Don’t believe everything they say about sweet Cunera

Imagine. One day your husband brings home a young and unmarried woman. A virgin even. He simply takes her into your house, openly shows affection for her, and who knows what else. That’s not all. He also gives the young maiden full access to your pantry and savings account, which she, for crying out loud, starts to spend on charity. And when you try to say something about it, your husband puts you away by comparing you with the jealous queen of Snow White, or with Cinderella’s evil stepmom. What would you do in such a situation? Indeed, you would stand up and end it. Exactly what happened near the town of Rhenen almost 1,700 years ago.

The central river lands

The Central Netherlands is where the mighty river Rhine enters from the German hinterland the flat lowlands, and where it breaches out to form an enormous delta. It is also where the unpredictable rain-fed river Meuse flows. Together creating a landscape of unaccountable river forks, small rivers, streams, islands, peatlands, and swamps. Once, a natural environment of lush vegetation, rich clay soil, game and wildlife. Where salmon, giant sturgeon and catfish ruled the underwater world, and noble sea eagles the sky. An ever-changing landscape that was regularly flooded by these roller-coaster rivers which repeatedly changed their courses, creating new islands and riverbeds all time. Not only rising water levels and floodings reshaped the Central Netherlands. Ice did too. Until just a century ago, the quality of river water was much cooler due to the absence of modern cities and industries discharging their waste and hot cooling-water. From time to time, ice-walls as high as houses would scrape through the riverbeds, destroying everything on its path (Van der Woud 2022).    

Since time immemorial, people have lived in this volatile landscape. Land van Maas en Waal ‘land of [rivers] Meuse and Waal’, as the Dutch use to say. With the river Waal being the major branch of the river Rhine after it forks into the rivers Waal and Nederrijn ‘Lower Rhine’. At first, in prehistoric times, habitation was confined to the higher riverbanks. Making a living through the combination of agriculture, hunting and fishing. The river landscape also provided inhabitants with relatively good connections with other communities. Networks that were essential for the exchange of goods and materials that were scarce. Connectivity is today’s expression, and with the river Rhine being a doorway to the Continent. See also our post The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe with more about the advantageous position of this region.

When the Romans arrived 2,000 years ago, we learn the names of the peoples living in this area. They were initially the Eburones, the Tencteri and, more to the south the Usipetes. These tribes were wiped out by Julius Caesar himself after a battle at the confluence of the rivers Meuse and Waal, probably not far from the town of Lith, in the year 55 BC (Roymans 2018). If we are to believe Caesar’s own unreliable statistics, half a million Usipetes and Tencteri were slaughtered through his efforts (Hendriksma 2017). The Batavi and the Cananefates replaced the massacred and displaced tribes in the central river area, where the latter tribe settled more to west between the river mouths of the Rhine and the Meuse, also called river Haringvliet (Helinium). More to the north of the central river area lived the Chamavi and the Frisii tribes. More about them later. Today, much of the central river area is still named after the Batavi people, namely region Betuwe, or -in English language- Batavia.

A headstrong doctor – Lith at the confluence of the rivers Waal and Meuse, a town in the central river area only 20 kilometres south-west from Rhenen, was also where the eccentric Frisian doctor named Tjerk van Taeke lived. Doctor Van Taeke is the main character of the novel Dorp aan de rivier ‘village at the river’ of Antoon Coolen (1897-1961). It is a famous novel in the Netherlands published in 1934 and filmed in 1958. Tjerk van Taeke was committed to help the poor and known for his unorthodox ways. For one thing, he always visited his patients riding a big, dark horse with a white blaze. If the reader wishes to visit the house of doctor as in the movie, the address is Lithse Dijk 6. The grand house is also known as the notarishuis ‘notary house’.

Antoon Coolen also wrote the play Sint Cunera van Rhenen ‘saint Cunera of Rhenen’ in 1954, part of an initiative to revive the legend of Cunera in Rhenen.

From the Early Middle Ages onward, land behind the riverbanks was being irrigated and cultivated by digging ditches and constructing quays. Growing human interference in the natural order led to the decline or lowering of land, making it more susceptible to floodings. Like in the salt-marsh regions, houses were also built on platforms and terpsdwelling mounds’. Hundreds of terps existed in the Central Netherlands (Eijgenraam, et al 2022). Dike building along the riverbanks to secure low-lying land became more and more necessary to protect crops and settlements. Around the year 1000, an extensive network of dikes existed in the Central Netherlands. With the complex of high dikes along the riverbanks and with river forelands embanked, the storage capacity of the rivers was being reduced significantly. With it, a rat-race of building ever higher dikes started (Rooijendijk 2009), only to be reversed a thousand years later.

Because of its strategic location, the Central Netherlands became an economic hotspot with one of the biggest emporia of early-medieval north-western Europe, namely Dorestat. Resulting in wars between the Franks, the Danes and the Frisians to achieve control over this area and to levy taxes on trade. Dorestat, the jewel of the Rhine.

