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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Frisia, a Viking graveyard

When reading about the famous deeds of great Viking warriors, not much attention is given to the moments of failure. Not much is written about where and when the glorious men, and women, died. As it turns out, the coast of Frisia is one big Viking graveyard. It's here, in the (still) smelly blue mud, where legendary Viking heroes died in masses and paid the ultimate price to secure a ticket to Valhalla.

First of all, we should mention the Battle of Norditi in the year 884. A battle also known in the German language as the Normannenslacht 'Norsemen slaughter', or as the Battle at Hilgenriederbucht 'Hilgenried bay'. This battle took place on the coast of the Wadden Sea near the current town of Norden in the region Ostfriesland 'East Frisia' in what's now northwest Germany. The battle is documented in the Annales Fuldenses written in the late ninth century, and also in the Gesta Hammaburgenis ecclesiae pontifium, written around 1075. In this legendary battle, more than a staggering 10,000 Vikings were slaughtered by the Frisians. Yes, they did so with some divine help, initiated by Bishop Rimbert of Bremen. After the battle, the Wadden Sea must have looked like the yearly festival of Grindadráp 'pilot-whale murder' on the Faroes. Read our post A Theelacht. What a great idea! to learn more about this bloody fight and also what good it brought the Frisians afterward.

Only a year later, in 885, a Viking army of Godfrid the Sea-King, also spelled as Godfred, Guðröðr or Godfrey, was slaughtered by the joint forces of Saxons and Frisians at the present-day town of Spijk in the Netherlands. Godfrid was assassinated shortly before the battle started. This, according to the late nineteenth-century Annales Fuldenses too. His assassination was a conspiracy of the Frankish king with the Saxon and Frisian elite.

Then there was also the unsuccessful raid in Frisia of Viking warlord Egil in the year 956. When about 300 Vikings had to run through the slippery, sheep-dung-covered fields and leap over the many ditches and tidal creeks on the salt marsh to reach their longships and make it out alive.

Besides Viking armies being slaughtered in and/or driven out from Frisia, three very famous warlords bit the salty mud there too. Including two of the five sons of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, also written as Lodbrok or Loðbrók. This might come as a shock for those who watched the series 'Vikings' by Michael Hirst and 'Vikings Valhalla' by Jeb Stuart, and it paints a different view of the movie 'The Northman' by Robert Eggers too.

Maybe, therefore, the monument with the three standing swords Sverd I fjell meaning 'swords in mountain/rock' near the town of Stavanger in Norway, does come more into its own when it would be relocated to the tidal marshlands hugging the marshy Wadden Sea of Frisia. Sverd i gjørma 'swords in mud', could be the new, more suitable name. High-quality Frankish words, by the way, that most probably were bought by Vikings through shrewd Frisian merchants (De Maesschalck 2019).

sverd i fjell, Stavanger by Fritz Røed

Let's go through these three famous swords, these feeders of war-gulls, of ravens, one by one:

Sword 1 – The death of Rodulf Haraldsson († 873)

Other names of Rodulf are: Rudolf, Rodolph, Rodolb, Rothlaib, Hróðulfr and Hrólfr.

Rodulf was a cousin of the Frisia-based duke and warlord Roric or Rorik of Dorestad, and the son of Harald the Younger. Rodulf was a great warlord who raided the British Isles, West Francia, and East Francia. After conducting some serious raids in Ireland as well, he appeared in the Lower River Rhine area in the year 863. His uncle Rorik had control over western Frisia, including the great emporium of Dorestad, located in the present-day town of Wijk bij Duurstede in the Netherlands.

Rodulf died in the pagus 'territory' Ostrachia, also written as Ostergau, of Frisia, which is the present-day region Oostergo in the province of Friesland, the Netherlands, in the year 873. Pagus Oostergo is the same territory where the Anglo-Saxon Archbishop Saint Boniface, along with his small army, was slain with an axe by heathen Frisians in 754. Oostergo: you can think of more welcoming places in the world. Warlord Rodulf was killed alongside 500 of his men. This is not as many as in the Battle of Norditi mentioned above, but still an acceptable and reasonable score. All this information is according to the Annales Xantenses, written in the late ninth century already.

