In contrast to the Sunday’s rest of today, for centuries the Walcheren Island was a pagan retreat and safe haven for the Vikings with their slightly aggressive business model. Heathendom was rooted deeply on this island. Even in the eleventh century, the Catholic church still feared its inhabitants would return to their former pagan gods and rituals. The Walcheren Island was also a bridgehead of the Scaldingi. These were the Scheldt Vikings, led by the feared Ubba the Frisian. Ubba was even one of the commanders of the legendary Great Heathen Army that ransacked England. Yes, part of this dreaded army sailed from the Walcheren.
The result of its pagan history is that the beaches, dunes and soil of the Walcheren Island are soaked with pagan remains; stones and bones. Because of the ever-changing sea and coastline, sometimes these remains literally emerge as zombies from their graves. Bellow you will receive some tips in case you have an encounter with these spooky remains, e.g. when swimming in the North Sea at the wide beaches of the Walcheren Island.
This blog post is about the Walcheren Island, located within the wider region that was known in the Middle Ages as Loca Maritima ‘Sealands’, now part of province Zeeland in the Netherlands and once part of Frisia. It is about how the Walcheren Island at the mouth of the River Scheldt was a strategic spot both from a trade and a military point of view, from the Roman Period until the Early Middle Ages. During the reign of the Romans, sea ports were located near the modern towns of Domburg and Colijnsplaat, being important sea hubs for crossing the North Sea to the Britannia. In the Early Middle Ages, Walichrum (also called Walacria, Walacharan, Walcran et cetera), as the settlement near Domburg was originally named, again became an important trade settlement and a garrison. This time of the Frankish kingdoms. The Walcheren Island in particular was caught up in the middle of Frankish politics, piratae danorum ‘Danish warlords’ and Frisian trade interests.
Centuries passed and the town of Walacria was slowly swallowed by the sea, as has happened to much more soil of Frisia. But. who knows it will raise its ugly head from the depths of the cold brown sea once more.
Read below to find out what we mean.
Early January in the year 1647. After a heavy storm and a rough sea, the waterwolf had eaten big chunks of dune near the town of Domburg at the Walcheren Island. It uncovered ancient stones. Stones with images of, among other, the goddess Nehalennia. Four years later again fragments of altars and sculptures were disclosed. In the centuries that followed, all in all thirty-four votive altars were collected of which twenty-seven are dedicated to the goddess Nehelennia. Others are dedicated to the gods Jupiter, Neptune, Hercules, Victoria and Burorina. All these finds were part of a temple complex between ca. 188-227, but possibly already from the first century.
In the ’70s of the twentieth century near Colijnsplaat at the River East-Scheldt, northeast of the Walcheren Island, fishermen caught stone instead fish. Again it were votive altars dedicated to the goddess Nehalennia. In total 330 altars and altar fragments were recovered. Perhaps this temple complex was part of the Roman port named Ganuenta. This temple complex is also dated between ca. AD 188-227.
Nehalennia was being worshiped in Roman times. She was a native Celtic-Germanic goddess. The name means probably ‘goddess who lives by the water’ and she was the guardian of skippers and traders who dared the crossing from the Walcheren Island and Colijnsplaat to Britannia. Traders from especially Cologne, but also from present-day Nijmegen, Tongeren, Trier, from northern and central Gallia, all offered here to the goddess Nehalennia for a safe sea passage. Even merchants from Augst in modern Switzerland. Offerings could consist of breads, dolls of dough, fruits, et cetera. One of the inscriptions reads:
The trading goods were, among other, locally produced salt, allec (a kind of garum or fish sauce) and chalk. But also the transport of wine from the Rhineland to Britannia. Not solely merchants made the crossing. Also Frisian tribesmen on their way to, for example, Hadrian’s Wall to join the Imperial Roman Army as mercenaries; read our post about Frisian mercenaries in Britannia. The Walcheren Island and Colijnsplaat being a crossroad of peoples and goods from the upstream river areas of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt, from the populous salt-marsh area in the north of Germany and the Netherlands, and vice versa from Britannia.
