In pre-historic as well as in historic times till approx 1000BCE most of the land north of the main rivers of what is now Holland, Zealand, Utrecht, Friesland and large parts of Groningen was waterlogged and marshy land, very thinly populated and the land was marginal. People settled on the higher grounds in the dunes along the North Sea and on the higher sand hills along the rivers. In the north farmers built terpen ( man made mounds) and tended sheep on the marshy lands. Many people here supplemented their livelihood with fishing and hunting.

The Frisians dominated most of the land north of the rivers.

In the Middle Ages the key towns north of the rivers were: Utrecht, Dorestad, Tiel, Kampen, Deventer, Zwolle and Zutphen.

After 1021, in theory large parts of what was Frisia became part of the Bishopric of Utrecht. However, in reality Friesland and Groningen remained largely independent and in what now is Overijssel the major cities along the Zuiderzee and the River IJssel dominated this part of the region. Furthermore there were a large number of ‘independent’ enclaves linked to German princes and bishops

After the conquest of Charles V during the early 16th century Stadholders (provincial governors) were appointed as the representative of the Emperor in both Friesland and Utrecht. They were mostly appointed from among the nobility of Flanders and Brabant. The baljuws – the main judicial officers in the regional areas – were also appointed by the Emperor, they were mostly selected from the local  loyal fractions.



Prehistoric and Roman times

The first possible indication of people inhabiting the area is the Elp culture (1,800 – 800BCE) a sub set of the Beaker Culture. They started to build ‘terpen’ (artificial settlement mounds) in what is known Friesland from around 700BCE. There are indications that the early Frisii arrived from the higher grounds in Drenthe after the Cetlic tribes had left the area. They most likely settled in the area between the Elbe in the east and the Scheldt in the west.

One of the major pagan site of the Frisians was on Heligoland and became  a major aim for destruction by the missionaries who arrived a few hundred years later in the area, such as Willibrord and Boniface.

The Frisii were mentioned by Tacitus and were ‘conquered’ by Drusus in 12, but the Romans never had a good grip on the Frisii, they remained largely independent and a continuing a problem for the Romans (and later for the Merovingians and Carolingians).

After the uprising of the Batavii in 69CE which was supported by several other Germanic tribes including the Frisii, the Romans took stricter control and what is now the Netherlands became divided in four areas:

  • Celtic tribes concentrated below the rivers,
  • Batavii between the big rivers (Betuwe island), this group became strong allies of the Romans and provided lots of soldiers for their armies.
  • Cananefaten, in the coastal area above the rivers these lands remained very lightly populated
  • Angles and Saxon who mixed with the original Frisii in the northern and eastern parts.

The heartland of the Frisians – the current Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen – remained largely outside the control of the Romans.

Part of the reason why the Romans disappeared from the are around 250AC has been linked to climate change events. Also the Cananefates disappear from the area around this time.  After the Roman time there was a further strong depopulation during an extended period of high water.

Apart from the higher laying lands along the rivers, occupation of most of these lands was limited by the changes in sea and river  levels. Sometimes that meant that they wear only able to occupy the dune strip along the coast with the North Sea and on the sand and clay deposits of the rivers. In the north man made hills had to be built to make the environment inhabitable and some basic farming possible sheep and cattle).  The change in climate changes saw an increase in storm activity and by 500 large parts of land behind the dunes had turned into bogs and peat areas.  Those who were able to survive; became fishermen and skippers


New Frisians

Slowly around 400 the Rhine Delta became populated again, new people had moved into the area and in the chronicles of the day they were referred to as New Frisians, who must have mixed with the remaining Frisii who lived scattered around the terps.

The Romans had established their Limes along the rivers Rhine and Maas, with a large number of fortresses protecting the boarder. Several of those fortress were used by Frisians around 600 to start their own new settlements. With trade increasing the focus of Frisia moved towards the river lands.


