Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea

When it comes to de-radicalization of foreign terrorist fighters, Frisians (in this context modern region Ostfriesland in Germany and provinces Groningen and Friesland in the Netherlands) do not have a good track record, and have not much expertise to offer. The only thing they can contribute to today’s challenges of combating terrorism is to illustrate its destabilizing and destructive effects in Frisia in the High Middle Ages. We go back in time, to the era of the Crusades.

Fighters off to foreign lands

A novum was created by the Roman Church at the end of the eleventh century: the Holy War. Not just a regular war, but a holy one. A war to conquer the Holy Land. Creating the concept -frame or truth, whatever you prefer- of a legitimate war. It was also a refined strategy of propaganda with the purpose of mobilizing knights and soldiers, and generating money to finance the costly endeavor a war simply is. Although blessed, also a Holy War is costly. The whole thing meant a balance had to be found between the pacifist gospel on the one hand, and the need felt to defend Christianity with arms and violence on the other hand. No, not actually turning your other cheek. And, Crusades are an example of complex planning and timing, communications and propaganda, of generating financial and human resources et cetera. To quote Tyerman (2015):

[medieval] Reason made religious war possible, a conclusion that might give anyone pause in the twenty-first century.

Tyerman (2015)

Pope Urban‘s successive call for battle and killing in 1095 against the Turks and the Arabs, and to conquer Palestine, had not been in vain. Crusade tax collectors, preachers and legates were send all over the lands to preach hate about Muslims, and to get as many volunteers to take the Cross as possible. Back then, no entry visas were denied to these hate-preachers, to these Peter the Hermits. They traveled freely through Europe.

The transformation of monastic orders of hospice into military orders, supported the Crusades. The main orders were the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon (commonly the Order of the Knights Templar), the Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem (commonly the Teutonic Order) and the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem (commonly the Knights Hospitaller). The Teutonic Order and the Knights Hospitaller had a strong presence in Frisia as well, although their houses and monasteries were mainly inhabited by slay-sisters. No knights therefore, since in Frisia no knighthood had developed in the Middle Ages.

Knights Templar – It all did not end very well for the Order of the Knights Templar. Despite their sacrifices for Rome, it was King Philip the Fair of France, with consent of Pope Clement V, who accused the Templar of heresy on Friday October 13, 1307. French rulers always had a way with spending money, Confiscating the properties of the Templar helped to supplement the King’s empty treasury. The Order was dissolved, many were tortured, killed and burned at the stake by the Inquisition. A big thank you, for all their efforts during the Crusades.

The revenues generated from arable land and other effects in Frisia, of the houses and monasteries of especially the Teutonic Order and of the Knights Hospitaller, were taxed by their Grand Masters to finance the Crusades. For example, in present-day province Groningen (region Ommelanden) prosperous cloisters existed, like the one in the village of Warffum. In the High Middle Ages we have a clear picture of this cloister. Its inhabitants were sixty nuns who were (even) led by a female prior. This house possessed ca. 2,250 hectares of both arable and grassland. During the Crusades the revenues of their lands were taxed to contribute to the wars.

Not only money was needed, also men. Cannon fodder, we would call them today. The concept of a Holy War worked very well with the (young) men of Frisia. The Roman Church even spoke of the “Frisones and Teutonici” marking the specific contribution of the Frisians within the Germanic peoples. Again, meaning the Frisians from present-day provinces Friesland and Groningen, and of region Ostfriesland. Not at first, but with the Third Crusade the Pope’s call for battle got the full intended effect. Many Frisian men took the Cross. In modern terminology, many radicalized and became a foreign fighter. From 1097 until 1270 they fought in no less than seven Crusades. Sometimes in Frisian maritime fleets of more than eighty so-called cog ships. Crusaders cruising the Mediterranean, but not on a holiday. They attacked, conquered, burned and/or sacked cities like Acre, Alcácer do Sal (Lisbon), Alvor, Antakya, Cadiz, Faro, Rota, Santiago, Silves and notably Tunis. Raiding the coast of the al-Andalus ‘Andalucia’ was a regular part of the itinerary when sailing to the Holy Land from the north, and in which the Frisian and Rhenish fleet played a big part too. These raids fitted withing the geater shceme of the Iberian Reconquista.