In the year 1715 extreme weather struck again. Again the pagan past of the Walcheren Island revealed itself. This time at a very low tide an image of the Roman goddess Victoria was presented, together with some remains of a temple. Although she is the goddess of victory she missed her head. The decapitated image stood on the beach for some time before it was placed in the thirteenth-century church of the village Domburg nearby. An act of paganism still?
In the year 1848 the church was, understandably, struck by lightning (find out in our post “I did not have financial relations with that village” why lightning strikes Frisia often) not only destroying large parts of the church, but also the remaining body of the pagan goddess Victoria and many of the votive altar fragments found earlier, which were stored in the church too. This struck of lightning proofs by the way why we should not buy the experiments and scientific explanations of Benjamin Franklin on electricity two centuries ago.
The goddess Burorina is like Nehalennia a local goddess too, but not much is known about her to date.
Current province Zeeland, including the Walcheren Island, de-populated in third quarter of the third century. Mainly due to deterioration of the landscape. It is the time the Romans also retreated more inland and southward. Only with at the end of fifth century, the area re-populated again, starting with the Walcheren Island.
Alucin, chronicler at the court of Charlemagne and author of the Life of Saint Willibrord, described Willibrord’s missionary achievements in Frisia at the end of the seventh century. Also, how Willibrord destroyed a representation of an idol on the Walcheren Island. It did not went off without a hitch. Saint Willibrord was hit on his head by the sword of one of the guards of the temple of this idol. It might have been the village of Westkapelle ‘western chapel’ where the manly performance of Willibrord took place, because the eleventh-century chapel used to have a piece of stone of the temple with a stain of blood of Willibrord. Also the fact that some bone fragments of Willibrord were donated to this chapel by the monastery of Echternach where Saint Willibrord is buried. Furthermore, for long a sweet well in the dunes nearby was named after Saint Willibrord.
Also concerning the persistent heathen practices of the people on the Walcheren Island, bishop Frederick of Utrecht (ca. 780-835) was ordered by Emperor Louis the Pious to travel to the island in order to refrain its people turning back to heathendom. Frederick was of Frisian descent, from the village known today as Sexbierum in province Friesland. Legend has it, his lineage was that of the legendaric King Radbod. When in the ninth century rumor had it men on the Walcheren Island married their niece or their own sister, and even their mother, action was urgently needed. This, according to the eleventh-century Passio Friderici:
Est enim insula Walachran nominata, tibi, ut reor, satis nota, in qua, proch dolor! quod ad meas nuper devenit aures, quisquis neptem aut, quod peius est, sororem vel ipsam in matrimonio ducit genitricem.Passio Friderici
How bishop Frederick of Utrecht died, is unclear. One story is that he was killed by the heathen people of the Walcheren Island. Another story is that he was assassinated in the church whilst celebrating Mass. The murder allegedly was ordered by Empress Judith of Bavaria, because it was bishop Frederick who had criticized her incestuous way of life. Whatever the true story is, the eleventh-century text of the Passio Friderici illustrates that in that century the Walcheren Island was still not deeply converted to christendom. Another text, the early-eleventh century Vita Bavonis confessoris gandavensis ‘The life of Saint Bavo of Ghent’, mentions that the Frisians (i.e of current province Zeeland) are numerous and strong but weak in their faith. In this Vita the Frisians are also being reviled because they do not seem to respect the property of the abbey, and just take possession of land or use it to graze their livestock.
It is the sayings ‘Seagull, seagull, sit on the sand, it’s never good weather when you’re on land’ that expresses seagulls only shelter on land during heavy storms while fishermen drown at sea and their bodies will be washed on the beach soon. In the year 1687, after a foul storm, the heathen history of the Walcheren Island revealed itself yet again. This time it were skeletons and coffins made of thick wood. The coffins contained grave gifts such as necklaces with coins as amulets, drinking cups and silver knives. Grave goods are a pagan practice, and therefore the graves probably date before ca. 700, albeit the people of the Walcheren Island were hard to convert, as we just have explained. The salty water returned and hid the zombies and their coffins back in the depths of the dark brown sea again. A few more times the remains of the graves and the settlement emerged from the sea, namely in the years 1795, 1817, 1832 and 1866. Since then they seemingly have disappeared forever.
