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  • Writer's pictureFrans Riemersma

Why was Redbad skinny dipping in eau de Cologne?

In March 714, Redbad's army reached the shores of Cologne. That is deep in the Frankish heartlands and way out of the traditional Frisian coastal territories. Sure, Frisians were smelly bastards, but eau de Cologne wasn't invented yet. Was Redbad ahead of his time or why else did he end up there?

A movie about this Frisian king will be released in 2018 as a tribute. In 2019 it will be 1300 years ago that he died. In a previous article we explored the battles of Redbad. We delved through heaps of original sources that mention Redbad’s battles and made an overview.

One battle was epic. It was Redbad's campaign to Cologne, current Germany.

He was halfway to where the Frankish central power resided: Franconofurd, where Charlemagne would preside over an imperial assembly and church synod in 794. Franconovurd is currently called: Frankfurt. Furt, or 'ford' in English refers to where the river was shallow enough to be crossed on foot.

As hikers we love to follow the whereabouts of Frisian history, but the locations mentioned in this article are for sure way out of our league. It is simply far outside the traditional Frisian coastal territories. Cologne will not be included in our trail itinerary, but if you take the train it will drop you off right at the heart of the city (Hauptbahnhof next to the Dom), the part that Redbad besieged.

Let's go ‘unplugged’ once more, meaning: let's use the original sources.

The sources that mention Redbad’s campaign to Cologne

We found several sources, dating from different centuries, that cover the Redbad's hike to Cologne.

  1. Passiones vitaeque sanctorum aevi Merovingici (V) - [727]

  2. Annales Mettenses priores [early 9th century]

  3. Annales, chronica et historiae aevi Carolini et Saxonici [1017]

  4. Annales aevi Suevici - [1101]

Dorestad 714 - Redbad (wins) vs Charles Martel

In 714 Pepin died. It took the Franks two years to find a suitable successor. Redbad immediately took advantage of this power vacuum and won back his Frisian territories.

“This very same year, Pepin died and the power of Franks crumbled due to internal wars. Redbad defeated the young Charles Martel and took once more possession of Frisia at the cost of the Franks and the English inhabitants, and possessed it until he died in 719. (..) In the description of Boniface’s life, it shows that in the year 717 pagan Redbad ruled Durestadii and Utrecht.”

Redbad showed his pagan nature and tore down the church in Utrecht in 714.

“All the work of Willibrord seem to break down, as the largest church was broken down by the Frisians, lifting the shrines, clergy were expelled, and Utrecht under control of Redbad.”

For Willibrord, his work turned out to be in vain. But Redbad had restored the original state of his realm. And to make sure the Franks would not recover, he came up with a twofold plan that should do the trick.

1. an assassination

2. a campaign never seen before.

1. The assassination

It is documented that Redbad actively made sure that the Franks were kept busy with their internal wars. Redbad summoned Rangar and his mercenaries to assassinate Grimoald. Yes, the Frankish heir apparent, but also his son in law. Many historians dispute this and believe Redbad's involvement is rather Frankish propaganda.

In 711 Grimoald married Theudesinda (or Theodelinda), the daughter of Redbad, and had two sons: Theudoald and Arnold. The purpose of the marriage was to seal the peace between the Frisians and the Franks.

"peace between both was made by the marriage between the of Pepin’s son Grimoald and the daughter of Radbodi.”

But marriages can be killing. For sure for Grimoald. While going on a visit to the tomb of Saint Lambert at Liège, he was assassinated by a certain Rangar, employed by his father-in-law.

“At the end of the year when Pepin died (714), the next month Grimoald was killed at Liege by Rantgario and his people, as a result the Frankish kingdom was in civil disorder for several years.”

2. Cologne 714 - Redbad (wins) vs Charles Martel

Restoring Frisian territory wasn't enough for Redbad this time. He saw and took his chance now that the Franks had a weak rule.

Redbad showed ambitions to expand his realm. Soon we find him far outside the traditional Frisian territories.

“In 716 Radbod when he arrived in Cologne in March.”

A different source explains that Redbad and his army arrived at one side (or shore) of the city of Cologne.

“Radbodus arrived in Cologne in March. (...) From the other side waited Radbodo leader with a force.”

In the Vita S. Liudgeri we read how Redbad's army got there.

“Finally, the same year Radbodus, the leader of the Frisian naval army, arrived at Cologne city.”

To make it to Cologne Redbad had struck a smart deal.

His campaign was part of a bigger plot against the east Franks, or Austrasians (the green area on the map).

Redbad collaborated with Chilperic II, who ascended the throne of the Franks in the west, called Neustria (the red area on the map). His father Dagobert III died in 715.

“The Frisian Duque Redbad, drew together with Neustrasia against Charles, who was forced in heavy defense in 716, and had to flee and withdraw to Cologne.”

Charles lost and was pushed into defence. This siege of Redbad is the only recorded defeat Charles Martel suffered in his life.

This is why Redbad ended up in Cologne in the first place. The Frisians and Neustrains pulled their forces together and opened two fronts against the leaders of Austrasia, Charles Martel, the successor of Pepin.

Somehow the Neustraians were better at their game of thrones. They swiftly replaced Dagobert for Chilpiric, and while doing so Raginfrid, the Neustria prime minister, or maior domo, went on campaign against the Austrasians.

“In the second year after the departure of his father Pepin, Charles obtained the government over Austrasia (i.e. 716). In the first year after the death of Pepin (715), Raginfrid went to the Meuse to capture Austrasiis while, according to their pact, king Redbad with the Saxons laid waste to the land of Hattuariorum.”

Hattuariorum was the realm of the Chattuarii or Attoarii. They were a Germanic tribe of the Franks. Hattuariorum is currently called Rhineland.

By now the Chilperich II assumed the throne from his father Dagoberto III. Chilperich II continued what Raginfrid, the Neustria prime minister, started.

While Redbad laid Cologne under siege, the Neustria Franks besieged the other side of Ripuaria: the Ardennes in Belgium.

“(...) armies drew together against him, on the other hand Redbad forced his way, and on the other hand the other side of Ripuarii (Frankish area) invaded the Ardennes, so that the attack was coerced.”

“Charles learned about these facts and headed out to confront Redbad. By confronting a major disaster against both hands took place”.

If it was genuine expansion with the aim to annex, or that it was just a warning signal to keep the Franks at bay, we do not know. It surely has some resemblance with the Raid on the Medway threatening London in 1667.

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


Note - Other well-known examples Frankfurt are the towns Coevorden 'cow fords' and Amersfort 'ford at the (river) Amer' in the Netherlands. But there are many more. Coevorden is mirrored in the town of Ochsenfurt 'oxen ford' in Germany and, of course, in Oxford in England.

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