The Frisians: Fierce Fighters of The North Sea Coasts
The world of Germanic nations is a diverse and rich cultural ethnosphere whose languages and cultures came to dominate Western Europe and much of the world. Their history is rich and spans centuries, and we often recount it in our tales. But today we explore those Germanic peoples that are among the smallest “groupations”, a nation that doesn’t have its own sovereignty but has a unique and preserved group identity. These are the Frisians, inhabiting the historic region known as Frisia on the coasts of the North Sea.
Today, Frisia is partly in the Netherlands and partly in Germany, but the identity and the history of the Frisian people is recognized and supported. Join us as we acquaint ourselves with this illustrious Germanic nation and understand more about their rich history, unique language, and their modern position in Western Europe.
Earliest Origins of the Frisians
The earliest ancestors of modern Frisians were the Frisii - an ancient Germanic tribe that inhabited roughly the same region as their modern descendants. This is the so-called delta of the Rhine, Meuse, and Scheldt rivers, a region which contains many islands and is generally a low-lying area. The Frisii were a part of many Germanic tribes , shared cultural and linguistic similarity to a great extent, and were generally not in open conflict.
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In the early stages of the Germanic nations, before the Migration Period, the Frisii shared the shores between the Zuyder Zee and Jutland with their neighbors – the Chauci, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Their migrations eventually led them to settle the shores of the North Sea, where their territories were bordered and guarded by the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt Delta on one side and the River Ems on the other. They also settled the numerous small coastal islands offshore, which gave them a degree of isolation and security.
They are specifically mentioned for the first time around 12 BC, when the Roman commander-cum-politician Drusus the Elder’s account mentions the Frisii as a tribe the Romans warred against in their Rhine campaigns. Unlike some other small Germanic tribes which were gradually assimilated by larger ones - like the Chauci who melded into the Saxons - the Frisii managed to maintain their identity both in the eyes of the Germanic peoples and the Romans as well. Even though they shared cultural background with all other tribes, and thus can’t be identified separately through archaeology, their identity and their homeland provide a sturdy background that has always been a major connection with their nation.
The Frisii were subjugated by the Romans in 12 BC and were taxed moderately in order to prevent revolt. However, when the taxes were later raised, the Frisii were placed in a difficult position. Their main lifestyle was agrarian - they raised cattle and worked the land. But when Roman rule and taxes began decimating their herds and their women were taken into bondage, the Frisii stood up for themselves.
In 28 AD, they besieged the regional Roman fort . This escalated into an open conflict, which drew the propraetor (a Roman authority figure governing a province) of the whole Germania Inferior, Lucius Apronius, into action. But to the surprise of many, the Romans were utterly defeated that same year at the Battle of Baduhenna Wood.
‘The Varus battle’ by Otto Albert Koch, 1909. ( Public Domain )
Similar to the circumstances of the legendary Roman defeat at the Teutoburg forest, the forest environment spelled doom for the Romans at Baduhenna as well. 1,300 Roman soldiers were slaughtered in Baduhenna’s Wood. The Frisii won and quickly became honored and respected among the neighboring Germanic tribes.
The Romans backed down and didn’t pursue the conflict further. We can assume that they still ruled over the Frisii, but with lower taxes.
From the 3rd to the 5th centuries AD, the coastal Frisian lands were subject to dramatically rising sea levels and the Frisii were forced to abandon the area. It is at this point that their historical thread gets thin and difficult to follow. What we do know is that two centuries later the conditions on the North Sea coast were improved and it was once again re-settled - mostly by Angles and Saxons, who were the largest tribes of the region.
An Anglo-Saxon mount, perhaps from a horse harness , found in Hattem, east Netherlands. (The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
We can safely assume that the Frisians were also returning to the region. This stems from archaeological finds. After the Frisii abandon their land, the excavations show a clear pause in habitation, but when it is resettled two centuries later, the excavated material was largely Anglo-Saxon in style. This may simply point to the Frisians adopting the style of larger neighboring tribes, as was usually the case.
