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  • Writer's pictureFrans Riemersma

Is Magna Frisia fact or fiction?

Here are some maps that help you locate the Frisians in the early Middle Ages (500-800 AD). We combined old maps, archaeological finds, old scriptures and historical research.

In our previous blog post we pinpointed several locations where the 5 Frisian kings set foot. In this blog we focus on the Frisian territories of those kings. Here we go.

When you look for maps to locate the Frisian territories around 500 and 800 AD you will often bump into the Magna Frisia map. That map always fascinated me.

"Was the country the Frisian kings reigned really that big?", I asked myself back in the days. Little did I know. After two years of FrisiaCoastTrail research I learned I committed two errors in one single question.

1. They were not kings as we know them today.

2. Frisians did not live in a country back then.

Both Kings and Countries are modern constructs. And those constructs blur our view. Tremendously. It is just as silly as assuming that medieval Frisians used Whatsapp to prepare for war.

We will describe what Frisian Kings really were and what the Frisian kingdom was all about, then we can plot those concepts on the old maps.

Frisian kings were chosen warlords Kings as we know them are hereditary blood lines of monarchs. Frankish kings were exactly that. Not the Frisian kings. As the ancestors from the Frisians migrated from current Scandinavia, kings were defined very differently. Frisian and Anglo Saxon societies were pretty much a meritocracy. See Frisian kings as successful warlords who earned their merits at the battlefields or showed natural leadership in other events. People decided for themselves to follow such a warlords. They pledged allegiance and loyalty.

In our opinion there was probably never one single king reigning the Frisian territories. We doubt that Redbad was son of Aldgisl, although it is very likely that Redbad was Aldgisl’s successor. Frankish sources even mention this fact seen from their own paradigm: “(..) and Radbod, whom they say to be the son of king Aldgisl, but we have no knowledge of that.” Likewise we doubt that Poppo was son of Redbad. Poppo lived in a different area of Frisia.

Also, in the sources we explored, Redbad is called King as well as Duke. So what is he really? Richard Broome, from the University of Leeds, shows in his article, Redbad: Rebel Duke and Pagan King, that it lies in the eyes of the beholder. If the author is describing the great deeds of a saint, then it is worth making Redbad to a king. If the author of the source is an enemy (read: Franks) who conquered the Frisian territory then the title of Duke seems more suited. Countries were actually ‘sphere of influence’ In 785 the laws of the Frisians were put down on paper. The Lex Frisionum is the Frisian book of law that was recorded during the reign of Charlemagne, king of the Franks. Even after their defeat in 734 AD, the Frisians were freemen who were allowed to choose their own podestat or imperial governor.

The law governs all of Frisia, but two regions have certain exceptional provisions. And so we can conclude that according to the Lex Frisionum there were three different territories. This supports our idea that not one king was reigning all Frisian territories.

These three territories were distinguished.

1. West-Frisia, between Zwin and Vlie, from current Belgium to Vlieland 2. Mid-Frisia, between Vlie and Lauwers, from current Vlieland to Lauwers 3. East-Frisia, between Lauwers and Weser, from current Lauwers to Weser Frankish sources situate Aldgisl and Redbad mainly West-Frisia, whereas Poppo is to be found in Mid-Frisia. Also Finn and Audulfus are probably linked to West-Frisia, but solid evidence is missing.

When we connect all the dots this is what the Frisian territories probably looked like.

Frisia according to Lex Frisionum 785 AD

The Frankish-Frisian wars

We can take it one level deeper for West-Frisia. Since we explored the battles of Redbad in detail we are able to create some additional maps. When researching Redbad we went unplugged, i.e. we had a look at the sources closest to the times Redbad lived. That was around 700 AD. We only focused on the texts that we found in the original sources dating from 723 - around 1100. We were able to establish in what year towns were lost or conquered.

Additionally, Luit van der Tuuk shed some light as to what territories carry Frisian roots, e.g. in their naming, or played a pivotal role.

