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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

The Chronicles of Warnia. When history seems a fantasy story


The Lion Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia - Walt Disney Pictures

The fate of tribes and tribe names during the age of the Wandering of Peoples, between the fourth and the sixth centuries, was uncertain. Most ceased to exist. Many Celtic and Germanic peoples disappeared from the scene. Some were defeated by confederations of tribes. Others merged into new tribes. Yet others simply vanished into thin air without knowing what happened to them. The tribe’s name of the Frisians miraculously survived, and on the same spot. But that of the Warnians did not. It is a people shrouded in mysticism and who might have lived near the beaches of the North Sea in the sixth century, just prior to the emergence of Frisia.


Whether a group of Warnians ever lived in what is today the Netherlands, is a bit of a tis-tisn’t argument. A pendulum swinging from no to yes, from certainly no to yes for sure among historians for almost a century already. Some scholars even think the Warnians were just as fictional as, for example, the heathen tribe of the Wilts or Wilten (Looijenga, et al 2017). A people who lived in the central Netherlands. After reading this post you will be assured the Warnians did exist, but where they (all) lived…


Before we start, know that the Warnians are known under an awful lot of names, namely: Warnen, Warners, Warni(i), Warini, Wærne, Werne, Wærnum, Wernum, Wærnas, Wernas, Werns, Werinorum, Varinnae, Viruni, Varinians, and Varni(i). Furrthermore, in the Greek language the name is written as Ουάρνοι which translates as Varini in the Latin language. Varini would mean something like ‘(having) wealthy houses’ (Sanducci 2022).


The rumour on the web that the village of Warmond in the Netherlands originates from the Warnians is doubtful, although Warmond is thoughtfully picked because of its proximity to the River Rhine and its old mouth at the village of Katwijk on the North Sea coast. Possibly this rumour and confusion has its roots in poetry. In the year 1818, the Dutch writer Willem Bilderdijk wrote the poem Radagijs, koning van Warmond 'Radagijs, king of Warmond'. According to this poem the Warnian rulers were descended from the god Mars and the mighty kingdom was located near the Diemerdijk 'Diemen dyke', not too far from the city of Amsterdam. Warmond is a water/river toponym (Van Berkel & Samplonius 2018) and therefore has nothing to do with Warnians. There is, however, also a theory the word warini means something like 'river men' (Tarasov 2018). And so we are back at Warmond.


left King Radagijs of Warmond asking for forgiveness from his Anglo-Saxon bride; right King Radagijs resisting his Anglo-Saxon bride, Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam


In Dutch history the Warnians are traditionally presented as a noble people of warriors. In his everyday life history (1873), author Willem Hofdijk describes how Saxons of the Elbe region, known as skilful seamen and infamous raiders, attacked the land of the Warnians. The brave Warnians were ambushed and taken captive. One of the captives was a young warrior of noble lineage. He had to work in the stables and lost all dignity. But because of his noble origin, the daughter of the house developed feelings for the young warrior. They fell in love. When their plan to run away to the land of the Warnians was discovered, the warrior was punished. He was worked to the ground and his nose and ears were cut off. The once prisoner of war was sold as slave and put to work in the stables again. Here he spent the rest of his life. Sleeping on straw and attentively taking care of sick animals.


Of course, this freely painted history is not very informative if we want to learn more about the true pastimes of the Warnians. Fortunately there are quite a few historic accounts that speak of the Warnians, spread out over almost eight centuries.


Mentioned by the Antiques

The oldest mention of the Warnians is from the Roman author and army commander Pliny the Elder (ca. AD 23-79), who listed the Warnians (written as Varinnae) as one of the Germanic peoples. The Warnians belonged according to Pliny to the Vandals. The historian Tacitus (ca. AD 56-117), another Roman, also listed the Germanic tribes, among them the Warnians (written as Varini). According to Tacitus, the Warnians lived east of the Angles and the Jutes, more or less in the modern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the north of Germany. Scholar Ptolemy (ca. AD 100-170), a Roman citizen too, indicated that the Warnians (written as Viruni) lived at the upper reaches of the River Vistula. This would suddenly pinpoint Warnians in the deep south of Poland. And the age of the Wandering of Peoples has yet to begin!


