Have a Frisians Cocktail

With the coming seasonal festivities at the end of the year, it’s appropriate to serve you a flavorful cocktail. It’s a cocktail from the list ‘Myths of Nations’, namely the ‘Frisians Cocktail’. Its recipe isn’t as old as some people thought it was, or would like it to be, but it’s still a quite reasonable drink to serve before, during and after Christmas dinners, or as an aperitif on New Year’s Eve! What the heck, on every Sunday morning with strawberries as breakfast. Be warned, though. Some find it a bit too Saxon. Or would you prefer a Anglo-Saxon cocktail? Anyway, try it yourself.

1. The Recipe

  • Saxons (4 ounce)
  • Angles (2 ounce)
  • Jutes (1/4 ounce)
  • Norwegians (1/4 ounce)
  • Old Frisians, before AD 325 (a dash)
  • Chauci (1 drop)
  • Celts (1 drop)
  • Franks (to garnish)
  • Samphire (few strands)
  • Sea salt
  • Long Drink glass
  • Start with mixing the Old Frisians, Chauci and the Celts together in a glass. Put it aside for a while.
  • Mix the Saxons and the Angles in a cocktail shaker. Shake it, shake it.
  • Then add the glass with the Old Frisians and the Celts.
  • Be careful with the Old Frisians. Really, just a tiny bit. Add crushed ice and shake it very well.
  • Pour it out in a glass. A standard Long Drink type is recommended.
  • Add the Jutes carefully via the back of a tablespoon.
  • Do the same with the Norwegians afterwards. Don not stir!
  • Throw in some Franks with some grains of sea salt. Peat salt is fine too.
  • Finish it off with a few strands of fresh Wadden Sea samphire.
  • Make sure you do not use any Batavians. It spoils it, and will turn it into a Bloody Mary.

2. Myths of Nations

Old Frisians – until AD 425

Habitation at the terp region on the shores of the Wadden Sea dates back 2,600 years. Or to formulate it more precisely, the European ‘terp culture’ is circa 2,600 years old. When focussing on the salt marshes of the Netherlands and western Germany, the first people settled here during 600-500 BC, and maybe even a century before. We know this from the oldest pottery found. Areas they settled were around modern villages Den Burg (on island Texel), Pingjum, Wommels, Hogebeintum, Vierhuizen, Ezinge, Harssens, Middelstum, and at the mouth of the river Ems at Jemgum. This old pottery also resemblances pottery found at the lower reaches of the river Weser. Where these first permanent settlers originated from, researchers don’t know yet (Westerink 2022).

Around 500 BC, another type of pottery appears, the Ruinen-Wommels type. This pottery has a much wider and more inland distribution than the old pottery mentioned above. Additionally to the distribution area of the old pottery, also on the Drenthe plateau, as south as the modern village of Ruinen. From 400 BC onward, there’s a growing population on the salt marshes, whilst the hinterland of the Drenthe plateau witnesses a steady decrease of population.

When the Romans arrived in these wet, peaty and swampy regions in the first century, the peoples living on these terps (see note further below) were called the maiores Frisii ‘greater Frisians’ in the north-west of the Netherlands, and more to the east, the maiores Chauci, the area between the river Ems and the river Weser, what is the region Ostfriesland in Germany today. Archaeological research shows differences in culture between the Chauci and the Frisians. At the same time research also shows intensive contacts existed between these tribes too. It’s a bit unclear whether the area what’s now province Groningen in the Netherlands belonged to the Frisians or to the Chauci.

The minores Frisii ‘smaller Frisians’ had their territory in what’s today province Noord Holland in the Netherlands. Along the coasts more to the south, what’s current province Zeeland south of the limes (‘border’) Germanicus of the Roman Empire, lived the Frisiavones. The Frisiavones can be considered Romanized Frisians (IJssennagger 2017). Along the coastal area between the Frisavones and the minores Frisii lived, from the first century AD onward, the tribe of the Cananefates.

After the collapse of Roman Empire and after the so-called dark Migration period, light is shone again on these territories that had been redistributed between peoples in the meantime. And guess what? Frisians everywhere. Frisians seemed like Gremlins who had multiplied after becoming wet. And plenty of water in this environment. Rivers, swamps, salt marshes, sea, and lots lots of rain. Frisians suddenly were present from inlet the Zwin in western Flanders, up to the lower reaches of the river Weser in the north-west of Germany. Soon after, they would settle at region Nordfriesland in Germany and Denmark too. For more about the early-medieval presence of Frisians in western Flanders and southern Denmark, read our posts The Frontier known as Watery Mess: the coast of Flanders and To the end where it all began: ribbon Ribe.

It’s therefore tempting to think the genes of the tribe of the Frisians are a continuum from the year 600 BC to this very day. Well, it’s not. Actually, this cocktail has a different recipe, as you might have tasted already. Research, archaeological and toponymical, is pretty conclusive about the fact the tidal marshlands of the northern Netherlands, especially in present-day province Friesland were nearly abandoned during the period ca. 325-425.

