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
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