A fortress on a strategic spot

The earliest attestation of the name of the town of Rhenen dates from the year 855. It concerns a charter in Latin language in which a certain nobleman named Folckerus or Folker donates properties to the Abbey of Werden. It speaks of in uilla Hreni ‘at hamlet Hreni’. So-called witnesses east of the banks of the river Rhine, in orientali ripa Hreni flumini, were present when the legal transition was made in 855. In the tenth century, the settlement is named Renim, later followed by Reni and Rinen. By the mid twelfth century, the name Rhenen appears for the first time. The meaning of the name might be ‘pure/clear’ from the Germanic hrainja, whereby the suffix –ja indicates a settlement name. And indeed, the modern Dutch word rein is still pure, clean (Van Berkel & Samplonius 2018, Halbertsma 2000). Yes, the river Rhine was once filled with crystalline water.

Map left: (1) cemetery Donderberg hill; (2) Cunerabergje; (3) supposed site cemetery Laarseberg; (4) fortress Heimenberg; (5) 5th-century Achterberg hoard; (6) medieval castle Horst; (7) early-medieval hoard Remmerden. Map right: fortress Heimenberg/ Grebbeberg, ca. 2,000 BC.

Folker was a Saxon, high aristocrat. That year 855, on 7 November at Hlara (modern Laar) and on 10 November at Hlegilo (unknown, region Veluwe), he made two donations to the Abbey of Werden before entering the monastery himself. Today we would say he took retirement and with these donations, or payment if you like, the monks of the monastery would take care for him during the last leg of his life. This was very common among nobility, or those who could afford it. Monasteries being the nursing houses of the Middle Ages. Werden Abbey, by the way, was founded by the Frisian archbishop and missionary Ludger, who originated from the pagus ‘district’ named Nifterlake.

The gift of Folker encompassed estates, or parts thereof, located in the pagi ‘districts’ Felva (Veluwe), Batue (Betuwe), Flethitti (river Eem basin c.q. region ‘t Gooi), Kinhem (Kennemerland), Westrachi (Westergo), and Humerki (Humsterland). Pagi Kinhem, Westrachi and Humerki were part of greater Frisia. Folker’s properties were thus scattered over modern provinces Utrecht, Noord Holland, Friesland and Groningen. Pagi Felva and Flethitti were part of the wider region Hamaland which belonged to count Wichman: in pago Hamulande in comitatu Wigmanni, as the charter states.

The border between Frisia and Hamaland was the river Stichtse Vecht, hence between pagus Nifterlake and pagus Flethitti. Because of his estates across Frisia, it is being assumed that Folker’s mother was Frisian, and his father thus Saxon. Hamaland is the continuation of the land of the Chamavi, who were a Frankish subtribe (Heidinga 1990). Some even boldly state that Folker might very well have been a relative of missionary Ludger (Halbertsma 2000).

Above all, Folker’s charters of 855 reveal to us that the region of the town of Rhenen was an import power base for local big men, in this case the centre of Folker’s possessions. After Heidinga (1990): the royal estates of Rhenen area were probably very old fiscal property which passed from one hand to the other with changes of power without losing its status as such. More specifically, the true centre was villa Hlara. Small settlement Laar has not survived the ravages of time, alas, but the existing toponyms Laareind ‘Laar end’ and Laarseberg ‘Laar hill’ still refer to it. At former Laar, Folker possessed two mansi dominicales. But also at nearby Hnodi (Nude), Rimbrathi (Remmerden), and Hreni (Rhenen) Folker had estates and land.

Rhenen is located on the south-eastern tip of the Utrecht Hill Ridge. A push moraine formed during the Pleistocene glacial period about 175,000 years ago. Today, it is a national park with wooded hills mixed with heathland. It was not always like that. During the Iron Age this area was largely deforested by men and made suitable for farming, the so-called Celtic Fields. These were square-shaped pastures surrounded by earthen walls (see our post The Killing Fields, of the Celts). Near Rhenen, the river Nederrijn grazes the Utrecht Hill Ridge, and slowly continues west. It is here where the 50-meter-high cliffs of Grebbeberg hill stand. Today, Grebbeberg hill is wooded but for centuries it was covered with heathland and sheep herds. Before that, however, an oak forest allegedly covered the hill.

Atop Grebbeberg hill lies an ancient, semi-circular fortress. From the Middle Age until the nineteenth century, Grebbeberg hill was known as Heimenberg, and which we will use primarily in this post. From this strategically located fort you had and have wide views over region Betuwe, and rulers could control the traffic on and along the river Nederrijn. The fortress consists of two earthen ramparts with a big ditch or dry moat. The main wall is five to six meters high, 240 meters long, and has two entrances. Diameter of the structure is 170 meters, and it is approximately 4,000 years old (Smulders 2002). With these facts, fortress Heimenberg is the biggest, and one of the oldest, defensive structure of the Netherlands. It is good to point out that other scholars date this fortress in the Early Middle Ages, between 650-710, and built during the struggle for power between the Franks and the Frisians for control over the Central Netherlands (Taverne 2008). More about the Frisian element of Rhenen area later in this post.

