landscape. No surprise the more numerous Frisians of the northern terp region were able to expand their influence along the North Sea coast southward without too much of a hassle after the Romans had retreated south. Medemblik and the areas of what is now the island Texel and Wieringen, were exceptions. Here more people lived. People started to cultivate the land around Medemblik and at Wieringen over the course of the eighth century already, and they were well cultural connected to Mid Frisia, i.e. present province Friesland.


wider area Noord Holland with Medemblik on the top

Between 900 and 1200, the waterwolf again got a firm grip on the land with great floods. ‘Blanke Hans‘, as how the Nordfriesen in Germany call a rough North Sea, further widened the River Vlie. Thus separating Westfriesland from Mid Frisia even further. The truly devastating All Saints’ Flood of 2-3 November 1170 had far-reaching consequences. Not only it meant the end of regional trading ports like Walichrum at present-day Domburg in province Zeeland, it also completely washed away the Creil Woods north of Medemblik, and transformed the pagi 'districts' of Wiron, present-day Wieringen, and Texel into islands.


The former land of the Creil Woods have been reclaimed from the sea in the year 1930, and is now known as the Wieringermeer Polder. And with it, attaching the island Wieringen back to the mainland again, where it originally belonged. Texel remains an island. For now, that is. Read our post Refuge on a terp 2.0, waiting to be liberated to read more about the history of the Wieringermeer Polder.


Contemporary Abbot Outhof wrote in that terrible year 1170:

Dit jaar is voor de Hollanders, Zeeuwen en Vriezen een jaar van ellende geweest. De Vriezen overquam de allerellendigste ramp, bij wien alle het Landt tusschen ‘t Texel, Medemblik en Stavoren van ‘t Water wierde ingeslokt. En wierde de Zuyderzeeboezem overmatiglyk vergroot. Texel en Wieringen, tot nog toe aan ‘t vaste land geslagen, rukte er de zee af.

This year has been a year of misery for the people of Holland, Zeeland and Friesland. The Frisians were affected the worst and their land between Texel, Medemblik and Stavoren was swallowed by the sea. And the Zuiderzee 'southern sea' bosom was disproportionately enlarged. Texel and Wieringen, until then part of land, were torn away from it by the sea.


So, in the twelfth-century, Medemblik, and whole region Westfriesland for that matter, became geographically isolated. To the east, the River Vlie slowly and with shocks had changed into an inland sea, the Zuiderzee 'southern sea'. To the north, the Creil Woods were turned into sea as well. To the west, the small River Rekere had widened too, and separated Westfriesland from the early-medieval pagus 'district' Kinhem or Kinheim, later named Kennemerland. Kennemerland is the area stretching along the North Sea dunes and where the counts of West Frisia firmly were in control. The result was, that the people of Westfriesland were on their own from then on. After all this violence of nature, it was time too to give dike-building and -reinforcing some serious consideration.


But, more threats were at their doorsteps: the power-hungry house of the Gerulfings of West Frisia.


3. Dare

After the Vikings Rorik of Dorestad and Godfrid the Sea-King, who had ruled as Frankish dukes over West Frisia over the period 841 until 885 with their power base maybe even in nearby settlement of Hallum, modern Egmond-Binnen in Kennemerland, the Frisian nobleman Gerulf the Elder immediately stepped in. It is speculated that count Gerulf the Elder descended from king Radbod, see earlier this post. Again, no historic support for it. Whatever his pedigree, Gerulf and his offspring would be successful in achieving an autonomous powerful earldom. They are the founding fathers of the powerful county of West Frisia, later to become the County of Holland. Thus, important for the creation of the Netherlands, eventually. Or, should these credits go to the Vikings Rorik and Godfrid since these 'civilized gents' ruled this same area as an entity first? Interesting idea, Holland founded by Viking warlords.


Whomever we should award the Founding Father Medal of Holland, what is interesting is that in first instance the Gerulfings named themselves counts of West Frisia. Only at the turn of eleventh to the twelfth century, they re-titled themselves as count of Holdland or Holtland, later Holland. With this act, separating themselves from greater Frisia more to the north and east, and creating a new identity. Re-branding is therefore not something invented in modern history.


The dynasty of the Gerulfings were able to acquire most of what used to be West Frisia. From the islands Wieringen and Texel in the north, to modern province Zeeland in the south of the Netherlands. The count-less and lord-free region Westfriesland that had arisen from around 800, as explained before, turned out to be the pièce de résistance. A civil war within Frisia. According to the chronicles, an important battle between the Westfrisians and count Dirk II took place at Rinasburg, modern town of Rijnsburg, on August 10, 975. Count Dirk was so relieved, he founded a chapel dedicated to Saint Lawrence. Later a church was built on the spot, followed by the foundation of an abbey in the twelfth century. Further hostilities happened in the year 993. This battle was won by the Westfrisians after killing the count of West Frisia, Arnulf of Ghent.


