Early Frisian History
(Excerpts from Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. 9, pp 854-5, “Frisians”)
A people who in the first century A.D. were found by the Romans in occupation of the coast lands stretching from the mouth of the Scheldt to that of the Ems. The first historical notices of the Frisians are found in the “Annals” of Tacitus. They (or part of them) were rendered tributary by Drusus and became part of the Roman people. But soon after A.D. 47 the emperor Claudius ordered the withdrawal of all Roman troops to the left bank of the Rhine. In 58 the Frisians tried unsuccessfully to appropriate certain districts between the Rhine and the Yssel and in 70 they took part in the campaign of Claudius Civilis. Ptolemy states that they inhabited the coast above the Bructeri as far as the Ems. Tacitus speaks of them as adjacent to the Rhine.
In connection with the movements of the migration period the Frisians are hardly ever mentioned, though some of them are said to have surrendered to the Roman prince Constantius about the year 293. Procopius speaks of the Frisians as one of the nations which inhabited Britain in his day, but we have no evidence from other sources to bear out his statement. In Anglo-Saxon poetry mention is frequently made of a Frisian king named Finn, the son of Folcwalda, who came into conflict with a certain Hnaef, a vassel of the Danish king, Healfdene, about the middle of the fifth century. The incident is obscure, but it is worth noting that Hnaef’s chief follower, Hengest, may quite possibly be identical with the founder of the Kentish dynasty.
About the year 520 the Frisians are said to have joined the Frankish prince Theodberht in destroying a piratical expedition which had sailed up the Rhine under Chocilaicus (Hygelac), king of the Gotar. Toward the close of the century they begin to figure much more prominently in Frankish writings. It is probable that the Frisians were to some extent associated with the Angles and the Saxons in the invasion of Britain. In any case, the Frisian language, by its close resemblance to English, proves an ancient and intimate connection between these peoples.
The northward extension of Frankish dominion brought on a collision with the Frisians. Under the protection of the Frankish king Dagobert (622-638), the Christian missionaries Amandus (St. Amand) and Eligius (St. Eloi) attempted the conversion of the southern Frisians, but farther north the building of a church by Dagobert at Trajectum (Utrecht) at once aroused the fierce hostility of the heathen tribesmen of the Zuider Zee. Utrecht was attacked and captured, and the church destroyed. Wilfrid, bishop of York, who visited Frisia in 678 was allowed to preach Christianity by Aldgfils, then king. Radbod, his successor, who was hostile to Christianity, was beaten by Peppen of Heristal in the battle of Dorstadt (689) and was compelled to cede west Frisia from the Scheldt to the ZuiderZee to the conqueror.
Although Frankish supremacy over Frisia was not completely established until the time of Charles the Great, it was under Frankish protection that Christianity was established in Frisia by the Englishman Willibrord, between 690 and 739. The see of Utrecht which he founded has remained the chief see of the northern Netherlands from his day to our own, though many Frisians were still heathen when the more famous English missionary Boniface was martyred at Dokum in Frisia shortly after 750.
Charles the Great granted the Frisians important privileges under a code known as the “Les Frisionum”, based upon the ancient laws of the country. In this text three districts are clearly distinguished: West Frisia from the Zwin to the Vile; Middle Frisia from the Vile to the Lauwers; East Frisia from the Lauwers to the Weser. At the treaty of Verdun (843) Frisia became part of Latharingia; at the treaty of Mersen (870) it was divided between the kingdoms of the East Franks and the West Franks; in 880 the whole country was united to the latter; in 911 it fell under the dominion of Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, but the districts of East Frisia asserted their independence and for a long time governed themselves after a very simple democratic fashion. The history of West Frisia gradually loses itself in that of the countship of Holland and the see of Utrecht.
The influence of the Frisians during the interval between the invasion of Britain and the loss of their independence must have been greater than is generally recognized. They were a seafaring people and engaged largely in trade, especially perhaps the slave trade, their chief emporium being Wyk te Durrstede. During the period in question there is considerable archeological evidence for intercourse between the west coast of Norway and the regions south of the North Sea, and it is worth noting that this seems to have come to an end early in the ninth century. Probably it is no mere accident that the first reappearance of Scandinavian pirates in the west took place shortly after the overthrow of the Frisians.
Besides the Frisians discussed previously, a people called North Frisians inhabited the west coast of Schleswig. In historical times these North Frisians were subjects of the Danish kingdom and not connected in any way with the Frisians of the empire. It seems not unlikely that the original settlers were Frisians who had been driven northward by the franks in the eighth century. The inhabitants of the neighboring islands, Sylt, Amrum, and Fohr, who speak a kindred dialect, have apparently never regarded themselves as Frisians, and it is the view of many scholars that they are the direct descendants of the ancient Saxons.
In 1248 William of Holland, having become emperor, restored to the Frisians in his countship their ancient liberties in reward for the assistance they had rendered him in the siege of Aachen; but in 1254 they revolted, and William lost his life in the contest which ensued. After many struggles West Friesland became completely subdued and was henceforth virtually absorbed in the country of Holland. But the Frislanders east of the Zuider Zee obstinately resisted repeated attempts to bring them into subjection. In the course of the fourteenth century the country was in a state of anarchy, which favored the still independent when the countship of Holland passed to the hands of Philip the Good of Burgandy.
Frederick III, in August, 1457, recognized their direct dependence on the empire. The marriage of Maxmillian of Austria with the heiress of Burgandy produced a change in the fortunes of that part of Frisia which lies between the Vile and the Lauwers. In 1498 Maxmillian reversed the policy with all the rest of the provinces of the Netherlands to the emperor Charles, the grandson of Maxmillian and Mary of Burgandy.
The part of Frisia which lies to the east of the Lauwers had a divided history. The portion which lies between the Lauwers and the Ems after some struggles for independence had, like the rest of the country, to submit itself to Charles. It became ultimately the province of the town and district of Groningen, The eastern most part between the Ems and the Weser, which had since 1454 been a county, was ruled by the descendents of Edzard Cirksena, and was attached to the empire. The last of the Cirksenas, Count Charles Edward, died in 1744 and in default of heirs male the king of Prussia took possession of the county.
The province of Friesland was one of the seven provinces which by treaty known as the Union of Utrecht bound themselves together to resist the tyranny of Spain. From 1579 to 1795 Friesland remained one of the consistent parts of the republic of the united Provinces, but it always jealously insisted on its sovereign rights, especially against the encroachments of the predominant province of Holland. It maintained throughout the whole of the republican period a certain distinctiveness of nationality, which was marked by the preservation of a different dialect and of a separate stadtholder.
Count William Lewis of Nassau-Siegen, nephew and son-in-law of William the Silent, was chosen stadtholder, and throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the stadtholdership was held by one of his descendents. Frederick Henry of Orange was stadtholder of six provinces, but not of Friesland, and even during the stadtholderless periods which followed the deaths of William II and William III of Orange the Frisians remained staunch to the family of Nassau-Siegen. Finally, by the revolution of 1748 William of Nassau-Siegen, stadtholder of Friesland (who by default of heirs male of the elder line, had become William IV, prince of Orange), was made hereditary stadtholder of all the provinces. His grandson in 1815 took title of William I, king of the Netherlands. The male line of the “Frisians’ Nassau came to an end with the death of King William III in 1890.
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