During the Second Crusade, from 1145 to 1149, it were Frisians leading the way to take the city of Lisbon, led by Popte Ulvinga (see further below). During the Third Crusade, from 1189 to 1192, Landgrave Louis III of Thuringia gave the horse of a defeated Saracene emir to a strong and brave Frisian leader (Savelkouls 2016).

And, of course, the Frisians fought in Damietta in Egypt during the Fifth Crusade from 1217 to 1221. Sparing in many cities no mosque and no Muslim’s life, not even those of civilians. Concerning Tunis, it were Frisians from the region Ommelanden in province Groningen and from Ostfriesland who assisted King Louis IX during the Eighth Crusade in 1270. Especially the particiption and deeds of the Frisians in the Fifth Crusade are quite well documented in contemporary texts. These are primarely: De itenere frisonum, part of the Chronicle of the monastery of Bloemhof at Wittewierum, Frisia; Gesta crucigerorum rhenanorum, and: Chronicle of the Conquest of Damietta by Oliver of Paderborn (a German cleric, later bishop of Paderborn), although Oliver probably did not travel via sea with the Frisian and Rhenish fleet to the Holy Land, but overland instead. Oliver was relevant in recruiting fighters from the Frisian lands.

Converted to Christianity only relatively recent, the opportunity to join an army and to fight again was probably a big pull for the young men of Frisia. Just as they had done before when volunteering the ranks of the Roman Imperial Army (read our blog post on this piece of mercenary history) to fight the Picts on the British islands and later again, joining the fleets and war bands of their northern cousins the Viking (read our blog post on their participation in these adventures) causing havoc and tears to many coasts of western Europe. The church knew exactly how to press the right buttons and thus spoke about “the honor of Christ that had been affected by the Saracens (i.e. Muslims northern Africa) and the Mamluks.” Honor was still a very big thing, especially for the Frisians. A people still living in one of the last official feud societies of Europe. Of course, the full indulgences and booty promised by the church, contributed to their motivation too.

During the Crusades the Frisians were known for their impatience and eagerness to fight and kill. In the year 1214 a contemporary wrote:

The Frisians would be ashamed if they would flee from the Saracens and therefore their only option was to kill or to be killed.

Stories have been passed on about the Frisians leaving the battlefield to fight elsewhere when the crusade command stalled the attack too long. The common thread running through thirteenth-century texts about the Frisian fighters was their impatience, their speed in charging at the enemy and their ferocity during battle. It were real Berserks or barbarians. See further below, at the end of this blog post, how the Frisian fighters were equipped, and why indeed they were fast in charging at the enemy. At the same time they were realistic nd what was achieveable. When in the Fifth Crusade they were asked to take the trong city of Lisbon, the Frisians opposed to the Portugese and to the Dutch-Rhenish chapter of the Crusade fleet, because they thought it would be too time-consuming both to take the great city and arrive in time in Italy. Fighting in the Levant was considered more priceworthy. Instead, the Frisian chapter left the fleet and continued to sail to the Medditerranean, and successively raided the more manageable Muslim cities of Faro, Rota and Cadiz. The logic of the Frisian Alleingang might be explained by the fact they were participating primarely for their indvidual, personal benefit. To fulfill their vows. After all, high-medieval Frisia was a republican affair without feudal lords to obbey.

