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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom

According to medieval legends, around the year 800, Charlemagne and Pope Leo came into conflict with the citizens of Rome. The Pope was being attacked and fled the city. It was an army of 'naked' Frisians headed by Magnus that retook the citadel and the eternal city. In return, Charlemagne offered wealth, weapons, treasure, and more to the Frisians. Magnus' choice, however, was that all Frisians would be free and not subordinate to anyone else except, of course, to the Holy Roman Emperor himself. Charlemagne granted this wise request, and behold: the Charlemagne Privileges, also known as the Magnuskerren 'Magnus' choices.' Choices that even have implications for today, for example, who has to pay taxes and who does not actually have to pay them.

The Magnuskerren have many names, in many languages, like: Magnuskeuren, Karelsprivileges, Karlsprivileg, Friesische Freiheit, libertas Frisonica or Previlegii Frisiorum Caroli Magni. A ker from Magnus-kerren is related to the current Mid-Frisian noun kar which means 'choice'. Kerren is plural 'choices'.

For the Frisians these privileges were the legitimization of the free-farmer republics of Frisia not to recognize anyone as their lord. Tota Frisia, as it is often named, stretched during the High Middle Ages from the region of Westfriesland in the current province of Noord Holland in the Netherlands to the region of Land Wursten on the east banks of the River Weser in Germany. Sometimes, even the non-Frisian but also lord-free region of Dithmarschen was included as well. In other words: the Frisians, and Ditmarsians, claimed to be Reichsunmittelbar ever since the rule of Charlemagne.

And kas, that Fresan friheren were, thi berna and thi onberna, also lange so thi wind fan tha olcnum we, and thio wrald stode, and wellat wasa mith tha kere thes koninges hacha heranatan.

And [he] chose that all Frisians freemen were, the born and the unborn, as long as the wind blows from the clouds, and the world stands, and with this choice they want to be the king’s high men.

At the beginning of the High Middle Ages, the southern coastal zone of the North Sea had undergone an opposite development compared to the rest of Europe. Instead of developing feudal structures with government institutions, Frisia ‘returned’ to the Germanic tribal social structures, you could say. Around 1100, this defragmentation process was completed in Frisia between the River Lauwers and the River Weser, the area what is today the province of Groningen, the region of Ostfriesland and the region of Land Wursten combined. Besides Frisia, also the Saxon region of Dithmarschen underwent the same development.

In the year 1100, the Saxon Henry of Nordheim, nicknamed Henry the Fat, became margrave of Frisia. When a year later he and his wife Gertrude of Brunswick visited the town of Stavoren in Mid Frisia (i.e. the province of Friesland) to claim his right as count, he was immediately killed by the Frisians. Gertrude just could make it out alive (Henstra 2012). Another version is that Henry was killed in East Frisia (i.e. the region of Ostfriesland) in 1101 in an attempt to claim his right. Anyhow, it was a clear statement of the Frisians that no foreign domination was accepted anymore.

By the way, 1101 is the same year Count Floris the Fat of West Frisia (i.e. the combined provinces of Holland, Zeeland, and partly Utrecht) renamed himself count of Holland. The process of defragmentation and the shrinking external influence, in particular that of the bishopric Utrecht, over the part of Frisia, which is the province of Friesland today, took about one and a half centuries longer than the rest of Frisia. Therefore, halfway through the twelfth century, the whole of Frisia was a lord-free area.

Note that the title 'margrave' highlighted that these counts of the mark protected the external borders of the kingdom. "What news from The Mark?" to quote Aragorn in the movie series Lord of the Rings. Baldwin II of Flanders, also known as Baldwin the Bald, was another a margrave who had to protect the borders against a flood of Vikings during the decennia around the year 900. Quite a challenge, but he managed. Hence, being a margrave was a bold and cool title (De Maesschalck 2012).

The result, among others, of having no feudal lord, was that in the High Middle Ages every terp, i.e. artificial settlement mound, every village, every farmer was basically free. There was no obligation to fight for any (over)lord other than the emperor. And in the case they were to defend the kingdom, then only limited to defend the territory of Frisia from external threats. Nor did Frisians have any obligation to pay taxes to counts, dukes, margraves, and bishops alike. Furthermore, the Frisians were granted the right to have property too. In the view of Frisians, land property belonged to the individual, not to a count or something similar bossy. Lastly, the Frisians also had the right to uphold their own laws and, moreover, to choose their own redjevas 'judges'.

Concerning those chosen judges, the name used in the sagas of the Charlemagne Privileges is potestas frisae. This title and office was unknown in the wider region of north-western Europe, but was comparable to the thirteenth-century office of podestà in Italy. In the Italian city republics this was a chosen office of justice annex judge, and at the same time that of commander during times of war.

Of course, the feudal and religious powers surrounding Frisia both close and from afar thought quite the opposite with regard to the so-called self-proclaimed Frisian Freedom. It was, for example, the thirteenth-century writers Melis Stoke from the province of Zeeland, and especially Jacob van Maerlant from the region of Flanders (read our post The Frontier known as watery mess: the coast of Flanders) who were openly annoyed by this arrogant freedom. Needless to say, they fully supported the (also self-proclaimed) legitimate claims of the counts of Holland to rule over Frisia.


