In contrast to the Sunday’s rest of today, for centuries island Walcheren 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. Island Walcheren was also a bridgehead of the Scaldingi chapter. They 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 the Anglo-Saxon world. Yes, part of this dreaded army sailed from Walcheren.
The result of its pagan history is that the beaches, dunes and soil of Walcheren 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 Walcheren.
This post is about Walcheren, an island located within the wider region that was known in the Middle Ages as Loca Maritima ‘sea lands’, or as Scaldimariland ‘land at the mouth of river Scheldt’. Everything part of province Zeeland now, and once part of Frisia. An area in the Middle Ages renown for its fine horses. Like many islands, its people are self-willed and by nature independent. This is the case with the (former) islands of province Zeeland too, and certainly with Walcheren. During the Early Middle Ages, when it was still part of Frisia, the region was for long a free haven of Viking warriors and other sea scum. From the year 1012, the part of Frisia west of the river Scheldt, i.e. more or less Zeelandic Flanders and Walcheren, belonged to the Flanders. But no way the Frisians here felt any urge or obligation to pay taxes to the count of Flanders, which brought them into armed conflict as we will see in this post (Nieuwenhuijsen 2022).
This post is also about how Walcheren at the mouth of the river Scheldt was a strategic spot both from a trade and 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 straight to the Britannia (Dhaeze 2019). In the Early Middle Ages, Walacria (also called Walichrum, Walacharan, Walcran etc.), as the settlement near Domburg was originally named, again became an important trade settlement and a garrison. This time of the Frankish kingdoms. Walcheren in particular was caught up in the middle of Frankish politics, of piratae danorum ‘Danish pirates’ and of 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.
1. Roman Period
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 Walcheren. 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 were dedicated to the goddess Nehelennia. Others were dedicated to the gods Jupiter, Neptune, Hercules, Victoria and Burorina. All these finds were part of a temple complex between the year ca. 188 and 227, but possibly already from the first century.
In the ’70s of the twentieth century near Colijnsplaat at the river East Scheldt, northeast of Walcheren, 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 and 227.
Nehalennia was being worshiped in Roman times. It was a native Celtic-Germanic goddess. The name means probably ‘goddess who lives by the water’ and it was the guardian of skippers and traders who dared the crossing from Walcheren 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 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/oil), salt and chalk. But also the transport of wine from the upper Rhineland to Britannia. Not solely merchants in allecarii, salarii and vinarii (fish sauce, salt and wine) made the crossing. Frisian tribesmen on their way to, for example, Hadrian’s Wall to join the Imperial Roman Army as mercenaries, also crossed the sea from Walcheren and Colijnsplaat. Read our post Frisian mercenaries in Britannia to learn more about these mercenaries. Thus, Walcheren 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 Walcheren revealed itself. This time is was at a very low tide that an image of the Roman goddess Victoria was presented, together with some remains of a temple. Although it is the goddess of victory, it missed its 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. It is divine judgement, beyond any doubt. Like Nehalennia, the goddess Burorina is a local goddess too, but not much is known about it to date.
Current province Zeeland, including Walcheren, depopulated 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 Walcheren.
2. Middle Ages
Alcuin, chronicler at the court of Charlemagne and author of the Vita Willibrordi ‘Life of Saint Willibrord’ dated ca. 796, described Willibrord’s missionary achievements in Frisia at the end of the seventh century. In his vita, Alcuin says that when Saint Willibrord went to Frisia to convert the people, he came ashore on island Walcheren. Alcuin also described how Willibrord destroyed a representation of an idol on Walcheren. According to abbot Thiofrid of the Abbey of Saint Willibrord in Echternach (Luxembourg), it did not went off without a hitch. In Thiofrid’s Vita sancti Willibrordi, written in ca. 1103, Saint Willibrord was hit on his head by the sword of one of the guards of the temple of this idol. His blood fell on stone.
It might have been the village of Westkapelle where the manly performance of Willibrord took place and where Willibrord set foot on land first. The eleventh-century chapel used to have a piece of stone of the temple with a stain of blood of Willibrord. Perhaps this stone was a Roman votive altar piece (Henderikx 2021), as described earlier. Also, the fact that some bone fragments of Willibrord were donated to this chapel by the Abbey of Echternach where Saint Willibrord is buried, might point in this direction. Furthermore, for long a sweet well in the dunes nearby was named after Saint Willibrord.