And, in a way, to mark their barbaric heroism, the still existing Church of the Frisians in Vatican City was enlarged in the year 1141. And, to this very date its pious, Romanesque tower is the oldest in Vatican City, even of the eternal city Rome as a whole. Amen, indeed. Read also our post Magnus’ Choice: The Origins of the Frisian Freedom to learn more about the medieval history of Frisians in Rome.

coat of arms of Roorda

Names of (partly allegedly) Frisian foreign terrorist fighters have been recorded: Aylva, Beyma, Botnia, Cammingha, Fatema, Galama, Hermana, Hettinga, Jarich of Hogebeintum, Thithard Jelgera, Joulsma, Dodo Kempinga, Lambertus of Katrijp, Liauckema, Martena, Ockinga, Popta, Popte Ulvinga (or was Popte, in fact, Hendrik of Bonn, a German knight?) and, of course, the famous Roorda van Genum. The coat of arms of the Roorda family still bears a black Moor’s head, as Roorda van Genum used to decapitate his opponents, so it is told. The same Moor’s head is depicted in the flag of Corscia. Check out our blog post Support of the Corsican Cause in Jeopardy to understand more about these flags. But among the Crusade tales the most brutal of all was without a doubt Hayo de Violgama, also known as ‘Hayo with the flail’.

Hayo de Violgama – entering the tower Damietta, Egypt

Hayo supposedly came from one of the many insignificant villages on rural Frisia, namely Wolvega, now in current province Friesland. For the record, of course Wolvega is no longer insignificant. Others say Hayo came from the shire Fivelgo in current province Groningen. Whatever his exact place of origin, legend has it Hayo had fought in the Fifth Crusade of 1217 and became famous for seizing the standard of the enemy during battle against the Saracens. Apparently standards were a highly valued commodity back then. Moreover, he did not fight with a sword or spear. No, the trading mark of this fanatic was his flail he had taken with him from the farm (see image further below).

And, it was Hayo who jumped as the first, or as the second since stories differ, onto the tower of the city Damietta in the Nile Delta, present-day Egypt. Although the story of Hayo is pure fiction, the siege of Damietta by a large Frisian fleet is not. And no, the citizens of the city of Haarlem in present-day province Noord Holland had no part in these fights at all, although Netherlands’ history lessons at high schools learned otherwise till quite recently. Haarlem people were friendly law-abiding, nine-to-five citizens, earning a modest and honest living. Take that as a compliment.

Also, the crusader Popte Ulvinga, also Poppo or Poptetus Ulvinga, deserves elaboration. He came from the village of Wierdum, In the year 1147, during the Second Crusade, crusaders also took part in the siege of the Moorish city of Lisbon. The Moors were beaten and this victory is regarded as one of the turning points for the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula. The German knight and crusader Henricus of Bonn died during this battle. At the spot where he was buried, miracles occured. A palm tree on his grave was medicinal for whatever ailment. When they unearthed to remains of Popte they saw the palm tree had grown from his heart. Also according to the journal of an unknown Frisian clergyman, who traveled with the crusader’s fleet in 1217-1218 to Acre, this palm tree, in fact, grew on the grave of Poptetus. Poptetus had renamed himself as Henricus (also Hendrik), and was the commander of the Christian army and bearer of the standard.

the siege of Lisbon in 1147

The journal of the unknow clergyman was incorperated in the thirteenth-century Cronica floridi horti ‘Chronicle of [monastery] Bloemhof’. Monastery Bloemhof was located near the village Wittewierum in Mid Frisia, current province Groningen, of which Emo of Friesland was one of the founders. Abbot Emo, by the way, was the first foreign student at the University of Oxford in 1190.

Fighters return from foreign lands

But all ‘good’ things come to an end, eventually. At the end of the thirteenth century, after the last Crusade, the Frisian foreign fighters too left the battlegrounds of Palestine, Livonia, Prussia, northern Africa, southeastern France, Portugal and of southern Spain behind. For the tall big men of the north, as they were described together with the Danes that time, the fighting and glory was over. Those cruisiati who had survived, returned with their booty to Frisia. Once back at their homeland they did not have to fear prosecution by the redjeva or grietman ‘chosen judge/ prosecutor’ since what they did was not considered a (war) crime, yet. They were soldiers of a honorable Holy Army who had been fighting, killing and beheading Muslims, Latvians and Cathars in a legitimate war. And, back home these veteran Frisian foreign fighters decorated themselves even with golden brooches made of Almohad (Arabic) coins or copies thereof, to mark they had been fighting in the Crusades in the Holy Land.