A Struggle for Independence
In the Early Medieval Period, Frisia begins to acquire a distinct identity for the first time. Several medieval sources mention an old Frisian Kingdom which was ruled by High Kings. There aren’t many historical materials to offer further details about this kingdom, but there is a certain possibility that the Frisians did gain a degree of independence in the region, especially in the developing Medieval Period. The names of three Frisian kings survive to this day - Radbod, Bubo, and Aldgisl.
Embroidery depicting the legend in which the Frisian king Radbod is ready to be baptized by Wulfram (in this embroidery replaced by Willibrord), but at the last moment refuses. ( CC0)
The Frisians’ loss of independence, which was never fully regained, began with their conflict with the Franks. This series of conflicts is known as the Frisian-Frankish war and was conducted between the 7th and 8th centuries. King Radbod (often called Redbad) was the successor of late King Aldgisl and was a fierce defender against the Frankish Empire.
At the time, Frisians were still pagan and worshiped their gods - Wêda (Woden), Thuner (Thor), Tiwes (Tiwaz, Tyr), Frîja (Frigg), and others. To exploit these wars, Anglo-Irish Christian missionaries infiltrated Frisia to convert the heathen populace, which they eventually accomplished. After a series of clashes and conflicts, the Frankish Empire gained the upper hand following the death of King Radbod.
Eventually, the Frisian King Bubo (Peppo) was defeated and killed with his army in the Battle of the Boarn, after which Frisia was quickly conquered by the Franks. The last remnants of paganism were also slowly snuffed out.
Saint Willibrord, Anglo-Saxon missionary from Northumberland, Apostle to the Frisians, first bishop of Utrecht. ( Public Domain )
After Charlemagne died, the Counts of Holland attempted to gain rule over Frisia, and they did for some time, but without continued success. This shows us the strong fight for independence that the Frisians always had. Around 993, the Dutch Count Arnulf could not assert his power and influence over Frisia, and the period that followed this is today called “Frisian Freedom”.
It is a period in which Frisia became a de-facto autonomous confederation within the Holy Roman Empire, in which neither serfdom or feudalism, nor any central administration existed. Their only allegiance was to the Holy Roman Emperor .
This independence lasted for several centuries, until 1256. At this point, the Counts of Holland were a prominent regional power and wanted to once again become masters over Frisia. From 1256 to 1422, a series of wars were fought between Frisia and Holland.
From 1256 to 1289 it was the West Frisian War. The period of struggle between 1345 and 1422 is known as the Friso-Hollandic War, with the Great Frisian War from 1413 to 1422. All in all, this lengthy period saw a period of strife, until the conquest of Western Frisia in 1422, when it lost its independence and became a part of the Dutch provinces.
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The attack on Frisian Bishop Boniface. ( Public Domain )
Frisian Life on the North Sea Coast
Today, the Frisians inhabit the coastal regions of Germany and Netherlands. These regions are mainly known as West, East, and North Frisia. In Germany’s state of Lower Saxony, this region is called Ostfriesland (East Frisia). It is characterized by its North Sea coastal geography and a 90 km (55.92 mile) stretch of the East Frisian Islands, which form a straight chain along the coast.
They are separated from the coast by the Wadden Sea. When the tide is out it leaves a wide stretch of mudflats and creeks, which can be traversed via the popular activity called “mudflat hiking”. Several of the islands are inhabited, while the others are protected nature reserves. They are known for their sand dunes.
Mudflat hiking, Wadden Sea near Wilhelmshaven. (Daniel Schwen/ CC BY SA 2.5 )
To the North, also in Germany, is Nordfriesland, the northernmost group of the Frisian people. This region borders Denmark to the north. This is one of the most rural regions of Germany and is known for the vast grassy marshlands close to shore and the mudflats at low tide. Off the coast there are 15 islands - all popular tourist destinations.
In Holland, most of the Frisians are situated in their own province, known as Friesland. It too is on the coast. Friesland has a population of roughly 650,000 people. Its capital is the city of Leeuwarden - called Ljouwert in West Frisian language. Just like the other Frisian lands, it is also known for agriculture and the coastal landscapes. The iconic Friesian horse breed originates from this rural region.