Concerning the etymology of Grebbeberg, its name is composed of grebbe meaning ‘ditch’ (compare Dutch greppel) and berg meaning ‘mound or hill’. Grebbe or greb might also originate from the French word crèpe meaning ‘gully for leakage water’ (De Vries 1971, Van der Sijs 2010). Do the ditches of the semi-ring fortress have something to do with it?

Besides Heimenberg, another name for Grebbeberg is Tafelberg ‘table hill’. The greatest viewpoint on Grebbeberg or Heimenberg hill is named Koningstafel ‘king’s table’ after a stone table king Frederick V of the Palatinate (1596-1632) had placed here but what has been lost.

the Koningstafel (‘king’s table’), Grebbeberg, early-eighteenth-century drawings

Origin of the name Heimenberg is unsure and speculative. The oldest mention is in the twelfth-century Vita Meinwerci ‘life of Meinwerk’, who was the bishop of Paderborn. A popular theory is that Heimenberg received its name after the super-human annex dragon slayer Heime or Heimo(n) known from the Þiðreks saga, also written as Thidreksaga. A saga put to paper in Old Norse around the year 1200. Great king Theoderic (454-526), indeed Þiðrek, ruled over much of Western Europe. The saga is full of tales of which many take place in northern Germany. Fortnite character type Heime furthermore appears in the early-medieval poems Beowulf and Widsith. Heime is famous for his horses. In Old English spelling he is called Hama.

Not far to the north-east from Rhenen is the region Veluwe. Region Veluwe is a push moraine formed during the Pleistocene glacial period too. The Utrecht Hill Ridge and region Veluwe are part of the same moraine. Today it is a wooded hill-ridge combined with heathland, running more or less in a north-south direction. Like the Utrecht Hill Ridge, much of region Veluwe is a national park as well. Including red deer and wolves. Again, like the Utrecht Hill Ridge, during the Iron Age region Veluwe was deforested and covered with Celtic Fields to grow crops. Region Veluwe was for very long an import iron-producing area. Already during the Iron Age, when it was one of the more populated areas of north-western Europe. From the second quarter in the seventh century onward, iron was produced large-scale here (Carasso-Kok 2001).

The strategic location of Rhenen has been both a blessing and a curse. It profited from defensible fortress, controlling the movements on the river, and located next to their thesaurus; the iron production area. From the end of the fourth or the beginning of the fifth century, Rhenen area developed into a centre of power (Carasso-Kok 2001). This is of course all good news. During the Second World War, however, the town was badly damaged twice. The first time in May 1940 when the German army invaded the Netherlands from the east. The second time in September 1944 when the Allies advanced from the south. Part of the tower of the Saint Cunera church collapsed and fell on the nave during the war, destroying much of the church. After the war the church has been fully restored and, unavoidable, party rebuilt.

(L) bow brooches, sixth century, (below R) early-medieval figurative rider plate brooche, ca. 500, and (above R) collection grave gifts of the cemetery at Donderberg, Rhenen

Rhenen is also known from the huge Merovingian burial ground that has been excavated on the slope of Donderberg hill in 1951. The name Donderberg, literally ‘thunder mountain’, is said to originate from Donar or Thor, the god of thunder. It is also where the gallows used to stand (not on Grebbeberg hill). The grave field was in use between the third quarter of the fourth century until halfway the eighth century. In total 11,000 graves were unearthed with more than 3,000 artifacts . Many grave gifts have been found, among them many exquisite fibulas or brooches and weapons. Fourteen horse burials have been recovered as well. Often beautifully decked out. Rich men or warriors were buried with horse bits and spurs (Huiskes 2011).

The researchers studying this grave field of Donderberg concluded that the material is insufficient to say whether they were Franks or Frisians. Both is possible (Huiskes 2011). The researchers add a bit too easy that tribe identity was something fluid and not that clear as it is now. Of course it was. How else could an early-medieval place name Fresionuuic, current Vreeswijk ‘Frisian town’, exist? Maybe the answer to this question was too political.

At nearby village Remmerden, an (also) early eighth-century hoard of circa 100 golden coins and 140 silver Frisian sceattas has been found. A gold hoard with magnificent necklaces found at nearby Achterberg, is dated circa 400. You can find it just west of the crossing of Friesesteeg Rd and Weteringsteeg Rd.

A side note, we do not rule out Heimenberg or Grebbeberg hill was a former thing assembly site, also named þing or ting. The natural elevated location, the approximicity of flowing waters, namely the confluence of the river Nederrijn and the stream Grift, the general and ancient importance of the area of which historical and archaeological findings clearly testify, and the near presence of mound Donderberg serving as the gallows (Svensson 2015), all support this idea. Read our post The Thing is… for more about the, pre-Germanic and Germanic, thing assembly sites of the Frisians.

