‘In the navy’, is a song of village people. Of the small villages along the southern coast of the North Sea. A water people once united in the mythical Seven Sealands. And, a people who laid the foundations of two of history’s most impressive navies. That of England, and that of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. It shouldn’t come as a surprise we’re talking about Frisians. In spite of the Latin saying Frisia non cantat ‘Frisia does not sing’, they joyfully did sing: “In the navy. Yes, you can sail the seven seas!”
It all started in the Dark Ages. Shortly after the great Roman Empire retreated south. Away from the North Sea and the wet delta of the great rivers Scheldt, Meuse and Rhine. An area that had been flooded with seaborne raiders from especially the wider Wadden Sea area. They were Chauci, Frisians, Franks and Saxons. And raiding originating from this area continued to be a serious threat until the Early Middle Ages.
The early-medieval answer to fight off piracy of the coastal people along the shores of the North Sea, from the English, Flemish and Frisian shores to those of southern Scandinavia, was an early form of conscription. In Frisia, then an area stretching from Sincfala, i.e. roughly the current sea inlet Zwin in Flanders, to the lower reaches of the river Weser in Germany, this defense organization was called heercogge, which can be translated as ‘war-ship’ or ‘war-cog’. The inhabitants of a district called a cogge had the obligation, when called upon in case of seaborn threats, to provide a warship with oarsmen annex warriors. Oarsmen armed to the teeth, of course. These ships were rowing boats, probably no sails, with about twenty to thirty men.
In Frisia, the heercogge organization was effective from Sincfala to the mouth of the river Vlie. But probably in place also in the early-medieval Frisian colonies of modern region Nordfriesland, just south of the German-Danish border. Read more about the heercogge conscription and the trade settlements in Nordfriesland in our posts A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders and To the end where it all began: ribbon Ribe.
Then, a few centuries later in the year 897, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that king Alfred of Wessex has a shipshape naval fleet established with the purpose to counter the raids of the Danes, i.e. the Vikings. For this, Alfred relied heavily on the know-how, both in building war boats as in maritime warfare, of the sea people of Frisia. Alfred had a new type of ship designed which was a crossbred between Danish and Frisian ship types. These new boats were exceptionally long (possibly a Danish feature), steadier, had higher boards (possibly Frisian features), and could carry sixty oarsmen annex warriors. Quite an innovation when compared to the early cog ships of Frisia with only twenty to thirty oarsmen till then.
That Frisians were also manning these new Wessex ships, is known from the same entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It was also in the same year 897 that skirmishes took place at the coast of the Isle of Wight and Devon. Not the yet the peaceful, Flower Power settings of the Jimi Hendrix’ concert on the Isle of Wight in the year 1970. No, according to the Chronicle in total sixty-two Frisians and English died fighting in service of the king of Wessex, and twice as many Danes were sent to Davy Jones’ Locker. In any case, a victory of Alfred.
We even know the names of three Frisian warriors of Alfred’s naval fleet, namely Æbbe Friesa, Æðelhere Friesa, and Wulfheard Friesa. Why their names are specifically mentioned in the Chronicle is unclear, but presumably they were commanders. The fact their names were anglicized, albeit the differences between Frisian and English back then were minor, shouldn’t come as a surprise. It happened, and happens, everywhere. Check our post Happy Hunting Grounds in the Arctic to learn that seafarers from Nordfriesland enrolling on Dutch whaling ships, all received new, typical Dutch names.
The marriage of Ælfthryth, daughter of king Alfred, with margrave Baldwin II of Flanders somewhere around the year 896, might have facilitated this cooperation between Frisians from Flanders and the English (Williams, Smith & Kirby 1991). Early sixth century, Frisians settled along the coast of Flanders. Therefore, Baldwin II was more or less immersed into the world and culture of the salty Frisians. A people hard to distinguish from pirates anyhow, and who had organized their maritime defense in accordance with the aforementioned heercogge conscription in the south of Frisia, what’s now the coast of Flanders, too.
Furthermore, not long before the Battle on the Isle of Wight and the marriage between Ælfthryth and Baldwin II, the Frisians successfully had driven out the Vikings in the northeast of Frisia after the Battle of Norden in the year 884 (read our post A Theelacht. What a great idea!). A year later, in 885, the same result was accomplished in the west of Frisia after the murder of Godfrid the Sea-King and the Battle at Herispich, current village Spijk, that followed (read our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfings). Two battles that for sure didn’t stay unnoticed in the region.
So, Alfred was smart enough to make use of the experience with battling Vikings and other corsairs at sea, gained by the Frisians. Chances are these Frisians hired by Alfred came from the Flemish coastal plains.
♫ Where can you find pleasure, search the world for treasure, learn science technology? In the navy! ♫The Village People
The year 897, is often considered the birth of the Royal Navy, and king Alfred as its father. Now, the reader knows who provided Alfred with the brains and muscles to get this job done.
After having explained how the English navy saw the light of day, we continue with that of the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, commonly known as the Dutch Republic. And again, piracy is a leitmotif. By the way, likewise the combination ‘seven seas’.
When in the year 1568 the Low Countries started their wars of independence against the kingdom of Spain, it was a bunch of pirates operating in the wider Wadden Sea area, who played a pivotal role in giving the bourgeois uprising momentum. These pirates controlled the straits Vlie and Marsdiep at the Wadden Sea for years already, and thus controlled the traffic of, among other, grain from the Baltic Sea to Amsterdam. Hence, they were at the wheel concerning the city’s prosperity, and had the Spanish king by the throat so to speak (Doedens & Houter 2018).
The pirates would become known as the Watergeuzen ‘Sea Beggars’ and were a motley crew of washed-up nobility, thrill seekers, vagabonds and other low-life from all corners of the Low Countries. Including many Frisians, since the catchment area of the Sea Beggars were the Frisian lands. Also, their ports and safe havens mainly were on the Frisian Wadden Sea islands, and on the coasts of province Groningen and county Ostfriesland. Read our post Yet another wayward archipelago for a more elaborate history concerning the Sea Beggars. Below, a few prominent and flamboyant-looking Beggars.
Prince William of Orange, who led the whole uprising of the Dutch Republic against Spain, made at least one smart move. On June 13, 1570, he instructed the Frisian Jan Baes, also known as Jan Basius, from the town of Leeuwarden, to conclude agreements with the Sea Beggars. Jan Baes succeeded, and agreed with the captains Troij, Ruychaver and Menninck to cooperate against the mighty kingdom of Spain and all who was pro-Spanish, and to harm them as much as possible. The deal was sealed on the Wadden Sea island of Borkum in county Ostfriesland.
♫ Where can you begin to make your dreams all come true, on the land or on the sea? In the navy! ♫The Village People
Therefore, the agreement with a bunch of pirates operating in and from the Wadden Sea, the Sea Beggars, can be considered the foundation of the Koninklijke Marine ‘Royal Netherlands Navy’. Now the reader knows who got the job done for prince William of Orange, and where it was sealed.
Any government or worldly leader otherwise in need of a proper navy, please consult the Frisians first.
Note 1 – During the late-fifteenth and sixteenth century, new ship building techniques developed in the Netherlands, notably in provinces Zeeland and Holland. Especially the carvel-built and shell-first construction techniques, and the square sail-rig were important innovations. Ships were faster, more manoeuvrable, much cheaper to purchase because of the use of less expensive wood, and also cheaper in operations because you needed less crew to sail. Dutch design vessels like the bojert, the fluyt (also fluit or flute), the pinas, the smack, the galjoot (also galiot), the hooker, and the jagt, therefore were superior to other, traditional ship types in the wider North Sea area. The Scandinavian skuder and the krejeter were replaced by Dutch vessels. Not only these ship innovations were key, also better and more accurate nautical charts and instruments were important to take international sea navigation to the next level, and were developed in the Republic as well. To quote Christensen (2021); “From the end of the sixteenth century, there was, in what might be called a Dutch international maritime practice community, a common recognition that Dutch maritime technology was state of the art.”
During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Danish kingdom actively attracted Dutch ship builders to expand the Royal Danish Navy. Not only shipbuilders, but also high ranking naval officers were of Dutch origin. In 1663, the Dutchman Koert, or Cort, Sievertsen Adelaer (1622-1675) was admiral of the Danish fleet. After Koert Adelaer, admiral Cornelis Tromp was appointed admiral of the Danish fleet. Under the rule of king Christian V (1646-1699) about half of all Danish naval officers was of Dutch origin. Besides officers, also the crew consisted partly of able sailors from the Dutch Republic. Probably, the language on board Danish ships was Dutch. To this day, much of the maritime Danish and Norwegian vocabulary is, in fact, Dutch. About 754 words out of a total of a 1,000 Dutch maritime words can still be found in Scandinavian languages. Lastly, the Danes also commissioned the construction of warships at the wharfs in the Republic. In other words, the Royal Danish Navy depended heavily on the Dutch maritime expertise, both construction and navigation, and on the naval war skills (Christensen 2021).
Note 2 – Of course, the English and Dutch navies fought each other in the seventh and eighth centuries in the four Anglo-Dutch Wars. One Frisian maritime hero was commander Jacob Benckes (1637-1677), who belonged to the striking force during the Raid on the Medway (1667), who recaptured New Amsterdam (1673), and who served as example for Daniel Defoe’s character of Robinson Crusoe (1719). Read our post History is written by the victors: a history of the credits to learn more about this almost forgotten sea hero.
Note 2 – Artist and musician Johnny Allen (Jimi) Hendrix (1942-1970) who performed at the Isle of Wight festival in the summer of 1970, also served in the army: the United States Army. He was, however, discharged in 1962 after thirteen months of service already. Speculation as to why vary from homosexual tendencies, being caught masturbating in the latrine, to simply being a shitty soldier.
- Andersen, L., Lili Marlene (1939)
- Hendrix, J., In from the storm. Ilse of Wight Live (1970)
- Village People, In the Navy (1978)
- Bliss, A. (ed), J.R.R. Tolkien. Finn and Hengest (1982)
- Christensen, A.N., Maritime connections across the North Sea. The exchange of maritime culture and technology between Scandinavia and the Netherlands in the early modern period (2021)
- Dhaeze, W., The Roman North Sea and Channel Coastal Defence. Germanic Seaborne Raids and the Roman Response (2019)
- Doedens, A. & Houter, J., De Watergeuzen. Een vergeten geschiedenis (2018)
- Milzarski, E., The real reason Jimi Hendrix got kicked out of the Army (2021)
- Tuuk, van der L., Deense heersers en de Friese kogge in de vroege Middeleeuwen. 2. De koggenorganisatie en de rol van de Deense heersers (2007)
- Tuuk, van der L., Herekoge in Vredelant (2012)
- Whitelock, D. (ed), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A Revised Translation (1961)
- Williams, A., Smyth, A.P. & Kirby, D., A biographical dictionary of dark-age Britain. England, Scotland and Wales c.500-c.1050 (1991)
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this article does not distinguish the Frisiani on the Rhine of the 1st millennium, with HQ at Rhenen-Dorestad from the Second Millennium Friesians of West Friesdan in the Prov. of N. Holland along the coast to Danish N. Friesland. The trading contacts in the time of Willibrord and Alfred were especially with Dorestad.