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Chapter 4

Origins and History of the Frisians.

As stated before, early men were primarily hunter/gatherers. They moved with the migration of their prey, and thus followed them as the animals’ habitat changed with changing weather conditions. With the retreat of the glaciers at around 10,000 BC, homo- sapiens’ pretty well was confined in the areas south of the Caucasian Mountains, in Southern Russia. They formed a natural land barrier. As water levels rose caused by the melting ice, the levels of the Mediterranean Sea rose accordingly. At around 6000-7000 BC this caused pressure to build on the narrow land bridge existing between the Mediterranean and what is now the Black Sea, near the present Constantinople/Istanbul. As a result the land formation preventing the Mediterranean from flowing into the now Black Sea, broke and a massive, catastrophic, flood occurred, wiping out the settlements that existed on the then sweet water lake, drowning that civilization, and changing it from a sweet water lake to salt water sea.

Similarly, a massive volcanic explosion occurred around 4000 BC in what now is the island of Crete and the Cyclade, Negropond, and Santorino islands in the Mediterranean. The explosion was caused by a similar phenomenum as occurred in the 1890’s near Krakatau Island in Indonesia. A new undersea volcano was birthed. As the earth’s crust opened up, sea water poured into the crater, causing a tremendous pressure of steam to build up. It finally exploded with a force far greater than a series of atom bombs, and causing enormous destruction. At the time of the Krakatau explosion, the ashes circled the earths for several years, and influenced the earth’s climate for some time. In the case of the Mediterranean explosion the civilization in that area was pretty much destroyed. If one looks at the map of that area, one can still see the enormous crater that exists.

Coinciding with the glacial retreats, the earth’s human population increased considerably and along with it we saw the birth of human civilization as we now know it. Because the earth warmed, food became more plentiful; and with it edible animals. Man learned to domesticate animals and we see the introduction of agriculture. Rather than having to be constantly on the move to obtain food, people started to stay in one place and we see the first formation of towns and cities. For instance, one of the oldest cities in the world, Jericho, dates back to this time period. The first evidence of this city goes back to before 9000 BCE.

In Jewish history, the story of Noah exists. It is very close to the story of Gilgamesh and that of Ziusudra in Mesopotamian history and myth. The Jews place Noah around 2350 BCE. This date is based on their counting time from the creation of Adam and the genealogies that exist in their Torah –their and our Bible. Archeology has not been able to confirm this date. In fact there is good reason to believe that certain generations are missing from the Torah, and Adam’s existence goes back considerably further, as evidenced by the city of Jericho.

In the case of the peoples now making up the Germanic tribes, which include the Frisians, they appear to have developed as such over a period of several thousand years. Initially they were part of the hunters/gatherers which moved across the Caucasus Mountains and then hit the Russian and Baltic plains and forests, in which game plentifully existed. As the numbers of humans in that area increased and thus new family groups developed into new tribes; natural catastrophes occurred; pressures from other tribes infringed on their normal territory; what now has become the Germanic race moved north and west following the natural “roadways” of rivers and plains. Hence, we find that about 1750 BC the first humans arrived in the area now making up Friesland. These early inhabitants were of Germanic origin, but had not yet become the “Frisian” tribes as we know them.

The Frisian area at that time roughly consisted of South Scandinavia, Denmark, and the Weser/Oder region along the Baltic Sea. They were part of a large group of peoples called the “Germanics”. This larger group was mainly of the “Nordic” race characterized by the shape of their skull-dolichocranic- with elongated head or face. Among the Nordics was a smaller group of people who were enslaved to the “dolichocranics”, and who had a broader skull and face –brachycranics.

