Frisia, a Viking Graveyard

When reading about the famous deeds of great Viking warriors, often not much attention is given to the moments of failure. Not much is written about where and when the glorious men, and women, died. As it turns out, the coast of Frisia is one big Viking graveyard. It’s here, in the (still) smelly blue mud, where legendary Viking heroes got ahead of themselves, died in masses, and paid the ultimate price to secure a ticket to Walhalla.

First of all, we should mention the Battle of Norditi in the year 884. A battle also known in German language as the Normannenslacht ‘Norsemen slaughter’, or as the Battle at Hilgenriederbucht ‘Hilgenried bay’. This battle took place on the coast of the Wadden Sea near the current town of Norden in region Ostfriesland ‘East Frisia’ in what’s now north-west Germany. The battle is documented in the Annales Fuldenses written in the late ninth century, and also in the Gesta Hammaburgenis ecclesiae pontifium, written around 1075. In this legendary battle more than a staggering 10,000 Vikings were slaughtered by the Frisians. Yes, they did so with some divine help, initiated by bishop Rimbert of Bremen. After the battle, the Wadden Sea must have looked like the yearly festival of Grindadráp ‘pilot-whale murder’ on the Faroes. Read our post A Theelacht. What a great idea! to learn more about this bloody fight, and also what good it brought the Frisians afterward.

Only a year later, in 885, a Viking army of Godfrid the Sea-King, also spelled as Godfred or Godfrey, was slaughtered by joint forces of Saxons and Frisians at the present-day town of Spijk in the Netherlands. Godfrid was assassinated shortly before the battle started. This according the late nineteenth-century Annales Fuldenses too. His assassination was a conspiracy of the Frankish king with Saxon and Frisian elite.

Then there was also the unsuccessful raid in Frisia of Viking warlord Egil in the year 956, when about 300 Vikings had to run through the slippery fields and leap over the many ditches, to reach their longships and make it out alive.

Besides Viking armies being slaughtered in and/or driven out from Frisia, also three very famous warlords bit the salty mud there. Including two of the five sons of the legendary Ragnar Lothbrok, also written as Lodbrok. This might come as a shock for those who watched the series ‘Vikings’ of Michael Hirst and ‘Vikings Valhalla’ of Jeb Stuart, and it paints a different view on the movie ‘The Northman’ of Robert Eggers too.

Maybe, therefore, the monument with the three standing swords Sverd I fjell meaning ‘swords in mountain/rock’ near the town of Stavanger in Norway, does come more into its own when it would be relocated to the tidal marshlands hugging the marshy Wadden Sea of Frisia. Sverd i gjørma ‘swords in mud’, could be the new, more suitable name.

sverd i fjell, Stavanger by Fritz Røed

Let’s go through these three famous swords one by one:

Sword 1 – The death of Rodulf Haraldsson († 873)

Other (international) spellings of Rodulf are: Rudolf, Rodolph, Rodolb, Rothlaib, Hróðulfr and Hrólfr.

Rodulf was a cousin of the Frisia-based duke annex warlord Roric or Rorik of Dorestad, and son of Harald the Younger. Rodulf was a great warlord who raided the British Isles, West Francia and East Francia. After doing some serious raiding in Ireland too, he pops up at the lower river Rhine area in the year 863, where his uncle Rorik held control over western Frisia, including the great emporium of Dorestad at the present-day town of Wijk bij Duurstede in the Netherlands.

Rodulf died in the pagus ‘district’ Ostrachia, also written as Ostergau, of Frisia, what’s today region Oostergo of province Friesland in the Netherlands, in the year 873. Pagus Oostergo is the same area where the Anglo-Saxon archbishop Saint Boniface, together with his small army, was slain with an axe by heathen Frisians in 754. District Oostergo: you can think of more welcoming places in the world. Warlord Rodulf was killed together with 500 of his men. Not as many as in the Battle of Norditi mentioned above, but still an acceptable and reasonable score. All this according to the Annales Xantenses, written in the late ninth century already.

Ac non post multum temporis Ruodoldus nepos predicti tiranni, qui transmarinas regiones plurimas regnumque Francorum undique atque Galliam horribiliter et pene totam Fresiam vastavit. In eadem regione, in pago Ostrachia ab eadem gente cum quingentis viris agiliter interfectus est et, quamvis baptizatus esset, caninam vitam digna morte finivit.