Cunera of Rhenen, protector of horses

Cunera surfaces in history in a litany (worship) found in Exeter in England, dated somewhere between 1054 and 1072. It is the oldest mention of the name Cunera. The Exeter litany invokes saints, bishops, apostles, angels, martyrs etc. and among them Cunera. Bishop Radbodus of Utrecht (850-917) and Saint Boniface (672 or 675-754) are listed as well in the Exeter litany.

The Vita Meinwerci mentioned earlier, written between 1155 and 1165, is the oldest text that connects Cunera with the settlement of Rhenen. To quote the vita: reliquiis de ecclesia vicina Rene constructa in honore sancte Cunere, in quibus iurare consueverant ‘on the relics of the neighbouring church built in honour of Saint Cunera, on which they [seven witnesses] used to swear’. Interestingly, when in the story about bishop Meiwerk the untruthful witnesses are asked also to swear on the relics of the saints Peter, Paul and Blasius their eyes turn blind, or their hands stiffened because they did lie. Why didn’t this happen before when they swore on the relics of virgin Cunera, we wonder?

The oldest documentation of the legend of Cunera dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century, written in Latin (Veenbaas 2020). The oldest text in Dutch dates from 1515, the same year in which the farmstead of the national hero Pier Gerlofs Donia, alias Grutte Pier ‘tall Pier’, was burned down and after which the rest is history. The booklet of 1515 is titled Dat Leven ende die passie van Kunera ‘the life and the passion of Cunera’. The story connects Cunera with the passion of Saint Ursula, patron of teachers and school children.

Sinte Kunera / Saint Cunera

The Passio Sanctae Ursulae ‘the life of saint Ursula’, written between 669 and 676, tells of the life of Saint Ursula. Princess Ursula, daughter of king Dionotus of Cornwall had to marry with the heathen prince Aetherius of Armorica, son of king Holofernus. Aetherius was far from being her first choice. Therefore, in return she demanded from him ten beautiful maidens each accompanied by another 1,000 maidens, including ships, with whom she would made a pilgrimage of three years to the holy city of Rome first. In the meantime, her heathen fiancée could prepare for Christendom and become a bit more civilized.

Pilgrimage along the river Rhine was very common to in the Middle Ages. Traveling from holy place to holy place, from relic to relic. Pilgrims traveled by (barefoot) foot, all alone or in big groups called Meuten in German language back then. To quote Lucien Febvre (1935): “The political Rhine, the mystical Rhine. The Rhine of the powerful secular bishops and the spiritually powerful monks”. The great towns and cities of the Rhine: Cologne the queen of the Rhine counting nineteen parishes, Mainz with its narrow streets, lovely Speyer, Strasbourg with its canals, and Basel with its great houses (Demangeon & Febvre 1935). Of course, also the shrine of Saint Goar at the town of Sankt Goar was such a holy place. A place where, in the Early Middle Ages, Frisian skippers and merchants made a little prayer (or unwisely not!) before crossing the dangerous waters below the Lorelei rock. For more, see our post Little prayers at the Lorelei rock.

In the year 337 (some say in the year 237 or 452; Kist 1858), Ursula left with her Meute of 11,000 virgins. She would travel up the river Rhine. After a heavy storm at sea between England and Gaule, they reached the town of Tiel in the Central Netherlands. Here at Tiel, Ursula and her eye-popping fellowship stocked up victuals. Tiel, or its early-medieval name Dioli, is one of the oldest trading towns of the Netherlands and located on the banks of the river Waal, a branch of the river Rhine in region Betuwe. After emporium Dorestat lost its leading position in the course of the ninth century, it was Tiel that profited by filling some of the gap, albeit it would never achieve the fame and glory of Dorestat, the vicus famosus.

Sailor town Tiel must have been a rough place for 11,000 beautiful virgins. Below what chronicler Alpert of Metz (died after 1024) wrote about the (sexual) moral of sailor merchants in medieval Tiel:

“They do not pass judgments according to traditional law, but according to rules the make themselves, and they say that the right to do so has been given and guaranteed to them by the emperor in a charter. (…)

They do not consider adultery a crime. As long as the woman keeps quiet, the man is free to defile himself by horrific misconduct, and no one except his wife should sue anyone who does such things before canon law. Early in the morning they have drinking parties, and whoever talks dirty loudly to make simple people laugh and to encourage them to drink wine, will receive great praise from them.

(…) and on important holidays they solemnly indulge in drunkenness.”

The lines above concerning the emperor’s charter and the right to uphold their own laws, are, we think, very identical to the sagas about the freedom privileges the Frisians received from Charlemagne. Was Alpert of Metz describing Frisian merchants? Read our post Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom for more detailed backgrounds on this topic.