The New Frisians also played a key role in the Anglo Saxon migration to England. After the collapse of the Roman Empire we also see Slavic tribes moving deeper into eastern Europe and this caused a collapse of trade between the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean. This provided the Frisian with opportunity to fill that gap

By 400 they havdtaken over the river area, river delta, coastal area and still occupied their traditional lands further north. The Celts were replaced and/or did intermingle with the Salii Franks who had moved south down from the IJssel River region. This happened  after  the Saxons had encroached  on their lands and had occupied  the eastern part of what is now the Netherlands. The river became the border between these tho confederations of Germanic tribes.

Schaapskooi (sheep pen) Dwingelo Drenthe 1972

The heartland of the Frisii (Friesland and Groningen) had large sections of land that was not protected by sea dykes, over time sufficient land was deposited to keep it dry most of the time, but when there was above normal high water the area  would still flood, it is in these areas (kwelders) that they built their ‘terpen’ (there are close of 2000 of them and they would contain a few farms and later even small villages). The kwelders were ideally suited for the farming of sheep. The combination of surplus wool and seafaring created an ideal export opportunity.

It is believed that this combination made the New Frisians the key traders in north-western Europe. Characteristic of this period is the combination of farmers, tradesmen and merchantmen, often combined in the one person.

The early Medieval Frisians became famous for their cloth (pallia Fresonica). Charlemagne used it as a gift to the Emperor of Persia.  However, through trading the wool was no longer just locally produced they most probably obtained it also from some of their others Anglo Saxons ‘brothers’ who had moved to the British Isles. The cloth industry, the Frisians helped to develop, slowly started to become the basis for an industry that would propel northern Europe into an economic powerhouse.

Throughout northwest Europe they became famous traders and operated from their major centre the town of Dorestad (near the current town of Wijk bij Duurstede). This rapidly became the largest city in the north. During their heydays between 750 and 850 the town had a kilometre long street, parallel to the river, complete with timber fortifications and timber houses, most with their moorings in front of the house. Interestingly these houses showed combinations of farmers, tradesmen and merchantmen.

According to archaeological evidence, the Frisians were also frequent visitors at the southern Brabantine river port of Ename on the Scheldt. At the provincial museum in this town we visited the very interesting and innovative display that also talks about the Frisian tradespeople from Tiel visiting their port. This Frisian city minted its own money (sceattaes) between 650 and 755.Coins from Dorestad and Tiel have showed up everywhere around Europe.

From 800 onward there are also indications that land reclamation started to occur, which might have led to the development of the town of  Sneek.

Merovingian/Carolingian – Frisian wars

It was not until the 7th century that, for the first time, we see the emergence of an early form of central leadership in Frisia. Initially the Frisians were successful to withstand the ever expanding Franks (Merovingians) who were attracted to the area by the wealth that the trading activitiesbrought with them.

The most famous and successful Frisian king was Radbod, son of Aldgils, the first know Frisian king who had established Frisian rule in Frisia, Utrecht and Holland (than called West Frisia). Both ruled a country – that stretched from the Scheldt to the Weser –  from Dorestad and/or Utrecht. There was another fortress in this region, Heimenberg, strategically position on the Grebbeberg on the ‘Utrechtse Heuvelrug’ near Rhenen. The fortress dates back to 2000 BC. During the time of the Frisian wars it was used as a ring-wall fortress, however it is uncertain if this was built by the Frisians or the Franks. One of the richest graveyards of the Merovingian period is also positioned here, on the Donderberg – a reference back to Donar. Here some 1100, largely rich elite graves, were unearthed in 1950,  dating back to the period 375 – 750. Perhaps there is a link between the fortress and the nobility

Abbot Wilfrid of the Ripon Monastery in Yorkshire received, according to his records,  accommodation in the Frisian ‘capital’ Dorestad from Aldgils during the winter of 678 – 679, on his visit across the Channel.

