Like Father, Unlike Son

The Battle of Tours in 732 turned out to be a turning point in the wars against the Umayyad Caliphate. The Caliphate was one of the biggest empires in history, but it lost this battle. At the confluence of the rivers Clain and Vienne, the Franks, led by statesman maior domo Charles Martel, only just managed to defeat the great army of emir Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, governor of al-Andalus ‘Andalusia’. Historians estimate tens of thousands of soldiers died. In the run-up to this historic battle, a small Frankish army delayed the advancement of the Saracen ‘Arab‘ army into the region of Aquitaine. Near the modern villages of Lupiac and Bassoues both armies clashed twice. The Frankish army won at the end, narrowly, and at the cost of its commander’s life. He became known as Fris ’Frisian’, and was the son of king Radbod of Frisia. Fris was declared a saint. To this very day, in times of crises, people of the region pray for the help of Saint Fris.

Now how did that all happen?

King Radbod (also named Redbad), the heathen king of Frisia, nicknamed the Enemy of God by the Franks, and his very own blood fighting for those same Christian Franks in the south of Francia? In our post In debt to the beastly Westfrisians, we already briefly mentioned the legend of the son of king Radbod. That legend, based on the Vita Vulframni ‘Life of Wulfram’ written around 800, recounts how Radbod’s son was baptised and ‘freed from the flesh‘, and died soon after. Unfortunately, no name of the son is given. Was he Fris perhaps?

The story of Fris reminds us of the three Frisian soldiers Ilderado from Groningen, Leomot from Stavoren and Hiaro from Esens, together with a nun named Celdui from Esens too, who out of the blue find on the trail near Rome the body of Saint Magnus. This occured in the ninth century. Magnus too was a soldier-saint, in this case a legionnaire of the former Roman army. The three Frisians were in service of the Frankish army and had been chasing a Saracen army all the way down to region Apulia in southern Italy. Besides Frisians fighting in Frankish armies against Saracens, in both stories a (red) banner is an important element as well. The difference is, the events around Saint Magnus took place a century later. In the year 848, to be precise. Anyway, those readers who are interested in the saga of Saint Magnus can read our post Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom.

Saint Fris

What is it with these early-medieval Frisians? Barely converted to Christianity and they turn into religious fanatics fighting Muslims across the European continent? Or, were they simply happy to fight at every opportunity, and to get their hands on some of the loot? Wondering also, since Frisians primarily were a marsh and sea people, what made them enrolling at infantry and cavalry units and fighting in land-locked, hot, mountainous surroundings?

In the villages Bassoues, Gazax-Baccarisse, Lupiac, Peyrusse-Vieille and in Vic-Fezensac, all in département Gers in southern France, Saint Fris is worshiped to this day. It was only in 2017 that a procession took place at Bassoues to ask the saint to help the local farmers who were affected by the bird flu. Once, the churches of the villages Saint-Go and Préneron were dedicated to Saint Fris too. These two churches have been dismantled, maybe two centuries ago already. It is an area at the foot of the northern side of the Pyrenees. About 70 kilometres north of Lourdes. Several statutes, relics in Romanesque churches and a small chapel dedicated to Saint Fris, can be found here. The church of Bassoues is named la basilique Saint-Fris. Also, the little lake just east of Bassoues is named Lac de Saint-Fris. On the other, western, side of the village is the location of l’Étendard. It is the plateau where commander Fris planted his banner, and is how the battle is remembered as the Battle of l’Étendard.

Saint Fris is also known as Frix, Fries, Frise, Friso or Fritz. In fact, the name of the saint was not known, so he was named after his Frisian origin. The personal names Jean-Fris (male) or Frisa (female) can be found in the region still. If you think it is a bit weird to name your child ‘Frisian‘ than know that the most common last name in the Netherlands is De Vries ‘the Frisian‘ (check our post How to recognize the Frisians by name?).

According to the legend, Fris was besides being a son of Radbod also a nephew of Charles Martel. Radbod is mainly remembered as the cruel pagan opponent of the Frankish kingdom. Think of the battles in 689, against Pepin of Herstal, and in 714, against Charles Martel. Read our post The battles of Redbad, unplugged for more details.