Neither the collapse of the Roman Empire, nor the arrival of the Huns in Europe, or migration pressures from the east and south, caused the coastal people of the tidal marshlands to move. Climate change, however, did. It was deterioration of the environment that had a major impact on living conditions, especially in current province Friesland and, to a lesser extent, region Ommelanden of province Groningen. Because of climate change, sea levels rose in the fourth century. For settlements along the coast on the tidal marshlands the rising water as such wasn’t a problem that couldn’t be overcome. To a certain extent marshlands would rise parallel with the rise of the sea, and artificial house platforms and terps could be heightened relatively easily.

No, the real problem was that the rise of the sea level made drainage of sweet water from the hinterland difficult, which caused the hinterland to turn into malaria-infected swamps. Yes, malaria existed in this area. Well into the twentieth century. An environment that was no longer suitable for agriculture, livestock, and for living. People, therefore, emigrated from the hinterlands. Disappearance of inland habitation affected habitation on the sea shores as well, since village networks were essential to survive (Nieuwhof 2016). As a consequence, the people of the salt marshes had to emigrate too. A house of cards falling. Around the year 325 the north was almost empty. As some historians put it:

“you only could hear the seagulls cry”

Note – If interested in more information on these crying birds who have been the companion of the coastal dwellers of the southern North Sea, check our post Rats with wings, or Master of the sky.

Having said that, some terps in well-drained areas in present-day province Friesland show continuation of (modest) population throughout the Migration period, like those of Driesum, Hatsum, Hogebeintum, Jelsum, Marssum and Wijnaldum-Tjitsma. Despite habitation at other terps like Dongjum and Peins discontinued, archaeological research has shown that these higher and fertile terps were still being used as arable land during this empty era, thus indicating modest habitation somewhere in the area surrounding it. Especially the district Westergo of province Friesland had depopulated strongest in the fourth century AD.

Habitation in region Ommelanden decreased strongly too, as the famous archaeological excavations of the terp Ezinge, nicknamed the Sutton Ho of the Netherlands, have shown. But this region was less affected than the area of province Friesland. Reason for it was that is was blessed with a nearby, well-drained, hinterland where habitation could continue. Thus supporting the salt-marsh settlements with vital networks to survive, whereas the salt-marsh area of province Friesland became isolated with an empty hinterland.

Region Ommelanden was, and is, namely bordered by the Hondsrug ridge. The Hondsrug ridge is a sand ridge formed during the Saale glaciation. With 20 meters above mean sea level, it’s relatively high and wasn’t affected during the climate change in the way that it turned into a malaria-infected area too. No surprise that on this elevated area habitation continued throughout the Migration period, as archaeological research at the village of Midlaren-De Bloemert in province Drenthe has shown. Besides this more inland socio-economic network, the salt-marsh area of region Ommelanden was cultural more connected with the east, with region Ostfriesland. This eastern network helped the settlements in Groningen to survive better as well.

At this place it’s instructive to mention that the Frisians and the Chauci were akin tribes, and there existed strong relations, already before the Migration period, in the area from Noord Holland, Friesland, the Ommelanden, Ostfriesland, and the northern part of province Drenthe. Not only they shared the terp culture and similarities in pottery. They were also brothers in arms when it came to the professionalisation of the raiding business. Read our post It all began with piracy. Furthermore, this network along the southern Wadden Sea coast also maintained relations with the wider North Sea area, all the way to the coast of Flanders for example. These close relations indicate also that the ‘Anglo-Saxon style’ culture of the peoples of both the salt-marsh area of the Ommelanden and of the Hondsrug ridge that would develop in the fifth century, wasn’t solely determined by (mass) migration, but (also) through long-standing social and cultural exchange.

However, although closely related, during the Roman period the people living in provinces Noord Holland and Friesland were as group strong related (i.e. the Frisians), and the people living in region Ommelanden, northern province Drenthe, and region Ostfriesland were as a group strong related (i.e. the Chauci). The put it simple, albeit Frisians and Chauci were closely related they were distinguishable from each other (Nieuwhof 2021).

The environment of the Frisian territory (minores Frisii) along the North Sea coast of province Noord Holland, what’s more or less the present-day area of Kennemerland, region Westfriesland, and the (former) islands, Callantsoog, Huisduinen, Texel and Wieringen, deteriorated too in the fourth century. This probably due to land-loss because of a North Sea moving east, combined with a period of drought, hence a period of strong dune formation. All in all making the coastal zone mostly useless for agriculture. Strong dune formation was also the case in the area more to the south between the mouths of the rivers Old Rhine and Meuse. It led to a significant decrease of population in these areas too (Dijkstra 2011). In other words, a negative habitation situation comparable to the area in the northern coasts of the Netherlands and Germany.

