• Hans Faber

Frisia, a Viking graveyard

When reading about the famous deeds of great Viking warriors, often not much attention is given to the moments of failure. Not much is written about where and when they died. As it turns out, the coast of Frisia is one big Viking graveyard. It is here, in the (still) smelly blue mud, where legendary Viking heroes got ahead of themselves and paid the ultimate price.

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

A year later, in 885, a Viking army of Godfrid the Sea-King, also spelled as Godfred or Godfrey, was slaughtered by joint forces of Saxons and Frisians at the present-day town of Spijk in the Netherlands. Godfrid was assassinated just before the battle started. This according the late nineteenth-century Annales Fuldenses too. Then there was also the unsuccessful raid in Frisia of warlord Egil in the year 956, when 300 Vikings had to run for their longships to make it out alive.

Besides Viking armies being slaughtered in and/or driven out from Frisia, also three very famous warlords bit the salty mud. Including two of the five sons of Ragnar Lothbrok, also written as Lodbrok. Might come as a shock for those who watch(ed) the series Vikings of Michael Hirst, and it paints a different view on the movie The Northman of Robert Eggers too.

Maybe 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 name. Let's go through these three famous swords one by one:

sverd i fjell, Stavanger by Fritz Røed

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 annex warlord Rorik of Dorestad, and son of Harald the Younger. Rodulf was a great warlord who raided the British Isles, West Francia and East Francia. After doing some serious raiding in Ireland he pops up at the river Rhine area in the year 863, where his uncle held control over West Frisia, including the emporium of Dorestat, present-day town of Wijk bij Duurstede in the Netherlands.

Rodulf died in the district Ostrachia or Ostergau of Frisia, what is today region Oostergo in province Friesland, the Netherlands in the year 873. The location Oostergo is the same area where the Anglo-Saxon archbishop Saint Boniface with his small army was slain with an axe by the heathen Frisians in 754. Oostergo: you can think of more welcoming places in the world. Warlord Rodulf was killed together with five hundred of his men. Not as much as in the Battle of Norditi mentioned above, but still a reasonable score. All this according to the Annales Xantenses, written in the late ninth century.

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.

And there was much rejoicing.

There is a competing account, whereby Rodulf is killed together with eight hundred men instead of five hundred. It also takes place in region Oostergo, called countship Albdagi. Rodulf wanted the Frisians to pay tribute. When they refused, Rodulf carried out an attack but was killed immediately together with eight hundred of his men. This, despite the fact the Frisians were in smaller numbers. The remaining group of Viking warriors fled into a building because they could not reach their longships to flee. The Frisians besieged the building. It was, interestingly, a Norseman living 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 behavior. To make sure they would, the Frisians took several hostages. The Vikings departed with great shame and loss and, indeed, later 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 the river Rhine and the river Weser had flooded the land. This according to the Annales Xanteses and the Annales Corbeienses. Besides being a deadly affair, Frisia must have been a 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, according to legend, 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 returned from Francia to Denmark, he first suffered shipwreck and washed up at 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, at the coast 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.

And there was much rejoicing.

The regional convenient story that Björn Ironside is buried in the hills of island Munsö near Birka in Sweden, is less certain than his death in swampy Frisia. This Munsö story originates from the thirteenth-century Hervarar saga, which is, as it says, mere 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 the first written authority to mention the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. 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 told. This could be near England on the coastal plain called Sincfala in modern West Flanders, or all the way north at the mouth of the river Weser in modern region Ostfriesland, 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, a son of the famous Viking Ragnar Lothbrok too. Sigurd is also one of the commanders of the stor hær, the Great Heathen Army. An army that ransacked most of England between 865 to 878. Sigurd also took part in the Siege of Paris of 885-886 in Francia. After all this bloody excitement Sigurd turned his snake-eye on Frisia in 887. Here, he 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.

And there was much rejoicing.

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 again a soaking wet year in western Europe. Rivers flooded, especially the river Rhine. Also, during the siege of Paris it was wet and it rained for three months on end during the summer. That same year, in March 886, the Frisian quarter of the city of Mainz burned down. The river Rhine still flooded during autumn, after which a very cold and very long winter sets in. Well into 887. So, miserable, wet and cold final chords for Sigurd. All this according to the Annales Fuldenses also.

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.

Note 2 - Besides finishing off Vikings on their own turf, Frisians helped out king Alfred of Wessex to get rid of Vikings in 897 as well. Check the Frisian 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 of William of Jumièges probably inspired 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 Ben-Hur made peace with Frisian raiders.

Suggested music

Sinatra, N., Bang Bang (My Baby Shot me Down) (1966)

Queen, Another One Bites the Dust (1980)

Further reading

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

Buisman, J. & Engelen, van A.F.V. (ed), 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)

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

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