By the way, it was count Arnulf who offered refuge to Archbishop Dunstan when he was banished from England by king Eadwig. Asylum just as his predecessor king Aldgisl of Frisia had offered to the bishop of York in the seventh century. Read our post The biography of Aldgisl, unplugged, and learn more about this early refugee case.


Back to region Westfriesland. In the year 1133 the situation ran out of control. An open civil war started when Count Dirk IV marched across the borders of Westfriesland. No Article 5 of NATO to help out the Westfrisians. But in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, it were also the Westfrisians who started ransacking the wider region. They plundered villages and towns like Alkmaar, Beverwijk, and even as south as Haarlem. All settlements located on the higher sandy grounds of the region Kennemerland. It was Alkmaar that was granted city privileges in 1254. This probably was part of the counts’ strategy to fortify this town and to conquer Westfriesland. In general, from the second half of the twelfth century, the counts of Holland started to invest heavily in castles, churches and in houses of stone. Nearly all eighty castles of the county Holland have disappeared today. When in modern history the military function of these castles was lost, the stones were in high demand for other constructions, since stones and rocks are a scarcity in this region.


For long the Westfrisians were able to withstand the professional armies of the counts of West Frisia c.q. Holland, although they must have been outnumbered strongly. By making use of the marshy and inaccessible land, they could apply the tactics of guerrilla warfare. A thing the (descendants of the) Dutch became good at in the centuries to come, e.g. the Boer Wars in South Africa, and the large scale colonial wars in the Dutch East Indies.


William II, count of Holland and Zeeland, ánd elected as Holy Roman Emperor, was even slain by Westfrisians in the winter of 1256, after he fell through the ice during a winter campaign. Sometimes this deed is depicted as a barbaric thing to do, or as a death-by-change without knowing who he really was. Rubbish. Of course, the Westfrisians knew who he was. He was not solo-hiking through the area in moth-eaten lumberjack cloths. Let’s face it, the man was not on a holiday trip in Westfriesland. He was on a specific business trip, and he could not have traveled unnoticed. He was the Holy Roman Emperor.



The irony of the murder of William II is, that he granted the Frisians freedom privileges eight years before. It was in the year 1248 when count William was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the Aachen Cathedral in Germany. During the coronation, Frisians were gathered in the cathedral too. William II reconfirmed in an official charter the so-called freedom privileges that Charlemagne had given to the Frisians many centuries before, which meant the Frisians were not subordinate to any lord other than the emperor himself. Apparently, the counts of Holland since then were illiterate, because their efforts to subdue the rest of Frisia did not rest. Or, maybe William thought these Charlemagne privileges were only applicable for Mid Frisia and East Frisia, and not for Westfriesland. Read also our post Magnus' Choice. The origins of the Frisian Freedom.


It was William's son, count Floris V, who was successful at the end. To pacify the so-called 'beastly' Westfrisians, he erected the infamous coercion castles between 1282 and 1289, including the one in Medemblik. The one that is still standing. The Westfrisians revolted one last time after Floris V was murdered in the year 1296. Sadly, a year later the Westfrisians were defeated again. A definitive defeat this time. It was the very bloody Battle of Vroonen in the year 1297, that count Jan, son of Floris V, was victorious. Archaeological research on the body remains found at Vroonen, indicates the Westfrisians were executed in large numbers, and those who had survived the battlefield, were mutilated with swords on their legs. With this lost battle, the separation of Westfriesland from greater Frisia was complete. Geographical, political and cultural.


But, what a slow amputation process of Westfriesland from Frisia it had been!


4. An IOU


The Westfrisians, or Westflingi, received their nickname bestiales Fresones ‘beastly Frisians’ from the counts of Holland in the twelfth century, who themselves were named Frisians until the year 1101. This beastly nickname was unfair. Although, it must be said, their unmanageable reputation was still illustrated in the year 1608, when the Westfrisians sabotaged the famous and daring project of Jan Adriaenszoon Leeghwater to reclaim lake Beemster (nowadays a UNESCO-protected polder) by destroying its dikes.


Anyhow, the Frisians of present-day province Friesland should be grateful for the centuries-long fight the Westfrisians were able to put up against the counts. A fight both against the elements of nature, as well as against the counts of West Frisia, as said, later to become the counts of Holland. It slowed down the ambitions of the Gerulfing dynasty to conquer the rest of Frisia, which they thought they were entitled to. If Westfriesland had fallen into their greedy hands sooner, who knows the Gerulfings might have succeeded to incorporate the rest of Frisia as well. That could have meant the disappearance of the Frisian language during the High Middle Ages. Similar as happened in the regions Ommelanden in province Groningen and Ostfriesland.


