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In the upcoming blockbuster movie Redbad (2018), the Frisian king Redbad (d. 719) is depicted as an early medieval Frisian freedom fighter, defending his people against Frankish warriors and Anglo-Saxon missionaries (for a link to the trailer, see below). Late medieval Frisian sources, however, paint a wholly different image of Redbad: a Danish tyrant and “unfrethmonne” [lit. ‘un-peace-man’] who suppressed the Frisian people. This blog post discusses the dealings of the ‘historical Redbad’ with Anglo-Saxon missionaries, as well as two later medieval legend surrounding this ‘last king of the Frisians’.
“Enemy of the Catholic Church”: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries
Around the year 720, the Anglo-Saxon abbess Bugga wrote to the Anglo-Saxon missionary Boniface, congratulating the latter with the death of the Frisian ruler Redbad (d. 719):
Postea inimicum catholicae ecclesiae Rathbodum coram te consternuit. Deinde, per somnium temet ipso revelavit, quod debuisti manifeste messem Dei metere et congregare sanctarum animarum manipulos in horream regni caelestis.
Next he laid low before you Redbad, that enemy of the Catholic Church. Then he revealed to you in a dream that it was your duty to reap the harvest of God, gathering in sheaves of holy souls into the storehouse of the heavenly kingdom.
Bugga’s classification of Redbad as “inimicum catholicae ecclesiae” [enemy of the Catholic Church] was probably based on the fierce resistance Redbad had come to show to Christian missionaries.
Redbad had not always been this hostile. The Anglo-Saxon chronicler Bede (d. 735), for instance, described how the Anglo-Saxon preacher Wictbert had been allowed to preach for two years in Redbad’s realm, albeit without any result (Ecclesiastical History of the English People, bk. V, ch. 9 – source). Another Anglo-Saxon missionary, Willibrord (d. 739), did not succeed in converting Redbad either, as the Life of Willibrord (c. 796) by Alcuin relates:
He [Willibrord] had the boldness to present himself at the court of Radbod, at that time King of the Frisians and like his subjects, a pagan. Wherever he travelled he proclaimed the Word of God without fear; but though the Frisian king received the man of God in a kind and humble spirit, his heart was hardened against the Word of Life. (ch. 9 – source)
Redbad’s reluctance towards the Christian faith probably had everything to do with the fact that these missionaries cooperated with the Franks led by Pepin of Herstal (d. 714), who sought to expand his territory into Frisia. After Pepin’s death in 714, Redbad made use of the polical chaos in Francia to reconquer bits and pieces of Frisia where the Franks had extended their rule, destroying various Christian places of worship in the process.
Having succeeded his father Aldgisl in c. 680, Redbad’s reign lasted for a considerable time, close to forty years. While he initially had to admit defeat to the expanding Frankish forces, he eventually overcame his southern enemies and remained a feared and powerful military ruler until his death in 719. Movie material, indeed!
In and out of bath with Redbad
The most famous legend surrounding Redbad concerns his baptism. First recorded in a saint’s life of the Frankish missionary Wulfram (d. 703), the legend relates how Redbad had been persuaded to accept baptism and had already put one foot in the baptismal font. Before completing the ceremony, Redbad asked Wulfram: “Will I see my ancestors in the hereafter?” To which Wulfram, rather bluntly, replied: “Of course not, they are in Hell; you will join the ranks of the blessed in Heaven!”. Redbad next retracted his foot and exclaimed that he would rather be with his ancestors in the torments of Hell than spend eternity with saintly strangers in Paradise. As such, Redbad earned a reputation as a stone-hearted, reluctant pagan. Occasionally, the legend of Redbad’s baptism is ascribed to the Anglo-Saxon missionary Willibrord, as on this early-16th-century orphrey, now in Museum Catharijneconvent (Utrecht):
“Unfrethmonne”: Redbad in late medieval Frisian texts
As might be expected, Redbad’s reputation as a fierce enemy of the Church did not make him into a beloved historical figure in the later Middle Ages, even in Frisia. In fact, various Old Frisian texts depict him as a foreign tyrant, who surpressed the Frisian people. The heroes in these later Frisian stories are Willibrord and the great-grandson of Pepin of Herstal, Charlemagne (d. 814). The latter, in particular, is described as the person responsible for giving the Frisians their freedom. That freedom was much needed, since according to one of the oldest Old Frisian texts, The Seventeen Statutes and the Twenty-Four Land Laws, surviving in the First Riustringer Codex:
Hwande alle Frisa er north herdon Redbate, tha unfrethmonne, al thet frisona was. (W. J. Buma, De eerste Riustringer codex [The Hague, 1961], iii 76-77).