Free trade and Frisian - From the late-eighth up to the eleventh centuries, the Frisians were leading in the supra-regional trade in northwestern Europe. These merchants traded for personal benefit and on individual basis mainly. Not under the authority of an ecclesiastical or a worldly power. All very much evolving from the fully decentralized structure of the Frisian society. A genuine free trade. The connotation 'Frisian trade' even became synonymous to 'overseas trade'. Read our post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks to get an idea of the volume of this free trade avant la lettre.


Let’s start where it all began: the eternal city. We take you to one of the old churches in Rome, the Church of the Frisians, also knowns as Friezenkerk, Friesenkirche, and chiesa Frison. Only a stone’s throw from the also magnificent Saint Peter’s Basilica. From the threshold of the church less than sixty meters to the Saint Peter’s Square.

Church of the Frisians, Friezenkerk, Rome
Church of the Frisians, with Saint Peter's Basilica in the back

Presence of the Frisians in Rome actually does date back to the time of the Magnus sagas. The oldest mention is of the Frisian schola in 799, when the schola welcomed back to the city Pope Leo III, who had lived in exile in Paderborn in Germany for six months. Scholae existed for the Greek and the judaeorum 'Jews' on the east side of the River Tiber within the city walls, and for the Saxons (schola saxonum), the Franks (schola francorum), the Lombards (schola langobardorum) and the Frisians (schola frisonum) on the west side of the river, outside the city walls (De Boer 2011). The latter scholae were established after these Germanic tribes had been Christianized. The schola frisonum was the latest addition of these four, because initially Frisians stayed at the schola of their neighbours the akin Saxons. The schola frisonum is also mentioned in the Liber Pontificalis 'Book of the Popes'. Possibly, the schola frisonum was founded in the period missionary Willibrord (ca. 658-739) lived.

A schola was a walled place where pilgrims could stay and where they had their own church, hospital and cemetery. The exception was the Saxons who used their own language to indicate a schola, namely burg. Today, the medieval city district Borgo, also I Borghi, still reminds of this old Saxon name. The Frisian schola was built on Janiculum Hill, 500 meters from the River Tiber, and overlooking the Grave of Saint Peter at the Vaticanum. The Vaticanum was the name of the level area between Vatican Hill and the River Tiber, and also known as Nero's Plain.


Janus Head – The name Janiculum Hill is a reference to the pagan god Janus that was once worshiped. Janus had two faces. One looking to the past, and one looking to future. The god of all beginnings and of passage. Hence the month January. Images of Janus must have been present on this hill.

There is a Janus head to be seen in former Frisia as well. No kidding. Not on a hill top but -what else?- on top of a dike, at the port town of Harlingen in province Friesland. Erected in 1576, it is the landmark to mark the end of long disputes between five districts concerning the maintenance of the sea dikes. On top of the stone pillar a two-faced Janus head is placed. The monument is dedicated to the Spanish governor of Friesland, Caspar de Robles, because the story goed it was he who ended the twists between the five districts. This, however, is not true. De Robles only had limited interference in dike maintenance. Only in the year 1574 he had, but that was because of the construction of fortifications of the port of Harlingen (Draaisma 2017).

Nickname of the monument is De Stenen Man ‘the man of stone’. Now we would name it ‘The Thing‘. after the super-hero.

Harlingen will appear again in this post, see further below.


medieval St. Peter's basilica

Back then one would walk up the Janiculum Hill via a path called Vicus dei Frisoni, also named Borgo dei Frisoni. Everything, the Germanic scholae, was outside the medieval city walls of Rome, until 848. In this year the Vaticanum level area was included within the walls. Later in the sixteenth century, the grand Saint Peter Basilica as we know it today, was built on the Vaticanum. The building started in 1506 and was completed in 1626. Therefore, today the Church of the Frisians overlooks the impressive Saint Peter’s Square. A prime location.

Furthermore, every schola also had its own militia to defend the schola. Pilgrims could join these militias. It was these militias who welcomed back Pope Leo III in the year 799. Another option as pilgrim or soldier, was to settle as farmer. Frisians and the Saxons settled in the valley of Crepacore and near mountain Capricore, 40 kilometers north of Rome as the crow flies. The villages there also had there own militias called militiae rurales Sancti Petri.


Two Frisians kings meet Nero - The name Nero’s Plain (Vaticanum) for the level area outside the old city of Rome, stems from Emperor Nero. It is also this emperor who had a visit of two Frisian kings in the year AD 58. Both kings had travelled to Rome to plead with Nero for the continuous use of arable land adjacent to the limes (Roman border fortifications) along the river Rhine, where young Frisians had illegally settled. It took some time before Emperor Nero had time to look at their case, so the men visited the impressive Theatre of Pompeius in Rome, more or less where the modern square Largo del Pallaro is today. The two kings received Roman citizenship from Nero but their request concerning the use of land was denied.