Count of Holland William IV tried to invade the two sealands Westergo and Oostergo, what is together more or less modern province Friesland, at Stavoren in the year 1345. Commonly the Battle of Warns. The count's armies were defeated by the 'wild Frisians'. According to the contemporary chronicler De Lettenhove, the Frisians were dressed in heavy boots and in long coats made of heavy cloth. He furthermore wrote that the Frisians did not take captives or hostages, which was the practice in warfare that time. Above all, they immediately charged at the Holland army of William IV and started "chopping and stabbing like they were killing Saracens", the name for Muslims from northern Africa. Indeed, William IV was killed too, following the 'good' example as happened before to Holy Roman Emperor William II in Westfriesland in 1256. William IV should have been warned if he had known the history of his ancestors better. Check out our vlog about the Battle of Warns at 1345.



Note - featured image Marco van Middelkoop


Further reading

Canon van Katwijk, Rijnsburg, vroege middeleeuwen 550-1100 (website)

Cordfunke, E.H.P., Begraven verleden. Hoven en kastelen in Kennemerland [850-1350] (2018)

Cordfunke, E.H.P., Een graafschap achter de duinen. Het ontstaan en de vorming van het graafschap Holland [850-1150] (2018)

Dijkstra, M.F.P., Rondom de mondingen van Rijn en Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3de en 9de eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)

Dijkstra, M.F.P. & Koning, J. de., All quiet at the western front (2014)

Englert, L., Radbods Schwert (2020)

Halbertsma, H., Frieslands oudheid. Het rijk van de Friese koningen, opkomst en ondergang (2000)

Henstra, D.J., Friese graafschappen tussen Zwin en Wezer. Een overzicht van de grafelijkheid in middeleeuws Frisia (ca. 700-1200) (2012)

Hines, J., The Anglo-Frisian question (2014)

Hines, J., The role of the Frisians during the Settlement of the British Isles (2001)

Hout, van J., De zoon van Radbod op avontuur in Zuid-Frankrijk. Blog Nifterlaca (2017)

IJssennagger, N., Central because Liminal. Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World (2017)

Jacobs, T.J.M., Friese vorsten (2020)

Jong, ‘t H., De dageraad van Holland. De geschiedenis van het graafschap 1100-1300 (2018)

Karkov, C.E., The boat and the Cross: Church and State in Early Anglo-Saxon Coinage (2011)

Klerk. de A., Vlaardingen in de wording van het graafschap Holland 800-1250 (2018)

Knottnerus. O.S. & Nijdam. H., Koning voor eens en altijd. Inleiding op het thema Redbad (2020)

Koopman, M., Merovingian quern stones from Mayen. Investigating the distribution of tephrite quern stones to the Netherlands in the Merovingian period (2018)

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

Leeuwen, van J., Middeleeuws Medemblik: een centrum in de periferie. Archeologisch onderzoek naar de (vroeg)middeleeuwse handelsnederzetting en het oudste regionale centrum van West-Friesland in de periode 675-1298 (2014)

leeuwen, van J. & Bartels, M.H., Middeleeuws Medemblik revisited; vijftig jaar archeologisch onderzoek naar een vroegmiddeleeuwse handelsplaats van Friezen en Franken (2013)

Leyser, H., A short history of the Anglo-Saxons (2017)

Loveluck, C. & Tys, D., Coastal societies, exchange and identity along the Channel and southern North Sea shores of Europe, AD 600–1000 (2006)

Meier, D., Seefahrer, Händler und Piraten im Mittelalter (2004)

Meeder, S. & Goosmann, E., Redbad. Koning in de marge van de geschiedenis (2018)

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

Mol, J.A. & Smithuis, J., De Friezen als uitverkoren volk. Religieus-patriottische geschiedschrijving in vijftiende-eeuws Friesland (2008)

Nieuwenhuijsen, K., De afstamming van de Hollandse graven (2009)

Nieuwenhuijsen, K., Strijd om West-Frisia. De ontstaansgeschiedenis van het graafschap Holland: 900-1100 (2016)

Order in the Quartz, The Legend Of Forseti’s Appearance At Sea (2013)

Pestell, T., The Kingdom of East Anglia, Frisia and Continental Connections, c. AD 600-900 (2014)

Redon, O., Rosenberger, B., Delort, R. & Devisse, J. (ed), Les assises du pouvoir: temps médiévaux, territoires africains; Lebecq, S., Le baptême manqué du roi Radbod (1994)

Rooijendijk, C., Waterwolven. Een geschiedenis van stormvloeden, dijkenbouwers en droogmakers (2009)

Tuuk, van der L., De eerste Gouden Eeuw. Handel en scheepvaart in de vroege middeleeuwen (2011)

Tuuk, van der L., Radbod. Koning in twee werelden (2018)

Vis, G.N.M. (ed), Het klooster Egmond: hortus conclusus (2008)

Vries, O., Asega, is het dingtijd? De hoogtepunten van de Oudfriese tekstoverlevering (2007)

Vries, de Th., Friesche sagen (1925)