In debt to the beastly Westfrisians
Updated: Jun 12
This blog post is about the harsh history of the 'beastly' Westfrisians and especially those of the town of Medemblik. Medemblik, the grande dame of region Westfriesland in province Noord Holland in the Netherlands. There are many legends about Medemblik e.g. that it was where King Radbod resided, also known as the Enemy of God. But above all it is a history of a stubborn and centuries-long fight. Against both the elements of nature and a feudal, power-hungry elite.
Note that the terminology can be a bit confusing. West Frisia is reserved for the area of Frisia that used to be more-or-less the combined present-day provinces Noord Holland, Zuid Holland and Zeeland, and also the lower area of the rivers Rhine and Meuse and the region of the river Vecht (shire Nifterlake, read our blog post Attingahem Bridge). Westfriesland, however, is the region within the province of Noord Holland. Westfrisians, or in Dutch language Westfriezen, are the people of region Westfriesland. Province Friesland together with region Ommelanden in province Groningen is also known as Mid Frisia since it is located east of West Frisia (and Westfriesland) and west of East Frisia. The latter is today's region Ostfriesland in northwestern Germany. Still up for it, because we are about to start the story with the town of Medemblik?
But before telling you the brutal truth, we start with fiction.
In the year 2017 it is 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 regions or provinces were formerly known as West 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 present-day the Netherlands. Although Aurelius wrote the Divisiekroniek, it was the scriptorium 'library' of the Abbey of Egmond, Holland's most influencial abbey, that created the link between the Batavi and the people of Holland: the Batavian myth. If interested in the role of the Abbey of Egmond in the emergence of Holland, read our blog post The Abbey of Egmond and the rise of the Gerulfings. The Divisiekroniek and its myths amazingly would be taught with a poker face for the next four-hundred years at Dutch elementary and at high schools as historical truth. Yes, for four-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 called Betuwe; read our blog post The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe) 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, who is also known as Rathbold, Redbald, Radboud or, more recently, Redbad. Inspired by Aurelius’ chronicle, Martinus Hamconius wrote in AD 1609 the ‘Frisia seu de viris rebusque’. It recounts the story of the first duke of West Frisia, namely Diederik Haronis. Duke Diederik supposedly was a grandson of King Radbod and founded Medemblik in the year AD 300. In AD 330 this dude Diederik proclaimed himself king of Frisia. Just like the Batavi orgin myth, utter nonsense too of course.
Another myth concerns the medieval castle at Medemblik, named castle Radboud. It is the legend that King Radbod had his castle built in the seventh century in Medemblik at the location where six centuries later Count Floris V would erect one of his five hated coercion castles to submit the Westfrisians. In his fight against the Christians, pagan-king Radbod threw his prisoners of war in a pit inside his castle, alive. Radbod’s daughter tried to help the victims. But when she got caught, her father threw her in one of his dungeons too, wearing a crown of thorns. After Charlemagne defeated the Frisians, King Radbod fled to Denmark, so the cruel story ends. In reality the King Radbod died at the height of his power in AD 719 because of a lingering illness.
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. Others say it was not Gravinnenweg but Gegravenweg, meaning 'dug road' ordered by (again) King Radbod. When strong winds cause low water levels, skippers can still hit this stone road with the floor of their ships. Truth is, it is the residue of a long, straight-lined moraine at the bottom of the lake.
If we make an excursion to about where King Radbod might have resided, then one of the best speculations comes from scholar 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 the present-day town of Rijnsburg. This is a settlement that was called Hrothaluashem or Rodulfsheim before in the Early Middle Ages. 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, soon after the era of the Viking rule (Rorik of Dorestad and Godfrid the Sea-King) had ended in Frisia Citerior, the West-Frisian Count Gerulf the Elder and founder of the County of Holland, 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 was named (drum roll) Radbod. Anyway, we will learn a bit more about the Gerulfing dinasty later in this blog post. And if interested in more theories about the lineage of Radbod and the alleged connection with the Counts of Holland, read also Nieuwenhuijsen's blog De afstamming van de Hollandse graven (in Dutch) or our blog post The Abbey of Egmond and the rise of the Gerulfings.
Old-Frisian law codes, specifically Codex Unia, of the thirteenth century go even further and make of Radbod the heathen king of the North: thi koning fan Danemercum 'the king of Denmark'. The sage preserved in Codex Unia is about the Danish King Radbod meeting Charlemagne in the present-day town of Franeker in province Friesland. The part of this saga about the twelve asegas is intriguing. An asega can be described as a medieval expert of Frisia law who guided judicial processes. Â meant 'law' and sega meant 'to say'. The more so, because a preserved seal of Medemblik dated AD 1294 depicts a ship with thirteen passengers. So, we are back at the grande dame Medemblik. Interestingly, boats and crosses were a popular design of Anglo-Saxon coins in the south-east of England in the eighth century, too. Clearly we have to do more research on this image.
Anyway. 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 the free peasant republics that formed the loose federation of Frisia, stretching from region Westfriesland in the Netherlands to East Frisia at the mouth of the river Weser in northwestern Germany. The twelve asegas refused five times to appear before Charlemagne. Ultimately, on the sixth day the asegas confessed to Charlemagne they could not. Charlemagne gave them three choices: to be beheaded, to become un-free or 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 rickety ship option. Smart choice, but still one that was not hazard-free.
At sea the twelve asegas started praying when a thirteenth person joined them out of nowhere at open sea. The fellow carried a golden ax and with it he steered the rickety ship back to the save shores at a place called Eswei. There he dug up a sod with his ax and immediately a well sprung up, like Moses did with his rod on rock in the Sinai. This 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.
Here -for the enthusiasts only- the original Old-Frisian text:
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. Because it was Jesus who chose the law himself, the law of Frisia was of divine origin. Similar to how Moses received laws for his people from God as well. Indeed, the whole affair is very much inspired by the Bible, Luke 8: 22-25. The locations Eswei and Axenshove never have been identified, though. And why Medemblik used to have a city seal depicting this story, we do not know either. But it is interesting that these stories fit the origin myth of the Frisians: 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. Also about King Ælla of the South-Saxons landing in England in AD 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. Read more about these ancient social memories in our blog post We'll drive our ships to new land.
Legends about King Radbod also have survived in northern Germany where he often is nicknamed Wilde Jäger 'wild hunter', associating him with Wodan. During storm and thunder King Radbod on his black horse gallops along the coast at Norden, region Ostfriesland (East Frisia). In the city of Leer in Ostfriesland, so-called eerdmantjes (goblins) guard over Radbod's treasure. Also in Ostfriesland, in the village Berumerfehn, the story exists that King Radbod was buried in the Radbodsholz there, translated as 'Radbod's Woods'. In the village Dunum in northern Germany 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. Legend has it too 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 North-Frisian red-rock island Heligoland in the German Bight at the North Sea. King Radbod supposedly had a stronghold at this mystical island too.
Interestingly, the legend of Radbod did not stay within the former territories of Frisia Magna or tota Frisia. Even in the very south of France, not far from Lourdes, Saint Fris of Bassoues is being worshiped as a martyr till 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'. Wulfram lived at the second half of the seventh century. Saint Wulfram of Fontenelle assisted bishop Wilibrord to convert the Frisians. King Radbod is said not to have opposed to their activities. Even his son was baptized. As soon as his son was lifted out of the font, he was freed from the flesh. Better believe it!
We stop here with telling about random myths that exist around Radbod and of which quite a lot are connected to the city of Medemblik. Knowing that there are probably many more. Somehow, this king was worth to be remembered throughout many generations. But 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 Theudesinda with the successor of the mayor of the palace, Grimoald, appears to be a striking indication (Tuuk, 2018). Maybe he was not even a pagan.
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.
The oldest name Medemolaca, around AD 900, is derived from miduma and laku. Miduma meaning ‘middle’ and laku meaning a stream draining peaty grounds (compare the English verb to leak or lake, or the Dutch verb lekken). Thus, this stream would be the middlemost of three streams. In fact, the oldest names Medemolaca/ Medemelacha are toponyms that are even older than West-Frisian names, suggesting continuous habitation in this area from the Roman Period, if these names were to survive.
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 now region 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 Flevo or Flevomeer in the Roman Period (and later to become the inland sea Zuiderzee, and after that again turned into a lake, namely modern lake IJsselmeer) could find its way to sea easier. The effect was that peaty areas bordering lake Almere were (better) drained. These spongy soils settled and shrank whilst the old sandy creek-sediments did not. Thus the former creek became an elevated ridge in the landscape. To say it chic and with airs: a process of relief inversion.
The wider area, including the area northeast of Medemblik towards to settlement of Stavoren was called Westflinge. This name translates as 'west of (river) Vlie' by then still a normal sized river. Later, much of Westflinge would disappear and was swallowed by the sea. The area Westflinge was therefore bigger than current region Westfriesland. Probably a peat landscape full with little streams and islands. The people of this area were named the Westlingi, the origin of the Westfriezen 'Westfrisians'.
It was in the second half of the seventh century that 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 (or 'wijk' or 'vik' or '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 being an artificial dwelling mound. To understand the history of terps better, read our blog post Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps). The specific elongated terps or Langwurten were typically situated close to an estuary or bay with rivers or creeks connecting them with the interior. It was a type of terp (or Wurt) common in the area of the Wadden Sea from the Netherlands to the Butjadingen peninsula of Germany. A famous former Langwurt is the city of Emden, Germany. The settlement of Medemblik was more-or-less four-hundred 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 typical for early-medieval Frisian trading towns.
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 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.
Besides that the population of the Frisia terp-region along the Wadden Sea had increased strongly, the (new) Frisians extended their influence during the fifth and sixth centuries south of the river Rhine along the west coast all the way to Sincfal (current ‘t Zwin) in Belgium. The second half of the seventh century also was, as said, the period trade emporia emerged along the important trading routes. These were Quentovic (near Pas-de-Calais, France), Hamwic/Hamwih (Southampton) and Sliaswic (later Haithabu and Hedeby, near Schleswig in northern Germany) and the biggest of all Dorestat (present-day Wijk bij Duurstede). Dorestat stretched a staggering three thousand meters along the banks of the river Old-Rhine. Estimated population was around 10,000 people. Read also our blog The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe with more about the 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 (still not located exactly yet but probably near present-day Voorne, the Netherlands) and, of course, grand dame Medemblik. 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 others- 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, grindstones, whetstones, mortars, furs, walrus ivory, construction wood, salted and dried fish, amber, combs, ore and -of course- slaves. The first Frisian merchant documented in written history traded in slaves in London in AD 673. But, 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. 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 (read also our blog 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 very 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 blog post How the porcupine gave birth to the U.S. buck.
One very important commodity not yet mentioned, was salt. But before we go saline, the trading port of the town of Stavoren situated in 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. The town 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 Nordfriesland (North Frisia) in the northern-most 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 blog post about the many Atlantisses: How a town drowned overnight.
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. 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 coast of current province Zuid Holland no more than three-hundred people lived. In the Early Middle Ages this grew to an estimated two-thousand 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 new 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 and after the roaring Migration Period.
Medemblik and the areas of what is now the islands Texel and Wieringen, were exceptions. Here more people lived. People started to cultivate the land around Medemblik and at Wieringen in the course of the eighth century already, and they were well cultural connected to Mid Frisia.
Between AD 900 and 1200 the waterwolf again got a firm grip on the land with great floods. 'Blanke Hans' (as how the North-Frisians in Germany call a rough North Sea) further widened the river Vlie. Thus separating region Westfriesland from Mid Frisia in the east (present-day province Friesland). 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 or Walacria (present-day Domburg in province Zeeland), it also completely washed away the Creil Woods north of Medemblik and transformed the areas 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 Wieringermeerpolder. And with it, attaching the island Wieringen back to the mainland again where it originally belonged. Texel remains an island, for now. In old Frisian sagas the Creil Woods extended south of the town of Stavoren. It was the Frisian idol Stavo that on several occasions warned the Frisians living in the southwest of province Friesland that these woods would be swallowed by the salty water.
Contemporary Abbot Outhof wrote in that terrible year AD 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 Zuyder 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 isolated. To the east the river Vlie slowly had changed into an inland sea (i.e. the Zuyder 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 region Westfriesland from the early-medieval shire Kinhem or Kinheim, later named Kennemerland. An area stretching along the North Sea dunes and where the counts of West Frisia firmly were in control. The Frisians of region Westfriesland were on their own from then on. And after all the violence of nature, it was time too to give dyke-building and dyke-reinforcing some serious consideration. But more threats were at their doorsteps: the power-hungry West-Frisian house of the Gerulfings.
After the Vikings Rorik of Dorestad and Godfrid the Sea-King, who had ruled as Frankish dukes over West Frisia (present-day provinces Noord Holland and Zuid Holland and part of the central Rhine and Meuse river-lands) over the period AD 841 until AD 885 with their power base maybe even in nearby Hallum (the present-day town of Egmond-Binnen in region Kennemerland) or at present-day Rijnsburg, the Frisian nobleman Gerulf the Elder immediately stepped in. Legend has it Count Gerulf the Elder descended from (see above) King Radbod. Again, no scientific 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 Holland and thus important for the creation of the Netherlands eventually. Or, should these credits go to the Vikings Rorik and Godfrid since these gents ruled this same area as an entity first? Interesting idea, the Netherlands founded by Viking warlords.
Whomever should be awarded the Founding Father Medal of the Netherlands, 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/Holtland eventually Holland. Thus separating themselves from greater Frisia more to the north and east and creating a new identity. Re-branding is therefore not something new.
The Gerulfings were able to acquire most of what used to be Frisia west of the river Vlie (viz 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, as explained before confusingly surrounded by the county named West Frisia, turned out to be the biggest pièce de résistance. A civil war within West Frisia. The first hostility started in AD 993 and was won by the Westfrisians after killing the count of West Frisia, Arnulf of Ghent. Count Arnulf who, by the way, offered refuge to Archbishop Dunstan when he was banished from England by King Eadwig. A protection given just as his predecessor King Aldgisl of Frisia had offered before to the bishop of York in the seventh century. Read our blog post on this early asylum case.
Back to Westfriesland. In AD 1133 the situation ran out of control and 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 that started ransacking the wider region. They plundered villages and towns like Alkmaar, Beverwijk and even as south as Haarlem, all located on the higher sandy grounds of shire Kennemerland. It was Alkmaar that was granted city privileges in AD 1254. This probably was part of the counts' strategy to fortify this town and to conquer region Westfriesland. But in general, from the second half of the twelfth century the counts of Holland started to invest heavily in castles, churches and houses of stone. Nearly all castles have disappeared. 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/Holland, although they must have been outnumbered strongly. But 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 (e.g. the Boer Wars in South Africa and the large scale colonial wars in the Dutch East Indies) in the centuries to come. William II, Count of Holland and Zeeland ánd elected as Holy Roman Emperor, was even slain by Westfrisian rebels in the winter of AD 1256, after he fell through the ice of a frozen lake during a winter campaign. In the reed he was killed by the Westfrisians and according legend his body was buried near Hoogwoud. Sometimes this deed is depicted as a barbaric thing to do or as a death-by-change without the Westfrisians 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 travel unnoticed in camouflage. He was the Holy Roman Emperor.
The irony of the murder of William II is he granted the Frisians freedom privileges eight years before. It was in the year AD 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 offical charter the so-called freedom privileges that Charlemagne had given to the Frisians earlier, which meant the Frisians were not subordinate to any lord other than the Emperor himself. Apparently, the counts of Holland 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 the Mid- and East-Frisians and not for the Westfrisians. Read also our blog post Magnus' Choice. The origins of the Frisian Freedom.
It was his son Count Floris V who was successful at the end. To pacify the so-called 'beastly' Westfrisians he erected the infamous coercion castles, including one in Medemblik, built between AD 1282 and AD 1289. The Westfrisians revolted one last time after Floris V was murdered in AD 1296. Sadly, a year later the Westfrisians were defeated again. A definitive defeat this time. It was the Battle of Vronen in AD 1297 that Count Jan, son of Floris V, was victorious. The separation of West Frisia and of Westfriesland from the rest of Frisia (Mid Frisia in the Netherlands and East Frisia in Germany) was now complete: geographical, political and cultural.
But what a slow amputation process from Frisia it had been!
4. A big 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 AD 1101. But this nickname was unfair. Although, it must be said their unmanageable reputation was still illustrated in AD 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 dykes.
Anyhow, the Mid-Frisians of present-day province Friesland should be grateful for the centuries-long fight the Westfrisians were able to put up. 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 House of the Gerulfings to conquer the rest of Frisia which they thought were entitled to. If region Westfriesland had fallen into their greedy hands sooner, who knows the House of the Gerulfings might have succeeded to incorporate this part of Frisia as well. That could have meant the disappearance of the Mid-Frisian language and culture during the High Middle Ages. As similar happened in region Ommelanden of province Groningen and in Ostfriesland (East Frisia) in Germany.
Count of Holland William IV tried to invade Mid Frisia, i.e. shires Westergo and Oostergo, at Stavoren in the year AD 1345, commonly known as the Battle of Warns. But his armies were defeated by the 'wild Frisians'. According to the contemporary chronicler De Lettenhove the Mid-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, 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 the year AD 1256. William IV could have been warned if he know the history of his ancestors better. Check out our vlog about the Battle of Warns at AD 1345.
This is why: a big IOU (I owe you) is in order for the Mid Frisians.
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