Because of the Investiture Controversy, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV besieged Rome in 1084 and installed antipope Clement III. Desperate Pope Gregory VII, the original pope, asked the Norman, or Viking if you like, Robert Guiscard to help him out. He cordially did. Henry IV had to retreat and Pope Gregory was back in the saddle. It came with a very hefty price, though. Consistent with Viking traditions, Guiscard’s army sacked most of the city, including the scholae of the Frisians, the Franks, etc. All Frisians were killed as well.

Today, only two things remain today from the schola frisonum. That is, firstly, a Latin grave inscription that reads: HEBI GENE FRISONO ‘Hebi of the Frisians’ who died there in the year 899 (Stellingwerf 2007). The full inscription concerns two pieces and the translation reads: "This is the grave where rests in peace the body of Hebi of the Frisians, god rest his soul (..) who lived almost a year and four months in Porto. He was buried in the era of lord [pope] John during the second year [of his pontificate] on 19 July of the second indiction [i.e. the year 899]. I ask you who reads this always to pray for me in divine matters. And who violates my grave, shall be excommunicated (...)." Possibly Hebi (in his own language perhaps Hebe or Hebo) was a knight. He must have been a confident personality considering his warning not violate his grave.

The second thing that is still there in the Vatican to be admired, is the sweet water well. It is behind the Church of the Frisians, in the garden of the fathers Jesuits.

Church of the Frisians - Friezenkerk
Church of the Frisians, Vatican City lithograph by Frisian artist M.C. Escher

On the spot of the former schola and church, the Frisians built the Church of the Frisians which was consecrated in the year 1141. Its Romanesque bell tower, which stayed more or less unchanged ever since, is even the oldest of Rome. For some decades the tower was mute. But since the summer of 2019, the tower bells, that were cast in the eighteenth century, have been restored, and the Frisian church cheerfully joins the cacophony of ringing towers of Vatican City and of wider Rome again. Halfway through the eighteenth century, the church was heavily renovated and received its current appearance, which is a fusion of Rococo and Classicism. Other names for the Church of the Frisians are San Michele dei Frisoni, San Michele in Sassia, and Santi Michele e Magno.

There is a theory that at the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory I founded nine (some say eight) churches dedicated to Archangel Michael after the pope had seen the angel above the mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome (Stellingwerf 2007). It was a time the plague swept through the region. The archangel put his sword in the scabbard, a sign the plague had ended. The Church of the Frisians is, therefore, one these holy nine churches, and the only one left that survived the ravages of time. With the construction of the Saint Pieter's Basilica in the sixteenth century, the church was almost knocked down. Thanks to the fact it was located on the hill, it escaped its fate. Most recently, before the Second World War, the Borghi, i.e. the direct neighbourhoods of the Saint Peter's Square, were cleaned up. Because the Nederlands Historisch Instituut in Rome feared the Church of the Frisians would be 'cleaned up' as well they asked the Frisian artist M.C. Escher (1898-1972) to make a lithograph of the church. Miraculously the church survived again. Panic for nothing, but at least we got a lithograph of Esher out of it.

patron number one: Archangel Michael

The church was thus dedicated to Archangel Michael, the first patrocinium of the church (see also featured image of this post). Indeed, the great artist and architect Michelangelo received his name from this angel too, and he is among many other things famous for painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of the nearby Saint Peter's Basilica. Archangel Michael was the leader of the army of God against evil, the angel of death, and responsible for weighing the souls after death. Therefore, Archangel Michael was associated with justice and righteousness too.

By the way, to finance this impressive and second largest church of the world, a lot of money had to be raised to accomplish the Saint Peter's Basilica. For this the massive sale of indulgences was set up and specific taxes were raised, the so-called pieterpenning 'peter penny'. The paradox was that the practice of indulgences to build the Saint Peter's Basilica stimulated the rise of Protestantism. Imposing more taxes to build a house of god is always tricky. It also led to a revolt on the Faroes around the same period, with heathen Frisians killing the bishop; check our post Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast! for more bloody details.

An important cleric tasked with the collection of money for the Saint Peter's Basilica was papal collector generalis Idzardus Grauius Phrisius Agricola. Hence, probably from Grou in the province of Friesland, with agricola meaning 'farmer'. Idzardus was collector generalis of the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, of the ecclesiastical provinces Bremen and Cologne, and of the diocese Schleswig. Besides an important cleric, and relevant for this blog post, Idzardus claimed to have made a copy of the Magnuskerren himself in the library of the Santa Maria sopra Minerva basilica in Rome. A basilica close to the Pantheon. He also complained that Phrisia liberrima gentium gave up their freedom so easily (Vries 2009).

But, besides Archangel Michael, a second patron for the Church of the Frisians was coming up: Saint Magnus.

patron number two: Saint Magnus of Cuneo

Saint Magnus is being worshiped in the towns of Fondi and Anagni in region Latium modern Lazio in Italy, and churches are dedicated to him. Other churches in Europe dedicated to Saint Magnus can be found up north. Firstly, this is the church of Esens in the district Harlingerland in region Ostfriesland. Secondly, these are the churches of the villages of Bellingwoude in province Groningen, and of Hollum and Hoornsterzwaag both in province Friesland. Lastly, the church in the village Anloo in the north of province Drenthe, is dedicated to Saint Magnus as well. In sum, Frisia and Italy. Now how did that all happen?