Habitation continued along the western coast modestly too, for example as it did at Oosterbuurt near the town of Castricum, at Dorregeest near the town of Uitgeest, at Den Burg on the island Texel, and as it did close to the current town of Schagen. Pockets of original habitation more to the south remained also, like the in the area around the present-day town Rijnsburg, the mouth of the river Old Rhine.

Besides rising sea-levels, periods of droughts, and strong dune formation, there was another ecological factor that caused the environment along the southern shores of the North Sea to deteriorate. This was the so-called Great Watering (De Klerk 2018). The deeper soils, ca. 25 meters deep, were frozen ever since the Weichselian glaciation period that had ended ca. 10,000 years ago. Although this glaciation period had ended, the deep soils were still frozen, and defrosted excruciatingly slow. Water takes more volume when it’s frozen. So, when this big meltdown started, soils shrank and causing the surface to decrease with on average in total two meters. This in turn caused the area to become even more wetter. Roman fortresses slowly sank into the soil, and people had to move to higher grounds, mostly inland. This process stimulated the exodus of the coast further. Around the year 400, the defrosting process was at it’s height.

New Frisians – from AD 425

Around 400-425, population slowly increased again in the nearly empty former territories of the Frisians. The explanation for this population growth isn’t because the few remaining inhabitants suddenly became very romantic, fertile and productive. No, without discussion it was immigration. Indeed, the Adventus Saxonium ‘coming of Saxons’. But, not only Saxons. Current archaeological research adopts a two-migration-wave theory during the end of the Migration period.

The first migration wave was that of the Angles and the Saxons at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries. In particular the Elbe-Weser triangle in northern Germany was an important cradle of the new settlers. Probably the Saxons admixed with the very few original Frisians (Frisii) and Chauci left. This first wave was in archaeological terminology a mass migration. Especially relatively spoken, since the tidal marshlands where these migrants settled were nearly empty indeed. Furthermore, these new settlers from were no real strangers. Cultural relations, as explained earlier, already existed before the Migration period. More or less belonging to the same cultural group. It’s this same first migration wave that also affected Britain. Saxons following the river Thames from Kent to Oxfordshire, and Angles migrated via the river Humber into the northern Midlands and Yorkshire (Kortlandt 2017).

The second migration wave followed closely behind the first, around the second half of the fifth century. It was composed of Jutes and of southern Norwegians. They arrived in the no-longer empty coastal lands. This is considered to have been an elite migration, meaning small in numbers but wielding cultural and political power. They held strong ties with their homelands (Nicolay 2005). Today we would consider them kinda colonials. But probably these Scandinavian elites mixed with the previous established admixture as well, eventually.

All these migrants in the course of the fifth century filled the former, empty marshlands of the original Frisians and those of the Chauci with, as said, some small pockets of original Frisians still being there. But these original Frisians or Frisii were no more than a dash in the cocktail recipe. The original Frisians, by the way, being a people of probably mixed Celtic and ‘Germanic’ influences too. Be aware, namely, that the term ‘Germanic’ was coined by the Romans without too much previous anthropological research. So, were the Frisii indeed a Germanic tribe, or not at all? Therefore, what were Germanic and what were Celtic tribes in general, is difficult to say now. Tribes belonging to Magna Germania just as well might have been Celts too.

To say a few more words about this Celtic origin, a (partly) Celtic heritage of the Frisians, both Frisii and Frisiavones, could explain why according to language research Celtic vowel systems have survived in the Frisian language. Besides, passing on of a language or elements thereof, can be related with an ethnic or social group, but can just as well be passed on outside the original entity. Why do the Portuguese and Romanians speak a Latin language, for example? Check our posts The Killing Fields, of the Celts and Celtic-Frisian heritage: There’s no dealing with the Wheel of Fortune to learn that the Frisii might have been Celtic before Germanic.

Other archaeological research suggests the original Frisian (minores Frisii) tribes from what’s now the northern part of province Noord Holland, re-entered the empty tidal marshlands of the Wadden Sea around the year 400. As said earlier, modest continuation of habitation in the region Noord Holland during the Migration period has been proved. The same is true for continuous habitation in the northern parts of province Drenthe on the Hondsrug sand-ridge. Possible from there too, a secondary migration wave took place occupying the tidal marshlands of the region Ommelanden. Whether these original Frisians, and Chauci, re-migrating from Noord Holland, region Ommelanden, and the Drenthe plateau to the tidal marshlands of the Wadden Sea still considered themselves Frisians (and Chauci), is impossible to tell (Flierman 2021).

These possible secondary migration movements, however, don’t exclude the two-migration-wave theory from overseas mentioned first. It might have been a mixture of both types of migration, namely: old Frisian (Frisii) and Chauci tribes from the northern parts of modern province Noord Holland and the northern parts of province Drenthe, together with new tribes from northwestern Germany and southern Scandinavia. Quite logical in way. As soon as the salt marshes, and especially its hinterland, were livable again, and the increased activity of the sea had settled as well, people from the wider region knew the potential of these very fertile and productive lands. All re-populating the salt marshes, and giving the ancient terp culture a boost again. Or should we say ‘re-launched’ the unique salt-marsh culture?

