This post is not about Aindreas Ó Céirín (1840-1915), better known as Brother Walfrid from Ireland and who founded the Scottish football club Celtic. No, this post is about the original. The Frisian named Walfrid. Who was murdered by a bunch of roaming Vikings in the late tenth century. These atrocities took place at the village of Bedum. In the part of former Frisia what is province Groningen today. Walfrid was captured by the Norsemen, and taken to their encampment where he was beheaded. But, like the song of Gerry & the Pacemakers, Walfrid held his head up high, and was not afraid of the dark. At least, if we are to believe the legends.
Walfrid did not die alone. His son Radfrid was also murdered by the wild Vikings. Walfrid and Radfrid must have lived in the second half of the tenth century. Walfrid’s name is also spelled as Walfried, Waldefrid, Wilfrid, Walfridus or Wolfryt. His place of origin is usually mentioned as well. So, Walfrid of Bedum. But also, Walfrid of Bedderwald, or Walfrid of Bodderwald as the smaller region where he lived was known back then. Son Radfrid’s name is also written as Radfried, Ratfridum or Radfridus.
Concerning its meaning, the name Walfrid is composed of the Old Frisian verb walda ‘to rule’ and the word frethe ‘peace’ (Mulder-Bakker 2021). Compare frethe with frede in modern Mid-Frisian speech, meaning peace still. Hence, the ‘peace ruler’. The name Radfrid consists of rad or red meaning ‘council’ and frethe (Van Schaik 1985).
The raid of the Vikings of Frisia between the River Lauwers in the west and the River Ems in the east, including the killing of Walfrid and Radfrid, is described in the Passio Sanctorum Martyrum Walfridi et Radfridi ‘passion of the holy martyrs Walfrid and Radfrid’. This text of an anonymous author is dated around 1100. So, give or take 150 years after the whole tragedy. It is thought the author was a cleric of the Diocese of Münster. This part of Frisia, more or less modern province Groningen with the exception of villa Groninghe ‘settlement Groningen’, resorted under the Diocese of Münster. The rich villa Groninghe, however, resorted under the Diocese of Utrecht. Based upon this medieval account the Passio Walfridi many legends were built.
So, what happened 1,000 years ago?
When the Norse raiders arrived on the coast of Frisia, at least three battles took place. Initially, the Vikings were driven back by the Frisians, despite the Frisians being outnumbered. Then, the Vikings managed to regroup and after two more battles defeated the Frisians with much pain and effort (Alberdingk Thijm 1861). Now the Vikings started plundering, mutilating, torturing and murdering in the area between the rivers Lauwers and Ems. Possibly sailing up the River Hunze, and perhaps the River Fivel too. Both rivers leading all the way to the settlement of Groningen. This settlement was sacked and the Saint Martin church, locally known as Martinikerk, reduced to ashes.
On their way back to their longships, the Vikings found Walfrid praying in his private house of worship, his cella, which he had built himself. The cella was located where the Saint Walfrid church of Bedum with its pockmarked walls stands today. Walfrid was an illiterate and pious man who walked barefoot twice, every day of the year to Groningen. To attend matins, mass and vespers. Walfrid had prophesied the raid of the Vikings, and that he himself would die on the occasion. The Vikings walked Walfrid to their encampment near their ships. Here they tortured Walfrid and, finally, beheaded him. Merely because he was a Christian. According to the abovementioned Passio Walfridi, this is.
The whole sequence of events, by the way, has several parallels with what happened to the Scottish monk Saint Jerome in western Frisia, near the town of modern Noordwijk in province Zuid Holland. Jerome had travelled in high spirit to Frisia in the year 847 to preach the gospel among the heathen Frisians. When Vikings entered the region, Jerome refused to betray his believe, and was beheaded too. Find a bit more about Saint Jerome in our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of Gerulfing Dynasty.
Killing Walfrid was not enough. His son Radfrid was murdered as well. Therasia, the wife of Walfrid and mother of Radfrid, found her son’s body in the reed opposite their farmstead. Across the River Hunze. Somehow, his body was too heavy to be lifted. Therefore, Radfrid was buried on the spot where he was killed and found. After they had dug a grave, the body of Radfrid suddenly was as light as air. The heavily mutilated body of her husband was bought free from the Norsemen. The necessary silver was paid by the kin of Walfrid, some of whom were still alive when it all happened. Walfrid’s remains were buried in his cella.
Why the raiding Scandinavians took so much effort to take Walfrid all the way to their encampment, and subsequently tortured and slaughtered him, remains a question. Was it simply because he was a christian? If this was the case, then there would have been many more christians to be treated the same way. We humbly think it must have had to do with Walfrid’s high social position is the region, which also becomes clear from the silver his kin paid to ransom the body. The details concerning Walfrid cultivating and possessing quite some plots of land, also indicate that he was not a nobody. Walfrid belonged to the ruling elite in Frisian society. A class settling disputes through feuds and strengthening bonds through drinking and eating parties (Mulder-Bakker 2021). In other words, Walfrid represented value for the ruthless raiders. Probably, alive the Vikings could have received even more silver. Why they killed him and not ransomed him for more silver alive, though, is open for debate.
If Viking history is your thing, find an overview of battles in our post Frisia, a Viking Graveyard. Hopefully the title is not too much of a spoiler.
Soon, after the whole tragedy, people who visited the graves of Walfrid and Radfrid were cured of all kinds of ailments and diseases. A wooden church was built over the grave of Walfrid, and a wooden chapel over the grave of Radfrid. One of the documented miracles is how a woman was healed instantly from her blindness after she had laid herself down in front of Radfrid’s chapel. Other documented miracles at the grave of Walfrid are a boy being cured from blindness, and the healing of a cripple woman.
The bishop of Münster (not the pope) declared Walfrid and Radfrid saints, and also ordered the construction of a stone, cruciform church because of increasing numbers of pilgrims. This church would become the Walfriduskerk ‘Walfrid church’ you can visit to this day. Construction started from mid-eleventh into the twelfth centuries (Karstkarel 2007). Not only pilgrims from Frisia came to Bedum but also from far beyond. At the end of the fifteenth century, the church was enlarged. Resulting in a great hall-church with a high choir. Much bigger than today. With the arrival of the protestant believe in the region in the sixteenth century, building activities came to a halt. The catholic faith was being marginalized, and the church and chapel started to fall into disrepair. Already in 1661, the high choir was dismantled. Much of the stone has been re-used for houses and other constructions in the village.
Around 1800, the north aisle was separated from the church and turned into the residence of the sacristan. In the year 1859, the church was even offered for sale. A year later, vaults of the middle and southern aisles collapsed. After this incident the church received its present stucco. Investments to tear down the whole building exceeded estimated returns out of new property development. So, nobody wanted to buy the church and it stayed. No business case to tear it down. In 1911, yet another narrow escape from eternal downfall. Lightening hit the tower and caught fire. Luckily, only the spire burned off. For long the tower stayed flattened. Until 1957, when it got the typical four-sided sloping roof you can see today. It bears resemblance to the roof of one of the two towers of the twelfth-century Our Lady Mary Cathedral in Ribe, Denmark. Ribe, by the way, the oldest city of Scandinavia and founded by merciless Frisian merchants.
Feast days are on June 22, the translatio ‘transfer of the relics’, and on December 3. If you want to admire the interior of the church, the church is only open on Saturdays from May 1st to October 1st, between 14:00-16:00 hours. Alternatively, join service on Sundays from 09:30.
Top 3 Leaning Towers of Frisia – If you happen to spot a medieval church tower in full alignment in former Frisia, i.e. modern province Friesland, province Groningen, and region Ostfriesland together, you are very fortunate. One could joke the idea of the constructors was to tilt every tower a little bit. The real reason, however, is that clay soil is unstable to support heavy constructions. Especially, when the water content of the soil changes, and which it often did.
We give you the top three of leaning towers in Frisia:
- Number 3 is the tower of the Saint Walfrid church in Bedum, province Groningen. It stands 4.1 degrees out of alignment.
- Number 2 is the lone standing church tower of Miedum, province Friesland. It stands 4.7 degrees out of alignment.
- Number 1 is the church tower of Suurhusen in region Ostfriesland. It stands 5.2 degrees out of alignment.
Note. The tower of Pisa currently leans almost 4 degrees out of alignment. To be fair, until 1993 this was 5.5 degrees. But the Pisans have corrected it to prevent it from falling, accepting to be outnumbered by the towers of Bedum, Miedum and Suurhusen.
fLtR Bedum before 1911, Bedum between 1911 and 1957, Bedum from 1957
Also, the chapel of Radfrid was replaced by a stone, 20-metres-long chapel in the thirteenth century. Not long after 1664, the chapel must have been demolished. This year a contemporary reports that the chapel was nothing more but a ruin (Hillenga 2013). Today, only the street name Kapelstraat ‘Chapel St.’ reminds of the chapel of Saint Radfrid.
After the vicious Viking attack, Bedum soon evolved into one of the most important medieval places of pilgrimage in the wider region. That competition between the two dioceses Münster and Utrecht might have played a role in promoting Bedum as such, cannot be ruled out (Van der Tuuk 2015). Providing a counterbalance to the fast-growing town of Groningen and the diocese of Utrecht. Bedum was located only a few kilometers from Groningen. Despite Bedum had become an important place of pilgrimage, it never grew into a bigger settlement. On a map of Diededrick Rypperda of 1661, Bedum only knew a handful of streets.
Not only in Bedum Saint Walfrid was worshiped. Also in the village of Hellum in province Groningen. Located east of the city Groningen. The eleventh-century church of Hellum is named Walfriduskerk too. The church bell, now lost, carried an image of Saint Walfrid with shovel (see further below). Both churches, Bedum and Hellum, belong to the oldest churches of the Netherlands.
Concerning the etymology of Bedum, we found Bedaheim as an earlier form (Clingeborg 1977), perhaps meaning ‘Beda’s home(stead)’, and we found Bedeheim and Bedheim to be understand as ‘place of prayer’ (Wiersma 1934). However, the most credible explanation seems to be that the word bedum derives from plural bed/beden, meaning ‘raised land(s)’ (Van Berkel & Samplonius 2018). Compare also the Old Norwegian word bjoð, meaning ‘land/soil/bed’ (from seabed), in modern Dutch bodem. The explanation ‘elevated lands’ fits very well the geographical, wet soil conditions of the area, which will be discussed in this post too. Lastly, a territorial notion of the area Bédorouualda has been preserved, meaning ‘forest swamp of Bedum’.
In Low-Saxon speech (Grunnings), Bedum is pronounced as Beem, which sounds like ‘baym’.
An element that might have contributed to Bedum being a spiritual place in the first place, are sweet water wells that have been, and are, there. Such a well was called a borneput in Dutch language, or a quickborn in German language. One well was, according to folklore located next to the church, or earlier before the church was built, located next to Walfrid’s cella. A seventeenth account mentions this well as follows (Van Schaik 1985):
De put isser noch, digte aen de kerk, vol van schoon waeter, aen de noordzijd omtrent den thooren.
The well is still there, next to the church, filled with clean water, at the northern side of the tower.
But it was not merely folklore. A well for real was discovered as recent as 2009. Exactly on the spot where the chapel of Radfrid stood. It still provides sweetwater, but was covered again after the archaeological excavations.
On some spots on the salt marshes, groundwater welled up. These sweet water wells could be of vital importance to the dwellers on the salt marshes, and, therefore, often were regarded as holy and medicinal. This might suggest Walfrid and Radfrid retreated to this spiritual place in a swampy wilderness to live as hermits. The springs were older than Walfrid, but over time its sacral powers were attributed to Walfrid and Radfrid. The bishop of Münster forged this transformation by declaring Walfrid and Radfrid both saints (Mulder-Bakker 2021).
The Miracle of Bedum
That the settlement of Bedum had become a serious religious place, is also apparent from the miracle in the spring of 1214. It was the period of the Crusades, and in which Frisian men were participating actively. Great numbers of Frisians took the Cross and fought against the so-called infidels in the Holy Land and in the Baltics, and against the Cathars in southern France. Read our post Terrorist Fighters from the Wadden Sea to understand the atrocities Frisian young men committed abroad. Anyway, that specific spring in 1214, bishop Oliver of Paderborn (ca. 1170-1127) preached in the seven sealands of Frisia with the purpose of mobilizing as many men as possibly for the Fifth Crusade that would start in the summer of 1217.
While bishop Oliver of Paderborn was trying to recruit men at Bedum and was talking to the crowd, an 11-year-old girl saw three crosses in the sky with Jesus in the middle. The young girl, stimulated by her mother and grandmother, aroused the people and got the gathered people ecstatic. Many men took the Cross. A year later, during the battle at Damietta in the Nile delta of Egypt, Frisians made fame by conquering the great chain tower. The miracle at Bedum had laid the foundation. By the way, at the villages of Dokkum and Wolvega in Frisia, similar sightings of crosses in the clouds have been witnessed. Hence a battery of miracles.
Walfrid ‘the Shoveler’
Saint Walfrid, or Sunte Wolfrydus in Grunning-Saxon speech, was portrayed as a peacemaker and a farmer. A man of stature who had denounced the violence of the feud society that Frisia was (Künzel 2022). Who devoted his life to the peace of Christ, and worked to cultivate savage land. Saint Walfrid became the symbol of peace and justice. Traditionally, Saint Walfrid is depicted with a shovel as a symbol of his humbleness and his work; ora et labora. The Frisian word for a shovel is skep, and the translation of ‘the Creator’ is de Skepper. Indeed, ‘the shoveler’. And then we do not mean a certain type of duck.
This is what Walfrid did. Creating fertile, arable land. The area he cultivated is known as the Groninger Woldgebied, or Woudgebied. The Woldgebied is former, wooded peatland. After the peat was commercially exploited in Middle Ages, and the land irrigated to make it dry, the soil had sunk about 1 to 1.5 meters below mean sea level. With from the south the peat rivers Hunze and Fivel flowing close by, and the fact the sea ever so often flooded the area from the north, protecting these low-lying lands with a dike against influx of water was required (see note 5 for a map).
Cultivation of the land of the Woldgebied might have been initiated from the settlement of Onderdendam. Old Frisian law of district Hunzingo stated that ‘wold men’ are tried under the jurisdiction of Olderdomme, which is the present-day village of Onderdendam (Clingeborg 1977).
According to folklore, Walfrid built the first dikes of Groningen, and it was he who was responsible for the creation of the semi-circular dike enclosing the Woldgebied area. A dike known today as the Wolddijk. This dike ran from Noorderhoogebrug (see below) to the settlement of Woltersum. Land enclosed by this dike is also called the Schepperij Innersdijk ‘shovelry inside-dike’. However, there is no proof that it was indeed Walfrid who constructed this dike. Bit too much credit for Walfrid maybe.
Hardworking Walfrid is also being held responsible for the construction of the Walfridusbrug ‘Walfridus’ bridge’ across the River Hunze. In Latin known as pons sancti Walfridi. The bridge is since long gone, but stood where township Noorderhoogebrug ‘northern-high-bridge’ is today. Walfrid built this bridge to avoid fording the river all the time, and thus to ease his very frequent hikes to the Saint Martin church in Groningen for prayers. It were after all twice-daily hikes of in total about 60 kilometers back and forth between Bedum to Groningen.
But he never walked alone!
Note 1 – Legend has it that many followed Walfrid every day to the church in Groningen barefoot too. One day in winter when it had been snowing, one of his followers could not keep up because his feet were too cold, Walfrid said to the man to place his feet in his footprints. Walfrid’s footprints in the snow miraculously stayed warm.
Note 2 – Each year, in the first half of the month September, you can sign up for the Walfridus pilgrimage. You can choose between distances varying from an easy 5 kilometres to a strenuous 40 kilometers. All are circular walks in the area of Bedum in province Groningen. Check the website of Walfridus Voettocht for more details.
The Frisia Coast Trail, in its wisdom, determined what the route must have been. It follows the Wolddijk ‘Wold dike’. Find it on our trail map. One way is 14.8 klicks, from church to church. Up to you if you go barefoot.
Note 3 – Since football somehow seeped into this post, we should mention that the internationally renowned football player Arjen Robbe was born in Bedum in 1985. He played among others at Chelsea, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich. Currently, Robbe plays at FC Groningen again. Was Robbe blessed by the miracle skies above Bedum as well?
By the way, Brother Walfrid from Ireland is buried in the Mount Saint Michael Cemetery in Dumfries on the Ninth, Scotland. According to some, etymologically Dumfries can be explained as the dun ‘stronghold’ of the Frisians (McClure 1910). We will use every opportunity to connect everything with Frisia, of course, and hold on to this more than a century-old explanation.
Note 4 – Besides the Saint Walfrid church in Bedum, there is also a Walfrid church in the village of Welferding near Sarreguemines in France. Located on the banks of the River Saar, bordering Germany. Yet another church dedicated to Walfrid exists at the town of Kingscroft in Quebec, Canada. It is the Église de Saint Wilfrid de Kingscroft. Named after parish-priest father Wilfrid Lussier.
Furthermore, there is another saint named Walfrid from Pisa, who established in the year 754 an abbey at Monte Verde in Tuscany, Italy. He is also known as Galfrido or Gualfredus. Walfrid of Pisa’s cult was approved quite recently, in 1861. His feast day is on February 15. Just like Bedum, the tower of Pisa leans as well.
Note 5 – Area the Woldgebied with the Wolddijk ‘Wold-dike’.
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