The entire Nifterlake area is located on the west side of the river Vecht. The Vecht connects Utrecht with the IJsselmeer (called Almere back then). Many places carry ancient Frisian names. Luit van der Tuuk argues that after the loss of Dorestad and Utrecht the Nifterlake region continued to be Frisian territory (Radbod, p 105). This region stretched south- and westwards until the North Sea, the Amsterdam and Haarlem region. It was originally Frisian judging by the originally Frisian names, like Muiden, Aldermuideweide, Meynevelt, de Goog, Kerke- Middelregawech, Abcoude (derived from an old Frisian name ‘Abbako’) and Oegstgeest (close to The Hague). Around 500 AD, a Frisian gentleman called Oosugeer set foot at this place and settled there. From his name the city derived its name Oegstgeest. On the Southside, Attengahem was located, current Breukelen. The old name derives from the Frisian name Atto. Boniface built there a church called Saint Peter.

If we bring all this information together then we know what the territorial shifts took place during Aldgisl and Redbads’ reigns throughout the years of battle with tthe Franks.

  • Until 698 all of current Holland and Zeeland untill Dorestad was West-Frisian

  • From 698 untill 713 could not enter Utrecht, Dorestad was no longer West-Frisian.

  • From 713 - 718 all of Holland untill Dorestad was West-Frisian

  • From 718 only North-Holland was West-Frisian.

All that was left to do is to find a map that shows how the Netherlands looked back in those days. The coast line has changed quite a lot. So here we go.

West-Frisia until 698 (Aldgisl)

The Lex Frisionum of 785 mentions that Redbad’s predecessor, Aldgisl made Frisia free in 677.

It continues to tell that according to the book Fredegario continuatore (736) “after a twelve year of impasse, Pepin Herestal won Durestadii, situated at the Rhine crossing and the boundary between Frisians and Franks, from the Frisian Radbode”.

This implies that Utrecht and Dorestad were under Frisian rule.

West-Frisia until 698 (Aldgisl)

West Frisia between 698 and 713 (Redbad)

The sources are very contradicting about the period between 689 and 714. According to the Lex Frisionum there was complete peace between the Frisian and Franks. Other sources complain about Redbad's ongoing hostilities: “hostility from Redbad’s Frisians remained against this Frankish”.

One source claims: "from the year 689, when the Franks conquered Frisia Cisflevana (Cisfli = Vlie, vana = old, Oude Vlie or West Frisia), until the year of 714 the Franks and the Frisians and their children lived in the peace”. Archaeological findings defy this claim. No Frankish coins have been found in this area (Radbod, p 154). Yet only Frisian sceatta’s surface in this area.

It looks like that Dorestad was lost to the Franks. But Utrecht probably remained under Redbad's rule. According to Alcuin Willibrord visited Redbad in Utrecht after the loss of Dorestad in 689. Beda shows that Willibrord founded in the same period his seat in Utrecht, enforced by Pepin, the Frankish ruler. It is unsure if Utrecht was lost together with Dorestad or was held longer.

West Frisia between 698 and 713 (Redbad)

West Frisia between 713 - 718 (Redbad)

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.

In that time the evangelist Boniface seeked for permission to evangelize in Frisian territory and visited Redbad in Utrecht via Dorestad.

Redbad went far outside the traditional Frisian territories. To battle Charles Martel Redbad made a pact with his opponents, the Neustraisians. "In its wake 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.

After this victory Redbad went deeper into Austrasian territories. “In 716 Radbod when he arrived in Cologne in March.”

West Frisia after 718 (Redbad)

Velsen is situated West from Amsterdam. It is mentioned by Liudger. In his hagiography of Boniface he describes that the evangelist used Velsen as his home base. Reason being that it was close to the Frisian territories. Redbad had died just recently. Still it looks like that this areas remained under Frisian influence at least until 734.

Kennemerland is the coastal region north of Velsen. After Redbads death this area remained under Frisian influence. From this period no Frankish coins have been found in this are (Radbod, p 154). Yet only Frisian sceatta’s surface in this area. In this looks like that this areas remained at least until 734 under Frisian influence.

West Frisia after 718 (Redbad)

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