Vos, P. & S. de Vries 2013: 2nd generation palaeogeographic maps of the Netherlands (version 2.0).
Deltares, Utrecht. Downloaded from www.archeologieinnederland.nl on 22 December 2018

The language the people spoke along the coast from Flanders to the north-west of Germany is called Coastal Dutch, an earlier form of Frisian. Coastal Dutch was very similar to the English spoken on the other side of the North Sea. According to linguistic research, this language originates from the early-medieval period. A language born out of pirate settlers from the north, pirates known as Saxones by the Romans (Schrijver 2014). This more or less corresponds with theories based on archaeological research set out above. Read our post It all began with piracy to understand how a new cultural, raiding identity was shaped on the southern shores of the North Sea, including that of England during Late Antiquity.

In the mid-sixth century, southern Scandinavia underwent a deep crisis, an economic and demographic collapse. The population was halved due to famines and violence. Cause of this crisis might have been a great volcano eruption in the year 535, creating an enormous dust veil world wide, hitting Scandinavian agriculture with its already short summers notably hard. Not long after, the bubonic plague might have reached southern Scandinavia as well. Catastrophes that induced additional migration movements to the west and south where the Jutes, Frisians and Franks dwelled (Shippey 2022).

So, the result of all these migration movements is that Frisians are a cocktail of old Celtic-Frisians (Frisii), Chauci, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and southern Norwegians. For the Frisians in region Ostfriesland the story is comparable, but we need to dig deeper yet into what happened to the Chauci, among other. Like the original Frisians, they probably also partly migrated south into Flanders in the third and fourth centuries, and perhaps also to the British Isles.

When looking at the golden and silver artifacts the new Frisians produced, the style elements were influenced by those of the different peoples surrounding them. Resulting in the fibulae and pendants with so-called kidney shape. This is the two snake-like animal figures bowing to each other (see image below). The kidney motif developed from mid-sixth century, and is found in the terp region of the Wadden Sea. This suggests that in the course of the late sixth and beginning seventh centuries, a new recognizable identity was established. These new Frisians politically detached themselves from the dominant southern Scandinavian elite, the Jutes and the Norwegians (Nieuwhof 2018, Nicolay 2018).

square-headed brooch / disc-on-bow fibula, Achlum, the Netherlands, ca .550

The seventh century is also the century Frisia politically expanded, covering most of the Netherlands and all the way to Flanders, and far to the north-west of Germany. And because of their ambition, this new people had to deal with their, at the end too powerful, opponent in the south: the Franks. The Frisian assertiveness and the conflict with their neighbours, led to a period of social and political change and stress. Resulting in more soil depositions and grave gifts, especially of swords and shields. A way to strengthen the warrior culture and the communication with the world of the gods.

Concerning the western coast of the Netherlands, migration contributed to the composition of the population here as well. Research at the town of Oegstgeest in province Zuid Holland on human remains, albeit on a limited number of individuals, shows that besides migrants from the north-west of Germany and Denmark, migrants also originated from the east of the Netherlands and from southern England. Many questions remain whether these people were new settlers, traders, or perhaps raiders. These archaeological results might indicate that the early-medieval migration process wasn’t solely from north-east to west, but also vice versa (Van Spelde 2016).

3. Frisian equals Saxon?

In a way, the answer is yes. Saxons were the basic ingredient. Admixed with some other peoples as explained above with the cocktail recipe. It was even Frankish emperor Lothar I who in the year 850 spoke of “gens Saxonum et Fresonum commixta” (‘mixed Saxon and Frisian peoples’), describing the people living in the north of his empire and expressing there was, seemingly, not much different between the two tribes (Flierman 2021).

Who were the Saxons anyway?

The name Saxons starts to appear in different Roman and Greek written sources more or less from the middle of the fourth century (Dhaeze 2019). The Romans spoke, in the Notitia Dignitatum, of Saxon piracy along the litus Saxonicum ‘Saxon shore’. From the mid-third century onward, the Romans even built a series of forts, and deployed naval forces along the coast of Britain between Brancaster to Portchester to ward off the Saxon threat.

Question is whether the term ‘saxon’ as used by the Roman and Greek writers implied there was also a Saxon people, a Saxon identity. This is difficult to answer. Things become complicated because the term ‘saxon’ was used both for individuals living in Great Germanica as for individuals living in Romania (viz. Transylvania). Early-medieval sources even spoke of Saxons in the south-west of Gaul and in Italy. That’s all very diffuse, and makes evident the antique sources weren’t consequently talking about a tribe or a people.

If not a people at first, what were Saxons?