More early-medieval cemeteries have been found around the town of Domburg, namely at Hooge Hil, Duinvliet, Westhove and at Berkenbosch. These graves contained grave goods as well, like fibulae, keys of women, pottery and money coins, mostly the Frisian so-called Porcupine type sceattas (pennies). Read also our blog post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks to find more information on these coins.
For decades now, the beaches around the town of Domburg are a very popular holiday destination. People from Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands again flock in large numbers to the Walcheren Island. But be warned. When standing in the sea and something tickles your feet, do not immediately think it is an angry crab attacking you. It might just as well be an innocent Viking zombie raising its ugly head to say “hello”. Probably the water is too dark to see what it is, so you will never know anyway.
Walichrum a Viking bridgehead
After the Romans had retreated inland southward in the course of the third and fourth centuries, the (new) Frisians took advantage of the opportunity. From around the sixth century, they expanded their influence south of the River Rhine. That meant the stretch of coastline from present-day town Rijnsburg (a name meaning ‘Rhine-fortress’) in the Netherlands to Sincfal in Belgium belonged to the sphere of influence of Frisia as well. Frisian law, the Lex Frisionum, was the ruling law in these areas. Sincfal is where estuary the National Park Zwin in Belgium is today, and which is the starting point of the Frisia Coast Trail.
Extending their control south should not be considered too much as a heroic achievement of the Frisians. Most of the land that aligns the North Sea of modern province Zuid Holland was at the time sparsely populated. Some argue possible the Suevi had colonized the Walcheren Island in the beginning of the sixth century as well, but maybe this is based too straightforwardly on the similarity of the words zeeuw (i.e. Dutch name for the people of Zeeland) and seuvi. A more plausible (but still) speculation about the origins of the Zeeuw people would be that the tribes that lived in the southwest of present-day the Netherlands were a tribe akin the Frisii from the north, or even belonging to the same tribe as Frisians because they were partly descendants of the Frisiavones that still lived here. Maybe also attributing why Frisia emerged after the Migration Period as an area stretching along the Netherlands and German North Sea coast.
The archipelago of what is now province Zeeland must have been a familiar habitat for the northern Frisians and comparable with the salt marshes of the terp region in the northwest of Germany and the north of the Netherlands. Control over the mouths of the major rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt in the west, but also the rivers Ems and Weser in the north, was very lucrative for the seafaring and trading Frisians. The Walcheren Island in the River Scheldt (the River West-Scheldt then was not much more than a modest stream called Hunte) was no exception. Numerous, more than a thousand, scaettas (silver coins, pennies) have been found of which the majority are of Frisian origin.
The magnitude of the trade between the continent and the British Isles during the Early Middle Ages, between ca. 600-900, is slowly becoming clear from archaeological research. And, given the size of Frisian-type coin production, Frisian merchants were central interlocutors in this free trade. Coins were minted especially at emporium Doretstat, at the northern terp region, and at Walichrum. This money was meant for financing the export of items from among other England to the continent. The numbers of coins in circulation are mind-boggling and may add up to a staggering 50 million sceattas, mostly from Frisia. Read more about the Frisian trade in our post mentioned earlier already Porcupines bore U.S. bucks.
The settlement of Walichrum was probably located between the towns of modern Domburg and modern Oostkapelle, where the thirteenth-century castle Westhove stands today. Walichrum means ‘wet sandy ridge’ and although originally referring to the settlement, later the name was applied for the entire island (Van Heeringen, 1998). The Walcheren Island had an additional strategic value compared to other trade settlements, because from here the North Sea could be crossed best to the British Isles. And, you had control over the mouth of the rivers Scheldt and Meuse too. The strategic importance was already recognized by the Roman Empire, as described above. Above, the island Walichrum could be defended effectively as well. It was located on a high ridge behind dunes, via a creek connected to the River East-Scheldt, and surrounded by tidal marshlands and the sea. Count Robert II, count of Flanders, experienced this too when in the year 1084 about 3,000 islanders of the Walcheren Island triumphed over his army of thirty legions. In 1809 the British army tried to invade the island in order to get control over the River Scheldt. It was an utter disaster, and they were defeated by the ‘Zeeuw natives’. Even as recent during the Second World War, the German army had nested itself at the Walcheren Island controlling the River Scheldt, and hindering the advancement of the Allied Forces in the autumn of 1944. In other words, a wanna-have island, and it flourished especially in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The area of the great rivers was an apple of discord between the Frankish kingdoms of West, Middle and East Francia, the Frisians and the Danes. Empires, kingdoms, christianity, heathendom, trade, tribes and peoples, all came together in this relatively small but lucrative area. You could say, it was the Balkans of Western Europe. Not the least were involved: Charlemagne, Louis the German, Charles the Bald, Louis the Pious, Lothar, Rorik of Dorestad, Ubba the Frisian, Ivar the Boneless, Rodulf Haraldsson, Harald Klak Halfdansson, Godfrid the Sea King, Wilibrord Apostle of the Frisians et cetera. Undoubtedly, but strictly speaking this is speculation, also the famous Frisian kings or overkings Aldgisl and Redbad might have had some involvement in the early days. The Walcheren Island, like the trading ports Dorestat, Medemblik, Witla (exact located unknown, but thought in estuary of the River Meuse) and to the east Meinerswijk, were too important for an overking to remain indifferent to, as we shall see below.
When Halley’s Comet almost hit earth
In the year 837 Halley’s Comet, visible every seventy-five years or so, passed little earth again. This time it may have passed as close as five million kilometers, which is by far its closest approach ever. It was visible for three days. Thank all possible gods our planet is so tiny, and thus so difficult to hit. Sightings have been recorded in China, Japan, Germany, the Byzantine Empire and the Middle East those days. Emperor Louis the Pious feared this was a sign of his death. According to the Annales Fuldenses, it was Astronomus at the court who adviced the Emperor not be as freightened as heathens are by signs of heaven.
The Annals of Xanten tell us the following about this natural occurrence:
Immense whirlwinds frequently erupted and a comet has been seen with a great train of light in the east about three cubits long to the human eye, and the pagans laid waste the Walcheren and abducted many captive women as well as an immense amount of various goods.
It was June 17, 837 when a Viking army lead by the two warlords Rorik and Harald Junior attacked the Walcheren Island, by then a military stronghold of the Franks.
What preceded the Battle at the Walcheren
After the successful Frisian expansion southward after the Migration Period until the Early Middle Ages, the Frisians had suffered multiple defeats against the Franks in the eighth century .
In 736 (or so) the heathen Frisians and their chief or king Bubo were defeated deep in their own heartland at the River Boarn (read our post The Boarn Supremacy). That hurt. Irritated and naive, the Frisians murdered the highly influential archbishop Boniface in 754 near the present-day town of Dokkum. In 772 Charlemagne destroyed the sacred tree Irminsul of the neighboring Saxons. After a decade of fighting, Charlemagne beheaded 4,500 Saxons at Verden in the year 782. Despite, or because of, these atrocities the Frisians stubbornly joined the large scale up-rise of their cousins the Saxons, under command of the famous nobleman Widukind in the years 784 and 785. At the end the Franks were victorious against both the Saxons and the Frisians.
We can conclude that the eighth century was a very bloody mess in the northern regions, and must have given the Franks a certain image. But they achieved where the Romans had failed: to conquer the land north and east of the River Rhine.
The defense of the Walcheren Island in the year 837 was the responsibility of Count Ekkehard and, interestingly, the Danish commander Halfdan Hemming. Both were killed and the Walcheren Island was lost for the Franks. The Vikings would remain the de facto rulers of the Walcheren Island for the rest of the ninth century. It put a precedent in the Viking’s strategy that they would apply soon too at the mouths of the rivers Thames, Loire and Seine.
The defeat at the Walcheren Island was not a little detail for the Franks, and their large and proud kingdom. Louis the Pious postponed his travels to Italy immediately and went to his kaiserpfalz in Nijmegen, a town in present-day the Netherlands. Locals, Frisian skippers and Frisian dukes, were blamed by livid Louis for the whole disaster. They are said to have been too slow to organize the defense, and did not make their ships available to the Franks. The Frisian count of Westergo, Gerulf the Elder, was blamed for conspiracy with the Danes. Louis took away his fiefs in villae Cammingehunderi, i.e. the area between current places Franeker and Berlikum in province Friesland. Louis’ accusations might have been correct. Why would the pagan Frisians be disloyal to their pagan Danish cousins with whom they were also entangled in maritime trade for so long? To help the Franks they had resisted and feared for so long? No, the Frisians were no integrated, faithful citizens of Francia, and sabotage could have been their strategy indeed.
One year after a devastating flood of 838, and two years after the defeat at the Walcheren Island, the island was transferred to the kingdom of West Francia of Charles the Bald. King Lothar of Middle Francia did not agree and strove to possess all of Frisia, also the areas south of the River Rhine. Therefore, King Lothar illegally gave the Walcheren Island in fief to Viking warlord Harald the Younger. This was against the sore leg of chronicler Prudentius who was, of course, loyal to his boss. The Annals of Saint Bertin of 841 state the following:
To Harald who with other Danish pirates for a number of years, to his [Lothar’s] advantage, had done so much damage to Frisia and other coastal countries of the Christian world in order to harm his father [Louis the Pious], he gave for this service the Walcheren and the neighboring places in fief (…) A deed which certainly deserves every abhorrence that people who had brought evil on to Christians were placed in charge of Christian countries and people and of Christ’s church.Annals of Saint Bertin
It was a so-called ‘magnificent gift’ since from the Walcheren Island an immense trade could be protected, controlled and exploited. “If you can’t beat them, join them,” King Lothar might have thought. He was successful with this keep-your-enemy-close strategy. After giving parts of Frisia in fief to Danish warlords, almost no killings and looting in this part of the empire took place anymore. Instead, the Vikings shifted and intensified their activities to Flanders, West Francia and to the British Isles. Poor Flanders, it would stay a battleground for foreign powers for the rest of its history. King Lothar went even further. He gave West Frisia, more or less present-day provinces Noord Holland and Zuid Holland, and the trade emporium Dorestat, to the Danish warlord Rorik. East Frisia, present-day region Ostfriesland in the northwest of Germany, was given in fief to warlord Harald Klak. So, three Viking warlords wielded axe and power over the estuaries of the rivers Scheldt, Meuse, Rhine and Weser. Well done.
The area of present-day provinces of Friesland and Groningen (Mid Frisia) remained free from Danish authority. A couple of times Vikings attempted to attack this area, though. But it was always a complete catastrophe for the Norsemen. Siegfrid, a former commander of the Great Heathen Army, even and responsible for the siege of the city of Paris, was killed while trying. The two warlords Björn Ironside and Rodulf Haraldsson, after having raided the British Isles and Francia, made the same mistake and found Walhalla in the dark-blue, smelling mud of the salt marshes. Rodulf’s attack near Dokkum was in the year 873. No less than five or eight-hundred men (numbers differ) of Rodulf’s band were killed by the Frisians in the countship Albdagi, i.e. region Oostergo in current province Friesland. The survivors of the Danish army had to pledge never ever to return to Frisia. They did not. Three strikes out, was the clear message from Mid Frisia. Check our blog post Frisia, a Viking graveyard for more details on these historical defeats.