A stunning example of a Friesian horse. ( vprotastchik /Adobe Stock)
The Frisians speak their own language , which is split into several closely related dialects. Frisian is the other half of the Anglo-Frisian West Germanic Languages, i.e. it shares a group with the English Language. Old English and Old Frisian shared immense similarities, as the Anglo-Saxons were closely related with their neighbors, the Frisians. Today, Frisian languages share the most similarities with English - more than any other Germanic language.
There are three separate Frisian languages today, and they are mostly not mutually intelligible, or understood with great difficulty. This stems from different political influences and a somewhat separated geographic position (the West Frisians being in Holland, and the East and North Frisians being in Germany).
The West Frisian language - Westerlauwersk Frysk in Frisian - is today spoken mainly in Holland. The North Frisian language has several dialects which are mutually intelligible. It is mostly known as freesk amongst the speakers. There are 10 dialects and they mostly stem from different semi-isolated villages.
The East Frisian Language, better known as Saterland Frisian or Seeltersk, is the only remaining dialect of the East Frisian. It is spoken by the Saterland Frisians, the smallest branch of the Frisian peoples. It has only around 2,250 speakers today.
A Giant Robin Hood - Grutte Pier, the Frisian Folk Hero
We cannot speak of the brave Frisian Peoples without mentioning one of their most prominent heroes - Pier Gerlofs Donia . Better known as Grutte Pier (Big Pier), he lived from 1480 to 1520 and was prominent Frisian pirate and rebel. He was well-known for his enormous stature and strength.
After bitter struggle with a rival, Dutch-backed Frisian family, Pier abandoned his farming life and rebelled. He assembled a company called the Zwarte Hoop (Black Gang). On land he was powerless against the armies, so he chose the sea as his base of operation. In 1515 and 1517, Grutte Pier captured the Holland fleets in the Zuyder Sea and plundered the Dutch town of Medemblik. When one of his lieutenants was executed after capture, Grutte Pier sought vengeance and returned to once again raze the same city in winter of 1518-1519.
Etching of Grutte Pier, from 'Chronycke ofte Historische Geschiedenis van Frieslant' published in 1622. ( Public Domain )
He became known for his practice of testing his captives - if a captured man could not speak a tricky Frisian sentence - he was thrown overboard, since all Frisians can speak it easily. The sentence was: “ Bûter, brea en griene tsiis: wa't dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries. ” (Butter, bread, and green cheese: if you can’t say that, you’re not a real Frisian.)
In time, his deeds became legendary, and he had the same character for the Frisians as Robin Hood had for the English. After a string of victories over the Dutch on the sea, Pier quickly realized that he had no chance on land and surrounded by all the major regional powers. He grew disillusioned and eventually retired and died peacefully in his bed in 1520 in the Frisian city of Sneek.
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Today, visitors of the Frisian Museum in Leeuwarden can see the gigantic sword of Pier Gerlofs Donia exhibited. It is 212.5 centimeters (83.66 inches) long and weighs 6.6 kg (14.55 lbs.) - a truly enormous weapon suitable for an enormous Frisian hero!
The gigantic sword of Pier Gerlofs Donia. ( WMFC Knights )
Frisians are a Unique Part of the Germanic Family
The history of small nations is often filled with strife. When large powers seek to subjugate you, to deny you your identity and independence, there is little that a proud nation can do. But for centuries, the Frisians fought hard to preserve their own unique identity, their name, and their language. And today, even though they lack their own independent country, these North Sea coast people give a distinctive flair to Germanic North Western Europe!
Top Image: The Frisians are historically recognized as brave warriors. Source: lassedesignen/Adobe Stock
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Ijssennagger, N. and Hines, J. 2017. Frisians and their North Sea Neighbours: From the Fifth Century to the Viking Age. The Boydell Press.
Ritsema, A. 2008. Pirates and Privateers from the Low Countries, c.1500 - c.1810. Alex Ritsema.