Saint Magnus
Saint Magnus of Cuneo

For this we turn to another, lengthier inscription preserved in the Church of the Frisians in the Vatican. To see it, go to the back of the church and look for it above a door at the left. It is the story about three Frisian soldiers serving in Charlemagne’s army, together with a nun, and who are on their way back to Frisia. This after a military campaign against the Saracens, i.e. the Muslims from northern Africa, in the region of Apulia in the southeast of Italy. Their names are Ilderado from the town of Groningen, Leomot from the town of Stavoren and Hiaro from the village of Slinga. The nun is named Celdui. Unclear where Slinga was located but probably it was the village of Esens (see further below).

It is then, on their way back to Frisia, that the three men and the nun find the dead body of Saint Magnus of Cuneo. Magnus was a soldier of the Theban Legion in the Roman Period, in the third century. Later he became bishop of Fondi and Trani, and became a martyr. That was in the year 252. He was a saint under the protection of Archangel Michael (Noomen 1989). No explanation is given as to why the body was there laying around on the road suddenly. The three soldiers and the nun decide to take the body to Frisia. When they are near the town of Sutri, north of Rome, the body refuses to be taken any further. In their dreams, the men were told to bring the body to their church in Rome. So, they did.

And so, the Church of the Frisians got its second patrocinium, and hence its double name, Michael and Magnus. Of course, that the three men and the nun tried to steal relics and got remorse or were caught in the act, is a too rational explanation we thus must dismiss.

Because of the three man’s and the nun's devotion, they were allowed to remove a part of the arm of Saint Magnus to serve as a relic back home in Frisia. Pieces of Magnus' arm were apparently spread over the villages of Anloo, Bellingwoude, Esens, Hollum at island Ameland (ecclesia sancti Magni in Hollum insuIa ab Aemlandt) and of Hoornsterzwaag. How relics, if they did, ended up from the Church of the Frisians in Rome in the churches of Anagni and Fondi, is not told. By the way, the church of Anloo in the province of Drenthe, when it was renovated, turned out to have been built over a building dating to the Roman Period. A pattern of stone column supports have been found, originally supporting a wooden structure. Maybe a pagan temple.

impression of medieval church at Anloo, by Ulco Glimmerveen

Because the full text of the inscription is not very easily accessible on the web, it is presented below for the non-believer or simply for the connoisseur, with a translation (Verweij 2014). The best hard copy of the text is provided by Stellingwerf (2007). The text is full of abbreviations so hard to read.



In the name of the Lord. In the time of pope Leo IV when emperor Charlemagne was emperor, at that time when Saint Peter's Basilica was taken by the Saracens, when finally, the whole world was confused, all of Gaul came with king Charles to protect her. When a few died fighting with the Lord's war against the Lord's enemies and were buried in a crypt next to Nero's palace, pope Leo and Charlemagne in honour of archangel Michael built a church above them. When all this was done, the king went to Apulia and submitted it to Saint Peter and Rome. At the same time, when the army returned to Gaul, three soldiers from Frisia, Ilderado from Groningen, Leomot from Stavoren and Hiaro and the maidservant of the lord Celdui from Slinga, found the body of Saint Magnus in the place called Fondi. When they found this, they decided to carry it to their region and bury it there, but with the help of God's will they could not carry [the body] any further after they had come close to Sutri. They were frightened two or three times and warned in a dream, they returned to Rome and brought the body with them. Because of their devotion [the pope] allowed them to separate part of his arm from the body. The other parts, however, remained in the above crypt above which, as stated, a church was already built. Then they decided that every year a very great gift would be given, namely three hundred marks of silver for the redemption of themselves and for those who rested there, so that for ever rich or poor would stay in the aforementioned basilica of the archangel and church of Saint Magnus in the hospital they built next to it, if they came from their regions. That is why it is clear to all of us and to everyone else that if they try to break this decision, they must know that they will be condemned and cursed forever and will be bound by the anathema of the aforementioned pope with shackles in hell and sit together with the devil unless they come to their senses, and will be miserable, poor and scattered in this life, and will be nullified from the book of heavenly life and expelled from the Kingdom of Christ. For those who confirm and favour this decree etc. blessed by Christ and may they enjoy the joys of both lives. Amen.


inscription about Celdui, Ilderado, Leomot and Hiaro and the relics of Saint Magnus

The dating of the inscription is not very precise. The inscription itself talks about Charlemagne and Pope Leo IV, and the time the Saint Peter’s Basilica was sacked by the Saracens. That points to the year 848, when the Saraceni attacked Rome and were defeated by Germanic armies, including Frisians. In that same year, the Saracens were chased all the way south to Apulia. Charlemagne (747-814), however, could not be part of this history, since he was already dead by the time Leo IV was pope (847-855). Besides, if 848 is indeed the correct year of the story, it means Pope Leo was dead too by then.

Anyhow, based on the ‘financial’ passages of this inscription concerning the annual payments to keep the dead from eternal damnation, scholars date the inscription itself the first quarter of the eleventh century (Noomen 1989). Thus the inscription is testifying about events that took place at least two centuries before. Others, however, date it around 1300 based on linguistic aspects (Stellingwerf 2007).

