‘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 comes as no surprise we are 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 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 continued to be a serious threat until the Early Middle Ages.
The early-medieval answer of the coastal people of 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, roughly the current sea inlet the Zwin in Flanders, to the River Weser in Germany, this defence organisation 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. Armed to the teeth, of course. These ships were rowing boats, probably no sails, with about twenty to thirty men.
In Frisia, the heercogge organisation was effective from Sincfala to the River Vlie. But probably in place also in the early-medieval Frisian colonies of region Nordfriesland, just south of the German-Danish border. Read more about the heercogge conscription in our post A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders.
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 the Danish and the Frisians ships. 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.
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 setting of the Jimi Hendrix’ concert on the Isle of Wight in the year 1970. No, according to the Chronicle in total sixty-two Frisians died fighting in service of the king of Wessex, and twice as many Danes were send to Davy Jones’ Locker. In any case, a victory of Alfred.
We even know the names of three Friesa ‘Frisian’ warriors of Alfred’s naval fleet, namely Æbbe, Æðelhere and Wulfheard. Why their names are specifically mentioned in the Chronicle is unclear, but presumably they were commanders. The fact their names were anglicized, should not be surprising. 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 (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 organised their maritime defence in accordance with the aforementioned heercogge conscription in the south of Frisia, what is now the coast of Flanders, too.
Furthermore, not long before the Battle at 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 did not stay unnoticed in the region for sure.
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 (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 at 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 co-operate 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 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 worldly leader or government otherwise in need of a proper navy, consult the Frisians first.
Note 1 – Of course, the English and Dutch navies fought each other in the seventh and eighth centuries in the Anglo-Dutch Wars. One Frisian sea 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 charachter 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 – Jimi Hendrix also served in the army. He was, however, discharged after thirteen months. Speculation as to why vary from homosexual tendencies, being caught mastrubating in the latrine, to simply being a shitty soldier.
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- Milzarski, E., The real reason Jimi Hendrix got kicked out of the Army (2021)
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