It was not over for the peoples living in the region we now call the Middle East, though. Almost eight centuries later, the Levant is still infected by ransacking, religiously motivated foreign terrorist fighters from all over the world, including some from areas that belonged to former Frisia. Even practicing the same cruel methods as the Frisian havedling (also Häuptling or hoofdeling) Roorda van Genum allegedly did.

The rehabilitation process of so many returning foreign fighters into the communal Frisian society became more than a concern. Absorbing this dangerous influenza went on for decades and decades and decades, nearly for two centuries. The Roman Church too became, albeit slowly, aware of the downsides of their successful radicalization programs. It was the patriarch in Palestine who in the year 1218 pointed out that crusaders had experienced great difficulties. Not only in getting to Jerusalem, but also afterwards. That is no rocket science. You can imagine. These outlaws were radicalized, partly war-traumatized men who had to be fit back again into rural society after often three years of fighting in foreign lands. Home meant nothing more than a modest living in a hamlet and doing humble labor. No glory, no status and often no booty. Working the land in summer. Strengthening dikes to keep land and houses protected from the sea in autumn and winter.

And, Frisian society was exceptional vulnerable for this deadly influenza as well. Frisia then being a loose federation of free peasant republics stretching from present-day province Friesland to the region Ostfriesland in Niedersachsen. Unlike the rest of Europe, feudal structures were totally absent in Frisia. Therefore, de-radicalization programs could not be organized, if they would have thought about such programs at all. On top of the homecoming of killing-happy foreign fighters, the myth of the so-called ‘Frisian Freedom’ fueled anarchy. This freedom was granted to them by Charlemagne himself for their heroic deeds in battle in Rome. A myth that told the Frisians were from then on free, and not subordinated to any lord other than the Emperor himself. They were Reichsunmittelbar (read our blog post Magnus’ Choice. The origins of the Frisian Freedom). This way tipping over the fragile balance between the free farmers republics and an anarchy even further. The free republics were known as the the Seven Sealands under the treaty of the Upstalsboom (see further below).

Back to the High Middle Ages.

Reboelje ‘turmoil’ and civil war soon followed in Frisia. The fight between the Schieringers ‘Speakers’and the Vetkopers ‘Fat-buyers’ started a few decades later, around 1300. Flails, pitchforks, shovels and alike were not solely working the land anymore. At first relatively small scale and locally, but a century later it had become a full-fledged civil war with warlords (hovedling in Old-Frisian, haadlings in Mid-Frisian language and Häuptlinge in German language) and armies from the River Vlie estuary in the Netherlands to the River Weser in Germany. A period known as the Great Frisian War. This weakness from inside, left Frisia prey for its hostile neighbors who would soon feast on it. Ironically, these Teutonic neighbors were supported by the same church and clergy that had praised the sky for the Frisian achievements during the Crusades, not long before.

The free republics of the Seven Sealands of Frisia tried to organize themselves within a collective defense mechanism called the Upstalsboom treaty. Similar to NATO seven centuries later. But it failed completely. Read our blog post Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective. Fascinating story.

Thus, when hiking the Frisia Coast Trail and everything looks peaceful and is quiet, remember this used to be the Failed State at the Wadden Sea. Like standing on the shores of the Gulf of Aden today.

What did these warriors look like?