Around 800 BCE, the original Germanic groups had split into Western (Saxons, Angles, Frisians and others); Eastern (Goths and Vandals); and North Germanic groups (Scandia- present Norwegians and Danes ) The Germanic groups are primarily characterized by language- Germanic in Celtic means “shouters” while Teutonic is the Celtic word for “tribe”. The Germanics evolved as small tribes or clans, and they developed individual characteristics which helped to identify them even though they had no written language, before Latin was adopted, and thus their history is sparse. The clans were just as likely to fight each other for resources as to align with one another in confederations which gave rise to “nations” eventually, under names we recognize today. (See Appendix B)

The Frisians spoke “low german” which was mutually intelligible with the “Scandia” who spoke “norsk, donsk tunga,or dansk tunga; with “olde English” of the Angle clan’, or “olde saxon” of the Saxon clan. All these languages are part of the “western subgroup” of the Indo-European languages.

The West Germanics can be divided along religious lines, into three tribe groups: the Ingvaeones, Istaevones, and the Herminones., The Frisians belong to the Ingvaeones. The name Ingvaeones is derived from the god Inguz from whom the Frisian believed they descended. Inguz is another name for the Germanic god Freyr, the god of sun and rain, and the patron of bountiful harvests. He is both a god of peace and a brave warrior and he is the ruler of the elves. His sister is Freya (after which the sixth day of the week-Friday is named) In the runic script, the letter “Inguz” means “fertility; New Beginnings; Love and Harmony.

Statue of Freyer

Rune symbol- Inguz

In mythology the god Tuisto had a son Mannus, who in turn had three sons –Ingus, Istae, and Hermin, who became the progenitors of the Germanics- The Ingvaeones lived nearest the sea; the Herminones in the interior; and the Istaevones in the remainder of the Germanic areas. Other tribes belonging to the Ingvaones were the Jutes, Warns, Angles and the Saxons. The latter were the closest to the Frisians. Around 700-600 B.C, the Ingvaeones colonized the coastal areas around the mouths of the rivers Eems and Weser and the coastal clay districts of the current Dutch provinces of Friesland (Westgo) and Groningen (Oostgo) (“go” means “island”). Later they spread further along the Dutch coast to the area around Leiden up to Delfzeil in the North of what is now the Netherlands. A distinct proto-type Frisian culture started to evolve around 200 B.C.

The area of this “Frisian” culture looked quite different then, from what it does now. It was a low land of morasses, clay flats, peat-moors and peat bogs, surrounded with dunes. During bad storms the area was constantly flooded. During many of these floods large numbers of people lost their lives. Over time, as Christianity took more of a hold, the monks constructed primitive dikes to protect the land from the sea. The original settlers constructed “terps”- low knolls made up of refuse and soil. They still exist. Up to 1200 have been identified. They are anywhere from one to 10 meters high. Some are big enough to construct a small village on; others contain just a farm home and outbuildings.

Friesland around 600 B.C. 

  • 1. Clay- First Frisians settle in striped areas;
  • 2 Peat-moors/peat bogs, uninhabited;
  • 3 sand
  • 4 mud flats- uninhabited;
  • 5 peat formation locally- uninhabited (later known as West-Friesland)

The first terps were constructed around 500 B.C. A second wave of them, were built between 200 B.C. and 50 B.C. Around 300 AD sea levels rose so dramatically that most of the clay areas were deserted. They were re-occupied around 400 AD. This continued until about 1200 AD when dikes were constructed instead. “Terp”(plural “terpen”) is the Frisian word for “village”. The Dutch equivalent is “dorp”; English “thorpe”; German “Dorf” They were usually built on top of a sand bar and over time it was heightened by soil and offal.

Terp(en) as seen from the ground and from the air.

Because the prevailing winds in Friesland are from the North-west, and come from the Atlantic, and because the shape of England and Denmark acts as a funnel, when storms develop, enormous pressure can develop on the terps and later on the dikes. As a result the history of the Netherlands is rife with stories of floods causing major damage and loss of life, as well as major changes in the landscape. Many of the sea arms shown on the map of Holland, to day, are the results of these floods. A huge flood took place in 1196 (St Nicholas’ Flood ) Lake Flavo- based on the Roman name, and later called Almere Lake, became further inundated and changed from a body of sweet water to the salt water Zuiderzee (Southern Sea). In addition it started what is now the Waddenzee north of Friesland. In 1219 a similar event occurred – the St. Marcellus Flood. It further extended the Zuiderzee. An estimated 36000 people were killed in this event.