Radbod’s relationship with the Franks, however, might have been more complicated and was not that one-dimensional. Probably, there have been periods Radbod more or less had the position of dux ‘duke’ of the prefecture western Frisia, subordinate to the Frankish Empire. In a way, a continuation of the administrative organisation of the Roman Empire, an empire of which the Franks happened to regard themselves as the inheritor. The fact king Radbod nearly was baptized in the year 718, he namely got cold feet the last minute and did not go for it, is an illustration of Frisia’s more complex relationship with Francia. Likewise, the marriage of the Radbod’s daughter Thudsinda with Grimoald, the son of Frankish statesman Pepin of Herstal in 711. This union even gave Radbod’s offspring pole position in becoming the future maior domo of the Frankish eastern kingdom, were it not for the fact Grimoald was assassinated not long after, and the fact Radbod died in 719 after being ill for six years. Bit of a pitty, this whole ending for Radbod and his Frisia. A castle made of sand that slips into sea, eventually. Anyhow, the whole context shows that if king Radbod indeed had a son, it was not unthinkable he was baptized at some time.

According to the Annales Mettenses Priores, dated around 800, Grimoald had a son who was named Theudoald but apparently was a bastard son of a concubine. The theud or thud element of his name, however, makes it possible, even probable, he was actually the son of Radbod’s daughter Thudsinda. Are Theudoald and Fris perhaps one and the same?

By the way, in scholary debates there is often much ado about Radbod’s titles dux or king. Radbod is often called king in the Anglo-Saxon sources and dux in the Frankish ones. For modern Frisians, of course, a sensitive and status-sensitive topic, and they prefer the Anglo-Saxon perspective. However, it was in a time the most powerful men of Francia were humbly called maior domo ‘mayor of the palace’. A time when the title of king was of lesser importance. Being called dux was probably better. Much of a muchness, in any case.   

Saint Fris victor at the Battle of l’Étendard against the Saracens on June 24, 732 by Paul-Noël Lasseran (1868-1933)

The course of events in 732 was, as said, that the great Umayyad army entered Francia via the Pyrenees into the region of Aquitaine, eventually leading to the Battle of Tours. Charles Martel saw the Saracen army advancing and send out a smaller army led by Fris, the royal son of Radbod, to scout the movements. It came to clashes between both armies at the village of Lupiac first and then at the village of La Tapia, later known as Bassoues.

Other versions of the story suggest it was after and not in the run-up of the great Battle of Tours, that the battles at Lupiac and Bassoues took place. In this version Charles Martel ordered Fris to chase the Umayyad army during their retreat. We, however, follow the version that Fris battled with the Saracens befóre the Battle of Tours (Homerin 1999). This also, because the Battle of Tours happened in the month October of 732, and the Battle of l’Étendard in the month June of that same year.

At the village of Lupiac, not far from Bassoues, was the first confrontation between the Umayyads and the Franks. This battle was won by the Ummayad army. The Franks fled and regrouped near Bassoues. Commander Fris planted his banner at the plateau which is known as l’Étendard, meaning the standard, ever since. Fris made a stand, so to speak. Thus, the Saracens, trying to penetrate deeper into the territory of Francia, were confronted with battle once again. And again it was an uphill fight. The battle was fought on June 24, and won this time by the small Frankish army. Bit of a David and Goliath fight.

According to the story, Fris was lethally hit by an arrow in his thigh. The horse, with Fris still on it, ran from the battlefield and brought the heavily injured Fris to a bridge over the small stream Guiroue. Here Fris, the little David, died. He was secretively and hastily buried in a sarcophagus, near the current little lake. The bridge therefore is named pont du Chrétien ‘bridge of Christians’ and it is there where the little chapel, built in 1890, stands today.

For two centuries, the people of Bassoues and its surroundings had forgotten all about the place where the Frisian commander was buried, until a farmer witnessed strange behaviour of one of his cows. The beast never ate anything and still it did not starve. What it did do, was licking a stone all the time. The farmer, curious, uncovered the stone and found a sarcophagus underneath it. When he opened the sarcophagus, both body, armour and all other weaponry of Saint Fris were fully preserved. This after two centuries. Happy to have found the remains of Fris who had won the famous battle, the villagers built a chapel at their church for the devotion of Saint Fris. When they wanted to transfer the body to it, no beast of burden could move the carriage. When they realized the cow that had been licking the stone all that time should pull the carriage, it succeeded. Like a walk in the park the cow tranfered the remains to the church.

From this time onward, miracles started to happen and Bassoues became a place of pilgrimage. And, as happens often during a translatio ‘tranfer of relics’, a sweet well or quickborn sprang up where the body of Saint Fris had been buried for centuries. One of the first mircales that happened was when a woman from the nearby hamlet Andréou used water from the well to make dough, it turned into blood. Saint Fris can cure all kinds of sicknesses. From those who suffer from the plague, to young women who are criple.