Cunera was a cousin of Ursula and princes of Orkney. Cunera decided to join her Cornish cousin Ursula on her pilgrimage. The journey up the river Rhine to Rome went smoothly. Only in the city of Cologne an angel appeared to Ursula and told her that on her way back she would receive the martyr crown in this city, together with all her companions. This did not stop Ursula and all the other to continue their journey to Rome. Ursula, Cunera and all the others sailed to Basel, crossed the Alps, and made it to the eternal city where they were received by pope Cyriacus. A pope unknown in history, by the way.

On their way back when they arrived at Cologne, and apparently fully prepared to receive the crown of martyrdom, the city was besieged by the Huns. Atilla was their leader, and it was he who killed Ursula with an arrow. All women were slaughtered by the Huns. Only Cunera survived. Or, was she not ready for the martyr crown yet? we add. Because of her looks and beauty, maiden Cunera was saved by the heathen coninc van den Rijn ‘king of the Rhine’ who happened to be in the hood. King Radbod was standing with his army on the other side of the river Rhine, unable to help the defenseless women. Cunera washed up, more dead than alive, on the other side of the river where Radbod was. He hid her under his fancy woolen cloak and took her to his citadel.

Later versions of the legend say it was king Heime who saved Cunera. Yet other versions say it was king Rabbodus (also Radboud or Radbod) of Frisia who saved her. The booklet in Dutch language of 1515 said it was Radbod. Whomever it was, Cunera was taken to the king’s palace at Rhenen. Cologne would become known as the city of Saint Ursula and Epiphany (Demangeon & Febvre 1935).

The Huns who had slaughtered Ursula and all the maidens, all subsequently were killed by an army of divine fighters, exactly 11,000 in total.

the slaughter of Saint Ursula and her maidens at Cologne in 377

Soon Cunera was respected and loved by everyone at the court of king Radbod, most notably the king himself. She was humble, lived modestly and served the king and queen at their table. The pious person she was, Cunera assisted the poor with word and action. Secretly, she took the leftovers of meals the king and queen had enjoyed and gave them to the hungry outside the palace walls. She hid the food inside her skirt. The love of the king for Cunera was even this big, that she was given the claves regni, the keys of the kingdom. In the Early Middle Ages when women married, they were given the keys of the house. Keys were a symbol of power and were worn in full sight on a woman’s clothing. If you possessed the claves regni, you held the keys of the royal hoard (Carasso-Kok 2001).

Obviously, queen Aldegonde (also written as Allegonda) witnessed everything with growing irritation and sadness for several years. Why was a girl, a virgin for crying out loud, given all these privileges with her husband openly adoring her, and who knows what more? Giving her the keys, something that was reserved for the queen, was really beyond all limits. When, one day, the queen suspected Cunera had hidden food inside her skirt again, she said so to her husband. The agitated king demanded Cunera to show what she concealed inside her skirt. Cunera made a prayer and when she opened her skirt, the food miraculously had turned into wood chippings. Now the king turned angry on his wife for the false accusation.

scarf of Cunera (4th/5th century)

After this incident queen Aldegonde knew there was no reasoning anymore with her husband. She had to resort to drastic measures. With one of her chamberlains, the queen hatched a horrible plan. On 28 October 340, when the king was out riding and in falconry, the queen and her chamberlain overpowered Cunera. They strangled Cunera with her own scarf. Her body was buried in the horse stables. When the king returned and asked for his dear Cunera, the queen said Cunera’s friends had come to take her home. However, the crime quickly came out. Horses refused to enter the stables, and that night a stable boy saw a cross of burning candles on the stable floor. Fearing what great evil might have happened, the king had the spot dug up and recovered the body. The king reburied Cunera’s body near the river, what is known today as Cunerabergje or Cuneraheuvel ‘small mound of Cunera’. The little hill is still there with a view over the river Rhine. Twelve trees are planted on the spot, symbolizing the Twelve Apostles.

The slay queen was accused by her husband the king for the murder. She was flogged by her husband without any mercy, and evicted from the palace. For three days she wandered on Heimenberg hill. Madness came over her and she ripped off her clothes. Until finally out of total desperation she threw herself from the cliffs above the river Rhine and broke her neck. An example followed by the beautiful Lore Lay more upstream the same river at Sankt Goarshausen, centuries later. The king, impressed by the whole affair, promptly converted to Christianity and had a church built too. Or were the king’s deeds inspired by his grief for losing his not-so-innocent sweet love? We will never know. What we do know, however, is that ever since the queen’s death Heimenberg hill is a haunted place. For those readers who wonder what happened to the chamberlain, well she was beheaded.

After Cunera’s death many sick people were healed at her grave, and it was also believed that Cunera prevented ships on the river from perishing. Comparable with Saint Goar of Aquitaine who prevented ships from being wrecked by the dangerous rapids and whirlpools upstream the river Rhine at the Lorelei rock. Including two early-medieval Frisian skippers annex merchants, and one of their haulers, who were saved by Saint Goar (Lebecq 1983). Read our post Little prayers at the Lorelei rock.