Ac non post multum temporis Ruodoldus nepos predicti tiranni, qui transmarinas regiones plurimas regnumque Francorum undique atque Galliam horribiliter et pene totam Fresiam vastavit. In eadem regione, in pago Ostrachia ab eadem gente cum quingentis viris agiliter interfectus est et, quamvis baptizatus esset, caninam vitam digna morte finivit.

And not long after Rodulf, cousin of the aforementioned tyrant, who had plundered many lands overseas of the empire of Francia, and in a horrible way had plundered Gaul and most of Frisia. In that same area in the district Oostergo, he and five hundred of his men have been courageously killed by the same people, and despite he was baptized, his canine-like life was ended by a death he deserved.

Another one bites the mud.

There's, however, a competing account. One whereby Rodulf is killed together with 800 men instead of 500 of his men. It also takes place in the territory of Oostergo, called the countship of Albdagi. According to this account, Rodulf wanted the Frisians to pay tribute. When they stubbornly refused, Rodulf carried out an attack but was immediately killed together with 800 of his men. This occurred despite the fact that the Frisians were in smaller numbers. The remaining group of Viking warriors fled into a building because they couldn't reach their longships in time to flee. The furious Frisians besieged the building.

Interestingly, it was a Norseman who lived among the Frisians for a long time already, who advised to let the Vikings leave. And let them vow never to return to Frisia, instead of starting another battle. Furthermore, the immigrant Norseman advised that the Vikings had to pay compensation for their raid and ill-mannered behaviour. To make sure they would pay, the Frisians took several hostages. The Vikings departed with great shame and loss and, indeed, after they had returned to their homelands, they paid the silver to ransom the hostages. This is the account of the Annales Fuldenses, written in the late ninth century.

By the way, the year 873 was a year when the rivers Rhine and Weser had flooded the land. This information comes from the Annales Xanteses and the Annales Corbeienses. Besides being a deadly affair, Frisia must have been a very wet affair too for Rodulf.

Sword 2 – The death of Björn Ironside (ca. † 880)

Other names for Björn Ironside are: Bjǫrn Járnsíða and Bier Costae ferreae. In the series Vikings, it was the Canadian actor Alexander Ludwig who played the character.

Björn was a son of the famous Ragnar Lothbrok. Björn raided among other England, Francia, and -together with warlord Hastein, also written as Hásteinn- Spain and the Mediterranean. When Björn travelled from Francia to Denmark, he first suffered a shipwreck and washed up on the coast of England. From there, he managed to continue his sea travels. This time he was blown off course and ended up en Frise, on the shores of Frisia. There, he was killed by the Frisians. Probably, this was somewhere in the 880s, but no exact date is given. All this according to the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (GND) 'deeds of the Norman dukes' by William of Jumièges, written in 1070 or in 1071.

Nam Bier, totius excidii signifer, exercituumque, dum nativum solum repeteret, naufragium passus, vix apud Anglos portum obtinuit, quampluribus de suis navibus submersis. Indeque Fresiam petens, ibidem obiit mortem.

For Björn, standard-bearer of great destruction, and his army suffered shipwreck while he was returning to his homeland and barely reached a harbour on the English coast, with very many of his ships being sunk. Thence on his way to Frisia, he died there.

Another one bites the mud.

The regional convenient story that Björn Ironside is buried in the hills of the island of Munsö near the town of Birka in Sweden is much less certain than his casual death in swampy Frisia. This Munsö story originates from the thirteenth-century Hervarar saga, which is, as it says, merely a saga. On top of that, the Hervarar saga is much younger than William of Jumièges' account. Hence, the latter has a better hand in being a more reliable source. Furthermore, the GND is one of the most important historical sources about the medieval history of Normandy, and William of Jumièges is also the first written authority to mention the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok anyway. So, if you embrace the existence of Ragnar, you embrace the GND and his son's death in Frisia. Lastly, although William of Jumièges' GND provides no exact dates, it does carry signs of accuracy of Björn's voyage in terms of atmosphere (Kacani 2015).

Where in Frisia and how Björn was killed, is not being told. This could be near England across the English Channel on the coastal plains called Sincfala in the modern region of West Flanders, or all the way north at the mouth of the River Weser in modern region Ostfriesland in the north-west of Germany, and anywhere in between.