Plus there is the account of another contemporary, that of Procopius of Caesarea (ca. AD 500-565), a Greco-Byzantine historian. In his work De Bellis ‘on the wars’ he describes how the Heruli people migrated through Europe and arrive at the land of the Warnians (written as Varnii) around the year 512, probably in the modern region of Schleswig (Fouracre 2005). De Bellis is probably written in the year 553. Procopius tells an intriguing history of the Warnians that took place in the first half of the sixth century. The account of Procopius goes as follows (after transl. Lugt 2021):


An engagement broken off

King Hermegliscus ruled the Warnians and was married to the sister of King Theudebert I (ca. AD 504-548) of the Frankish kingdom of Austrasia. Procopius does not mention the name of the wife of Hermegliscus but this might have been Theudechild (Van der Aa et al 1874, Lugt 2021). It was Hermegliscus' second marriage because of the early death of his first wife. From his previous marriage he had a son named Radigis. His son was to be married with the daughter of King of the Angles in Brittia. We will name her Ella from now after a poem of writer Willem Bilderdijk (1765-1831), because Procopius did not tell her name. Procopius did mention that with this marriage the Warnians had formed strategic allies with both the Angles and the Franks. With the Franks they shared the River Rhine as their border. In other words, a freoðuwebba. Literally meaning 'peace-wever' (Pollington 2011).


When, however, King Hermegliscus knew his death was near, he changed his plans. It is always tricky when governments change policies too impulsively, and it was no different this time. He cancelled the wedding between Radigis and Ella. King Hermegliscus instructed his son to marry his stepmother after his death because an alliance with a close neighbour is more valuable than with the Angles across the sea. Not long after Hermegliscus' death Princess Ella got wind of the changed plans. At first she pleaded in a letter to Radigis to honour the agreements, but he did not. Furious Ella raised an army of 400 ships and 100,000 warriors and sailed to the kingdom of Warnia. At the mouth of the River Rhine, she took possession of a burh. Coincidentally, the former Roman castle Lugdunum Batavorum at the mouth of the River Rhine near the town of Katwijk is known as Brittenburg 'Brits burh' in local folklore.


A great battle followed north of the River Rhine, and the Warnians were defeated by the Angles. Princess Ella was not content at all with the victory because her treacherous fiancé Radigis had gotten away. After a great search party, they found Radigis hidden in the woods, probably shaking like a leaf on a tree, and brought him before Ella. His hands tied. What followed was a drama that inspired Marvin Lee Aday and Ellen Foley many centuries later.


Meat Loaf with Ellen Foley and Marvin Lee Aday

The princess asked Radigis why he had insulted her because she never had been unfaithful. Radigis said he only did what his daddy had told him to do. He continued by saying sorry, that he had been wrong, and asked if Ella would still marry him. She accepted his excuses, had him untied, and they got married after all. Swearing to their god and on their mother's grave. The queen-stepmother of Radigis, Theudechild, was sent back to the Frankish confederacy. Procopius does not tell what kind of emotions this evoked with the Franks, their mighty ally south of the River Rhine.


Writer Bilderdijk called the whole story a "belachelijk sprookje" 'ridiculous fairy tale' (Van der Aa, et al 1874). Inspired by Bilderdijk apparently, there are also historians who dismiss Procopius' history of the Warnians as a fairy tale because it is wrapped up like that (Dijkstra 2011). And since fairy tales do not exist, we do not have to value Procopius' location of the kingdom of the Warnians either, namely where the River Rhine flows into the North Sea. Instead, the reasoning is, the battle probably took place upstream the River Weser or the River Elbe. But, we humble hikers wonder: did people write fairy tales already in the Late Antiquity? On a meta-level: did fairy tales exist then? Don't be put off by the number of ships and warriors, by the way. Chroniclers annex historians in the past always exaggerated the numbers of warriors and casualties. Have things changed much ever since in times of war? we add.


Contrary to the fairy tale-argument, others made a defensible case more recently that many of the details of Procopius are surprisingly accurate, especially concerning the geography and location of the battle (Lugt 2021). Procopius is even very precise concerning the distance of island Brittia, which lies opposite the mouths of the River Rhine (read Britannia; Looijenga et al 2017, Lugt 2021), from Spain and the distance from the Continent. Procopius precisely calculated the width of the Strait of Dover, namely 200 stadia, which converts to ca. 37 kilometers. Procopius is also very correct in the fact the River Rhine had more than one mouth. We opt for the river mouth at Katwijk with the structures a Roman castle, called Brittenburg(!), still there present in the sixth century. Exactly as Procopius described.