So, now we have the ingredients: Saint Magnus, Frisians in Rome, Charlemagne, fighting against the Saracens, and Archangel Michael. Take a blender and press on button 3 for a maximum effect to create the saga of the Frisian Freedom. Or as they said back then: 'fry ende freesk' (free and Frisian), or 'fry freesk' (free Frisian), a slogan dating back to the eleventh century (Vries 2012).

Note that besides Saint Magnus and Archangel Michael, another Catholic deity was identified with the Frisian Freedom and the battles against the counts of Holland in the Late Middle Ages. This was Mary, the queen in heaven and lady of distress. Especially in Sealand Westergo in the province of Friesland, Lady Mary was the symbol of an independent tota Frisia (Mulder-Bakker & Van Beek 2021). Find more in our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfing Dynasty. Lady Mary is also depicted on the grand seal of the Upstalsboom. A seal believed to have been created by the monastery of Ihlow near Aurich (Dirks 2023).

This is the smoothie you get

In all the different versions of the Magnus saga, the Frisians fight the citizens of Rome, the Saxons and the Saracens, or a combination thereof. Always to free Rome for the sake of Charlemagne and the pope. Besides this, the Frisians supposedly fought like true biblical Urías in the frontline, and under command of their leader Magnus who carried a red banner. Apparently, Saint Magnus was transformed from an Italian bishop into a Frisian warrior.

Also, the Frisian warriors are described as ‘naked’ in the sagas, what is meant by that they did not wear (heavy) armour and helmets. This corresponds with the images preserved of high-medieval, barefooted Frisian warriors. Read our post Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea where we elaborate on their eccentric appearances. That they walked barefoot might have been the norm in the salt-marsh culture of the Frisians. It is even a tradition that survived on the Hallig islands in the region of Ostfriesland till the nineteenth century (Knol 2021). Key was that they were lightly armed and fast in charging at the enemy. Even their hair shaved off for the aerodynamic effect.

The saga also tells that from that time onward the Frisians preferred to be killed than to lose their freedom: "Friso pro libertate mortem appetit!" meaning 'Frisians prefer death for freedom' (Muuß 1933). Translated in the different Frisian lands as: Lieber töt, als unfrei! or Liewer duad üs Slaw! or Leaver dea as slaef!

All versions of the saga also have in common that the Frisians were rewarded for their heroic deeds and achievements by Charlemagne himself. Sometimes the freedom was pro-actively given to them, although mostly it was chosen by their leader Magnus: the Magnuskerren. The Magnuskerren were laid down in a charter together with a seal of Charlemagne and brought to Frisia by Magnus, together with the red banner.


Sources of the Saga - The saga of the Frisian Freedom, with different accents, has been codified in several Old-Frisians law books: Codex Unia (U), ca. 1650; Scripture of Fivelgo (F), ca. 1450; Jus Municipale Frisonum (J), ca. 1530; Druk (D), ca. 1485; First Hunsingo Codex (H), early-fourteenth century; Codex Aysma (A), sixteenth century.


To makes things more credible concerning the freedom saga, a serious Magnus pedigree was construed over time too. He received a totally fictional genus name, namely Forteman. He also got his own seal. In addition, Magnus Forteman supposedly was the first duke of Frisia. And, while they were at it, and why not? his father Gustavus founded the first church in Frisia, at Almenum, now part of the town of Harlingen. This church in Harlingen, originally built around the year 1200, has Saint Michael as patron. Also, the coat of arms of Harlingen carries the image of Saint Michael.

There is a theory that Hiaro of Slinga, one of the three soldiers who find the body of Saint Magnus (see above, the inscription in the Church of the Frisians), is actually from the settlement of Hlinga. The 'S' of Slinga would be a slip of the chisel concerning the 'H', and Hlinga would stem from H(er)linga and H(ar)linga, thus modern Harlingen. Together with a thirteenth-century seal from district Wonseradeel in the province of Friesland, which depicts a warrior with the eagle of Charlemagne (possibly indeed Hiara from Slinga) and bearing the text Sanctus Magnus dux Frisonum 'Saint Magnus duke of Frisia', a fusion was made of the historic persons Hiaro and Magnus (Van Buijtenen 1953). We are, however, not sure simply another saga has been created with this 'theory'. It needs quite a lot brain gymnastics and stimulant drugs, to be frank. And how to incorporate the place name Almenum into this creative outburst of Van Buijtenen, we do not know either.

In fact, the name Slinga is very probably Esens. The older name of Esens is namely Es(e)linge. Esens is located in the north of the region of Ostfriesland and, guess what, its church is dedicated to Saint Magnus too (Noomen 1989, Stellingwerf 2007). So, very nice and all the flags of the Netherlands and the province of Friesland that decorate the Church of the Frisians today, but more appropriate would be the flag of the region of Ostfriesland because they brought the relics of Saint Magnus to the church. Anyway, the thick Dutch nationalistic layer with which the Church of the Frisians is covered, could be regarded as an insult by the Ostfriesen.