Around 675, the Merovingian king Dagobert asked Archbishop Cunibert from Cologne to establish a fortress at one of the other Frisians town, Utrecht to from here keep an eye on the Frisians. This was probably erected on the remains of Roman fortress Traiectum (a passable stretch in the river). Uut- Trecht (Below the Trecht) seems to be the place were the new settlement got established. The castle grounds became also the first place for the early churches that were built here and eventually the current Dom cathedral.

The importance of the Frisians was also highlighted by the fact that Grimoald II, the son of the Merovingian Mayor of the Palace Pippin II (the Middle) and his wife Plectrude, was married, in 711,  to Theutsind the daughter of King Radbod in order to force a truce.  Pippin had beaten Radbod at Dorestad in 695 and to seal the peace Radbod offered his daughter as bride to Pippin’s son. The seat of power now moved to Utrecht.

After the victory and under the protection of the Merovingians, the recently consecrated bishop Willibrord  established a church in Utrecht.

After the sudden death of Pippin, in Jupille in 714, Radbod recovered Utrecht and Dorestad and expanded his reign again to the Scheldt and even took a navy fleet up to Cologne. Willibrord had to leave the city and later on Boniface  reported from Utrecht at that time that the churches were demolished, he also reportedly visited Radbod in this town.

Grimoald also dies in 714 and Pippin’s other son Charles Martel took over as mayor of the palace. After Radbod’s death in 719 Charles was able to conquer more and land from the Frisians. This also meant the end of the independent kingdom of Frisia. His death also finally allowed Willibrord to now  return more permanently to Utrecht and together with Boniface he preached in what is now the Netherlands.

In 734 the Frisians under Duke Bubo launched another revolt halting the spread of Christianity and Charles launched a sea and land attack crushing the revolt to beyond the Zuiderzee. While the occasional battles continued during the rest of that century, the Frisian never recovered from this defeat again.

Between 800 and 1000 the Vikings  regularly raided Frisia (along the coast and rivers).  This despite the fact that they saw each other as related people and could communicate with each other in their own languages. Furthermore since the 7th century they had been their major trading partners and Frisians were instrumental in the foundation of the Scandinavian trading cities Ribe and Hedeby (both in modern Denmark). No other people were able to trade with Scandinavia and the Frisians held a key trading position that they were able to exploit as far south as Italy.

Politically and military the Vikings ruled Frisia from approx 833 and approx. 873. This period is covered in a separate chapter.

Lotharinghia in general and this region in particular – being at the far edge of their realms – remained a contested area between the East and West Francia rulers. However,  the Franks never seemed to move further north above the main rivers. It was not until the 16th century that Frisia finally totally lost it independence.

In the meantime the Frisians kept their key role in the river trade. The merchant population in Dorestad and later Tiel, Utrecht and probably also Deventer were dominated by Frisian merchants, but obviously over the years that started to blend. Frisian traders were still specifically mentioned as key traders for example in Tiel in the 11th century.

West Frisia

It wouldn’t be until the 11th century before we start seeing central leadership returning to the coastal regions (Holland at that stage still called Frisia). By that time the Frisians had again regained their strong trading tradition and had become the first merchant economy in north western Europe (see: High Middle Ages).

These developments  coincided with a significant growth in population and we start see the disappearance of forests to make place for land that needs to be cultivates, peat areas were developed into agriculture land, however for this they needed to drain the water out of these areas. Peat works like a sponge and when it dries out it shrinks. This land couldn’t be used for agriculture any more and became grazing land; often the land sank that low that it filled up with water which a few hundred years later required it to be pumped dry again with the assistance of the Dutch version of the windmill. At the same time of course these events also required that dykes needed to be built, and because of the disturbance that has been set in motion, these dykes frequently needed to be raised a process that is continuing till today.

The agriculture developments made the nobels in this part of Frisia increasingly more important and they started to become more and more independent.

Initially we see that Frisians were able to resist the upcoming power of Holland, whenever possible the also used disunity within the family of the Holland nobility to protect their own independence. This for example happened in 1132 when Floris the Black challenged his brother Dirk VI for the leadership of Holland, the West Frisians joined Floris. However, despite some earlier successes by 1200 the Counts of Holland had largely taken control over the area behind the sand dunes. The ‘Frisian’ were now forced to retreat to the north what was called West Frisia.

In 1257 Count Willem II attacks West Frisia, but also this attempt failed. His son Floris V tries it again in 1272 again without any result, finally ten years later he is able to defeat the West Frisians.

The murder of Floris V 1n 1296, gave the West Frisians new hopes and the used the event to revolt, however, they were badly defeated the following year and their annexation was now fully confirmed.

The whole are between the North Sea and the Middle Sea (Zuiderzee) was now part of Holland. For more information on the combined Frisian and Holland history see: Holland and Zeeland.


After the Treaty of Verdun the border between the Middle Kingdom and East Francia on the far norther side is unclear. The question is if there indeed ever was defined boarder and possibly the ‘unofficial’ border might have cut somewhere through the middle of what is now Friesland. The modern provinces of Groningen and Friesland remained more or less independent.

The centre of Frisia during this period Dorestad; together with Utrecht and Tiel this part along the river was more developed than the more northern regions of Friesland. However, the sheep farming in the north provided the Frisian merchants with a valuable trading good which made them famous traders throughout northern Europe.

An influential noble family that played a key role in Middle Friesland were the Brunoanen, they were a Saxon family. After the Saxons were finally conquered by Charlemagne several of their warlords became important landowners in the conquered area; it is possible that Bruno of  Saxony  who was one of them. They became the counts of  Brunswick (Eastphalia). They were a branch of the Liudolfings (East Saxony) to which also the Ottonian German Emperors belonged – the first one being Henry I the Fowler. Liudolf  is the first known count of this branch who was born around 805 and dies around 865, he married Oda, a Frankish princess, very much along Charlemagne tradition to ensure the integrity of the Frankish Empire. They also used their Carolingian heritage to increase their influence in the old Carolingian Middle Kingdom.

During the following centuries the Frisian counts  – being closely linked to the German Emperors –  did rise in power, which assisted in maintaining their independence. Already around 1000 the Brunoanen were able to extend their powers to the west, probably by defeating the Frisians who had their power base on the other side of the Middle Sea (Zuider Sea) in Holland.

Increasingly these two Frisian branches formed independent entities, with the West Frisians (in what would become Holland) trying again and again to win back their power in East Frisia (current Friesland and Groningen).

An interesting development that shows the independence of the Frisian happened in 1099 when the Saxon Count Henry the Fat (c. 1055 – 1101) – linked to the Brunoanen – was bestowed by the title of Margrave of Frisia by Emperor Henry IV. He immediately tried to regulate Frisian shipping and ignored the privileges granted to the town of Staveren. The Church, feeling threatened by Henry, allied with the merchant class and the townsmen. Though they received him on seeming friendly terms, he perceived their threat and tried to flee by boat. His ship was attacked at sea and sunk, though his wife escaped the assault. The day of his death is not known precisely, but he was buried in Bursfelde on 10 April 1101.

As independent people the ‘free’ Frisians were able to maintain their status by providing support to the German Emperor. Emperor Willem III for the first time officially recognised them in a privilege of 1248, which was again confirmed in 1417. The exact nature of what is called the ‘Friese Vrijheid” (Frisian Freedom) is unclear as at the same time there were ‘Counts’ of Frisia, but most certainly their feudal power over the local farmers and townsfolk was severely limited. During the 13th century they established a loose federation;  representatives of the combined Frisian lands met – according to age old tradition – at a hill in the forest at Opstalboom, in Eastern Friesland. However, this didn’t last long; they met the last time in 1361.

As there was no central authority and little unity among the people in these areas; neighbouring Dukes and Counts from Holland and Gelre regularly tried to take a slab of the region, but long term they were never totally successful.

The Battle of Ane in 1227 is probably the most famous of  all of the Frisian freedom battles  (see below). Another one is known as the Battle of Stavoren (or Warn) in 1345 where again the Hollanders under the leadership of Count Willem IV of Holland were defeated by the free Frisians. Until this time the Frisian city of  Staveren (Stavoren) had usually sided with Holland, its most important trading partner. However, with the assistance of the Vetkopers (see below) the Count of Holland was in 1396 able to occupy all of Friesland. However, with the assistance of Schieringers they were expelled again in 1414, shortly after that the Emperor again confirmed the Friese Vrijheid.

The end of this ‘Freedom’ happened when  Albrecht Duke of Saxony, an astute military commander earned the respect of the Dukes of Burgundy. In 1488 Albrecht was able to liberate Duke Maximilian, who was captured by the citizens of Brugge. He also assisted the Burgundians to recapture Holland, Flanders and Brabant. In 1498 he was rewarded for this and received the title Governor of Friesland – with a history of Saxon Counts in Frisia this was an interesting historic development. However, against the old traditions, he was not allowed to plunder the captured regions. This led to a severe financial loss for Albrecht.

However, the power of the ‘free Frisian’ had been undermined already for a long time by discord among the forever warring lower nobility (hoofdelingen) who all want to extend their local power from their castles (borgen/stinsen). This escalated in the 14th century when foreign powers – all too eager to do so, became involved. Since 1325  a civil war between the Schieringers and the Vetkopers.

Schieringers and Vetkopers

The Schieringers and Vetkopers were two opposing Frisian factional parties. They were responsible for a bloody civil war that lasted for over a century (1350–1498) and which eventually led to the end of the highly praised “Frisian freedom”.
The real reasons for the conflict are uncertain but similar to those in Holland (Hoekse and Kabeljouwse Twisten) and Gelre (Heekeren en Bronkhorst ). It looks like these factional conflicts, at least partly, arose because of economic downturn and political frustration.A conflict between the Cistercians and Premonstratensians (Norbetijnen) monks – showing a decline in the integrity of the monasteries – as well as a decline in other communal institutions and social discord this led to the emergence of opportunistic hoofdelingen (“headmen”), wealthy landowners possessing large tracts of land and fortified homes. They used the turmoil to extend their powerbases.

The Schieringers got their name from ‘schiere (grey) monks’ linked to the Cistercians, they had their powerbase in Westergo (West-Friesland). The Vetkopers are linked to the Norbetijnen, who were involved in cattle farming (fat meadows), their powerbase was to the east of the no longer existing Middle Sea with key cities: Dokkum, Leeuwarden, Groningen as well as East-Friesland.

The hoofdelingen also took over the role of the judiciary as well offering protection to their local inhabitants. Internal struggles between these regional leaders resulted in bloody conflicts and the alignment of regions along two opposing parties: the Schieringers and the Vetkopers. However, alliance could shift as we also saw in the conflicts in the other provinces.In the second half of the fifteenth century the Vetkoper’s town of Groningen, which had become the dominating force in Frisia, tried to interfere in Mid-Frisian affairs. The meddling met strong opposition in Schieringers held Westergo and ended in a call for foreign help.

On 21 March 1498, a small group of Schieringers from Westergo secretly met with the Stadholder-General of the Netherlands, Albert, Duke of Saxony in Medemblik, requesting his help. Albrecht, who had gained a reputation as a formidable military commander, accepted and soon conquered all of Friesland. His overlord Emperor Maximilian of Habsburg appointed Albrecht hereditary governor of Friesland in 1499.

A year later the Vetkopers invited Duke Charles of Gelre to assist them in getting rid of the (foreign) soldiers. This led to further devastation as the unpaid troops of Albrecht roamed the region both inside and outside Friesland (see below).

In the meantime the abandoned troops of the Duke – known as the Grote Garde – started to roam the region. They were either not or poorly paid and were not allowed to plunder. However once abandoned some 4,000 of them went on a rampage through the region, in 1499 they also laid waste to Twente.

After the death of Albrecht in 1500, his son Georg became the new governor, who started to reform the provincial administration, but he received fierce opposition from the Vetkopers. After the defeat of the Habsburg Prince Philip the Fair  in Gelre in 1504/1505, Georg had to fled Friesland. The Vetkopers turned to Charles of Gelre for assistance against the Habsburg forces, who was only to pleased to oblige. This led to a counteraction of the newly appointed Stadholder of Frieland, Floris van Egmond. However, there was no clear outcome and this led to another period of instability.

Some local strongmen were able to grab power for a while. A famous warrior peasant Greate (Grote – Big) Pier joined the Frisian forces to attack the occupiers during 1514 and 1515, he led a pirate fleet that ravaged havoc in particular in Holland. He became (and still is ) a man of legends.

In order to differentiate the Frisians from the Hollanders he let people repeat the following rhyme: bûter, brae en griene tsis, wa’t dat net sizze kin, is gijn oprjochte Fries (butter, rye bread, green cheese, who can’t say this is not a real Frisian).

After a failed attack from Holland on the Vetkopers and the Duke of Gelre in 1517 the other party plundered an area from  Medemblik to the walls of Amsterdam. In 1521 the States of Holland provided exceptionally large funds for an expedition to Friesland

Finally, in 1523, Frisian resistance collapsed, the Gelre alliance proofed to be opportunistic as they largely abandoned the Frisian.   A year later Friesland was integrated  by the emperor in the Dutch Burgundian Lands.

This meant the end for the Frisian Freedom. But even under his reign it was difficult to unite the Frisians. This continued to well into modern times. Under the Dutch Republic, Friesland became one of the Provinces who joined the Dutch Revolt. But when Friesland had to represent itself at the General States in The Hague they first had to get the support of the 30 smaller communities and the eleven major towns. This always took a long time and even in modern times when something is done very slow the well known and common Dutch expression is: “it is done at the pace of 11/30”.

There are several place names in the Netherlands that remind to these ongoing conflicts, from this period dates the village name Hebbrecht in Groningen (it means conflict seeker). Most probably referring to the conflict between the cities in Groningen and the Bishop of Münster.

 Groningen and the Ommelanden

Groningen has an interesting position in the northern Netherlands. It was originally part of the pagus Drenthe, but perhaps as early as 800 (Charlemagne) the city received its own status and became part of the Bishopric Utrecht. However, there was hardly any effective control and the community largely operated independently as a city state.  It became a Hanse city and developed into the largest city in the northern Netherlands, it was also large enough to have its own city militia that proofed to be very effective in the many local conflicts.

Originally also the language was Frisian but during the Late Middle Ages – and perhaps under the influence of its Hanse trade – a separate city language developed more based on the Germanic variant of Low German (Niederdeutsch, Nedersaksisch) and slowly also the Ommelanden took over the new language.

Groningen has a unique position in Dutch history as it used its power to subdue the Ommelanden (originally part of Frisia)  under its rule. It forced the region to use the staple right of the city. Farmers had to sell their grain in Groningen and couldn’t sell it to others. It also forced the region to buy certain products (such as for example beer) in the city, they couldn’t brew this themselves. All of this led to centuries of conflict between the city and its region.

During the Frisian conflict of the Schieringers and Vetkopers, Groningen chose the site of the Vetkopers and the Ommelanders the side of the Schieringers.

Groningen lost its independence as a city-state when Duke Albert of Saxon took control over Friesland on behalf of Emperor Charles V in 1499 and against its will incorporated Groningen and the Ommelanden in the Burgundian Province of Friesland. During the Dutch Revolt the catholic city stayed loyal to the Spanish King Philip II, but the Ommelanden used the opportunity to free them from the city and choose the side of the Revolt. However, this all ended when Groningen was conquered by Prince Maurits and in 1594 Groningen and its Ommelanden became the 7th province of the Republic. It was not until the French Revolution that the towns in the Ommelanden received their status as independent municipalities.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)