1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Frisians

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FRISIANS (Lat. Frisii; in Med. Lat. Frisones, Frisiones, Fresones; in their own tongue Frêsa, Frêsen), a people of Teutonic (Low-German) stock, who in the first century of our era were found by the Romans in occupation of the coast lands stretching from the mouth of the Scheldt to that of the Ems. They were nearly related both by speech and blood to the Saxons and Angles, and other Low German tribes, who lived to the east of the Ems and in Holstein and Schleswig. The first historical notices of the Frisians are found in the Annals of Tacitus. They were rendered (or a portion of them) tributary by Drusus, and became socii of the Roman people. In A.D. 28 the exactions of a Roman official drove them to revolt, and their subjection was henceforth nominal. They submitted again to Cn. Domitius Corbulo in the year 47, but shortly afterwards the emperor Claudius ordered the withdrawal of all Roman troops to the left bank of the Rhine. In 58 they attempted unsuccessfully to appropriate certain districts between the Rhine and the Yssel, and in 70 they took part in the campaign of Claudius Civilis. From this time onwards their name practically disappears. As regards their geographical position Ptolemy states that they inhabited the coast above the Bructeri as far as the Ems, while Tacitus speaks of them as adjacent to the Rhine. But there is some reason for believing that the part of Holland which lies to the west of the Zuider Zee was at first inhabited by a different people, the Canninefates, a sister tribe to the Batavi. A trace of this people is perhaps preserved in the name Kennemerland or Kinnehem, formerly applied to the same district. Possibly, therefore, Tacitus’s statement holds good only for the period subsequent to the revolt of Civilis, when we hear of the Canninefates for the last time.

In connexion with the movements of the migration period the Frisians are hardly ever mentioned, though some of them are said to have surrendered to the Roman prince Constantius about the year 293. On the other hand we hear very frequently of Saxons in the coast regions of the Netherlands. Since the Saxons (Old Saxons) of later times were an inland people, one can hardly help suspecting either that the two nations have been confused or, what is more probable, that a considerable mixture of population, whether by conquest or otherwise, had taken place. Procopius (Goth. iv. 20) speaks of the Frisians as one of the nations which inhabited Britain in his day, but we have no evidence from other sources to bear out his statement. In Anglo-Saxon poetry mention is frequently made of a Frisian king named Finn, the son of Folcwalda, who came into conflict with a certain Hnaef, a vassal of the Danish king Healfdene, about the middle of the 5th century. Hnaef was killed, but his followers subsequently slew Finn in revenge. The incident is obscure in many respects, but it is perhaps worth noting that Hnaef’s chief follower, Hengest, may quite possibly be identical with the founder of the Kentish dynasty. About the year 520 the Frisians are said to have joined the Frankish prince Theodberht in destroying a piratical expedition which had sailed up the Rhine under Chocilaicus (Hygelac), king of the Götar. Towards the close of the century they begin to figure much more prominently in Frankish writings. There is no doubt that by this time their territories had been greatly extended in both directions. Probably some Frisians took part with the Angles and Saxons in their sea-roving expeditions, and assisted their neighbours in their invasions and subsequent conquest of England and the Scottish lowlands.

The rise of the power of the Franks and the advance of their dominion northwards brought on a collision with the Frisians, who in the 7th century were still in possession of the whole of the seacoast, and apparently ruled over the greater part of modern Flanders. Under the protection of the Frankish king Dagobert (622–638), the Christian missionaries Amandus (St Amand) and Eligius (St Eloi) attempted the conversion of these Flemish Frisians, and their efforts were attended with a certain measure of success; but farther north the building of a church by Dagobert at Trajectum (Utrecht) at once aroused the fierce hostility of the heathen tribesmen of the Zuider Zee. The “free” Frisians could not endure this Frankish outpost on their borders. Utrecht was attacked and captured, and the church destroyed. The first missionary to meet with any success among the Frisians was the Englishman Wilfrid of York, who, being driven by a storm upon the coast, was hospitably received by the king, Adgild or Adgisl, and was allowed to preach Christianity in the land. Adgild appears to have admitted the overlordship of the Frankish king, Dagobert II. (675). Under his successor, however, Radbod (Frisian Rêdbâd), an attempt was made to extirpate Christianity and to free the Frisians from the Frankish subjection. He was, however, beaten by Pippin of Heristal in the battle of Dorstadt (689), and was compelled to cede West Frisia (Frisia citerior) from the Scheldt to the Zuider Zee to the conqueror. On Pippin’s death Radbod again attacked the Franks and advanced as far as Cologne, where he defeated Charles Martel, Pippin’s natural son. Eventually, however, Charles prevailed and compelled the Frisians to submit. Radbod died in 719, but for some years his successors struggled against the Frankish power. A final defeat was, however, inflicted upon them by Charles Martel in 734, which secured the supremacy of the Franks in the north, though it was not until the days of Charles the Great (785) that the subjection of the Frisians was completed. Meanwhile Christianity had been making its conquests in the land, mainly through the lifelong labours and preaching of the Englishman Willibrord, who came to Frisia in 692 and made Utrecht his headquarters. He was consecrated (695) at Rome archbishop of the Frisians, and on his return founded a number of bishoprics in the northern Netherlands, and continued his labours unremittingly until his death in 739. It is an interesting fact that both Wilfrid and Willibrord appear to have found no difficulty from the first in preaching to the Frisians in their native dialect, which was so nearly allied to their own Anglo-Saxon tongue. The see of Utrecht founded by Willibrord has remained the chief see of the Northern Netherlands from his day to our own. Friesland was likewise the scene of a portion of the missionary labours of a greater than Willibrord, the famous Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans, also an Englishman. It was at Dokkum in Friesland that he met a martyr’s death (754).