Annales Xantenses

And not long after Rodulf, cousin of the aforementioned tyrant, who had plundered many lands overseas of the empire of Francia, and in a horrible way had plundered Gaul and most of Frisia. In that same area in the district Oostergo, he and 500 of his men have been courageously killed by the same people, and even though he was baptized, he ended his dog’s life with a fitting death.  

Another one bites the mud.

And there was much rejoicing.

There’s, however, a competing account. One whereby Rodulf is killed together with 800 men instead of 500 his men. It also takes place in the district of Oostergo, called countship Albdagi. According to this account, Rodulf wanted the Frisians to pay tribute. When they stubbornly refused, Rodulf carried out an attack but was killed immediately together with 800 of his men. This, despite the fact that the Frisians were in smaller numbers. The remaining group of Viking warriors fled into a building because they couldn’t reach their longships in time to flee. The furious Frisians besieged the building.

It was, interestingly, a Norseman living among the Frisians for a long time already, who advised to let the Vikings leave and let them vow never to return to Frisia, instead of starting another battle. Furthermore, the immigrant Norseman advised that the Vikings had to pay compensation for their raid and ill-mannered behavior. To make sure they would pay, the Frisians took several hostages. The Vikings departed with great shame and loss and, indeed, after they had returned to their homelands, they paid the silver to ransom the hostages. This is the account of the Annales Fuldenses, written in the late ninth century.

By the way, the year 873 was a year the river Rhine and the river Weser had flooded the land. This according to the Annales Xanteses and the Annales Corbeienses. Besides being a deadly affair, Frisia must have been a very wet affair too for Rodulf.

Sword 2 – The death of Björn Ironside (ca. † 880)

Other (international) spellings of Björn Ironside are: Bjǫrn Járnsíða and Bier Costae ferreae. In the series Vikings, it was the Canadian actor Alexander Ludwig who played the character.

Björn was, according to legend, a son of the famous Ragnar Lothbrok. Björn raided among other England, Francia, and -together with warlord Hastein, also written as Hásteinn- Spain and the Mediterranean. When Björn travelled from Francia to Denmark, he first suffered shipwreck and washed up on the coast of England. From there, he managed to continue his sea travels. This time he was blown off course and ended up en Frise, on the shores of Frisia. There he was killed by the Frisians. Probably this was somewhere in the 880s, but no exact date is given. All this according to the Gesta Normannorum Ducum (GND) ‘deeds of the Norman dukes’ by William of Jumièges, written in 1070, or in 1071.

Nam Bier, totius excidii signifer, exercituumque, dum nativum solum repeteret, naufragium passus, vix apud Anglos portum obtinuit, quampluribus de suis navibus submersis. Indeque Fresiam petens, ibidem obiit mortem.

Gesta Normannorum Ducum

For Björn, standard-bearer of great destruction, and his army suffered shipwreck while he was returning to his homeland and barely reached a harbour on the English coast, with very many of his ships being sunk. Thence on his way to Frisia, he died there.

Another one bites the mud.

And there was much rejoicing.

The regional convenient story that Björn Ironside is buried in the hills of island Munsö near Birka in Sweden, is much less certain than his casual death in swampy Frisia. This Munsö story originates from the thirteenth-century Hervarar saga, which is, as it says, mere a saga. On top of that, the Hervarar saga is much younger than William of Jumièges’ account, hence the latter probably has a better hand in being a more reliable source. Furthermore, the GND is one of the most important historical sources about the medieval history of Normandy, and William of Jumièges is the first written authority to mention the saga of Ragnar Lothbrok. So, if you embrace Ragnar, you embrace his son’s death in Frisia. Lastly, although William of Jumièges’ GND provides no exact dates, it does carry signs of accuracy of Björn’s voyage in terms of atmosphere (Kacani 2015).

Where in Frisia and how Björn was killed, isn’t being told. This could be near England across the English Channel on the coastal plains called Sincfala in modern West Flanders, or all the way north at the mouth of the river Weser in modern region Ostfriesland in the north-west of Germany, and anywhere in between.

Sword 3 – The death of Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye († 887)

Other (international) spellings of Sigurd are: Sigurðr ormr í auga, Sigurdr, Siegfried, Sigfrey, or Sigfred. In the series Vikings, it was the Swedish actor David Lindström who played the character of Sigurd.