Contact with the Romans.

Between 57 and 50 B.C. Julius Ceasar conquered Celtic Galicia (current France and Belgium) and moved the borders of the Roman Empire to the river Rhine. The Frisians thus still fell outside the Roman borders. Emperor Augustus ( 28 B.C-14 A.D. wanted to extend the Roman empire’s most northern border to the Elbe river, and in the process rule the Frisians. The latter chose to collaborate with the Romans when Drusus and his army arrived at the Rhine in 12 B.C. They negotiated a truce whereby the Frisians agreed to pay tribute in the form of cowhides. Because the Romans found the Frisians primarily living along the coast of the present North Sea, they named it “Mare Frisicum”, after the Frisians.

Under Emperor Tiberius the taxes became so high, due to the fact that the Romans based the size of the cow hide on their oxen rather than the smaller Frisian cattle, that the Frisians were unable to meet the Roman requirements. As a result the Romans would take their cattle, their land and finally their women and children, to be sold as slaves. In 28 A.D. the Frisians rebelled and hung the tax collectors. The Romans sent their legions to punish and conquer Friesland. However, the Roman army was defeated in the battle of Badehenna Wood. Because Rome had its own internal problems at the time, no reprisal was taken by them and the Frisians were free for the next 20 years.

In 47 A.D. the Frisians made another truce with the Romans – the general Corbulo. They agreed that they would mutually respect the Rhine as the border between them. Friesland would fall under Roman influence, but would not be occupied by them. In 58 A.D., however, the Frisians colonized an uninhabited strip of land south of the Rhine, thereby breaking their agreement. When two Frisian leaders went to Rome to see if they could persuade Nero to keep the land, the Frisians were violently removed by the Romans from the region below the Rhine. In 69 A.D. the Batavians (the forebears of the present Dutch) with the Frisians and Canninfats as allies rose up against the Romans. They got soundly defeated and the Rhine remained the Roman border till the collapse of the Roman Empire in 410 A.D.

In 69 A.D. Tacitus wrote an interesting treatise of the Germanic peoples, describing their habits and listing numerous tribes. Of these only the Frisians have preserved their ancient name. (See appendix B)

Around 250 A.D. because of rising sea levels, the Frisians abandoned the coastal areas of Friesland and until 400 A.D. formed a tribal alliance with their southern neighbours, the Chaukians, to become the Franks.

After 400 A.D. the sea levels receded and the Frisian people and their nobility returned to the Frisian clay district. By then, however, it had been colonized by peoples from the Elbe and Sleeswick/Holstein. These new colonizers assimilated with the Frisian to form the Frisians as we know them today.

The age of migration.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, migrations of peoples sweep all over Europe. The Angles, Saxons, Jutes and some Frisians cross the North Sea and establish the Anglo-Saxon empire, now known as England. The Frisians colonized the county of Kent in Southeast England. Between 400 A.D. till 719 A.D. when their famous and greatest king Redbad died, the Frisians became vast traders. Their area of influence stretched to England, France, Scandinavia and Northwest Russia. Because most of Europe at that time was impassable, due to poor roads and lawlessness, the Frisians dominated the sea-going trade. The latter consisted mainly of slaves, Frisian cloth, herring from Sweden, and timber from the Baltics. Unlike the rest of Europe, which mainly used the barter system, the Frisian traders used silver currency, called “sceats”. These were gained through interaction with the Vikings and probably minted in England and Friesland.