[Because all Frisians first belonged to the North, to Redbad, the un-peace-man, all that was Frisian]
In a later manuscript, Redbad ‘the un-peace-man’ was even called a Danish king: “tha Deniska kininge” (W. J. Buma, Het tweede Rüstringer handschrift [The Hague, 1954], ii 32).
Perhaps the most intriguing representation of Redbad is found in the fifteenth-century Gesta Fresonum, a translation of the Latin Historiae Frisiae. Here, Redbad, the king of Norway and Denmark, is linked to the biblical Pharaoh:
Als dy bose coninck Pharo anxte hiede fan dae kynden fan Israhel, dier om dede hy hy arm grete aermoed ende ayndom. Aldus dede dy quade tyran Radbodus … Disse mackede grate ayndom wr dae Friesen… (W. J. Buma, P. Gerbenzon & M. Tragter-Schubert, Codex Aysma [Assen 1993], v. 7)
[Like the evil king Pharaoh feared the children of Israel, for which he inflicted on them great poverty and slavery. So did this cruel tyrant Redbad who brought the Frisians to great slavery…]
The same text heralds Willibrord as the new Moses (leading the Frisians from captivity) and Charlemagne as the new David, defeating Goliath (=Redbad). The way Charlemagne defeats Redbad is peculiar, to say the least. Instead of a fight to the death, they agree that whoever manages to stand still for the longest time, without bending his knees or bowing down, would rule over the Frisians. After some time, Charlemagne thinks of a cunning plan: he drops his handkerchief. Redbad, foolishly, picks it up and, the moment he bends down, Charlemagne exclaims: “ha, ha ha! Dit is worden myn knecht, dier om is dit land myn!” [hahaha! He has become my servant, therefore this land is mine!] (Ibid., v. 17). Redbad admits his defeat and Charlemagne frees the Frisians from their tyranical un-peace-man. Naturally, the whole event is a myth, if only because Redbad died in 719, years before Charlemagne was even born.
The historical Redbad, it seems, has become something of a victim of imaginative hagiographers and chroniclers. That each period creates its own Redbad is demonstrated by the trailer to the upcoming movie Redbad (2018), which depicts him as an early medieval Frisian freedom fighter, heroically shielding his people from ambitious Frankish warlords and overzealous Anglo-Saxon missionaries:
Clearly, Redbad’s rejection of Christianity is no longer seen as problematic in this film, which may not bode well for the representation of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries!
If you liked this blog post, you may also enjoy:
- The Latest Miracle of Anglo-Saxon Missionary Saint Adalbert of Egmond (d. c.740)
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad
- A pug’s guide to medieval Holland
© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
In the second episode of series two of The Last Kingdom, a row of decapitated heads has been placed outside the main gate of Dunholm/Durham. As this blog post will illustrate, this practice, barbaric though it seems, is well attested for Anglo-Saxon England.
Historical examples: Saint Oswald and the real Uhtred
Perhaps the best-known example of decapitation and impalement was that of Saint Oswald of Northumbria (d. 642). After Oswald had been defeated by the pagan King Penda of Mercia, Penda had Oswald’s head and arms cut off. Penda then had these body parts put on stakes, until Oswald’s brother Oswy retrieved them, a year after the battle. Later, Oswald’s head was likely buried in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert (about whom, see: Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb) which ended up in Durham, where it still remains today. Intriguingly, aside from Durham Cathedral, four other institutions today claim to have the skull of Saint Oswald (Bailey 1995), including Hildesheim Cathedral which houses a beautiful twelfth-century head reliquary depicting the head of Oswald (see image below).
The display of decapitated heads did not die out with the arrival of Christianity. In the De Obsessione Dunelmi, a Latin historical work from around 1100, we are told of a siege of Durham by the Scots in the early eleventh century. Luckily for Durham, their bishop Ealdun’s daughter had been married to Uhtred (d. 1016), son of the earl of Northumbria and the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series upon which BBC’s The Last Kingdom is based. This Uhtred came to Durham’s aid and massacred the Scottish host and had the Scots decapitated. Uhtred then sent for the most attractive heads to be brought to Durham:
The heads of the slain, made more presentable with their hair combed, as was the custom in those days, he had transported to Durham, and they were washed by four women and fixed on stakes around the circuit of the walls. The women who had previously washed them were each rewarded with a single cow. (cited in Thompson 2004: 193)
Aside from the intriguing reward of a cow for washing a dead man’s head, this episode in the De Obsessione Dunelmi reveals that the display of decapitated heads remained common (customary even) until the eleventh century, at least.