Sigurd was, according to legend, a son of the famous Viking Ragnar Lothbrok too. Sigurd is also one of the commanders of the stor hær, the Great Heathen Army. An army that ransacked most of England between 865 to 878. Sigurd also took part in the Siege of Paris (Francia) of 885-886. After all this bloody excitement, Sigurd turned his snake-eye on Frisia in 887. Here, Sigurd and his men were defeated by Frisians who were armed with axes and clubs. All this according to the Annales Vedastini, written in the early tenth century.

Sigefridus vero cum suis verno finiente in Sequanam rediit agens solita et circa autumni tempora Frexiam petiit, ibique interfectus est.

Annales Vedastini

At the end of spring, Sigurd and his men returned to the river Seine for the regular extortion, and he attacked Frisia around autumn, where he was killed.

Another one bites the mud.

And there was much rejoicing.

Indeed, a slightly different version than the dramatic one whereby Sigurd receives a deadly blow of an axe on his skull by his short-tempered brother Ivar the Boneless.

The year 886 again was a soaking wet year in western Europe. Rivers flooded, especially the river Rhine. Also, during the siege of Paris it was wet and it rained for three months on end during the summer. That same year, in March 886, the Frisian merchant quarter of the town of Mainz burned down. The river Rhine still flooded during autumn, after which a very cold and very long winter sets in. Well into 887. So, miserable, wet and cold final chords for Sigurd. All this according to the Annales Fuldenses also.

Frisia in Early Middle Ages by Sj. Bijkerk
medieval Frisia by Sj. Bijkerk

Note 1 – If interested in more Frisia during the Viking Age, check out our posts earlier: A Theelacht. What a great idea!, or Foreign Fighter returning from Viking war bands, or Island the Walcheren: Once Sodom and Gomorrah of the North Sea, or Wilfrid, You’ll Never Walk Alone. Learn also in the latter post about Ubba Ragnarsson, also known as Ubbi friski and Ubbo Fresicus ‘Ubbe the Frisian’ from the district Walcheren in south-western Frisia, and who was also one of the leaders of the Great Heathen Army.

Note 2 – Besides finishing off Vikings on their own turf, Frisians helped out king Alfred of Wessex to get rid of Vikings as well. This was in the year 897. Check the Frisian maritime contribution to the survival of the kingdom of Wessex in our post They want you as a new recruit.

Note 3 – The Gesta Normannorum Ducum (GND) of William of Jumièges probably inspired American writer Leslie Stevens to create his play The Lovers, including raiding Frisians in Normandy. A play which was made into the Hollywood movie The War Lord. See our post Filmstar Ben-Hur made peace with Frisian raiders for more.

Suggested music

Further reading

  • Bos-van der Heide, H.S.E., Het Rudolfsboek (1937)
  • Buisman, J. & Engelen, van A.F.V. (ed), Duizend jaar weer, wind en water in de Lage Landen. Deel 1: 764 tot 1300 (1995)
  • Coupland, S., Coins and Vikings. On the trail of the Scandinavians in Frisia (2022)
  • Engeler, C. (ed), Kronieken van het Frankische Rijk. Annales Regni Francorum (2021)
  • Engelkes, G.G., Der schwarze Rolf (1936)
  • Huisman, G.C., Notes on the Manuscript Tradition of Dudo of St Quentin’s Gesta Normannorum (1983)
  • Monty Pyton, The Holy Grail (1975)
  • IJssennagger, N.L., Central because Liminal. Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World (2017)
  • Kacani, R.H., Ragnar Lothbrok and the semi-legendary history of Denmark (2015)
  • Knol, E., Frisia in Carolingian times (2010)
  • Schoorstra, W., Erfskip. De saga fan Ubba Skylding (2023)
  • Tripti Joshi, Rodulf Haraldsson (2018)
  • Tuuk, van der L., Gjallar. Noormannen in de Lage Landen (website)
  • Tuuk, van der L., Vikingen. Noormannen in de Lage Landen (2015)

7 thoughts on “Frisia, a Viking Graveyard

  1. Many of those names are familiar to me through two TV series. One of course is Vikings and the other is The Last Kingdom (Netflix). I enjoyed reading about them here in your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

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