Many centuries later, around the year 700, missionary Willibrord, Apostle of the Frisians, travelled through the area. For a second time the body of Cunera was unearthed. Despite many centuries had passed, Willibrord found Cunera’s body untouched and with the scarf still around her neck. The miracle of a perfectly preserved corpse after many centuries is something we have seen before with Saint Fris; check our post Like Father, Unlike Son. Willibrord had the corpse transferred from Cunerabergje to the church of Rhenen, officially promoting Cunera to saint. Her attributes are a key and a scarf. What else? After Cunera’s canonization, Rhenen started to attract pilgrims. The time of pilgrimage coincided with the horse market of Rhenen. In the year 1552, Charles V had granted the city the right to have an annual horse fair. The name Paardenmarkt ‘horse market’ situated on the river forelands of Rhenen reminds of this former market.

The church tower of Rhenen

Rhenen by Jan van Goyen (1649)

At first, the church of Rhenen was dedicated to Saint Peter. Only later it was dedicated to Saint Cunera. From the founding act of the Cunera fraternity in 1392, we know that the veneration of Cunera was important in the region already then. As described earlier, the cult of Cunera goes back traceable to the mid-eleventh century, and arguably is much older. In the year 1475, the church of Rhenen even received an indulgence, sealed by no less than eighteen cardinals in Rome. From then on, pilgrims who donated to the church of Rhenen receive an indulgence of a hundred days less in purgatory. For the church and the town this meant big money. With this flow of pilgrims and cash construction of the impressive church tower of Rhenen was financed, which was completed in the year 1531. The church has been built between 1400 and 1475 (Herwaarden website).

The scarf with which Cunera was strangled by the queen and her chamberlain is an important relic. Amazingly, the scarf -or palla– has been preserved to this very day and is being kept in the Catherijneconvent ‘Catherine Convent’ in the city of Utrecht. Research in 1972 has proven that the age of the scarf is fourth or fifth century. Flax is the fabric of the scarf. Given the weaving techniques, it is probably made by Copts in Egypt. These facts are even more miraculous than the whole Cunera saga with the 11,000 virgins, we tend to think.

The Frisian connection

What about this king Radbod? Was there really a Frisian touch to the legend of Cunera? And what was the true nature of the relation between Cunera and the king?

The first question to be answered is the old age of the legend. As said, the earliest attestation dates from the mid eleventh century. Because of its profane nature, namely a story of female jealousy and murder, and the fact that the name Cunera itself is etymologically difficult to explain, the legend might originate from a local, pre-Christian tradition (Carasso-Kok 2001). Christianization of the Central Netherlands started in the course of the seventh century with the upcoming of the Frankish empire from the south and the arrival of Anglo-Saxon missionaries from the west. Think of bishop Wilfrid of York who stayed at the court of the heathen Frisian king Aldgisl in the year 677 or 678, which must have taken place in the Central Netherlands somewhere along the river Rhine. Furthermore, true Christianization of Frisia started after the death of king Radbod in 719 and the Franks definitively had taken over control of the central river lands.

With this circumstantial and shaky argumentation we arrive at the late seventh century or early eighth century, when Christendom started to fade in and heathendom to fade out. Older age is of course not excluded since heathendom and the worship of deities goes way way back. Some do think the legend must have originated in the fifth and sixth centuries (Veenbaas 2020). All this is getting nearer the old age of the Coptic scarf which, as said, is dated fourth or fifth century. And a bit nearer to the dates mentioned in the legend itself as well, namely the years 377 and 340.

Different versions of the legend speak either of the king of the Rhine, of king Heime, or of king Rabbodus. The latter is also written as Radboud or Radbod. Because the legend has been transmitted orally for very long and only was codified in the High Middle Ages, nothing can be said with certainty on what the original version looked like, hence neither on which of the three kings was Cunera’s true saviour from the massacre at Cologne. Probably king Radbod was a later addition to the story (Heidinga 1990).

king of the Rhine, king Radbod

Even if Radbod was woven into the story later, this does not rule out Frisian involvement in region Rhenen. During the first centuries of the Early Middle Ages, the Central Netherlands was under the strong influence of Frisia. Frisians even had established from the seventh century onward the biggest trading town of north-western Europe, Dorestat at present-day Wijk bij Duurstede. Only fifteen kilometres as the crow flies to the west from Rhenen. A few hours hike, and even quicker by boat downstream.