As can be seen from Appendix B, the early Germanics and thus Frisians did not have a high level of culture. They basically lived as relatively primitive people and did not value gold and silver the way many other civilizations do. Part of the reason for this is that these precious metals are not naturally found in their regions. As a result, cultural objects for that early time period are few and far between. Those that do exist usually originate from trading, or have been given to their leaders as gifts. A unique gold leaf coin like object worn like around one’s neck was found near Hitsum, Friesland, and dates back to 750 A. D. Similar objects have been found in Sweden. They are very rare.

Gold bracteate with runes -750 A. D.

Redbad is the greatest folk hero of the Frisians. He is the Frisian defender of their freedom against the Frankish army and the Catholic Church. The Franks had become Catholics when Clovis, the Frankish King, in 496 A.D. in Reims was baptized by Remigius. It started a constant struggle between the pagan Frisians and the Franks. The latter were determined to establish a Frankish Empire, using the Church as a means to this end, if so required. Redbad was a devout heathen, not about to give up his treasured freedom to the Franks. Hence when the Franks were internally divided he attacked the Franks, conquered Utrecht, destroyed the church and banished Christianity. In 689 A.D. the Frankish king Pepin re-conquered Utrecht thereby controlling the trade gateway from the Frankish hinterland via the Rhine to the North Sea When Pepin died in 714 A.D. Redbad took advantage of this and beat the Frankish army at Cologne in 716 A.D., thereby winning back the Frisian Empire.

Franks Conquer Friesland.

This lasted till 734 A.D. when the Franks re-conquered the western part of the lands and made the Frisian counts their vassals. Not until Charlemagne, the grandson of Charles Martel, came to power did .the Saxo-Frisian alliance come under the rule of the Franks (785 A.D.) It is at that time that the Frisian language as we know it to day is borne. Charlemagne formed the first strong, centralized government in early medieval Europe. Though illiterate himself he encouraged learning using the monastic orders. He codified the laws of all the conquered peoples. The Frisians produced the “Lex Frisonium”. It gives a fascinating picture of people in a state of flux between the ancient pagan ways and the new Catholic creed taught by missionaries recruited by Charlemagne like Liudger and Boniface. The conversion to Catholicism was not without struggle. Boniface was murdered by the Frisians in 754 near Dokkum. (It was during this time span that Willibrord was missionary to the Dutch).

The coronation of Charlemagne in 800 AD.

With the death of Charlemagne on Jan 28, 814, his empire started to fall apart and the Franks were forced to grant Friesland to the Danes as a feudal property. In 886 A.D. the last Viking king to govern Friesland- Godfried the Norwegian was murdered by the Frisian and the ruling Danes-Vikings- were evicted by the Frisians from their land. Periodic Viking raids still took place. However, it ceased completely in 1014 when the Christian king of Denmark, Norway and England, Knut the Great, rose to power.

Since Charlemagne’s empire stretched from Italy to Germany, on his death some of his counts tried to carry on his reign Following Charlemagne’s death, his empire gradually fell apart. A portion became Frane (Frankrijk in Dutch, Frankreich in German-meaning “the domain of the Franks). In 843 the Frankish count Lotharius II, became the ruler of Friesland. In 925 the descendants of Lotharius accepted Henry 1 of Germany as king and Friesland became a part of “Holy German Roman Nation” This remained that way until 1217 when Middle-Friesland did not have a count, no feudal tenant, almost no knights, no slaves and a few cities. They were people of farmers, fishermen and seafarers. Since there was no overruling authority, everywhere indigenous administrative organs developed. It was a booming prosperous period; agriculture and trade flourished. Frisian cities joined the “Hanze”- the west European trade alliance.