Almenum -The present-day town of Harlingen developed near the terp settlement of Almenum. On this terp stands the church of Saint Michael. The name Almenum - still being used - might indicate a pre-Christian origin of a temple or sanctuary at this spot. The morpheme 'al' stems from 'al(a)h' meaning temple, and 'alhist' meaning 'dwelling near the temple'. Other place names in the Netherlands with a similar origin are Aalst and Elst (Van Eijnatten 2005).

Other morphemes pointing towards a spot of pre-Christian sacral relevance are 'harg', meaning temple or hilltop sanctuary, like the villages of Hargen in province Noord-Holland, Harich in province Friesland, Harga (later Kethel) in province Zuid Holland, and 'wîha', meaning holy place, idol, or altar, like the village Wehe-Den Hoorn in province Groningen or the towns Wijhe in province Overijssel and Wije in province Gelderland. During the Middle Ages, at Harich (before Harch), there stood a chapel and grangia 'monastic grange' belonging to the Saint Odulf Abbey at Stavoren. When the grange was plundered and burned down by haadling 'headman' Ige Galema during a local conflict at the end of the fifteenth century, many miraculous healings happened at this spiritual spot. The spot is located on a slightly elevated Pleistocene height (De Langen & Mol 2023).

Lastly, the place named Herwen in the province of Gelderland also has a similar holy origin. It is composed of "harh-wiha" which means 'temple' or 'consecrated sanctuary' (Kerkhof 2022). At Herwen, a complete Roman temple complex was found, dedicated to the god Magusanus, which was popular among the Batavians living in the area.

Old English language also has similar toponyms, namely 'hearg' and 'wēoh' which can be found in the epic poem Beowulf (Mees 2019, Van Renswoude 2021). But also think of the German word "Weihnacht" which means 'holy night' for Christmas.

For an overview of toponyms in the Low Countries referring to former sacred places, check the blog of Taaldacht.

seal of Magnus Forteman of Frisia
seal of Magnus Forteman

Of course, the whole early-medieval story about the Magnuskerren and Magnus is fake news. Still, it constituted a crucial part of high-medieval Frisian society to withstand the claims of non-Frisian, feudal and ecclesiastical rulers to incorporate Frisia into their jurisdiction.

The legend of the Magnuskerren must be dated in the thirteenth century. As said earlier, Frisia was a collection of countless free-farmer republics and its defense fully relied on people, on citizens, on farmer's or people's militias. These legends and sagas helped to motivate and organize themselves. Nowadays, the Mid-Frisians would call that mienskip.

The many little republics were loosely united within the almost mythical but beautiful named saun zelanden ‘seven sealands’. Later, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the small republics tried to strengthen their alliance with the Upstalsboom treaty. The Upstalsboom had its own seal (too) with an image of two Frisians warriors. When the Frisians and their chosen judges gathered during the thing on the hill Upstalsboom once a year on the Tuesday after Pentecost, their motto spoken was eala Frya Fresena 'hail free Frisians'.

The alliance of Upstalsboom failed ingloriously, however. Read our post Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective to know why and how. Parallel to the decline of Frisia, the Church of the Frisians in Rome fell into disuse in the Late Middle Ages, and the Chapter of Saint Peter took possession of the church. In the year 1989, the Netherlands received the user right of the church based on the historic ties. Although, we add, that could have been just as well the State of Niedersachsen since it was part of Frisia too. The church council of the Church of the Frisians is called the Willibrord Council, the early-medieval missionary of Frisia. In 1995, Pope John Paul II consecrated the altar of the renovated church.

Whatever the user right for Frisia, Niedersachsen or the Netherlands, when you are in Rome to visit the Church of the Frisians, do not forget to take a quick look at Saint Peter Basilica. It is worth a visit too!

There might be some truth in it after all

In the year 1234, William II, son of Count Floris IV of Holland, became the new count of the regions Holland and Zeeland, i.e. most of West Frisia. In 1248, Count William fought against the excommunicated Emperor Frederick II and conquered, among other things, the city of Aachen. Curiously, it was Frisians who fought under his banner. Actually, the followers of Frederick were considered heretics, and the pious Frisians were always up for some jolly crusade action. The same year, William II was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Two days after his coronation in the Aachen Cathedral, he gave privileges to the Frisians who were gathered in the cathedral too. Actually, Emperor William II reconfirmed in a charter the rights, freedoms and privileges that Charlemagne allegedly had given to the Frisians already. So, Emperor William II, again, made the connection with Charlemagne and that era.

Whatever the privileges for the Frisians, the Westfriesen of the current region of Westfriesland in the province of Noord Holland, who were in a bitter conflict with the sutherna here 'southern lords' (i.e. counts of West Frisia/Holland) for centuries already, slaughtered Emperor William II without hesitation in the cold winter of 1256. This was during a military expedition of William II in the region of Westfriesland. Read also our posts Guerrilla in the Polder. The Battle of Vroonen in 1297 and In debt to the beastly Westfriesland about the history of the free-farmer republic Westfriesland, and their struggle with the counts of Holland.

Then, in the winter of 1417, King (late to become Holy Roman Emperor) Sigismund of Luxembourg extended, yet again, to universorum Incolarum et inhabitantium tam Orientalis quam Occidentalis frisie ‘all people and inhabitants of East and West Frisia’ the freedom privileges for real. Although not from Charlemagne, still granted by an emperor. The charter with a big seal has been preserved. Despite Sigismund’s generous ruling, the Frisians do pay taxes to the German and Dutch governments today. Maybe they should make a case at court with Sigmund's charter as their inalienable right.