Sword 3 – The death of Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye († 887)

Other names of Sigurd are: Sigurðr ormr í auga, Sigurdr, Siegfried, Sigfrey, or Sigfred. In the series Vikings, it was the Swedish actor David Lindström who played the character.

Sigurd was, according to legend and old sources, a son of the famous Viking Ragnar Lothbrok too. Sigurd was also one of the commanders of the stor hær, the Great Heathen Army. An army that ransacked most of England between 865 and 878. Sigurd also took part in the Siege of Paris (Francia) of 885-886. After all this bloody excitement, Sigurd turned his snake-eye on Frisia in 887. Here, Sigurd and his men were defeated by Frisians who were armed with axes and clubs. All this according to the Annales Vedastini, written in the early tenth century.

Sigefridus vero cum suis verno finiente in Sequanam rediit agens solita et circa autumni tempora Frexiam petiit, ibique interfectus est.

At the end of spring, Sigurd and his men returned to the River Seine for the regular extortion, and he attacked Frisia around autumn, where he was killed.

Another one bites the mud.

Indeed, a slightly different version than the dramatic one whereby Sigurd receives a deadly blow of an axe on his skull by his short-tempered brother Ivar the Boneless.

The year 886 was once again a soaking wet year in western Europe. Rivers flooded, especially the River Rhine. Also, during the siege of Paris, it was wet and rained for three months on end during the summer. That same year, in March 886, the Frisian merchant quarter of the town of Mainz burned down. The River Rhine still flooded during autumn, after which a very cold and very long winter set in, lasting well into 887. So, it was a miserable, wet, and cold end for Sigurd. All of this is according to the Annales Fuldenses.

medieval Frisia by Sj. Bijkerk

Note 1 – If interested in more Frisia during the Viking Age, check out our posts earlier: A Theelacht. What a great idea!, or Foreign Fighter returning from Viking war bands, or Island the Walcheren: Once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea, or Wilfrid, You'll Never Walk Alone. Learn also in the latter post about Ubba Ragnarsson, also known as Ubbi friski and Ubbo Fresicus 'Ubbe the Frisian' from the territory of Walcheren in south-western Frisia, and who was also one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army.

Note 2 - Besides finishing off Vikings on their own turf, Frisians helped out King Alfred of Wessex to get rid of Vikings as well. This was in the year 897. Check the Frisian maritime contribution to the survival of the Kingdom of Wessex in our post They want you as a new recruit.

Note 3 - The Gesta Normannorum Ducum (GND) of William of Jumièges probably inspired American writer Leslie Stevens to create his play The Lovers, including raiding Frisians in Normandy. A play which was made into the Hollywood movie The War Lord. See our post Filmstar Ben-Hur made peace with Frisian raiders for more.

Suggested music

Elvis Presley, Trouble (1958)

Further reading

Bos-van der Heide, H.S.E., Het Rudolfsboek (1937)

Coupland, S., Coins and Vikings. On the trail of the Scandinavians in Frisia (2022)

De Maesschalck, E., De graven van Vlaanderen (861-1384) (2019)

Engelen, van A.F.V. (ed.), Buisman, J., Duizend jaar weer, wind en water in de Lage Landen. Deel 1: 764 tot 1300 (1995)

Engeler, C. (ed.), Kronieken van het Frankische Rijk. Annales Regni Francorum (2021)

Engelkes, G.G., Der schwarze Rolf (1936)

Huisman, G.C., Notes on the Manuscript Tradition of Dudo of St Quentin’s Gesta Normannorum (1983)

Monty Pyton, The Holy Grail (1975)

IJssennagger, N.L., Central because Liminal. Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World (2017)

Kacani, R.H., Ragnar Lothbrok and the semi-legendary history of Denmark (2015)

Knol, E., Frisia in Carolingian times (2010)

Schoorstra, W., Erfskip. De saga fan Ubba Skylding (2023)

Tuuk, van der L., Gjallar. Noormannen in de Lage Landen (website)

Tuuk, van der L., Vikingen. Noormannen in de Lage Landen (2015)


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