Heafod stoccan in Anglo-Saxon charters
Anglo-Saxon charters often contained vernacular boundary clauses which described the areas under discussion. Within these boundary clauses, the term heafod stocc ‘head stake’ is frequently attested, suggesting that it was common practice to mark the limits of estate properties with impaled heads. Various charters locate such head stakes in the vicinity of a road: e.g., “æfter foss to þam heafod stoccan” [after the way to the head stakes] (S 115); “of heafod stocca andlang stræt” [from the head stakes along the street] (S 309); and “7lang stret to þam heafod stoccan” [along the street to the head stakes] (S 695). These examples suggest that these head stakes would have been visible for people travelling from and towards locations, possibly along main access roads. Given their use as boundary markers in surviving Anglo-Saxon charters, these head stakes must have been a permanent as well as salient feature in the landscape. The existence of head stakes is supported by archaeological evidence, which also locates execution sites at the boundaries of estates (see Reynolds 2009: 169). Just like the heads of criminals spiked on the walls of old London Bridge, the purpose of these head stakes must have been to not only mark the boundaries of an estate, but also to warn potential transgressors against the consequences of wrongdoings.
An inspiration for Anglo-Saxon authors and artists
The spectacle of decapitating an enemy’s head and putting it on display proved inspirational for various Anglo-Saxon authors and at least one artist. The Beowulf poet, for instance, has Beowulf and his men parade Grendel’s head on a stake towards Heorot: “feower scoldon / on þæm wælstenge weorcum geferian / to þæm goldsele Grendles heafod / oþ ðæt semninga to sele comon” [four had to carry Grendel’s head with hardships to the gold-hall on a battle-pole, until they came to the hall] (Beowulf, ll. 1637b-1639). Here, Grendel’s head functions as a trophy, a sign of Beowulf’s heroic triumph.
A rare visual depiction of a decapitated and impaled head is found in the Old English Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) an eleventh-century, illustrated translation from the Latin Vulgate of the first six books of the Old Testament (see: The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch: An early medieval picture book). In his depiction of Genesis 8:7 (‘And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.’), the artist of the Hexateuch deviated from the biblical text and depicted a raven pecking at a head, impaled on Noah’s ark (see below). It has been suggested that the artist was drawing on his own creativity here, given the fact that there is no iconological tradition that depicts Noah’s raven in this way (Gatch 1975: 11). Perhaps, the Anglo-Saxon artist was so familiar with the practices of decapitation and impalement that he could think of no better way to depict God’s wrath!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy other blog posts on The Last Kingdom or Anglo-Saxon decapitations:
- Chop chop! Three bizarre beheadings in Anglo-Saxon England
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- Arseling: A Word Coined by Alfred the Great?
- Anglo-Saxon props: Three TV series and films that use early medieval objects
Works refered to:
- Bailey, Richard N., “St Oswald’s Heads,” in Oswald: Northumbrian King to European Saint, ed. C. Stancliffe and E. Cambridge. 195-209. Stamford: Paul Watkins, 1995.
- Gatch, Milton McC., “Noah’s Raven in Genesis A and the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch”, Gesta 14:2 (1975), pp. 3-15
- Reynolds, Andrew, Anglo-Saxon Deviant Burial Customs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Thompson, Victoria. Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004.
Alfred and the cakes, Cnut and the waves, and Eadmer the flying monk: Anglo-Saxon history is full of anecdotes. On this blog I will regularly highlight some amusing and/or remarkable episodes from early medieval England, along with a selfmade cartoon. This blog discusses how a singing ox and some dead pigeons heralded the death of St. Edith of Wilton.
St. Edith of Wilton
Edith (961- 984) was daughter to King Edgar the Peacable (d. 975) and sister to Edward the Martyr (979). At a young age, she entered the nunnery at Wilton, where her mother (St. Wulfthryth) was an abbess. While she only lived to the age of 23, Edith seems to have made an impression on the community at Wilton. When, some hundred years later, the monk Goscelin of St Bertin travelled around England to write saint’s lives, he found that Edith was remembered as the patron saint of Wilton Abbey. Goscelin then wrote a biography of Edith, basing himself on “those things which they [the nuns of Wilton] heard from the venerable senior nuns, who both saw the holy virgin herself and devotedly obeyed her [Edith]” (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 24).