Freedom privileges of Frisia AD 1417
copy of freedom privileges of king and HRE Sigismund, AD 1417 at the House of Province Friesland

Another royal recognition of the Frisian Freedom came from Philip VI of Valois, king of France. In October 1337 he tried to kiss up with the Frisian districts through letters he send among other to the districts of Oostergo, via the Abbey of Klaarkamp, and of Wangerland. In it he recalled how the Frisians got their freedom privileges from Charlemagne after they fought to free the city of Rome from Roman insurgents (Kern 1910, Vries 2009).

Variation on the theme

The Ostfriesen

The Ostfriesen, or East Frisians of region Ostfriesland, have a different legend as to how they received their freedom. That was after the battle of Norditi in 884, also known in Germany as the Normannenslacht. It was a battle, some argue several battles, between the Frisians and the Danes who had occupied the coastal zone of Ostfriesland. As a sign of gratitude for pushing out the Vikings, King Charles the Fat gave the Frisians their freedom. Read our post A Theelacht. What a great idea! for more details on this great battle.

The Wurstfriesen

The Wurstfriesen, or Wurst- Frisians, of Land Wursten, have a similar saga called Das Adlerwappen 'the eagle's coat of arms'. It tells how the Frisians of Land Wursten begged emperor Frederick Barbarossa to fight under his banner against Rome. They were permitted to do so and where so bold and brave that the Wurstfriesen were incorporated into Frederick Barbarossa's personal guard. Every conspiracy in Rome against the emperor was prevented by the guard. When Emperor Frederick Barbarossa wanted to knight the Wurstfriesen, they declined. The Frisians said they regarded themselves already higher in rank and fame than a knight, because they had wrested their land from the sea and had taken possession of it before anyone had given it to them. The emperor replied that the only thing left he could do to honour the Frisians was to allow them to carry the Imperial Eagle in their coat of arms.

That Frisian were body guards of emperors in Rome is not a strange thought. Even names of two Frisian corpore custos ‘body guard’ in the Roman army have been preserved, namely Bassus and Hilarus. Both served in the army to protect general Germanicus Julius Caesar and Emperor Nero in the first century AD. Of course, they have been indicted by the ICTF post-mortem for serving in a foreign army.

Check also our post Make way for the dead! to learn that besides the Frisians also the Swiss carry the imperial eagle in their coat of arms. This right to wear the half, black imperial eagle was also granted to the Frisians by Charlemagne after they had freed Rome (Muuß 1933).


Note 1 - There are two holy stairs in Rome and of them is part of the Church of the Frisians; the Scala Sancta. Penitents and pilgrims must pray and climb on their knees the thirty-three stairs. Never you may descend a holy stair! The one who follows Jesus must continue to do so, and never reverse his or her steps (Stellingwerf 2007). The Scala Sancta is possibly the former entrance of the original Church of the Frisians built in the Early Middle Ages (De Boer 2011).

Note 2 - There is an early-medieval saint in the south of France who has many parallels with Saint Magnus. He is Saint Fris, a Frisian cavalry commander of the Frankish army who died during the Battle of l’Étendard (the battle of the standard) on 24 June 732 against the Saracens. Interestingly, according to legend Fris is the son of the heathen King Radbod as well. Saint Fris is being worshiped in southern France to this day. Read our post Like Father, Unlike Son.

In medieval Frisia another soldier saint was very popular, namely Saint Martin of Tours (316-397), in Dutch language known as Sint Martinus or Sint Maarten. Think of the Martin churches in Bolsward, Franeker, Groningen and Sneek. His feast day is on 11th of November. Martin originated from present-day Hungary. He was a cavalryman in the Roman army who shared a piece of his cloak with a beggar, lived as a hermit for a while, and performed all kinds of miracles. Saint Martin is buried in Tours what became an important place of pilgrimage in France and beyond. It was Bishop Radbod of Utrecht, born mid-nineteenth century and who had studied in Tours, who propagated Saint Martin as patron of the bishopric of Utrecht (Mulder-Bakker 2021).

Note 3 - Banners/standards and standard-bearers were very important elements in war and heroism in the Middle Ages and long after. As became clear, Magnus was the earl-medieval leader and standard-bearer who brought the red banner from Rome to Frisia. Saint Fris too was a famous early-medieval leader and standard-bearer (see note above). Yet another famous standard-bearer was Tjede Peckes. A young woman of seventeen years who fought in Land Wursten against an army of the bishop of Bremen in the year 1517. She carried the white banner of death. Read our post Joan of Arc an inspiration for Land Wursten.

