Liudger, the first Frisian apostle
Updated: May 17
Liudger succeeded where other evangelists failed. He finally managed to convert the pagan Frisians to Christianity, because he “spoke their language”. Did he really? A very thorough study from Hinne Wagenaar reveals quite a startling truth about this Frisian apostle.
Some time ago I stumbled upon an article from Hinne Wagenaar, called "Liudger, apostle of the Frisians". A question in Cameroon sparked his interest in this Frisian apostle. As a professor in theology he was asked: “How did the conversion of your own people take place?”. That plunged him right back into the 8th century.
On a personal note, apart from being Frisian, I spent my early childhood in Cameroon and have a Protestant background. Plenty of reasons and touch points for me to eagerly read on. Hinne (I dare to call him by his first name) grabbed my attention immediately. I did not regret one second of reading his article. After reaching out to Hinne, he gave me permission to summarize his article and share it on the FCT web page. All the thanks and credits to him. I am very grateful indeed. From studying the old scriptures about Redbad, I experienced that it is a tedious and time-consuming job. Even more so because about Liudger 5 times more has been written compared to Redbad. Talking of which, Redbad will feature in Liudgers life too. As said, Hinne’s article is served to us on a silver platter. Except it wasn’t available in English. With my renowned fluency in Pidgin (local version of Cameroon’ English) and impeccable Dunglish (Dutch-English) I am the right person to translate it for you, don’t you think? Here we go!
This is how we know Liudger, until today As said, many believe that Liudger succeeded where other evangelists failed when converting the pagan Frisians. In the 7th century Wilfried and Wulfram failed. In the 8th century Willibrord and Boniface failed. The latter was killed by Frisians in 754. As they also killed many of Boniface compadres, it wiped out an entire generation of the diocese of Utrecht. Enter Liudger. Only Liudger lived to tell another day that the Frisians were pacified and converted. He must have had a special connection to the Frisians, because of being "one of them". He spoke their language. He was familiar with their traditions, habits and rituals. He must have found some subtle way to win their hearts and minds. His friendship with the Frisian poet Bernlef is an illustration of it, so this looks like. Wrong. Liudger had other ambitions than “bringing” the Christian faith to "his" Frisians.
The sources regarding Liudger Liudger wrote himself about the christianization of the pagans in northern Europe. He did so by writing a biography on Gregorius, his master and abbot in the diocese of Utrecht. Several Vitae have been written about Liudger himself. A Vita is a biography. The most important are Vita I, II en III. An additional version in rhyme was published in the 12th century (Vita Rythmica). The beautiful miniatures in the Vita II (Vita secunda sancti Liudger) from the monastery of Werden (around 1100) is the most famous. However, for our purposes two other documents are very interesting.
Especially the first Vita is of importance for us. It is written by Liudger's nephew Altfried. Altfried was a successor of the bishop of Münster. It was written in the period between 840 and 849. Some 40 years after Liudger’s death. It consists of 32 chapters.
Liudger himself wrote a Vita of his master Gregorius. This publications gives us an insight into how Liudger sees the christianization.
Liudger, the first Frisian Priest, Bishop and Saint The first question is if there is proof of Liudger being a Frisian. The answer is pretty simple: “yes, plenty”. A lot of literature confirms this fact. The scientist explains that Liudger comes from a very old Frisian family. We will do a family round up below. Another interesting question is if Liudger was the first Frisian christian clergyman. Although Liudger is holder of three world records the answer is a simple “no”. The deacon Willibrecht is the first known Frisian christian clergyman. Willibrecht was related of Liudger. Altfried’s Vita talks about two brothers of Liudgers grandmother Adelburg. They both are working for bishop Willibrord. These great-uncles were called, Thiedbrecht and Willibrecht. It has been documented that the latter died as a deacon. It has been documented too that Liudger was the first Frisian priest and later first bishop from Frisian descendants. Ultimately he became also the first Frisian Saint.
Liudgers family history It is clear that Liudger was from a distinguished Frisian and christian family, as his grandmother, great-uncles and nephew were already mentioned to be in the same “business”. Liudgers granddad, Wursing, was not a friend of Redbad. Redbad was depicted as a ruthless person and opponent of Wursing. However, the last act of Redbad, was to give Wursing back what belonged to him. Read about Wursing and Redbad’s last act here. Wursing fled to the Frankish court during the reign of Redbad over (West-) Frisia. When Redbad defeated Charles Martel in Dorestate, Wursing left his land and belongings behind. This land is believed to lie close to Utrecht, current Oud-Zuylen. This is later the birthplace of Liudger.