With the decline of the Viking influence, the counts of the “House of Holland”, which were of Frisian decent, became the ruling elite of the lands along the North Sea, south of West Friesland. However, after the birth of the province Holland, a deep rift developed between the counts of Holland and the West Frisians (the ones located on the west side of the Zuiderzee). Several attempts were made by the counts of Holland to subdue the West Frisian; with mixed results initially. Their count Arnulf was killed in 991; Willem II attacked West Friesland in the winter of 1256 and while on his horse fell through the ice and is beaten to death by the Frisians. Floris V, son of Willem II, bent on revenge, defeats the West Frisians killing 1200 of them in battle. This is the beginning of the decline of the Frisians as an independent people. After the defeat of the West Frisians, the counts of Holland set their eye on Middle-Friesland- the present Friesland and Groningen located in the Netherlands. In 1346 count Willem IV set out on an expedition to conquer Middle-Friesland. With a large fleet and with the help of French and Flemish knights he sailed over the “Zuiderzee”. On the 26th of September 1345, the army met near Warns. They were surrounded by the Frisian common people and were beaten to death, including Willem IV.

With the demise of the Frankish rule, in Middle Friesland (the present Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen) two rivaling Frisian groups, the “Schieringers” and the “Vetkopers”, developed. In essence they were two competing groups of nobility, and the monastic orders they were associated with, they were vying for control of trade and power in Friesland. The Schieringers (referring to the grey garments of the Cistercian monks- “schiere” in middle Dutch means “grey”), lived in Oostergo-the eastern part of Friesland that became the Dutch Province of Groningen (This also gives the origin of the name of the island of Schiermonnikoog in the Waddenzee-North Friesland); the Vetkopers lived in Westergo and were associated with the Norbertine monks who obtained most of their income from farming and livestock. “Vetkopers” means “purchasers of fat”. It was a time where the monks had great influence in Friesland and hence also on the nobility. Remember the Church and government were intertwined and relied on each other to exist. The monks had been very influential in the building of dikes thus creating the farm land and hence the means of existence.

Over time the friction between the two became so strong that for all practical purposes a civil war ensued. Village fought against village; fathers strived with sons. As a result there was no central power, and the Grietman (judge) could not enforce the laws. To end this catastrophe, on the invitation of the Schieringers of Oostergo, .and with the consent of the Vetkopers, in 1498, the aid of a foreign authority, Albrecht of Saxony, was accepted. This ended Frisian freedom. Albrecht created a centralist authority and installed Saxon civil servants. Law and order returned, but the Frisian language and culture impoverished. The language of the civil service was German. As the reformation started to take hold in the following century, the Bible used initially was in German and the preaching was done in that language only. Later Dutch took over as the official language. As a result, the Frisian language only survived in the homes and in non governmental dealings of the Westergo Frisians (now making up the Dutch Province of Friesland). In the Oostergo part (now Groningen Province.) the Frisian language pretty well disappeared, and it explains why its current dialect is such a mix of German, Dutch and Frisian.

In the mid 1500’s, Charles V set out to unite Western Europe (He lived from 1500-1558 and became king of the German –Western European- Empire.) His empire included Friesland. His son, Phillip II (1527-1598), became king of Spain. Spain had freed itself of the Moors and was strongly Catholic. In fact the state and the church were entities that relied on each other to exist. An attack on the Church was in fact an attack on the State. Hence when the Reformation took place around that time, not only the Church was deemed to be threatened, but also the State. For that reason the persecution of the Protestants took place not just as a means to protect the church but also the State. Yet because of the degeneration of the Church and its Christian doctrines, the populace wanted a purer form of Christianity and thus the protestant movement took hold, even though ipso facto it threatened the State. Certain areas became protestant, thus in effect declaring war on the Catholic Spain of Phillip II who also was king of the Netherlands.

Thus the war for Dutch independence resulted, (Tachtig Jarige Oorlog- eighty year war) from which eventually the Netherlands as we know it to day was born. These Netherlands were a confederacy of seven provinces (Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland, Overijsel, Groningen and Friesland). In later years the provinces of Drenthe, Brabant and Limburg were added. It was governed by a “Stadhouder” –count- of the German house of Orange/Nassau, Germany till 1814 when he became king of the Netherlands including Friesland.

  • References- Encyclopedia Mythica: www.pantheon, org/articles/f/freyer.html
    Redbad: History of the Frisian Folk. www.boudicca.de/frisian1.htm