The red banner of Magnus Forteman possessed wonder powers. It provided protection against storms and thunder, and against evil spirits and sorcery. It also helped to be freed from evil spirts or magic. And, of course, it secured victory in battle. The banner had been passed down generations of founding fathers of the Frisians. King Friso had the banner, together with an iron crown, taken with him from India. Friso had received the banner from his father Adel, who got it from his father Ragau, who got it from his father Sem. After the death of Friso, the banner and crown were kept at the temple Tamfane. During the rule of the Danes, the iron crown was robbed but the banner was not. The Frisians had buried it deep under the ground, but, after time had passed, forgotten where. When Saint Willibrord came to Frisia, the whereabouts of the banner was revealed to him in a dream and he gave it to Magnus. From then on, the banner is also known as the Magnusfane (Dykstra 1966).

Suggested music

Franklin, A., Think 1968

Further reading

Blok, P.J., De Friezen te Rome (1902)

Boer, de D.E.H., Emo's reis. Een historisch culturele ontdekkingstocht door Europa in 1212 (2011)

Bolhuis van Zeeburgh, J., Kritiek der Friesche geschiedschrijving (1873)

Bremmer, R.H., "Thi Wilde Witsing": Vikings and Otherness in the Old Frisian Laws (2020)

Buijtenen, van M.P., De grondslag van de Friese vrijheid (1953)

De Maesschalck, E., De graven van Vlaanderen (861-1384) (2012)

Dirks, C.H., Geschichte Ostfrieslands. Von der Freiheit der Friesen bis zu Deutschlands witzigstem Otto (2023)

Donati, G., Latium. Photographic Guide-Book (1986)

Draaisma, K., Een nieuwe kijk op Caspars dijk (2017)

Dykstra, W., Uit Frieslands volksleven. Van vroeger en later (1966)

Eijnatten, van J. & Lieburg, van F., De Nederlandse religie geschiedenis (2005)

Folkerts, R., Die Theelacht zu Norden. Ein seit 1100 Jahren auf genossenschaftlicher Basis geführter Familienverband (1986)

Hees, van R., De grote kerkrestauratie in de periode 2007-2012. Il grande restauro della chiesa dei Santi Michele e Magno nei periodo 2007-2012 (2013)

Henstra, J.H., Friese graafschappen tussen Zwin en Wezer. Een overzicht van de grafelijkheid in middeleeuws Frisia (ca. 700-1200) (2012)

Iba, E.M., Hake Betken siene Duven. Das grosse Sagenbuch aus dem Land an Elb- und Wesermündung (1993)

Israel, J., Friesland and the Rise of Democratic Republicanism in the Western World (1572-1800) (2019)

Jensma, G., Vrijheid als innerlijke deugd. De paradox van de 'Friese vrijheid' in de negentiende eeuw (2019)

Jongstra, A., Friezen in Rome (2024)

Keijser, D., Cloth as Currency: Clothing and the Naked in Old Frisian Law (2015)

Kern, F., Analekten zur Geschichte des 13. und 14. Jahrhunderts. Frankreich und die Friesen (1910)

Kieckens, E., Lazio en het beste van Rome (2017)

Knol, E., For Daily Use and Special Moments: Material Culture in Frisia, AD 400-1000 (2021)

Langen, de G. & Mol, J.H., Vroege benedictijner kloosterboerderijen in Zuidwest-Friesland (2023)

Molen, van der S., Oorsprong en geschiedenis van de Friezen (1981)

Mulder-Bakker, A.B., Heiligen en relieken. Geloofspraktijk van boeren en burgers (2021)

Mulder-Bakker & Beek, van L., Maria, Onze Lieve Vrouw. Hemelkoningin en Redder in Alle Nood (2021)

Muskens, M.P.M., De Kerk van de Friezen bij het Graf van Petrus. De geschiedenis van de kerk. De kerk in de geschiedenis (1989)

Muuß, R., Nordfriesische Sagen (1933)

Noomen, P.N., St. Magnus van Hollum en Celdui van Esens. Bijdrage tot de chronologie van de Magnustraditie (1989)

Renswoude, van O., Heidense oordnamen in de Lage Landen (website)

Renswoude, van O, Hof, harg en hal: het heten van heiligdommen (2021)

Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019)

Spiekhout, D., Brugge, ter A. & Stoter, M.(eds), Vrijheid, Vetes, Vagevuur. De middeleeuwen in het noorden; Nijdam, H., De middeleeuwse Friese samenleving. Vrijheid en recht (2022)

Stellingwerf, I. (ed.), HH. Michaël en Magnus. De Kerk van de Friezen in Rome (2007)

Teetied & Rosinenbrot (podcast), Du friesische Freiheit, sei gegrüßt! (2024)

Tuuk, van der L., De eerste Gouden Eeuw. Handel en scheepvaart in de vroege middeleeuwen (2011)

Verweij, M., De zusterkerk van Anloo: de SS. Michele e Magno te Rome, Magnuslezing (2014)

Vries, O., Asega, is het dingtijd? De hoogtepunten van de oudfriese tekstoverlevering (2007)

Vries, O., Bernardus Bucho Aytta van Swichum. Vortsendienaar in priesterhabijt (2009)

Vries, O., De taal van recht en vrijheid. Studies over middeleeuws Friesland; Die Friesische Freiheit; ein Randproblem des Reiches; De Aldfryske pearformule fry ende freesk (2012)

Waterbolk, H.T., Profane en sacrale houten gebouwen uit de Middeleeuwen in Noord-Nederland (2002)

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