For those readers wondering what these foreign fighters must have looked like, please find below a mural from the church at Westerwijtwerd in province Groningen in the Netherlands dating from the fourteenth century. It is thought to be a copy of a much older image dating from the twelfth century. Indeed, the period of the Crusades. Its church is still standing, although serious earthquakes due to heavy gas mining do threaten it anno 2019.

medieval fighters-mural church Westerwijtwerd

Typical features of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries fighters of Frisia were the heavy long, fish-skin like coats made of leather strips (called a schobbejak in Dutch language) and their heads shaven almost bold. The higher the hair was shaved off, the higher the status of the warrior.

The weapons they were carrying were: a small round shield, a sword (a truchslayn in Old Frisian) and a long spear. At the same time this spear was used as a jumping pole to leap over the numerous ditches and small creeks in Frisia. The medieval images show the spears had a cube or fork at the lower end, just as for example the modern leaping poles (or klootstock in Kreis Nordfriesland in Germany, or polsstok in the Netherlands) still being used. Therefore, reckon these spears were at least 3,5 or 4 meters long. In German language this weapon is called a Sprungspeer.

The warriors did not wear helmets and neither did they wear shoes. So, they were light and able to move and charge fast. ‘Naked’ as the were described in the Middle Ages. Similar late-medieval murals exist in other churches in province Groningen as well, namely those of Den Andel, Stedum and Woldendorp. Walking barefeet was probably customary for the Frisians living at the salt marsh. A tradition that survived even till the nineteenth century among the Frisians living at the Hallig islands in region Nordfriesland (Knol 2021).

Sigillum iudicum Selandiarum Frisiae

The image in the church of Westerwijtwerd corresponds with many more images of Frisian fighters on several seals of the Upstalsboom treaty (read our blog post Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective) and of seals of Landesgemeinden or shires like Rüstringen, Hunzingo-Oosterambt, Mormerland, Opsterland and Oostergo. It also corresponds amazingly well with a written observation of a contemporary in Liège in present-day Belgium in the year 1212 when he was watching Frisian warriors going to the Holy Land:

Their hair shaved-off with only a tuft of hair left.

Another contemporary, Bartholomeus Anglicus, wrote in his De Proprietatibus Rerum, written in 1240, that the Frisians are really different from their neighbors. All the men have shaved off their hair. The higher their hair is shaved off, the higher their status.

How unique is all the above!

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Jansen, H.P.H. & Janse, A., Kroniek van het klooster Bloemhof te Wittewierum (1991)
  • Knol, E., For Daily Use and Special Moments: Material Culture in Frisia, AD 400-1000 (2021)
  • Lasance, A., Wizo van Vlaanderen, Itinerarium Fresiae of Een rondreis door de Lage Landen (2012)
  • Mol, J.A., De Friese volkslegers tussen 1480 en 1560 (2017)
  • Mol, J.A., Friese krijgers en de kruistochten (2001)
  • Mol, J.A., Vechten, bidden en verplegen. Opstellen over de ridderorden in de Noordelijke Nederlanden (2011)
  • Moolenbroek, J. van, Nederlandse kruisvaarders naar Damiate aan de Nijl. Acht eeuwen geschiedenis en fantasie in woord en beeld (2016)
  • Nijdam, H., Lichaam, eer en recht in middeleeuws Friesland. Een studie naar de Oudfriese boeteregisters (2008)
  • Penning, Y., Emo’s labyrint (2010)
  • Pietersma, J. blogspot Friezen op kruistocht (1217-1221)
  • Savelkouls, J., Het Friese Paard (2016)
  • Schokker, J., Insigne van een kruisvaarder? Over een pronkfibula gevonden nabij Uithuizen (2018)
  • Siefkes, W., Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten (1963)
  • Tyerman, C., How to plan a crusade. Reason and Religious War in the High Middle Ages (2015)
  • Villegas-Aristizábal, L., A Frisian Perspective on Crusading in Iberia as Part of the Sea Journey to the Holy Land, 1217–1218 (2021)
  • Wiersma, J., Noord-Nederland na de bedijkingen (2018)

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