Cows assisting as intermediaries between humans and God, is something we also know from many Frisian sagas. In these sagas cows, sometimes also horses, often show the right spot where a church should be built. The practice was that two cows were bound together and left walking freely for the night. The place where the cows had settled down in the morning, was to right spot given by God. Interestingly, very similar sagas exist in parts of Switzerland as well. Check our post Make way for the dead! to read more, if you dare.

The first time the church of Bassoues appears in written sources is in the year 1020. In a charter of November that year, kept in the monastery of Saint Michel in Pessan, is recorded that the castle and the ecclesia beati Frisii ‘church of the blessed Frisian’ of Bassoues are donated to the monastery of Pessan, under the condition a new basilica and monastery will be built large enough to receive all the pilgrims from everywhere, and for all who are on their way to Santiago de Compostella. In 1047, indeed, a monastery had been built at the basilica. However, the Crusades, many medieval wars, the Huguenots who set fire to the basilica, and last but not least, the French Revolution, all did not do much good to the basilica and the monastery of Bassoues. At the end of the fourteenth century a new church was built, but now inside the walls of the village. Consequently, the monastery and the basilica of Saint Fris fell into disrepair fully. Its crypt survived everything, though. In the nineteenth century, the basilica was restored and in the year 1857 relics of Saint Fris, kept in Peyrusse-Grande during the French Wars of Religion, were returned.

basilica of Saint Fris at Bassoues, France

The saga is based on a lost document in possession of abbot Aignan de Sendat (1681-1764) of which only some notes were preserved (Van Hout 2017). Recently, some effort has been made to explain the origin of the Saint Fris. Fris is being associated with the Roman idol Mars and with Santiago Matamoros ‘slayer of Moor’, both armed, riding a horse and wearing a red cape. But just as well, Sant Fris is connected with the mother goddess of Magna Mater, the Virgin Mary, the god Apollo, the Celtic idol and giant Gargantua, and with the book of Genesis (Adkins 2007). In other words, the whole pantheon, and much more, is being dragged into it.

But what if a clash did take place between the Umayyad and Frankish armies at Bassoues, with participation of a Frisian contigent, possibly a cavalry scout army? Is this not less far-fetched than bringing in all the gods of heaven? After all, not much later that same century, it were Frisian-Saxon contigents fighting for the Frankish kingdom against the Slavs and the Avars, which brought them even to the River Danube in modern Hungary (Flierman 2021).

War Horses

A final remark. In this post we casually wondered how a sea people ended up fighting in armies across Europe. One thing was not mentioned, though. Namely that Frisians passionately kept and rode horses in their marshy heartlands along the southern North Sea coast. Already during the Early Middle Ages. In the High Middle Ages, Frisians were well known horse breeders, exporting their horses all over Europe (Savelkouls 2016). In the chanson de geste and the epos La Chevalerie Ogier de Danemarche, none other than the illustrious Charlemagne rides a ceval Frise ‘Frisian horse’. What is more, Frisian horses were renown as thé chargeur ‘war horse’ throughout the Middle Ages, and centuries way after. We just say, Fris might have been part of the cavalry and riding his own war-horse breed. A Friesian.

Frisians were quite prominent fighters during the Crusades in the High Middle Ages. Besides their ferocious reputation and their large naval fleets, a name of a Frisian cavalryman has been preserved too. It is from the siege of the great city of Toulouse, part of the Crusade against the Cathars in Occitania. His name was Rainers lo Frison. Check our post Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea.

Note 1 – featured image is the village of Bassoues with its donjon.

Note 2 – Feastday of Saint Fris is on 16th of January.

Further reading

  • Adkins, S.M., The Golden Legend of St. Fris (2007)
  • (website)
  • Flierman, R., Mirror Histories: Frisians and Saxons from the first to the ninth century AD (2021)
  • (website)
  • (website)
  • Homerin, D., A l’aube de l’Europe, un saint friso-gascon: la légende dorée de saint Fris de Bassoues (1ère partie) (1999)
  • Hout, van J., De zoon van Radbod op avontuur in Zuid-Frankrijk (2017)
  • (website)
  • Moolenbroek, van J., Friezen op kruistocht tegen de katharen in Occitanië (2021)
  • Raturat, M. & Meurin, J., A Bassoues dans le Gers, un pélerinage pour les agriculteurs en difficulté (2017)
  • Savelkouls, J., Het Friese Paard (2016)
  • Siefkes, W., Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten (1963)
  • Wiersma, J.P., Friesche mythen en sagen (1937)
  • Wood, I., Franks and Frisians (2021)

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