When Redbad was dying he contacted Wursing suggesting him to reclaim the land that belonged to him. When Redbad learned that Wursing didn’t trust it he asked him to sent his son, Thiadgrim (the father of Liudger) instead. Wursing was married to Adelburg and both were already known to be Frisians and Christians. They supported Willibrord in spreading the gospel. This did not make them immediately to traitors or enemies of the Frisian people, as long as they did not support the Frankish military ambitions. Liudgers brother Hildegrym became bishop in Châlon-sur-Marne and also became saint. His sister Heriburg died as the abbess of a cloister in Nottuln, close to Münster. We are not done yet. Four cousins of Liudger rank high in the church too. All four became bishops and abbots at monasteries in Werden and Helmstedt, all founded by Liudger. One of those nephews is Altfried, the author of the first Vita on Liudger.
What Liudger did for the Frisians Liudger was born in Zuilen, close to Utrecht in 742 and died close to Billerbeck on the 26th of March 809. Remarkably, before the age of 35 Liudger did not really engage with the (conversion of the) Frisians. He was made to deacon in 767 during his studies in York, Britannia. Ten years later, in 777, after another 3 years of studies in York, he was made priest in Cologne. After this second trip to York, Liudger receives the missionary task to convert the pagans. In 773 he is sent to Deventer to follow up the late Lebuinus. After the death of his master Gregorius, Alberik (the cousin and successor of Gregorius) sends Liudger to the Frisians. “Thereafter Alberik sent out Liudger, and with him other servants of God, to destroy the temples of the gods and various idols of the people of the Frisians. And they finished that command and brought with them a great treasure which they had found in the temples. Emperor Charles the Great took two thirds of that, but he ordered Alberik to take a third for his own use.” Hold on. Stop. What?
That is quite a barbaric act for a Christian. That is more like an act of war resembling the one of Charles Martel in 734. And more interestingly, Charles the Great granted Liudger five Frisian shires! The diocese of Utrecht played no role or part in this. Plundering became Liudgers trademark. Liudgers traveled around 785 to Foseteland (Helgoland) and destroyed all Frisian temples devoted to the Goddess Fosete and built churches instead. He preached the gospel and baptized in the same well that Willibrord used before. Again here, Charles the Great sent Liudger, not the church. Liudger had turned out to be an important pawn in the pacification process of Charles the Great. Peter Brown calls it ‘the closing of the frontier’. He suggests that where Charles the Great conquered new land, Liudger stepped in to pacify it. Liudger was rewarded by Charles the Great with key roles and land. In 805 he became bishop of the Saxons in Münster. He was allowed to keep ‘his’ five Frisian shires right in the middle of Frisia. This basically ripped Frisia apart, separating West-Frisia from East-Frisia. West-Frisia became part of the diocese of Utrecht whereas from East-Frisia became part of the diocese of Bremen.
How did his Frisian roots help Liudger? As mentioned before, it is believed that Liudger was succeeded where Willibrord and Boniface failed because he could relate to the Frisians. There is no real proof for this.
The most important argument for this assumption is that Liudger and Bernlef were close. Liudger cured and converted Bernlef and went on an enlightening hike. The first ever hike of the Frisia Coast Trail, we dare say.
However, there is no evidence to back up the fact they enjoyed speaking the same language. In the Vitae of Liudger nothing is mentioned about the language the two spoke, let alone the Frisian language at all.
All it says is this: “Bernlef learned the Psalms from him wherever he found the Godman (Liudger)” The Frisian language is not mentioned. It is more likely that these Psalms were in Latin. During the times that Liudger preached in the Frisian territories, he spent one quarter of the year to study in Utrecht. Utrecht in those times was not Frisian anymore. In 793 Charles the Great gave Liudger a role in Münsterland. He founded a monastery in Werden on land owned by him. Ultimately he became bishop of Münster in 805.
Monastery of Werden
There are more facts supporting that Liudger was not focused on ‘his’ Frisians. In a divine vision he was instructed to serve his talent to three peoples: Saxons, Frisians and Franks. His monastery in Werden was literally placed in the heart of those three peoples, with the Saxons in the north, the Franks in the south and the Frisians in the west. It is remarkable that the Frisian Liudger did not become the new bishop in Utrecht on several occasions. First after the death of Alberik in 784, or after the death of Theodard, the successor of Alberik, in 790. He also did not take over the position of his master and abbot Gregorius when he died in 775. van Utrecht. In essence, Liudger did never have an important position in the Frisian territories.
Liudger was building a family empire
From the sources an interesting picture arises. On the one hand we see Liudger being part of an important christian family. On the other hand we see him collecting land by serving Charles the Great. His territorial claims ripped Frisia apart while he attacked the Frisian religion and looted their temples.
The family monastery in Werden was the center of his family empire. Some important fact support this. Liudger wanted to become bishop in Munster, close to his family monastery in Werden. Also, Liudger was not buried in Munster, which is normal for a bishop. He was buried instead in his family monastery in Werden.
Nevertheless, we do have to bare in mind that all the sources have been written from a christian perspective. In the eyes of the christian authors his Frisian background was irrelevant. Maybe that is the reason why his nephew and biographer did not point out the Frisian aspects of Liudger or that Liudger felt Frisian. First and foremost, Liudger was christian. A christian on a mission. He wasn't a Frisian on a mission.