Historical story

King Redbad was not a ruler over present-day Friesland

Last updated:2022-07-25

Magna Frisia, the Frisian kingdom of King Redbad, would not have been a unit at all. He had no power over present-day Friesland, scientists conclude after a new reconstruction of the early medieval landscape. Not everyone agrees with that.

The legendary King Redbad is a Frisian icon. At the end of the seventh and early eighth century, this pagan king ruled over Frisia and fought the advancing Christian Franks. There are just not many sources about him. The pagan Frisians had no written tradition of their own, and what we know about Redbad – date of birth unknown, died in 719 – was written by Christian missionaries and historians of later centuries. So is the territory Redbad ruled. This is still a matter of debate among historians.

“When you look at Redbads Frisia, which would cover an area from the current Western Scheldt to the German Weser, and the landscape features, it simply cannot have been a unit. There was already no evidence for his kingship in present-day Friesland and the landscape only confirms that.” This statement comes from Hans Mol, professor by special appointment of the history of the Frisian countries in the Middle Ages. In new research, together with archaeologist Gilles de Langen, professor by special appointment of terpen archaeology, he shows what the landscape looked like in Redbad's time and what the political consequences this must have had.

Frisian law

Who were the Frisians? The Roman historian Tacitus wrote about Frisii at the beginning of our era. They were a brave Germanic people who lived above the River Rhine, the northern frontier of the Roman Empire. Seven hundred years later, the Franks, who were also already writing, also called the inhabitants of this northern area Frisii. However, there is no relationship between the Frisians from the Roman period and those from the early Middle Ages. Meanwhile, the landscape had also changed.

Mol, together with archaeologist Gilles de Langen, has reconstructed the landscape into a map of the entire Frisian Empire, as described in the Lex Frisionum or The Law of the Frisians. Frisia had become part of the Frankish empire after Redbad's death and King Charlemagne had the law written down around 800. It is an important source, because the Franks are the ones who call the area Frisia after the Romans and the law names the different regions within this large Frisian empire.

Impassable middle

The description of Frisia by the Franks was not equally clear everywhere. The North Sea was a clear boundary, but historians were not exactly sure where in the interior the Frisian Empire ended and the Frankish Empire began. What exactly came under Frisia Citerior, the more inland area with important cities such as Utrecht and Dorestad? Mol and De Langen think they have found the answer to this in the landscape.

“Historians have always used the Rhine as their border. This river was the northern border during the time of the Romans. But if you look at the landscape, it appears that at the time of Redbad this river carried much less water and thus had become narrower. Instead of a separating function, the Rhine had been given a connecting function. At the estuary, for example, you see a settlement emerging, established on both banks, namely Leiderdorp. The Rhineland formed a unity and the idea of ​​the Rhine as a border can therefore be thrown into the trash.”

Where did the border of Frisia Citerior run? “From a Frankish point of view, and that is also the literal translation of citerior, 'on this side'.” By this the Franks meant the lands in the river area east of the red dotted line that runs parallel to the beach walls, rather than everything south of the Rhine. On that dotted line, the peat was a bit higher and thus formed a peat separation. “The most important centers in this central Dutch river area were the trading towns of Utrecht and Dorestad; they had been conquered by the Frisians in the course of the seventh century, led by a predecessor of Redbad. Redbad partly lost them to the Franks around 700, although he seems to have exercised authority over them as a Frankish vassal until his death in 719. Although the Franks called this area Frisia, there was little ethnic Frisian about it.”

Animation about Dorestad by the National Museum of Antiquities

King of the West Coast?

When you look at the map, you immediately notice that the different landscapes coincide with the different regions within Frisia. The west consisted of dry beach walls, the northeast of wet mounds and it was separated by difficult and desolate peatland, with several large rivers running through it. Traveling by land was only possible in the west, for the rest everything and everyone was about water.

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This separation had important consequences for the manageability of the area and brings Mol and De Langen to the conclusion that Redbad had no power in present-day Friesland, even though the medieval sources call him the king of all Frisia. No traces have been found to prove that he controlled the mound area. “When you look at the map, this is logical. Nature, namely the wet peat area and the river Vlie, created a border with the west. We know for sure that Redbad ruled West Frisia in the Dutch coastal strip, but we think he only forged alliances with the nobles in present-day Friesland. He needed them to maintain his position.”

Menno Dijkstra, early Middle Ages archaeologist at the University of Amsterdam and not involved in the research, thinks the new frontier is a refreshing idea. “Moll and De Langen certainly have a point that the Rhine was not the border, but they do focus a lot on the landscape. There have been more kingdoms which consisted of different types of landscapes. The west coast, too, eventually depended on waterways, right through the peat bogs, for contact with the river landscape in the middle. Waterways need not have been an obstacle for Redbad to expand his power to Central Frisia, present-day Friesland. He will not have lived there constantly and the unit probably did not last very long, but certainly ten to twenty years.”

Gentlemen remain

Whoever controlled the rivers controlled the trade. The Rhine, the Meuse, the Vecht:these were important waterways for traffic to Scandinavia and for the long-distance trade in luxury goods. The Franks found these trade interests more than interesting. “Redbad and the Frisian nobles helped each other to keep the rivers out of Frankish hands. We also think this alliance forced Redbad to remain pagans. If he had converted to Christianity, he would have become part of the Frankish power system and that was not in the interest of the Frisian nobles," says Mol.

Dijkstra's reasoning goes too far. “I don't believe that Redbad is forced to remain a Gentile, but rather that he made that choice of his own conviction. If he wanted to stay in power without any problems, he could also have struck a deal with the Franks by converting to Christianity and joining them against the pagan Frisians in the mound area. We know from the Franks that these people were difficult to convert. They saw the coastal area as a kind of 'Wild West' and the inhabitants of the mounds as fish in water.”

Important marriage

In West Frisia several large landed complexes have been found from the time of Redbad and this area was his power base. He conquered Frisia Citerior, including the large trading city of Dorestad, which he lost to the advancing Franks at the end of the seventh century. What happened to the king next is still a matter of debate. The Christian sources were not very kind to the pagan Redbad. His empire would have been gloriously conquered by the Christian Franks and the king exiled or worse. That's just not how it went, according to Mol and De Langen. They adhere to the theory that Redbad was respected by the Franks as a prince with a territory of their own.

“In 711 his daughter married a very high Frankish nobleman. That marriage would never have happened, had Redbad not been held in high esteem or a defeated foe. Redbad continued to rule West Frisia, which remained a unity well after his death in 719.” This is what Mol and De Langen conclude from Redbad's large landholding complexes in West Friesland. Their locations correspond to the complexes of the later Counts of Holland, indicating a power unit of the area. And just like Redbad, the Dutch graves would not get a grip on the mound area.

The only question is how important this large landed property was, according to Dijkstra. “I don't think it has been decisive for having power. In the terpen area, for example, cattle ownership was more important than land ownership. In addition, the west coast, with barren dunes and few inhabitants, was less important within Frisia. Many more people lived in the river landscape in the middle and in the mounds.”

According to Jos Bazelmans, sector head of Knowledge Heritage at the Cultural Heritage Agency and not involved in this research, the response by email is that there is nothing new under the sun regarding the fragmentation of the Frisian area and its landscape background. According to him, the problem lies with the image. The science of the Frisian area still struggles with the legacy from Roman times and with the romantic image of the people about the Frisian identity. All in all, an interesting study with a different view of the history of Redbad and Frisia, which will spark a lot of discussion.