Goscelin’s narrative includes various miracles, including Edith’s prophetic dreams. When her brother Edward was crowned King of England, for instance, “Edith, in contemplation, dreamed that her right eye fell out”. She interpreted this dream as follows: “It seems to me that this vision foretells some disaster to my brother Edward” (trans. Wright & Loncar, pp. 50-51). Four years later, Edith was proven correct: Edward was murdered at Corfe Castle (possibly due to the treachery of his stepmother Ælfthryth).
A singing ox and some dead pigeons
Goscelin reported another of Edith’s visions, which took place seven days before her own death. In a dream, she had a most disturbing vision: she dreamt that she was in a bathtub, surrounded by an ox who repeatedly sang John 3:8:
An ox went around the cauldron in which her bath used to be heated, and sang three times: “The Spirit breathes where he will, and you hear his voice, but you do not know whence he comes and whither he goes.” (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 56).
As soon as she awoke, she contracted a fever. Next, she saw her pet pigeons lying dead near her bedside:
The doves, which she had fed as living beings like her in their purity and innocence, and had cherished with the regard of the Creator of all things, were suddenly found dead when their mistress fell into her fever, foretelling the sleep of their mistress, so that they seemed to anticipate her funeral rites. (trans. Wright & Loncar, p. 57).
When Edith died seven days later, she was carried out of her room in the cauldron that she usually took her bath in. As such, the singing ox walking around this ‘bathtub’ makes some sense, after all!
If you liked this post, you may also enjoy:
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How a peasant beheaded himself
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Dreaming of witch-wives, fiery pitchforks and the Battle of Fulford
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Battle of the Birds, 671
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How beer and bees beat the Viking siege of Chester in c. 907
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Earl Siward and the Proper Ways to Die
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: The Real Night of the Long Knives
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: How Hengest was led by the nose
- An Anglo-Saxon Anecdote: Alleluia, the Anglo-Saxon Boo!
Stay tuned (and follow this blog) for more illustrated Anglo-Saxon anecdotes in the future!
Works referred to:
- Goscelin, The Vita of Edith, trans. M. Wright & K. Loncar, in Writing the Wilton Women: Goscelin’s Legend of Edith and Liber confortatorius, ed. S. Hollis (Turnhout, 2004), pp. 23-67.
Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb
Vikings, Alfred the Great and ninth-century England –
The Last Kingdom (BBC; based on the Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell) will undoubtedly spark an interest into the Anglo-Saxons. On this blog, I will regularly discuss some of the historical and/or cultural background of The Last Kingdom, without major plot spoilers.
In the first episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 22 October, 9 pm, BBC 2), the priest Beocca tells the young Uhtred that he should have the boy ‘swear by Cuthbert’s comb’. This post deals with the real Anglo-Saxon object that served as the inspiration for this remark: the comb of Saint Cuthbert.
St Cuthbert (d. 687)
Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon saints. He spent most of his life on the islands of Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, where he combined the roles of hermit and bishop. He is fascinating for many reasons, but what stands out most for me is his relationship with animals: otters licked his feet, he shared a fish with an eagle, his horse found him some food and crows gave him hog’s lard (which he used to polish his shoes with). He died in the year 687 and he was buried in Lindisfarne. When his coffin was opened 11 years after his death, his body was found to be fully intact: proof that he was indeed a saint. He was put in a new coffin, which was placed inside the church, above ground, near the altar.
Cuthbert’s coffin has a long and exciting history (that we will skip for now) and, after an eventful sojourn through England, ended up in Durham Cathedral. In 1827, the grave in which Cuthbert was thought to have been reburied was opened and they found his bones (no longer intact, this time), along with various relics, such as a travelling altar, a gospel book (now in the British Library), a pectoral cross and an ivory comb.
The comb in Cuthbert’s coffin
Cuthbert’s comb is about 16 cms long and 12 cms wide, with coarse teeth on the one end and fine teeth at the other. This seventh-century comb is an example of a ‘liturgical comb’, which priests would use to fashion their hair prior to celebrating mass. Scholars have noted certain similarities to Mediterranean combs of the same period; this, along with the fact that the comb was made of elephant ivory, demonstrates the big Mediterranean influence on Anglo-Saxon monasticism (on Cuthbert’s comb, see MacGregor 1985: 79).
Keeping Cuthbert from becoming Chewbacca
The ivory comb is described for the first time by the twelfth-century Benedictine monk and hagiographer Reginald of Durham (d. c. 1190), who wrote a book about miracles attributed to Cuthbert. He records an interesting story about how the comb was used to tame the deceased saint’s ever-growing hair. A tenth-century monk named Elfred, Reginald reports, would occasionally open Cuthbert’s coffin in order “to cut the overgrowing hair of his venerable head, to adjust it by dividing it and smoothing it with an ivory comb and to cut the nails of his fingers, tastefully reducing them to roundness”. Reginald also tells us that Elfred would now and again show some of his cuttings to his friends and hold the saint’s hair in flames. Exposed to the fire, Cuthbert’s hair would glisten like gold; cooled down, it returned to its former hairiness. Reginald further tells us that “the ivory comb, perforated in its centre” was placed in Cuthbert’s coffin (source of story: here) – where, apparently, it still was in 1827.
So there you have it: Cuthbert’s comb is well worth swearing by, if only because it allowed a tenth-century monk from keeping St Cuthbert from becoming St Chewbacca.
Works refered to:
MacGregor, Arthur. 2015. Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period. Abingdon: Routledge.
During the early Middle Ages, several Anglo-Saxons made their way to what is now the Low Countries, as missionaries, pilgrims, mercenaries and refugees. On this blog, I will regularly shed light on places in The Netherlands and Belgium associated with these visitors from early medieval England. This post focuses on the Anglo-Saxon saint Adalbert of Egmond (Feast day: 25 June) and the site where he had once been buried: Adelbertusakker, Egmond.
Adalbert of Egmond (d. c.740)
According to our earliest source about Adalbert of Egmond, the tenth-century Vita Sancti Adelberti, Adalbert was born in Northumbria and came to Frisia as one of the companions of the missionary St. Willibrord (d. 739). Adalbert concentrated his efforts in preaching the Gospel to the area around present-day Egmond, North-Holland. He was beloved by the locals, who erected a little wooden chapel in his honour at the site of his grave. Soon after his death in c.740, miracles started to take place: a widow who had prayed to the saint received her daily bread with the incoming tide; marauding Vikings who had their eyes set on Egmond were deceived by miraculously appearing mists; and a man who stole some cheese offered to Adalbert ate both the cheese and his fingers. (You can read the Vita Sancti Adalberti here)
In the tenth century, Adalbert visited the nun Wilfsit three times in a dream and told her that his bones should be exhumed and translated to her nunnery in Hallem (present-day Egmond-Binnen). Wilfsit contacted Count Dirk I of Holland (d. 939), who had the church demolished and Adalbert’s bones dug up. As they did so, water welled up along with the saintly bones and a well was established on the site. Ever since, this well has been a holy place and has been visited by various pilgrims, among whom the blind Anglo-Saxon Folmar, whose sight was restored by drinking water from the well of Adalbertus. A thousand years later, water can still be drunk from the well…
Upon entering the Adelbertusakker (Google Maps location here), you are greeted by three life-size wooden carvings: Dirk Schuit (a man who lived there in the 19th century), Count Dirk II of Holland and St Adalbert. Walking a little further up field, you’ll find trees, benches to sit on, a shrine devoted to St Adalbert and, on the ground, the outlines of where from 1152 to 1573 a stone church had stood. The centrepiece of the field, however, is Adalbert’s well, which is still fully functional.
Pug and Beer: The latest miracle of Adalbert
Water from the well can still be drunk and, according to some, it has retained its medieval miraculous powers. In the 18th century, in particular, water from the well was used to heal cows and other livestock. Needless to say, my pug Breca had her fill as well (and she is still in good health today!).
Interestingly, a nearby abbey (named after Saint Adalbert; I will devote another blog to this in the future) uses water from the well to brew its own beer. The beer is entitled ‘Sancti Adalberti Miraculum Novum’: the latest miracle of Saint Adalbert.
If you liked this post, why not follow this blog for regular updates and/or read the following blogs about other Anglo-Saxons in the low countries?
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Boniface in Dorestad
- Anglo-Saxons in the Low Countries: Ælfthryth of Wessex in Ghent
- ‘The last king of medieval Frisia’: Redbad and the Anglo-Saxon missionaries