Mentioned by the Franks and Goths

From the period when Procopius wrote De Bellis, letters of King Theodoric the Great (ca. 454-526) of the Ostrogoths are known as well. They are part of diplomatic efforts to avoid war between the Franks and the Visigoths in the year 506. That year King Theoderic addressed the Herulians, Thuringians, and Warnians to plead to join forces against the aggressive politics of King Clovis (ca. 466-511), ruler of the Salian Franks. All three tribes had in common that they lived east of the River Rhine. The territory of Clovis was west of the River Rhine. In addition, Theodoric warned Clovis that the outcome of a battle is always uncertain. He furthermore warned King Alaric II of the Visigoths not to take too great risks. Despite all his efforts, war broke out in the year 507: the Battle of Vouillé near Poitiers. The Visigoths, together with the Burgundians, battled against a coalition of the Salian Franks and the Ripuarian Franks. The Visigoths under command of Alaric lost, and Clovis killed Alaric singel-handedly. The remaining Visigoths migrated to Spain.


Gothic tribes by History Skills

In the year 513, the Warnians were conquered by a coalition of the Franks and Saxons (Fouracre 2005). Ten years later, between 523 and 526, the Warnians and King Theoderic the Great surface again. This time Theoderic expresses his gratitude for the gifts he received from the king of the Warnians, namely: beautiful swords, sable, music instruments made of ebony, and white boy slaves. A last entry in the records, made in the seventh-century Chronicle of Fredegar, is when in the year 595 the Franks destroy the Warnians at the River Saale in the region of Thuringia in the heart of Germany. This after an uprising of the Warnians against the Franks a year before (Fouracre 2005, Lanting & Van der Plicht 2012). Only a few Warnians survived. The River Saale, by the way, is a tributary of the River Elbe. Confluence of both rivers is near the town of Barby.


A further source that must be mentioned is a codex. It is the Lex Angliorum et Werinorum hoc est Thuringorum ‘law of the Angles and the Warnians who are the Thuringians’. This title suggests that there is not much of a difference between the Angles, the Warnians and the Thuringians. Logically, their territories should not be too far apart from each other either. Historians think Warnians and Thuringians are more or less interchangeable names (Dijkstra 2011, Van der Tuuk 2013). The law was codified in 802/803 and part of the leges reform of Charlemagne, ruler of the Frankish empire. And also the why the Lex Frisionum ‘law of the Frisians’ was drafted around the year 800 as well. Just like the Lex Frisionum, the Lex Thuringorum is a list of crimes, offences and penalties like murder, injuries by a blow, bone fractures, stab wounds, etc. These indexes were essential to establish the weregild ‘man price’ to be paid by the perpetrator.


Note that by the time the Lex Thuringorum is written around the year 800, the last record of the Warnians is from the year 595. The year the Warnians were destroyed. So, two centuries have passed and still the law of the Warnians is relevant to codify? Any person who can offer an explanation is welcome to share this with us.


Mentioned by the Anglo-Saxons

The entry we must list is the Old English poem Widsith. The word widsið means ‘distant journey’ and is part of a tenth-century manuscript known as the Codex Exoniensis or Exeter Book. The poem itself, also nicknamed ‘The Traveller’s Song’, dates from the seventh century and contains a very long list of kings and lands across the minstrel has travelled. Some quotes form the Widsith relevant for this post below:

Widsið maðolade, wordhord onleac, se þe monna mæst mægþa ofer eroþan, foka geondferde, oft he on flette geþah mynelicne maþþum (…) Breoca Brondingum, Billung Wernum. Owine weold Eowum ond Ytum Gefwulf, Fin Folcwalding Fresna cynne.

Widsith spoke, unlocked his heart, of all men has visited the most places and peoples on earth, and been rewarded where riches were given (…) [King] Breca the Brondings and [King] Billung the Wernians. [King] Oswin ruled the Eowas and [King] Gefwulf the Jutes. Fin Folcwalding king of the Frisians (transl. after O’Donoghue).

Mid Wenlum ic wæs ond mid Wærnum ond mid wicingum. (…) Mid Froncum ic wæs ond mid Frysum ond mid Frumtingum.

I was with the Vandals and with the Warnians and with the Vikings. (…) I was with the Franks and with the Frisians and with the Frumtings (transl. after O’Donoghue).


Exeter Book and the Widsið

Interesting of the Widsith list is that the tribes of the Jutes, the Frisians and the Warnians are grouped close together. Another interesting fact is that the poem probably dates from the seventh century, the century when indeed the last historic record of the Warnians in the year 595, the Lex Thuringorum not included. And we learn another name of one of their kings, namely Billung. The other Warnian kings were Hermegliscus and Radigis.



Conclusion


We do not have to doubt whether or not Warnian Bros ever existed. They did. The areas they lived are, however, vague. Almost like playing goose board through Central and Western Europe. Initially, in the Antique, they lived in the north of Germany, close to the Angles and the Jutes, in either the region of Schleswig or in the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In the Early Middle Ages the lived either upstream the rivers Elbe and Saale, in the region of Thuringia, but also apparently close to the eastern banks of the River Rhine. And then, of course, the most detailed account of Procopius, that Warnians (also) lived in what is today the province of Zuid Holland, north of where the River Rhine flows out into the sea.


A thing to keep in mind is that the era all this happened, tribes migrated a lot. We do not exclude tribes could split. Perhaps after the death of a local leader, or due to war, famine, or any other reason. Not without reason much of the history of the Warnians takes place around the age of the Wandering of Peoples. And if the Bretons have legends about Frisian warlords who settled on the coast of Brittany, than why cannot an offshoot of Warnians have settled on the coast of the Netherlands?


 


Note – If you consider the possibility that Warnians did live near one of the mouths of the River Rhine, you can also consider the possibility that the unique boat burial at Solleveld south of the city of The Hague might be Warnian instead of Frisian. Read out blog post Rowing souls of the dead to Britain: the ferryman of Solleveld for more on this.



Suggested music

Billy Idol, White Wedding (1982)

Status Quo, The Wanderer (1984)


Further reading

Aa, van der A.J., Harderwijk, van K.J.R. & Schotel, G.D.J., Biographisch woordenboek der Nederlanden, bevattende Levensbeschrijvingen van zoodanige Personen, die zich op eenigerlei wijze in ons Vaderland hebben vermaard gemaakt (1852-1874)

Berkel, van G. & Samplonius, K., Nederlandse plaatsnamen verklaard. Reeks Nederlandse plaatsnamen, deel 12 (2018)

Bilderdijk, W., Radagijs, Koning van Warmond (1819)

Boone, de W.J., Een getuigenis uit Byzantium over toestanden aan de Rijnmonding in de zesde eeuw (1957)

Daly, W.M., Clovis: How Barbaric, How Pagan? (1994)

Delanty, G. & Matto, M. (eds.), The Word Exchange. Anglo-Saxon poems in translation (2011)

Dijkstra, M.F.P., Rondom de mondingen van Rijn en Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3e en 9e eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de oude Rijnstreek (2011)

Fouracre, P. (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History. Volume I c.500-c.700 (2005)

The History Files, European Kingdoms. Germanic Tribes. Warini (Varini / Werns) (Suevi) (website)

Hofdijk, W.J., Ons voorgeslacht, in zijn dagelyksch leven geschilderd. 1e deel (1873)

Lanting, J.N. & Plicht, van der J., De 14C-chronologie van de Nederlandse Pre- en Protohistorie VI: Romeinse tijd en Merovingische periode, Deel A: historische bronnen en chronologische schema’s (2012)

Looijenga, A., Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)

Lugt, F., Een koninkrijk aan de monding van de Rijn (2017)

Lugt, F., Rijnland in de donkere eeuwen. Van de komst van de Kelten tot het ontstaan van het graafschap (2021)

Merkel, J., Lex Angliorum et Werinorum hoc est Thuringorum (1851)

Oxford Reference, Widsith (website)

Pollington, S., The mead-hall community (2011)

Procopius of Caesarea, Yπὲρ τῶν Πολέμων Λόγοι, Hypèr tōn Polémon Lógoi ‘Words on the Wars’ (ca. 545)

Sanducci, A., Ancient scholars about the Turks and the Turkic nations (2022)

Tarasov, I.M., Балты в миграциях Великого переселения народов (2018)

Tuuk, van der L., De Friezen. De vroegste geschiedenis van het Nederlands kustgebied (2013)

Wallach, L., Review. Rudolf Buchner, Die Rechtsquellen, 1953 (1995)

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