Charles the Great granted the Frisians important privileges under a code known as the Lex Frisionum, based upon the ancient laws of the country. They received the title of freemen and were allowed to choose their own podestat or imperial governor. In the Lex Frisionum three districts are clearly distinguished: West Frisia from the Zwin to the Flie; Middle Frisia from the Flie to the Lauwers; East Frisia from the Lauwers to the Weser. At the partition treaty of Verdun (843) Frisia became part of Lotharingia or Lorraine; at the treaty of Mersen (870) it was divided between the kingdoms of the East Franks (Austrasia) and the West Franks (Westrasia); in 880 the whole country was united to Austrasia; in 911 it fell under the dominion of Charles the Simple, king of the West Franks, but the districts of East Frisia asserted their independence and for a long time governed themselves after a very simple democratic fashion. The history of West Frisia gradually loses itself in that of the countship of Holland and the see of Utrecht (see Holland and Utrecht).

The influence of the Frisians during the interval between the invasion of Britain and the loss of their independence must have been greater than is generally recognized. They were a seafaring people and engaged largely in trade, especially perhaps the slave trade, their chief emporium being Wyk te Duurstede. During the period in question there is considerable archaeological evidence for intercourse between the west coast of Norway and the regions south of the North Sea, and it is worth noting that this seems to have come to an end early in the 9th century. Probably it is no mere accident that the first appearance, or rather reappearance, of Scandinavian pirates in the west took place shortly after the overthrow of the Frisians. Since Radbod’s dominions extended from Duerstede to Heligoland his power must have been by no means inconsiderable.

Besides the Frisians discussed above there is a people called North Frisians, who inhabit the west coast of Schleswig. At present a Frisian dialect is spoken only between Tondern and Husum, but formerly it extended farther both to the north and south. In historical times these North Frisians were subjects of the Danish kingdom and not connected in any way with the Frisians of the empire. They are first mentioned by Saxo Grammaticus in connexion with the exile of Knud V. Saxo recognized that they were of Frisian origin, but did not know when they had first settled in this region. Various opinions are still held with regard to the question; but it seems not unlikely that the original settlers were Frisians who had been expelled by the Franks in the 8th century. Whether the North Frisian language is entirely of Frisian origin is somewhat doubtful owing to the close relationship which Frisian bears to English. The inhabitants of the neighbouring islands, Sylt, Amrum and Föhr, who speak a kindred dialect, have apparently never regarded themselves as Frisians, and it is the view of many scholars that they are the direct descendants of the ancient Saxons.

In 1248 William of Holland, having become emperor, restored to the Frisians in his countship their ancient liberties in reward for the assistance they had rendered him in the siege of Aachen; but in 1254 they revolted, and William lost his life in the contest which ensued. After many struggles West Friesland became completely subdued, and was henceforth virtually absorbed in the county of Holland. But the Frieslanders east of the Zuider Zee obstinately resisted repeated attempts to bring them into subjection. In the course of the 14th century the country was in a state of anarchy; petty lordships sprang into existence, the interests of the common weal were forgotten or disregarded, and the people began to be split up into factions, and these were continually carrying on petty warfare with one another. Thus the Fetkoopers (Fatmongers) of Oostergoo had endless feuds with the Schieringers (Eelfishers) of Westergoo.