Concerning the persistent heathen practices of the people on Walcheren, bishop Frederick of Utrecht (ca. 780-835) was ordered by emperor Louis the Pious to travel to the island in order to refrain the people there returning to heathendom. Incidentally, Frederick was of Frisian descent, from the village Sexbierum. Legend even has it, his lineage was that of the legendary king Radbod. A few centuries later, another bishop from near Sexbierum would become bishop of Utrecht, namely Hartbert of Bierum. He was in office from 1139 until 1150. For more about Hartbert, check our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfing Dynasty. Anyway, when in the ninth century rumor had it men on Walcheren married their niece, or their own sister, and even their mother-in-law, action was urgently needed. This according to the 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 by monk Otbert (died 1119)
How bishop Frederick of Utrecht died, is unclear. One story is that he was killed by the heathen people of Walcheren during his mission trying to turn the tide of people reverting to paganism. Another story is that he was assassinated in his own church whilst celebrating Mass. This murder allegedly was ordered by empress Judith of Bavaria, because it had been bishop Frederick who criticized her incestuous way of life.
Whatever the true story is, the eleventh-century text of the Passio Friderici of Otbert illustrates that in that century Walcheren 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. those in West Flanders and 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.
Another story of ungodly Frisians, comes from the Gesta episcoporum Cameracensium ‘deeds of the bishops of Cambrai’, written mid eleventh century. It speaks of Frisians living along the coast. Since it is the diocese of Cambrai in northern France speaking of something that happened in the diocese of Utrecht, chances are it concerned Frisians of present-day province Zeeland. The story is about how Frisians hardly ever took communion during Easter. One time, when the priest once again urged his people to take communion, the chieftain of the village was fed up with it, cursed the whole heavenly ceremony, and exclaimed he prefered to drink lots of beer instead. He turned his words into deeds and got very drunk. When, however, he mounted his horse, he fell and broke his neck. The villagers buried their chieftain in the graveyard of the church. When bishop Adalbold of Utrecht heard of it, he personally travelled to the place and ordered the body to be removed from consecrated grounds. Even though the body lay there for two weeks already. With a rope around his feets, the body was dragged a mile outside the village. All the way, the dead chieftain was throwing up beer as if he just had been drinking (Bremmer & Mulder-Bakker 2022).
It is the sayings ‘Seagull, seagull, sit on the sand, it’s never good weather when you’re on land’ which expresses seagulls only shelter on land during heavy storms while fishermen drown at sea and their bodies will be washed on the beach soon. The seagull as harbinger of doom, read our post Rats with Wings or Masters of the Sky to discover all the symbolic meanings of seagulls. In the year 1687, after a foul storm, the heathen history of 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. Therefore the graves probably date before ca. 700, albeit the people of Walcheren were hard to convert, as we just have seen and explained. The salty water returned and hid the zombies and their coffins back into 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 post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks to find more information on this dollar of the Early Middle Ages.
For decades now, the beaches around the town of Domburg are a very popular holiday destination. People dressed in shorts (the horror) from Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, flock in large numbers to the Walcheren coast again. But be warned. When standing in the sea and something tickles your feet, do not immediately think it is an angry lobster 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. Time to set our sights on those Vikings.
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, meaning ‘Rhine burgh, in the Netherlands to Sincfala in Belgium belonged to the sphere of influence of Frisia as well. Frisian law, the late eighth-century Lex Frisionum, was the ruling law in these areas. Sincfala is where estuary the National Park the Zwin in Flanders is today, and which is the starting point of the Frisia Coast Trail. See our post The Frontier known as Watery Mess: the coast of Flanders for more about Frisians in Flanders.
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 tribe had colonized Walcheren in the beginning of the sixth century. Maybe, this is wishful thinking based too straightforwardly on the similarity of the words zeeuw, i.e. the Dutch name for the people of Zeeland, and seuvi. A more plausible theory, although 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 or Fresones from the north, or even belonging to the same tribe as Frisians because they were partly descendants of the Frisiavones who still lived here. Perhaps 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 and the coast of West Flanders, must have been a familiar habitat for the 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. Island Walcheren in the river Scheldt (the river West Scheldt then was not much more than a modest stream called Honte) was no exception. Numerous, more than a thousand, scaettas 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 and 900, is slowly becoming clear from archaeological research. 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 on island Walcheren. This money was meant for financing 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). Walcheren had an additional strategic value compared to other trade settlements. From there 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 Romans, as described above.
Moreover, Walcheren could be defended effectively as well. It was located on a high ridge behind dunes, via a creek connected to the river Scheldt, and surrounded by tidal marshlands and the sea.
