The Frisians

Archeologically, the Frisian territory shows an unusual continuity: either because they participated in Celtic culture or because they were influenced by it. The area was settled early, with archeological evidence of terps (raised dwellings) by 700 BCE.

The Frisii, or Frisians, were respected by the Romans and are mentioned in several sources. In 28 CE they avoided being conquered by making a treaty with the Romans, but sixteen years later, considering the taxes oppressive, they hanged the tax collector and defeated the Romans under Tiberius at the Battle of Baduhennawood. They expanded to the south-west as early as 70 AD, when the westernmost parts of the Rhine delta were abandoned by the Canninefates in the aftermath of the Batavian revolt by Julius Civilis. Some Frisians emigrated to Flanders and Kent during the Roman period, probably the largest numbers in the 250s, when there was heavy flooding. Around 290 CE Frisians are mentioned among the pirates who were raiding Britannia, but in the records the Saxons took over this reputation in the 4th century. This coincides with archeological evidence that habitation of the original area remained sparse for about 150 years and only recovered in the 400s. It has been suggested that by then a part of the Frisians had already merged with the Saxons, to whom they were closely related, as indicated by the similarities between the Frisian languages and Anglo-Saxon. Many of them no doubt joined the migration of the Angles and Saxons who went through their territory to settle in England, while those who stayed on the continent expanded into the newly-emptied lands previously occupied by the Anglo-Saxons. By the end of the 6th century the Frisians occupied the coast all the way to the mouth of the Weser and spread farther still in the seventh century, southward down to Dorestad and even Bruges. This farthest extent of Frisian territory is known as Frisia Magna.

The earliest document referring to an independent state ruled by a king or duke is dated 678, but there is a tradition of more or less spurious lists of prehistoric Frisian rulers, including the matriarchy of "folk-mothers" starting with the supposed goddess Frya set forth in the Oera Linda Book (a nineteenth-century forgery).

The Frisians were for a while fiercely heathen, and various monks were murdered or banished; St. Boniface was murdered near Dokkum in 754. Xianity was introduced in association with increasing dominance by the Merovingian Franks.

In 678 Duke Aldegisel (or Eadgils, Aldgisl, which can be translated as "Old Whip") is said to have welcomed Wilfrid (who became St. Boniface) and Xianity into his realm, inducing most of his chiefs to be baptized and tearing up a letter from the Frankish mayor of the palace, Ebroin, offering a thousand gold coins for Wilfrid's living or dead body. But this may have been more about defying the Franks than about being persuaded by Xianity, and in any case there was suddenly no sign of Xian fervor among the chiefs after Aldegisel's death. His son Radbod is a hero of heathenry: he attempted to rid Frisia of both Xianity and the Franks. Reputedly some missionary (the story is variously attributed) almost succeeded in baptizing Radbod, but at the last minute he refused when he was told that he would not be able to be with his ancestors after death since as heathens they were all in Hell; he declared that he would rather spend eternity in Hell with them than in Heaven with strangers.

In 689, Radbod was, however, defeated by Pippin of Herstal in the battle of Dorestad and compelled to cede West Frisia (Frisia Citerior, meaning Nearer Frisia, from the Scheldt to the Vlie) to the Franks. Between 690 and 692, Utrecht also fell into the hands of Pippin of Herstal. This gave the Franks control of important trade routes on the Rhine to the North Sea. Some sources say that, following this defeat, Radbod retreated, in 697, to the island of Heligoland; others say he retreated to the part of Holland that is still known as Friesland. But Pippin died in 714 and Radbod drove out Willibrord and his monks and advanced as far as Cologne, where in 716 he defeated Charles Martel, Pippin's natural son. Eventually, however, Charles prevailed and compelled the Frisians to submit. Radbod died in 719, but for some years his successors continued to struggle against Frankish power. It was twenty years before Charles Martel got his revenge and effectively subjugated the entire Frisian empire. Xianity was enforced and a bishop installed in Utrecht. Not until the early 800s did the Frisians fully reclaim their independence, but by that time most were Xian.


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