In the year 843, with the treaty of Verdun, Frisia south of the River Meuse was ceded to West Francia, the kingdom of Charles the Bald. He lent the Walcheren Island to warlord Godfrid Haraldsson, who might later have been succeeded by warlord Rodulf Haraldsson. Anyhow, the Vikings could more or less freely continue doing their thing at the Walcheren Island base. Yes, even organize an invasion army and fleet to conquer (most of) the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britannia.
The Great Heathen Army
In the year 865 Norse armies gathered like an enormous thunderstorm, to enter what is now England. That was four centuries after Hengest, the famous slayer of the King Finn of Frisia (read our blog post Tolkien pleaded in favor of King Finn), and his brother Horsa invaded the British Isles with their army of Angles, Jutes and Saxons, very possible departing from the coasts of Frisia. This according to the influential Bede’s eighth century Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The invasion of the Great Heathen Army was two centuries before ‘Britain’ would be invaded again. This time by another Viking or Norseman, William the Conqueror, in the famous year 1066. In 1688 Britain would be invaded yet again. Again, this invasion was staged from province Zeeland. This time by William of Orange, leaving from the Low Countries for Britain with an impressive army of more than 20,000 soldiers. The Brits did not even try to resist William. Poor Britain. What was left of the once proud Kentish Invicta? Foreign armies seemingly invading at free will for centuries, and we have not mentioned the Romans yet. So, have some compassion when it comes to the Brexit. It is emotional.
Back to the particular invasion of 865. The Viking armies would unite into the much dreaded Mycel Heathen Here ‘Great Heathen Army’, and this army would ransack England for a stunning fourteen years. It is generally accepted that not only Norsemen went raiding, but men of other tribes joined Viking gangs as well. Notably the Frisians. For example, in 855 an army of Dani et Frisones ‘Danes and Frisians’ landed on the island of Sheppey eastern England. This according to the auhtoritive Annales Lindisfarneses. But also, Old-Frisian codices and law books from, for example, the districts Rüstringen in Germany and Fivelgo in the Netherlands dating from the around the thirteenth century, still made reference to the Frisians participating in overseas raiding campaigns of their northern neighbors, whether these men were forced to participate, or joined as adventurer. Read more about these fighters in our blog post Foreign fighters returning from Viking war bands.
The three commanders of this big heathen army were Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan and Ubba the Frisian or Ubbi fríski. Ubba was also recorded as Ubba dux Fresciorum and as Ubbo Fresicus of Saxo. Whatever his name was, and whether or not he was one of the sons of Viking Ragnarr Loðbrók, Ubba gathered his Scaldingi in West Frisia and crossed with his fleet to England from ‘stepping stone’ the Walcheren Island. Scaldingi, or Scaldi, was the name for the Scheldt Vikings. Indeed, the river had been named Vikings after itself. Nice achievement!
Remember these facts when crossing the massive Oosterscheldekering (i.e. the storm surge barrier over the River East-Scheldt): visualize the ships of the Scaldingi, with a shouting Ubba, sailing to England.
Ubba the Frisian fought during his career on either side of the Channel and eventually died in battle in 878 near Countisbury in Devon, England. According to the twelfth-century chronicler Gaimar, Ubba is buried in Devon in a mound called Ubbalawe, meaning Ubba’s barrow. Local legend also has it Ubba is buried in the Wind Hill near Lynmouth in Devon. Or, was he one of the 300 Vikings buried at the mass grave in Derbyshire? Maybe the body of a leader with a boar’s tusk between his legs? Anyway, no sea this time to reveal its contents. We must dig. Quick!
Note 1 – More about the discussion whether Ubba was of Frisian descend in our post Foreign Fighters returning from Viking war bands.
Note – 2 Ubba the Frisian got a face with the Norwegian actor Rune Temte in the TV series The Last Kingdom, and with Scottish-Australian actor Jordan Patrick Smith in the TV series Vikings .
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