The count of Flanders, Robert I, nicknamed Robert the Frisian, experienced this too when in the year 1067 the islanders triumphed over his army. Of course, the victory of the Frisians of Walcheren was achieved thanks to their Saint Willibrord, whose relics were carried to the battle. This, however, is the version of the battle as described in the Vita sancti Willibrordi of abbot Thiofrid mentioned earlier. According to the Gesta Herwardi ‘Deeds of Hereward’, written by monk Richard of the Abby on the Isle of Ely between 1109 and 1131, it was count Robert I who won the battle. Robert’s army consisted of 3,000 men, but the Frisian with more. Another theory is that there were in fact two battles at between the Frisians on Walcheren and the Flemish count, and bot were lost by the count of Flanders. The first battle took place in 1067 and the second a few years later. The whole conflict was about the Frisians of Walcheren refusing to pay taxes to the counts of Flanders who officially had become their lord in 1012 (Nieuwenhuijsen 2016, 2022).
Hereward, by the way, was an Anglo-Saxon nobleman with the intriguing nicknames Hereward the Wake, Hereward the Outlaw, and Hereward the Exile. In England he is especially known for his battles against the Normans who had invaded England in 1066. But many more adventures exist about this vigilante. He fought in the army of count Robert de Fries during the battle of Walcheren in 1067.
Centuries later, in 1809, the strategic features of Walcheren were proven once again. This time it was the British army tried to invade the island in order to get control over the river Scheldt. It was an utter disaster too, and they were defeated by the ‘Zeeuw natives’. Even as recent during the Second World War, the Nazi army had nested itself on Walcheren 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.
Back to the Middle Ages.
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 Northwest 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, Willibrord Apostle of the Frisians etc. 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 location unknown but 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 ‘Annals of Fulda’, it was Astronomus at his court who advised the emperor not be as frightened 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 Walcheren, by then a military stronghold of the Franks. The Battle of Walcheren.
What preceded the Battle of 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. Around 690, the Frisians had lost the river Scheldt estuary to the Franks already. The Frankish king, the Abbey of Saint Bavo in Ghent (Flanders), and the Abbey of Saint Willibrord in Echternach (Luxembourg) all got a piece of the pie and had possessions at the Walcheren.
In 736 (or so) the heathen Frisians and their chief or king Bubo or Poppo were defeated deep in their own heartland at the river Boarn (read our post The Boarn Supremacy). That hurt. Irritated and slightly 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 uprising 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. Nevertheless, the Franks prevailed where the Romans had failed, and conquered the land north and east of the river Rhine, the lands of the Saxons and the Frisians.
The defense of Walcheren in the year 837 was the responsibility of count Ekkehard, also written as Eggihard, and, interestingly, the Danish commander Halfdan Hemming. Both were killed, and Walcheren was lost for the Franks. The Vikings would remain the de facto rulers of Walcheren for nearly 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 on Walcheren 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. The Frisians, specifically skippers and their dukes, were blamed by livid Louis for the whole disaster. They are said to have been too slow to organize the defense of the island, 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 of Walcheren were no integrated, faithful citizens of Francia, and sabotage could have been their strategy indeed.
If interested in how the military defense in case of seaborne threats was organized, the so-called heercogge, check the intermezzo ‘Conscription in the Early Middle Ages’ in our post The Frontier Known as Watery Mess: the coast of Flanders.
One year after a devastating flood of 838, and two years after the defeat on Walcheren, 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 Walcheren 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 Walcheren 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 Zeeland, Noord Holland and Zuid Holland, and the trade emporium Dorestat, to the Danish warlord Rorik. East Frisia, present-day region Ostfriesland, was given in fief to warlord Harald Klak, who was also known as ‘the bile of Christianity’. 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 remained free from Danish authority. A couple of times Vikings attempted to attack this area, though. 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 war band were killed by the Frisians in the county Albdagi, i.e. region Oostergo in 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 post Frisia, a Viking graveyard for more details on these historical but lesser known 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 gave the benefice Walcheren 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 their Walcheren 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 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. This invasion was staged from province Zeeland too. 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 the Anglo-Saxon world for a stunning fourteen years. In the year 878, the Great Heathen Army was defeated by King Alfred of Wessex. A year later, in 879, the Viking chapter of the Scaldingi returned to its former base on Walcheren. From here it started raiding the region of Flanders during the years between 879 and 892. In 892 they returned to England again. This was the end of Viking presence in province Zeeland (Henderikx 2021).
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 the year 855 an army of Dani et Frisones ‘Danes and Frisians’ landed on the island of Sheppey eastern England. This according to the authoritative Annales Lindisfarneses ‘Annals of Lindisfarne’. 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 post Foreign fighters returning from Viking war bands.
The initial 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 chapter in West Frisia and crossed with his giant fleet to England from ‘stepping stone’ Walcheren. Scaldingi, or Scaldi, was the name for the Scheldt Vikings. Indeed, the river had been named Vikings after itself. Nice achievement for a river.
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 English Channel and eventually died in battle in 878 near Countisbury in Devon. 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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