This state of affairs favoured the attempts of the counts of Holland to push their conquests eastward, but the main body of the Frisians was still independent when the countship of Holland passed into the hands of Philip the Good of Burgundy. Philip laid claim to the whole country, but the people appealed to the protection of the empire, and Frederick III., in August 1457, recognized their direct dependence on the empire and called on Philip to bring forward formal proof of his rights. Philip’s successor, Charles the Bold, summoned an assembly of notables at Enkhuizen in 1469, in order to secure their homage; but the conference was without result, and the duke’s attention was soon absorbed by other and more important affairs. The marriage of Maximilian of Austria with the heiress of Burgundy was to be productive of a change in the fortunes of that part of Frisia which lies between the Vlie and the Lauwers. In 1498 Maximilian reversed the policy of his father Frederick III., and detached this territory, known afterwards as the province of Friesland, from the empire. He gave it as a fief to Albert of Saxony, who thoroughly crushed out all resistance. In 1523 it fell with all the rest of the provinces of the Netherlands under the strong rule of the emperor Charles, the grandson of Maximilian and Mary of Burgundy.

That part of Frisia which lies to the east of the Lauwers had a divided history. The portion which lies between the Lauwers and the Ems after some struggles for independence had, like the rest of the country, to submit itself to Charles. It became ultimately the province of the town and district of Groningen (Stadt en Landen) (see Groningen). The easternmost part between the Ems and the Weser, which had since 1454 been a county, was ruled by the descendants of Edzard Cirksena, and was attached to the empire. The last of the Cirksenas, Count Charles Edward, died in 1744 and in default of heirs male the king of Prussia took possession of the county.

The province of Friesland was one of the seven provinces which by the treaty known as the Union of Utrecht bound themselves together to resist the tyranny of Spain. From 1579 to 1795 Friesland remained one of the constituent parts of the republic of the United Provinces, but it always jealously insisted on its sovereign rights, especially against the encroachments of the predominant province of Holland. It maintained throughout the whole of the republican period a certain distinctiveness of nationality, which was marked by the preservation of a different dialect and of a separate stadtholder. Count William Lewis of Nassau-Siegen, nephew and son-in-law of William the Silent, was chosen stadtholder, and through all the vicissitudes of the 17th and 18th centuries the stadtholdership was held by one of his descendants. Frederick Henry of Orange was stadtholder of six provinces, but not of Friesland, and even during the stadtholderless periods which followed the deaths of William II. and William III. of Orange the Frisians remained stanch to the family of Nassau-Siegen. Finally, by the revolution of 1748, William of Nassau-Siegen, stadtholder of Friesland (who, by default of heirs male of the elder line, had become William IV., prince of Orange), was made hereditary stadtholder of all the provinces. His grandson in 1815 took the title of William I., king of the Netherlands. The male line of the “Frisian” Nassaus came to an end with the death of King William III. in 1890.

Bibliography—See Tacitus, Ann. iv. 72 f., xi. 19 f., xiii. 54; Hist. iv. 15 f.; Germ. 34; Ptolemy, Geogr. ii. 11, § 11; Dio Cassius liv. 32; Eumenius, Paneg. iv. 9; the Anglo-Saxon poems, Finn, Beowulf and Widsith; Fredegarii Chronici continuatio and various German Annals; Gesta regum Francorum; Eddius, Vita Wilfridi, cap. 25 f.; Bede, Hist. Eccles, iv. 22, v. 9 f.; Alcuin, Vita Willebrordi; I. Undset, Aarbger for nordisk Oldkyndighed (1880), p. 89 ff. (cf. E. Mogk in Paul’s Grundriss d. germ. Philologie ii. p. 623 ff.); Ubbo Emmius, Rerum Frisicarum historia (Leiden, 1616); Pirius Winsemius, Chronique van Vriesland (Franoker, 1822); C. Scotanus, Beschryvinge end Chronyck van des Heerlickheydt van Frieslandt (1655); Groot Placaat en Charter-boek van Friesland (ed. Baron C. F. zu Schwarzenberg) (5 vols., Leeuwarden, 1768–1793); T. D. Wiarda, Ost-frieschische Gesch. (vols. i.-ix., Aurich, 1791) (vol. x., Bremen, 1817); J. Dirks, Geschiedkundig onderzoek van den Koophandel der Friezen (Utrecht, 1846); O. Klopp, Gesch. Ostfrieslands (3 vols., Hanover, 1854–1858); Hooft van Iddekinge, Friesland en de Friezen in de Middeleeuwen (Leiden, 1881); A. Telting, Het Oudfriesche Stadrecht (The Hague, 1882); P. J. Blok, Friesland im Mittelalter (Leer, 1891).