After the Roman empire crumbled in the area what is now the Netherlands in the fourth century, fortresses of the Romans along the river Rhine became excellent strongholds for new rulers who took advantage of the power vacuum in the Central Netherlands. Of the Arnulfings and Carolingians it is known they confiscated Roman fortresses in the late seventh and early eight centuries. Probably a number of these abandoned fortresses were occupied by the Frisians before that; the adventus Frisionum. From the sixth century, following the fifth-century power vacuum, two political powers reigned or collided in the Central Netherlands, the Merovingian and the Frisian kingdoms. As a consequence, landed properties probably changed hands between the two quite frequently (Van Es & Verwers (2010).

Concerning the ancient stronghold on Heimenberg hill, it might be that Frisian rulers at some time held control over this location too. Perhaps that the aristocracy of Laar or region Rhenen with many possessions in wider Frisia in the ninth century still, pledged allegiance to Frisian rulers for a while. Who knows, also during the reign of king Radbod they did (Heidinga 1990). Interesting in this context is that in the year 885 the Danish warlord Godfrid the Sea-King was murdered and his army defeated more upstream the river Rhine at Spijk and Elterberg hill by a coalition of Franks, Saxons and Frisians (see our post The Abbey of Egmond and the Rise of the Gerulfing Dynasty). The Saxons were led by Everhard Saxo, count of Hamaland. In 898, it was Waldger, son of Gerulf and count of West Frisia, who killed count Everhard Saxo.

During the seventh century until the beginning of the eighth century, Frisians were generally speaking the dominant commercial and political power in the Central Netherlands, controlling Utrecht and Dorestat. Possible with strong influence over region Hamaland as well. Not for nothing the Frisian king names Aldgisl and Radbod have been passed down, rulers during most of this era. In 716, maior domo Charles Martel of Francia was scared the pants off by Radbod when he sailed up the river Rhine and besieged the strong city of Cologne; read our post Why was Redbad skinny dipping in eau de Cologne? Between 650 and 710, fortress Heimenburg was being restructured several times by the Frisians in order to resist the Franks (Huiskes 2011).

So, the conclusion is that there is no proof of an adulterous Redbad being part of the original legend. However, if indeed the legend originates from pre-Christian Early Middle Ages, region Rhenen experienced presence and political influence of Frisian rulers in that era, and, of course, the continuous passing back and forth of Frisian merchants.

Please, have some mercy

Without condoning her deeds, with this post we also hope to have created a bit more understanding for the difficult situation of queen Aldegonde, and the dubious part her husband Radbod, the king of the Rhine, played in the whole affair with Cunera.


Note 1- Horses are a recurring element in the legend of Cunera and in relation to Rhenen. We have not found many theories yet as to why. Please, let us know if you have more information on this.

Note 2 – With the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the relics of Cunera were brought into safety by the priest of Rhenen, Joannes Ludolphi. He brought them to the Catholic south, to the city of Den Bosch. Bedaf, Berlicum, Kaatwijk and Heeswijk became places of pilgrimage. In the Gertrude church in the city of Utrecht, the skull of Cunera is being kept today.

Note 3 – Below a circular hike of around 28 kilometers, following by and large the late-medieval procession route of Saint Cunera:

Furthermore, since this is in essence a hiking site, at the base of the Grebbeberg hill lies nature area De Blauwe Kamer ‘the blue chamber/space’. It is a wetland area with loads of birdlife and (!) semi-wild horses. De Blauwe Kamer is (partially) accessible for walkers. For more information consult website Utrechts Landschap.

Note 4 – Some say the legend of Cunera has parallels with the fairy tale Frau Holle, also known as Mother Holle. The story of the musician on the mountain is about Frau Holle who takes care of the household of the emperor, and who was recognized by the keychain she was carrying. Frau Holle rewarded the musicians with wine and the skull of a horse. Most threw away the skull except one. The next morning, this musician found the skull had turned into a lump of gold.