An established theory is that the word ‘saxon’ originally was used to denote a group of individuals, like Vikings. Being plundering and rowing men in war bands. Or the name of a confederacy of pirating tribes. But not to identify a tribe or a people as such. Indeed, an umbrella to denote Rauscharen or raiding parties, warriors belonging to war bands (Steuer 2003, Springer 2003, Flierman 2021). Only later, the word ‘saxon’ would become applicable for a tribe. A group-entity that eventually associated itself under this name. A similar example are the Normans of Normandy.

So, the Saxons were pirates, robbers, raiders coming by ship. Rough types you prefer not to encounter on any time of the day. From the fourth until the middle of the fifth centuries, Saxons appeared as bands plundering the coasts of Gaul, Brittany and of Britannia. In the sixth-century De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ the Saxons -invaders of Britain- proved more cruel than the former enemies. This, at least according to cleric Saint Gildas.

What is a pirate without a cutlass? Know that a seax was a specific type of a long knife which these rough types carried. Perhaps the name of this weapon is even the origin of the word ‘saxon’.

And, lastly, there is the Germanic god Saxnôt, also written as Seaxneat or Saxnote, which was also worshiped by Saxons and Frisians well into the ninth century. Of course, besides more well-known Germanic gods Woden/Óðinn and Thunor/Þórr. We know idol Saxnôt from, among other, the eighth-century Baptismal Vow of Utrecht. Check our post Groove is in the Hearth to learn more about this piece of fascinating pagan history. How Saxnôt relates to Saxons, we couldn’t find out.

The continental Saxons started to adopt their name after the Frankish kingdom had defeated them at the beginning of the ninth century. It was Charlemagne who referred to them as Saxons, and created Saxony as a political unit that had never existed hitherto. The Saxon Wars between 772 and 804, were wars against the Saxon tribes named the Nordalbians, the Angrians, the Westphalians, and the Eastphalians. The Westphalians, by the way, were well-known horse breeders. Whether these tribes were a social and/or political entity, is very doubtful. Actually, it’s not very likely. Neither do historians have information that within these regions a common language existed.

A final remark on the term ‘saxon’. It were the Franks who distinguished the Anglisaxones, i.e. the Anglo-Saxons, from the Antiqui Saxones, i.e. the original, continental Saxons or Old Saxons. Apparently this because a distinction had to be made in order to avoid confusion. Organized, bureaucratic people, those Franks. But the foundation of their success.

4. Where did the (Original) Frisians go?

What’s quite a mystery still, is whereto the original Frisians (Frisii) left in the first quarter of the fourth century. It was at the time a quite populous tribe of several tens of thousands living on the tidal marshlands, and they didn’t just perish or drown on the spot to a few thousand maximum left, at most.

From the middle of the third century, we know Frisians settled in the lower reaches of the river Rhine, and also migrated up the river Scheldt into the hinterlands of Flanders (Dhaeze 2019). Besides migrating to higher grounds to the east and to the south to what would become Gaul soon, we can assume this maritime people, and climate migrants avant la lettre, partly settled in noticeable numbers on the British Isles too. This pre-medieval emigration of the original Frisians to the Isles, who, as said, might have been related to Celts, is supported by archaeological finds of Frisian pottery in England (Brooks 2010, Harrington 2010). This migration flow is also plausible if you take into account that Roman Britannia wasn’t at all a terra incognita for the original Frisians. Quite the contrary. For centuries both the Frisii and Frisiavones had supplied the Roman army with infantry and cavalry troops at, for example, Hadrian’s Wall, and even were bodyguards of emperors in Rome. Read our post Frisian mercenaries in the Roman Army if not convinced.

After this pre-medieval migration, from the fifth century onward when empty Frisia was being re-populated, different Germanic tribes again started to migrate to Britain. And again probably including the (new) Frisians. It’s at the end of the Migration period that the unity of the Germanic languages of the tribes within the southern North Sea coast is broken. Till the end of the sixth century, runic inscriptions show no sign of disintegration yet. In our post It all began with piracy, we explain in further detail what happened during Late Antiquity with the Germanic tribes living in the southern North Sea area. Furthermore, archaeological research indicates that the migration of Germanic peoples from the Continent to Britain during the Migration period, didn’t go through the south-western coast of the Netherlands, but presumably via the terp region in the north-west of the Netherlands.

Toponymical research suggests names of settlements in Britain supposedly referring to Frisian colonists exist, like Freiston, Fressingfield, Freston, Frisby on the Wreake, Friston, Frizington and Fryston. Though, at best, these place names refer to a settler of Frisian origin and not to a significant group of settlers (Hines 2001). And, of course, Dumfries on the Nith in Scotland, being the ‘Dun or stronghold of the Frisians,’ dating back to the fourth century should be mentioned as well (McClure 1910). Also in Scotland, the Litus Fresicum ‘Frisian shore’ is applied to the district of Culross in the Life of Saint Mungo, written by monk Jocelyn of Furness in the late twelfth century.

Following Hines (2001), Bremmer (2005) produced a much longer list of twenty-two place names, namely: Ferry Fryston, Firsby (Lincolnshire), Firsby (Yorkshire), Freasley, Freezingham, Freiston, French Hay, Frenchhurst, (on) fresingmede, Fressingfield, Freston, Friesthorpe, Frieston, (Old) Frisby, Frismarsh, Friston (Suffolk), Friston (Sussex), Frizenham, Frizinghall, Frizington, Monk Fryston, and Water Fryston.

But more place-names might reveal a Frisian origin. Words with the element ‘gred’ which is Old-Frisian for ‘pasture land’ or ‘meadow’. Another element might have Frisian roots too, namely ‘tehs’ related to tester meaning ‘south’, like in the island Texel, tehs-el ‘south-island’ or Toxandria ‘dwellers of the south’. Yet another element is the suffix ‘-bard’ which is a suffix common in modern province Friesland as -bert and -birt.

Majority of these place names is located within the former Danelaw of Britain. So, settlements of (small) groups of Frisians during the Viking Rule. Then, of course, it’s tempting to speculate that the Viking commander of the Great Heathen Army, Ubbe the Frisian from island the Walcheren in Frisia, had his hall at the settlement of Frizinghall in Yorkshire. But we will not speculate, of course. Of course, not. No, not. Read our post Island the Walcheren: once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea to learn more about this intriguing personality Ubbe the Frisian.

What was the proportion migrating Frisians?

Although we may have some reason to take his facts cum grano salis, historian Procopius wrote in the sixth century that Brittia was inhabited by the populous Angiloi, Phrissones and Brittônes (viz. Angles, Frisians, and Brits), each ruled by a king. And, if Britain wasn’t invaded en masse by the legendary army of the band of brothers Hengist and Horsa consisting of Angles and Saxons in the fifth century, as described in Venerable Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of Britain,’ settlers might have been lured by the stories of Saxon mercenaries. These Saxon mercenaries had assisted the Britons in their wars against the Picts and the Scots in the fifth century, after the Roman legions had been withdrawn from Britannia in the year 410. These mercenaries spread the story that the Britons were cowards and their fertile green land was there for the taking. This, at least, is the history as Gildas described it in his ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain,’ mentioned earlier.

But Venerable Bede also wrote in his History: “There were very many peoples in Germany from whom the Angles and the Saxons, who now live in Britain, derive their origin; hence even to this day they are by a corruption called Garmani by their neighbours the Britons. Now these peoples are the Frisians, the Rugians, the Danes, the Huns, the Old Saxons, and the Boruhtware (Bructerii).”

All quite fascinating and head-spinning, is it not?

What in any case is clear based on historical documents, on archaeological finds (e.g. coins/pennies, Anglo-Frisian style pottery, jewellery distributions, and so-called sunken-featured buildings, called pit houses or Grübenhaus), on a common runic alphabet development, and on similarities with regard to the so-called injury tariffs and laws, that there was a very close relationship and strong cultural ties between the new Anglo-Saxon and the new Frisian world shortly after the Migration period. Specifically with East England and Kent. Only a few miles of sea separating them, so to speak.

A gold solidus, probably from the first quarter of the sixth century and for numismatic reasons as the date 423 ante quem non (‘not older than’) carrying the Anglo-Frisian runic inscription ᛋᛣᚨᚾᛟᛗᛟᛞᚢ skānomōdu, testifies of the early contact of the (new) Frisians with England. It’s in Frisian language meaning something like skauna ‘beautiful’ mōda ‘brave’, and is probably a male first name. The oldest British runic inscription found in Britain is, therefore, likely Frisian. You can see the piece in the British Museum in London. Cross the few miles of sea.

solidus runic inscription ᛋᛣᚨᚾᛟᛗᛟᛞᚢ / Skanomodu – sixth century

And, don’t forget the simple fact Old-English and Old-Frisian languages are so-called first cousins. Closely related languages, nearly indistinguishable at first, although the development of languages along the North Sea was very dynamic during the Migration Period until the eighth century.

It was again Venerable Bede, too, who suggested that because of this old kinship with the gents of Frisia, the Anglo-Saxon missionaries were morally obliged to convert and save the still pagan Frisians. The most famous preachers were Wilfrith of York, Saint Willibrord from Northumbria and Wynfrith from Crediton, also known as Saint Boniface. But also the lesser known missionaries Saint Adalbert, Wihtbert, Saint Wigbert and Saint Swithberht, also known as Saint Suitbert. According to Bede it was Saint Ecgberht of Ripon, who died in 729, from the monastery of Rath Melsigi near Drogheda in Ireland, who was the primary driving force behind the start of the conversion of the Frisians from the end of the seventh century onward.

Lastly, yet still limited, DNA research also points to close kinship between the new Frisians and the Anglo-Saxon or Germanic settlers in England. Research shows the Central-English and the Frisian DNA-samples of modern men are statistically indistinguishable (Weale 2002). The research concluded that substantial migration of Anglo-Saxon Y chromosomes, thus including Frisian chromosome material too, into Central-England had taken place contributing 50 to 100 percent to the gene pool at that time. To put it bluntly, the Central-English have more in common DNA-wise with Frisians than with their close Welsh neighbours. Yes, one in six of today’s males in Central-England descends from Frisians. DNA research into the East-England population reveals that 38 percent derives its ancestry from Anglo-Saxon migrants closely related to modern Dutch and Danish populations (Schiffels 2016). It’s estimated a quarter of the population in East-England was an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ immigrant. Others make a more modest estimation of the influx of Germanic gene pool, with an early-medieval increase of genetic markers between 15-20 percent, with specific kinship with the inhabitants of modern province Friesland (Brooks & Harrington 2010). And yet other research estimates the genetic contribution to south-eastern England from Anglo-Saxon migrations to be under half (Leslie, et al 2015).

A study, whereby archaeological and genetic results are being combined, shows that the formation of early-medieval society in England wasn’t simply the result of a small elite migration, but that mass migration from afar must also have had a substantial role, with women being an important factor in it (Gretzinger, et al 2022). This migration wasn’t a sudden event or invasion, but a process that started in the Late Roman period until the eight century. Sources of this migration are northern Netherlands, northern Germany and Denmark. Genetically, the eastern England population of the Early Middle Ages derived up to two-third of their ancestry from the continental North Sea zone. Furthermore, this study paints a picture of a complex, regionally migration with partial integration with the native population. So, not one of social segregation or population replacement.

How difficult the interpretation of the existing genetic research still is, to greater or lesser extent it all fits quite well with archaeological and historical findings outlined previously. If you like genetics, see our post With the White Rabbit down the Hole, and learn all there is of the Frisian origin of the R-S21 or R-U106 haplogroup, and again become not any wiser.

Enough, enough! with all the babbling because the ice of your cocktail is melting:


Note 1 – Is it all true about the invasion of Britain of Angles, Saxons, Jutes ánd Frisians and alike? Shouldn’t we distrust the scribbles of Bede, Gildas and the Anglo Saxon Chronicle a bit more?

Other scholars, namely, contest the idea that Britain turned into chaos after the Roman emperor Honorius had send the message to the Britons in the year 410 to look after their own defence, and pulled out all remaining military forces. These scholars argue there is actually no real support for a massive immigration, neither historical nor archaeological (Oosthuizen 2019). Instead, Romano-British society was never invaded and generally continued to exists as it did. It ‘only’ re-oriented itself as being part of the North Sea (if you like, Germanic) culture around 450 and the society was culturally detached from the till then dominant Mediterranean culture. Presence of Anglo-Saxons warriors in the fifth century can be seen as a continuation of the Roman tradition to hire Germanic mercenaries from the Continent, as had been done for centuries, including Frisian mercenaries (both the Frisii and the Frisavones tribes). Read our post Frisian Mercenaries in the Roman Army.

Then again, this theory of re-orientation doesn’t exclude a theory of mass immigration per se, when you realize that the picture of when and where exactly influx of Germanic tribes occurred, is still hazy. Maybe specific spots in East-England and Kent were confronted with a relatively mass influx of settlers whilst most other regions of east and southern England were less affected (genetically) at first.

Note 2 – And, of course, we await with much anticipation the results of the project Citizenship Discourses in the Early Middle Ages, 400-1100, led by prof. E. Rose of the University of Utrecht and financed under the instrument ‘Vernieuwingsimpuls Vici 2017-2022’ of Social Science and Humanities (NWO).

Note 3 – If interested why the Frisians are called Frisians, check our post A severe case of inattentional blindness: the Frisian tribe’s name.

Further reading

  • Århammer, N.R., Beetstra, W.T., Breuker, Ph.H. & Spahr van der Hoek, J.J., Frisians in Anglo-Saxon England: a historical and toponymical investigation (1981)
  • Bazelmans, J., By Weapons Made Worthy. Lords, Retainers and their relationship in Beowulf (1999)
  • Bazelmans, J., Zijn de Friezen wel Friezen? (1998)
  • Bremmer, R.H., Frisians in Anglo-Saxon England: A historical and toponymical investigation (2005)
  • Brooks, S. & Harrington, S., The Kingdom and People of Kent AD 400-1066. Their history and archaeology (2010)
  • Capon, G.R., The Frisian Enigma (2017)
  • Chamson, E.R., Revisiting a millennium of migrations. Contextualizing Dutch/Low-German influence on English dialect lexis (2014)
  • Cordfunke, E.H.P., Een graafschap achter de duinen. Het ontstaan en de vorming van het graafschap Holland [850-1150] (2019)
  • Crawford, S., Anglo-Saxon England 400-790 (2011)
  • Derks, T. & Roymans, N. (eds), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity : The Role of Power and Tradition; Bazelmans, J., The early-medieval use of the ethnic names from classical antiquity. The case of the Frisians (2009)
  • Dhaeze, W., The Roman North Sea and Channel Coastal Defence. Germanic Seaborne Raids and the Roman Response (2019)
  • Dijkstra, M.F.P., Rondom de mondingen van de Rijn en Maas. Landschap en bewoning tussen de 3de en de 9de eeuw in Zuid-Holland, in het bijzonder de Oude Rijnstreek (2011)
  • Donald, A., The Last Berserker: An action-packed Viking adventure (2021)
  • Fleming, R., Britain after Rome. The Fall and Rise 400 to 1070 (2010)
  • Green, D.H. & Siegmund, F. (eds), The Continental Saxons from the Migration Period to the Tenth Century. An Ethnographic Perspective (2003)
  • Gretzinger, J., Sayer, D., Justeau, P. et alThe Anglo-Saxon migration and the formation of the early English gene pool (2022).
  • Harrington, S. & Welch, M., The Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Southern Britain AD 450-650. Beneath the Tribal Hidage (2014)
  • Higham, N.J. & Ryan, M.j., The Anglo-Saxon World (2013)
  • Hines, J., The Role of the Frisians during the Settlement of the British Isles (2001)
  • Hines, J. & IJssennagger-van der Pluijm, N.L. (eds), Frisians of the Early Middle Ages; Flierman, R., Mirror histories: Frisians and Saxons from the first to the ninth century AD (2021)
  • IJssennagger, N.L., Between Frankish and Viking: Frisia and Frisians in the Viking Age (2017)
  • Klerk, de A., Vlaardingen in de wording van het graafschap Holland 800-1250 (2018)
  • Koning, de J., Trans Flehum. Wijnaldum, Den Burg, Texel, Westergo: het Vlie als verbinder en grens (2018)
  • Kortlandt, F., Old English and Old Frisian (2017)
  • Leslie, L., Winney, B., Hellenthal G., Davison, D., Boumertit, A., Day, T., Hutnik, K., Royervik, E.C., Cunliffe, B., Lawson, D.J., Falush, D., Freeman, C., Pirinen, M., Myers, S., Robinson, M., Donelly P. & Bodmer, W., The fine scale genetic structure of the British population (2015)
  • Leyser, H., A short history of the Anglo-Saxons (2017)
  • Manco, J., The Origins of the Anglo-Saxons. Decoding the Ancestry of the English (2018)
  • McCure, E., British place-names in their historical setting (1910)
  • Meeder, S., & Goosmann, E., Redbad. Koning in de marge van de geschiedenis (2018)
  • Mees, K., Burial, Landscape and Identity in early medieval Wessex (2019)
  • Merrills, A.H., History and Geography in Late Antiquity (2005)
  • Nicolay, J., Nieuwe bewoners van het terpengebied en hun rol bij de opkomst van Fries koningschap. De betekenis van gouden bracteaten en bracteaatachtige hangers uit Friesland (vijfde-zevende eeuw na Chr.) (2005)
  • Nicolay, J., Oortmerssen, van G., Os, van B. & Nobles, G., Een Vendelhelm uit Hallum? Verslag van een archeologische zoektocht (2010)
  • Nieuwhof, A., Anglo-Saxon immigration or continuity? Ezinge and the coastal area of the northern Netherlands in the Migration Period (2012)
  • Nieuwhof, A., De lege vierde eeuw. Jaarverslagen van de Vereniging voor terpenonderzoek (2016)
  • Nieuwhof, A., The Frisians and their pottery: social relations before and after the fourth century AD (2021)
  • Nieuwhof, A. & Nicolay, J., Identiteit en samenleving: terpen en wierden in de wijde wereld (2018)
  • Oosthuizen, S., The Emergence of the English (2019)
  • Oppenheimer, S., The Origins of the British: A Genetic Detective Story (2006)
  • Pestell, T., The Kingdom of East Anglia, Frisia and Continental Connections, c. AD 600-900 (2014)
  • Renswoude, van O., De Huigen en het Humsterland (2022)
  • Renswoude, van O., Etymologie Skanomodu (2016)
  • Schiffels, S. et al, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon genomes from East England reveal British migration history (2016)
  • Schrijver, P., Frisian between the Roman and the Early-Medieval Periods. Language contact, Celts and Romans (2017)
  • Schrijver, P., Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages (2014)
  • Shippey, T., Beowulf and the North before the Vikings (2022)
  • Spelde, van F., Wandering Bones and Peripheral Bodies. Multidisciplinary analysis of the human remains from the early medieval (AD 500-700) settlement at Oegstgeest, the Netherlands (2016)
  • Weale, M.E. & Weiss, D.A. & Jager, R.F. & Bradman, N. & Thomas, M.G., Y Chromosome Evidence for Anglo-Saxon Mass Migration (2002)
  • Westerink, B., Wierdenlandschap (2022)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: