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  • Writer's pictureFrans Riemersma

The biography of Aldgisl, unplugged

Ever heart of Aldgisl? Even if you did, you probably have a hard time separating fact from fiction. For a fact it is the first king of the Dutch lowlands known to have lived. But is Redbad his real son? Follow us in our deep dive into ancient historical sources.

Recently king Redbad became a hot topic. In the summer of 2018 a movie about this Frisian king will hit the silver screen in the Dutch cinemas. Redbad is the direct successor of Aldgisl. He repeatedly ended up fighting his neighbours, the Franks. Was Aldgisl any different?

And most important of all, as a hikers blog that follows the whereabouts of Frisian history, we are especially interested in specific locations that we should include in our itinerary.

Read about bishops and popes, castles and palaces, royals and princes, treaties and treason, asylum seekers and bounty hunters, shame and loyalty, and the sparing of the life of an enemy. Plenty of ingredients for a next movie, don't you think?

The sources that mention Aldgisl

When you read about Aldgisl it is not always easy to understand where the conclusions are based upon. How do we come to know about him? Which sources mention Aldgisl? Is it a vast body of old sources or is he only mentioned once?

To answer these questions, we decided to go 'unplugged'.

Let’s have a look at the original sources that actually describe Aldgisl. Preferably the sources closest to the time he lived, around 670. His date of birth and birth place are unknown, just like his date and place of death. Aldgisl is also known as: Aldegisel, Aldegisl, Aldgillis, Aldgils or Eadgils.

As far as we could find out there are three different sources that mention Aldgisl. If we missed one, please let us know! We are hikers, not historians after all.

1. The lives of saints during the times of the Merovingians - 727

The first Latin source is the book originally called, Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (V). There are 6 fragments mentioning Aldgisl. They all cover one and the same event, each with a different (level of) detail.

In this book, the life of Saint Wilfrid is described in a section called Vita Wilfridi. It is written by his briographer Stephan of Ripon, also known as Eddius Stephanus or Æddi Stephanus.

2. Ecclesiastical History of the English People - 731

A second source is Ecclesiastical History of the English People, originally composed in Latin. It is considered to be one of the most important original references on Anglo-Saxon history and as such plays an important role in the development of an English national identity.

It is written by a monk called Bede. He lived in a monastery of St. Paul in the Kingdom of Northumbria, England. It is believed that he completed the work in 731 when he was approximately 59 years old. The only fragment mentioning Aldgisl is at page 352.

3. Lex Frisionum - 785

The third source is the Law Code of the Frisians, the Lex Frisionum. It was recorded in Latin during the reign of Charlemagne after the year 785. The lex Frisionum forms part of the law book, called Leges Alamannorum, Leges Baiuwariorum, Leges Burgundionum, Lex Frisionum.

In the Lex Frisionum three Frisian districts are distinguished. The law governs all of Frisia, with legal articles specific to West Frisia (between Zwin and Vlie) and East Frisia (between Lauwers and Weser).

More importantly the oldest part of the law book covers the era up until the year 734. In that year (or actually in 736 as we found out) king Poppo lost the battle of the Boarn at Irnsum to Charles Martel. In this part of Lex Frisionum Aldgisl is mentioned most extensively.

A word of caution about these sources. The three sources cover largely one and the same event in Aldgisl’s life. We can imagine (and sometimes it is explicitly mentioned) that some authors of the sources have been inspired or copying preceding sources. In our 'biography' we just took from all three sources regardless. If you are deep into these sources and see us make wrong assumptions, then let us know.

A visitor from England

The event mentioned in all fragments is about an asylum seeker from England in Frisia. Exploring this event helps us to shed a light on where Aldgisl lived, how he reigned and what his authority was.

In 677 or 678 Wilfrid, bishop of York, seeked passage through Frisia. The bishop was under attack back home in England and saw no other way then to reach out to the pope in Rome.

But there was one huge obstacle. The Frankish christians in current France were not his friends. And that is an understatement. Sailing around France was not an option. His only chance was sailing up the Rhine river to make it to the Alps, and beyond. Along the Rhine is were he knew to have some allies.

But the Rhine delta, according to the sources, was Frisian territory.

“The reliable sources mention, in 677 king Aldgisl made Frisia free, and so Frisia was not under the authority of kings Dagobert II and Tedderic II, despite the wars with the Franks.”

So the Frisians were no friends of the Franks. That sounds promising for the bishop. Problem solved? Not so fast. The Frisians were notoire pagans. Would they allow passage to the bishop, the defender of an enemy faith?

Wilfrid simply had no other choice then to hit the sea. And so he did in 677. He avoided the usual passage to Quentovic in France, near Calais. Instead he hitchhiked his way with trading ships to the Frisian shore.

Historians assume that at Rijnsburg (current Katwijk) he entered the Rhine (Halbertsma). From there he passed through Utrecht to arrive in Dorestad, where Aldgisl resided.

“The Frisians won Dorestad, which is on the border of the Frisians and the Franks, and situated at the passing of the Rhine, at Utrecht.”

The bishop passed by the small town of Utrecht. At three locations in two sources it is mentioned there is a castle in Utrecht.

“Dagobert I, the King of France from the year 622 to the year 638, build a castle in the town of Utrecht in West Frisia, to serve as an assembly for the Franks.”

“The Frisian castle in Utrecht was destroyed and recovered as a religious assembly (church) by the Franks when West Frisia was not subject to the kingdom of the Franks.”

“And so, comrades, when they first began the crossing the Utrecht castle, if Alcvini rightly reported.”

Wilfrid passed by Utrecht to go on to the international commercial hub of Dorestad. The importance of Dorestad back then is comparable with the port of Rotterdam today. It was a crucial port residing at the mouth of an important river delta. This allowed for trade of the goods arriving from the North Sea and the vast Frankish mainland. At least until 689 Dorestad was in Frisian hands.

How would Aldgisl receive Wilfrid? Would he want to prevent to end up in a christian quarrel? Or did he have a plan up his sleeve?

All fragments are unonymous about the reception of Wilfrid by Aldgisl. To quote one here.

“(...) he was received with honor by the barbarians, Aldgisl people and their king, to whom he preached the Christ, the word of truth, to many thousands of them.”

Wilfrid received a warm welcome, and on top he was allowed to spread the Gospel. The Lex Frisionum covers this event with even more detail.

“He was received with honor by their king Aldgisl. The bishop arrived with the consent of the king.

They talked to the pagan people, preaching to them about the true God, the Father Almighty, and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, and of baptism for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life after death and teaching about the resurrection of the times.

The doctrine did help the pagans; it was the right time for them, and the fishing was more fruitful that year than usually, to the glory of God, about whom the sacred man of preached.

So that year they accepted his teaching and all the princes, with the exception of a few, and many thousands of common people were truly baptized for the first time in the name of the Lord, according to the Apostle, whose son is still building upon, brought up in Hripum, in the grace of Bishop Wilbrord, delivered hard work and whose efforts carried a long time.”

Converting to Christianity seemded also to have positive commercial effects on the fishing industry that year. Not only the normal people, but also the royals around Aldgisl were converted. Quite a surprise!

According to the contemporary sources it is in stark contrast with Redbad. it is explicitely mentioned. They believe it is because Aldgisl won the battles with the Franks whereas Redbad lost a few and therefore started to oppose their religion too.

“It was less easy to undertake (red. the spreading of the gospel during Redbad) than in the year 678 and 679 under Aldgisl, compared to the leader Radbod, since he remained a pagan resisting the gospel, even more when Pepin, the leader in power (a. 687), fought a battle between the Franks and Frisians (a. 689) over a part of Frisia near the Rhine, bordering to the Franks, after the hostility between the Frank Christians and the pagans made the Frisones oppose the spreading of Christianity.”

Another interesting contrast with Redbad is that Aldgisl is always mentioned as 'king', or rex or regem, wehereas Redbad was often called dux or duce.

Then the story takes a very interesting turn. Aldgisl is about to receive some unexpected visitors.

“At the same time, the king of the Franks, sent his messengers with a letter from Efyrvine (e.i. Ebroin) from the duke of Theodoric to Aldgisl, the king of the Frisians, with words of peace, vowing to him under an oath and saluting him, promising him a bushel full of gold solidi, the bounty, to slay bishop Wilfrid, or take him alive. The king read the letter in front of all the people present in the palace.”

Discussing treaties of war and peace were often disccussed at the dining table by the Germanic tribes. Cornelius Tacitus highlights this in his Germania and its Tribes, chapter 22 around 98 AD. Aldgisl was no different.

Once again Wilfrid had to fear for his life. Because offering peace and a sum of money is very tempting. It would bring peace to Aldgisl's people at once. What else would a ruler want?

Wilfrid must have thought back of the warm welcome. Was it just a trick? Was it part of a bigger plan of Aldgisl? What else would Aldgisl win by entering the christian snakepit?

Aldgisl was done reading and looked across the audience in his palace. Everyone was silent. Only the fireplace made the crackling sound of burning wood. Everyone present in the palace was holding their breath. The tension was rising when the audience awaits Aldgisl's reaction.

“After reading the letter, he took the letter in his hands, tore it up, threw it into the burning flames, saying: “Tell your master this: by taking the oath by the Creator of the kingdom of God and life, he took your proposal, ripped it apart and burned it all together!”

It is almost looks as if Aldgisl is teaching the fighting Christians a lesson of their own. Wilfrid is save. He forgot for a moment that hospitality is a sacred thing in Frisia for centuries to come.

“Subsequently, the messengers of the king, ashamed, did not consent to commit a crime, and returned to their master from which they had come.”

Aldgisl's refusal to deliver Wilfrid did not cause war. Aldgisl defied his enemies, which shows he was respected and feared by the Franks. The bishop stayed longer than the messengers. He stayed the winter of 678 over and left in spring 679 (primovere anno 679).

“During the winter of 678/79 he preached the faith of the pagans”

Those are the last words written about Aldgisl. The one interesting thing left to mention is the following short text in a sub-sentence. It is a question that kept many of us very busy for centuries. Unfortunately, without an answer.

“(..) and Radbod, whom they say to be the son of king Aldgisl, but we have no knowledge of that.”

This is all there is to know about Aldgisl in summary. All the fragments and their provisional translations can be found in this document with all the original Latin texts. The floor is yours.

P.S. The castle on the picture is located at Wijk bij Duurstede, the former Dorestad. However, historians believe that Aldgisl lived in a castle 2 kilometer upstream at an old Roman fortress, called Levefanum.

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