Suggested music

Further reading

  • Bemmel, van, A.A.B., Cohen, K.M., Doesburg, van J., Hermans, T., Huiting, J.H., Poppe, E.L., Renes, J. & Vliet, van J., De dam bij Wijk en het Kromme Rijngebied in de middeleeuwen; Doesburg, van A.A.B. & Huiting J.H., Macht, bezit en samenleving rond het jaar 1000 (2022)
  • Bastidas, M., Ooit gehoord van de Merovingers? Ze hadden goud, zilver en edelstenen en al die schatten keren terug naar Rhenen (2022)
  • Berkel, van G. & Samplonius, K., Nederlandse plaatsnamen verklaard. Reeks Nederlandse plaatsnamen deel 12 (2018)
  • Bunt, van de A., Jachtvogels uit de Merovingische tijd (2021)
  • Carasso-Kok, M., Cunera van Rhenen tussen legende en werkelijkheid. Historische elementen en receptie van een Noord-Nederlands heiligenleven (2001)
  • CODA Museum, Wolven en slakken – De Veluwe als Ruhrgebied avant la lettre (website)
  • Combrink, J. (ed), Dat Leven van Kunera. Herdruk van: Dat Leven ende die passie van Kunera, 1515 (1988)
  • Coolen, A., Dorp aan de rivier (1934)
  • Coolen, A., Sint Cunera van Rhenen (1954)
  • Cunera Gilde, De legende van Cunera (website)
  • Demangeon, A. & Febvre, L., Le Rhin. Problèmes d’histoire et d’économie (1935)
  • Eijgenraam, G., Beek, van R. & Candel, J., Hoog en droog naast de rivier. De archeologische rijkdom van woonheuvels in de Betuwe (2022)
  • Emonds, E.M.T., Sinte Kunera (1998)
  • Es, van W.A. & Verwers, W.J.H., Early Medieval settlements along the Rhine: precursors and contemporaries of Dorestad (2010)
  • Ghesquierus, J. & Smetius, C., Acta Sanctorum Belgii Selecta; de S. Cunera V. et M. (1789)
  • Godinnen van Nederland & België, Cunera (website)
  • Groningen, van C.L., De Utrechtse heuvelrug. De Stichtse Lustwarande. Dorpen en landelijk gebied (2000)
  • Groningen, van C.L., Leupen, P.H.D. & Taverne, E.R.M., Rhenen 750 jaar stad. Symposium 28 maart 2008 (2008)
  • Haanappel, K., De heilige Cunera en haar pre-christelijke oorsprong (2015)
  • Halbertsma, H., Frieslands oudheid. Het rijk van de Friese koningen, opkomst en ondergang (2000)
  • Heeren, S. & Feijst, van der L., Fibulae uit de Lage Landen. Brooches from the Low Countries (2017)
  • Heidinga, H.A., From Kootwijk to Rhenen: in search of the elite in the Central Netherlands in the Early Middle Ages (1990)
  • Hendriksma, M., De Rijn. Biografie van een rivier (2017)
  • Herwaarden, van J., Rhenen, H. Cunera (website)
  • Historiek, De 1500 jaar oude wurgdoek van Cunera (2015)
  • Historiek, Vroegmiddeleeuwse ijzerwinning op de Veluwe (2019)
  • Huiskes, B., Eeuwige rust op de Donderberg. Een groot middeleeuws grafveld bij Rhenen (2011)
  • Kist, N.C., De Reenensche Kunera-legende in betrekking tot die van Sinte-Ursula en de elfduizend maagden (1858)
  • Klein, M. & Geerenstein, van H. (eds), Romeinse Limespad. Wandelen langs de grens van het Romeinse rijk in Nederland (2018)
  • Koning-van der Veen, M., H. Kunera. Das Leben und Tod von Cunera. Legende über die Heilige von Rhenen nacherzählt von M. Koning-van der Veen (onbekend)
  • Lebecq, S., Marchands et navigateurs Frisons du haut moyen age. Vol. I (1983)
  • Lendering, J., Cunera van Rhenen (2015)
  • Meurs, P. & Steenhuis, M., Gebiedsdocument Rhenen. Rhenen binnenstad. Toonbeeld van de wederopbouw (2016)
  • Phoa, L.A. & Schaaf, van der M., Drinkbare rivieren (2021)
  • Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Mantelspelden uit Rhenen (website)
  • Rooijendijk, C., Waterwolven. Een geschiedenis van stormvloeden, dijkenbouwers en droogmakers (2009)
  • Roymans, N., A Roman massacre in the far north. Caesar’s annihilation of the Tencteri and Usipetes in the Dutch river area (2018)
  • Russchen, A., De akte van Folker (855) (1961)
  • Sijs, van der N., Nederlandse woorden wereldwijd (2010)
  • Smulders, H., Het project Ringwalburcht op de Heimenberg (2002)
  • Stolk, N., Kuypers, K. & Bongers, N., De halsdoek van Cunera. Dat leven ende die passie vander heyliger maget sinte kunera die in die stadt van Rhenen rustende is (2015)
  • Svensson, O., Place Names, Landscape, and Assembly Sites in Skåne, Sweden (2015)
  • Tuuk, van der L., De eerste gouden eeuw. Handel en scheepvaart in de vroege middeleeuwen (2011)
  • Veenbaas, R., De legende van Cunera en het Gudrunlied (2020)
  • Veer, van der A., Kuneara (2000)
  • Vries, de J., Nederlands etymologisch woordenboek (1971)
  • Wagner, A. & Ypey, J., Das Gräberfeld auf dem Donderberg bei Rhenen. Katalog (2011)
  • Westelaken, A., The Riches of Rhenen. A practice of deposition during the Neolithic period, Bronze Age and Iron Age (2018)
  • Wiersma, J.P., Friesche Mythen en Sagen (1937)
  • Willemsen, A., Gouden middeleeuwen. Nederland in de Merovingische wereld 400-700 na Chr. (2014)
  • Winsemius, P., Rowena. De sage van een Friese prinses (2016) Woud, van der A., De Nederlanden. Het lege land 1800-1850 (2022)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: