Events Before King Egbert's Time

Events Before King Egbert's Time


The Beginning in Europe

The people of Friesland, Frisians, came from the part of Europe that includes southern Scandinavia, Denmark and generally northwestern Europe. From 1750 to 700 BC they were part of the Germanic tribes, which were mainly Nordic, or “narrow-faced” people. Among the Nordics there was a smaller group of “broad-faced” people who were probably slaves. Around 1400 BC the Germanics split into three basic groups; West (Goths), East (Vandals), and North (Scandinavians). The differences can be traced in language and culture. By 700 BC, the end of the Bronze Age, the Goths had expanded into the coastal region of Germany (now the Hanover area.)

Goths can be divided into three tribal groups along religious lines; the Inguaeones, the Istuaeones, and the Irminones. The Inguaeones’ name was derived from the god Inguz (or Freyr), and included the Frisians. Other tribes in the Inguaeones group were the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons. Of these tribes the closest to the Frisians were the Saxons. The Inguaeones tribes settled along the coast of the North Sea, in area of the current Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen. From 700 to 400 BC there was no separate Frisian group but between 400 and 200 BC major cultural changes happened. By 200 BC a distinctly Frisian culture had developed between the river Eems in Germany and Wijk-bij-Duurstede in the Netherlands. For the first time the Frisians were an ethnic group. By 47 AD the Roman Empire had control of Friesland, though there were occasional rebellions. The region remained in the Roman Empire until the Empire’s collapse in 410 AD.

The name “Frisian” has been found as far back as the end of the first century AD. The Germanic word “Freisias” comes from the Indo-European “Preisios,” meaning “to love.”  Freya is the Germanic goddess of fertility and love and this name is considered the root of the tribal name. There are runes of the ancient alphabet used by the Germanic peoples. Words were carved in wood, making them have an angular shape. The earliest runes found were carved in Southern Juteland in Denmark. The runes were used for two main purposes, sending messages and for religious or magical purposes. Initially there were 24 letters in their alphabet but in areas populated by Angles, Saxons, and Frisians it was developed to a total of 26 letters, known as the Anglo-Frisian Futhorc.

From 250 AD to 100 AD some of the Frisians and Chaukians (the most numerous Germanic tribe) made a new tribal alliance called the Franks, which emigrated south to form the Frankish Empire. After 400 AD the rise of sea-level stopped and the Frisians returned to the coast of Germany, which by then had been settled by other tribes. These tribes became the Frisian tribe. The Saxons merged with some of the Chaukians also. This new group took the Saxons’, not the Chaukians’ name. Apparently the Saxons, though a smaller tribe, had done more to build up the union. They are mentioned as pirates in the North Sea starting in 286 AD.

The Migration Period

350 to 550 AD was a migration period in Europe. In the seventh century the Frisian Empire extended from the coastal areas of north Belgium to southern Denmark. They controlled much of the North Sea trade routes from Friesland to England, Frankia, Scandinavia and northwestern Russia. A ‘Magna Frisia’ (Great-Friesland) consisted of a long narrow strip of land along the North Sea, from the Swin River in Belgium to the Weser River in Germany. The Saxons were their neighbors to the north and east, the Franks were in the south and the Anglo-Saxons in the west across the North Sea. Since the conversion to Christianity of the Franks under Clovis the Frisians had become their major enemy. About 450 AD Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians crossed the North Sea and established the Anglo-Saxon empire known as England. The Frisians colonized what became the county of Kent in southeast England. 

Clovis, and the Franks, converted to Catholicism for power and political reasons. Other Germanic tribes had converted to Christianity called Arianism. The Germanic tribes in the north, including Friesland, still practiced the religious beliefs of their forefathers, known as Odinism and were considered heathens. There were many years of warfare between the Franks and Frisians, Christians and heathens. Around 734 Charles Martel sent forces to the heart of Frisian land. A decisive battle, with Poppo as the Frisian leader, was waged on land and sea. Frisian forces were defeated, and Poppo was killed, and Friesland became part of the Frankish Empire. Frisians lost their freedom and the church established a foothold in Friesland.

East Friesland was conquered about fifty years later. They had united with their heathen Saxon neighbors. Charles Martel’s son, Pepin the Short tried but could not win against these Frisians and Saxons. They remained free until his grandson, Charlemagne, defeated them in 785. In Kent, at this time, Egbert of Wessex would have been about ten years old.

During the eighth century, while these struggles were taking place, the Frisian language was born, which can be traced back by sound changes in the language. It is a Germanic language belonging to the West Germanic group. High and Low German, Dutch, and English are also in this group, English being the closest to Frisian. At its start Frisian was spoken in the coastal areas of Holland and Denmark.

Charlemagne ruled the Frankish Empire in a strong centralized way and Frisians were required to serve in his armies. In 800 the first Viking raids upon Friesland started, and the Frisians were discharged to organize their defenses at home. Egbert was in exile from 795 to 802 in Charlemagne’s court, and would have been aware of these events.  Since Charlemagne’s victory over the Saxons in 785, his empire bordered the Viking Empire. The Vikings knew of atrocities Charlemagne had done to the Frisians and Saxons and raided the wealthy churches and monasteries, which were thought of as heathen reprisals.

After 785 the Frisian Empire was a county of the Frankish Empire. The first Frisian count in the Frankish Empire dated from 749-775. The count was a feudal tenant with the main duties to maintain the rule of law, and to organize conscripts for the Frankish armies. There are several who are known by name from various records of Charlemagne’s court, representing East, West, and Middle Friesland. There were three counts named Egbert in this group, all counts of Middle Friesland. There was a Count Egbert mentioned during the time of King Egbert’s exile in Charlemagne’s court, who remained in the Frankish Empire after the return of King Egbert to England.

In Britain

By about 84 AD the Romans had conquered all England, and most of Wales and the Lowlands of Scotland. After that time the Briton tribes were quiet with few incidents. They benefited from the Roman civilization, with its language, laws, roads, business and trading. The principal enemies of Roman Britain were the Picts from the Scottish Highlands, Frisians, Angles, and Saxons. To deal with these groups, the Romans appointed a special Count of Saxon Shores, which included most of the east coast of England. For many years these “Saxons” were beaten off, but when the Roman empire itself was invaded by barbarians, Roman troops in Britain were called home and left the island at the mercy of the invaders. At first the Britons fought the Saxons, the Gaels and Picts, but Britain soon broke up into many small independent kingdoms.

In 449 the king of Kent, Vortigern, was desperate and appealed for help in beating off the attacks from the Picts, to two Jutish chiefs from the continent, Hengist and Horsa. They drove the Picts out, but refused to return home. War followed, and Vortigern was defeated at the battle of Aylesford, at which Horsa was slain. Hengist then took over the kingdom of Kent. During the next hundred and fifty years invaders conquered most of the little kingdoms and settled there with their families. The Anglo-Saxon invasion had begun.

A Saxon chief, Aella, landed in Sussex in 477, proceeded to overrun the district, and settled his followers there, battering the Britons in a number of sieges. Nearly twenty years later, another Saxon chief, Cerdic, brought an army to Southampton, and shortly made himself master of Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire. Cerdic became king of Wessex and was a direct ancestor of King Egbert.

The invaders had now settled in the eastern part of England and southern Scotland. The land was excellent ground for agriculture, and the Angles and Saxons were expert farmers. The marauding Saxons seized whatever bits of land they could and, of course, there was opposition from the Celts. The legendary King Arthur was one of those who led them in trying to beat off the advancing Saxons. However, nothing would stop them arriving and settling.

The first Anglo-Saxon communities were probably started with gifts of land by the conquering chieftains to the sworn followers whom they was bound to maintain in return for their loyal service in battle. In this way Anglo-Saxons formed many settlements, not under the old tribal king, but under princes representing younger branches. They organized themselves as new military states, dependent on their chiefs, rather than as tribal groups. When the names of these new settlements were not already well established they are either borrowed from the lands recently conquered or given a new name.

In about 550 AD there were probably as many as a thousand little Anglo-Saxon “kingdoms,” some only a few square miles in area. There is some information about the local chieftains of that time in the place-names which still survive. A large number of towns and villages in England have names ending in -ing, or -ingham, or -ington. The word ingas meant ‘family’ or ‘followers,’ so a chief’s name would be perpetuated in the name of the spot where his boat landed and where he carved out his little kingdom, and this would be followed by -ing to show that his family or followers had settled there with him. Tooting, Havering, and Paddington are typical examples. A ham meant ‘home’ or ‘homestead,’ and a tun was ‘enclosure’ and later came to mean ‘village’ or ‘town.’ So a village with a name such as Donnington would suggest that it was the ‘town where Dunna’s people live.’


Germanic Tribes in Europe

map of Frisia with trade routes ca. 1400

and today (notice the change in land mass)

King Arthur Armed
© The British Library Board

King Arthur Armed,
carrying his red shield blazoned with the Virgin and Child;
below, the crowns of thirty kingdoms

from Chronicle of England, Peter de Langtoft, ca. 1307

for larger image

Historical Time Line
The Making of Kings- Kingship, The Army and Warfare
Events before King Egbert's Time- Beginning in Europe, The 7 Kingdoms and the ChurchLineage, Ancestors and Parentage
The Life of King Egbert- The Early Years (775-802)
The Kingship- Chronicle Excerpts, 802-824, 825-829, 830-839, Reasons for Success

The People and Places Important to King Egbert - The People, The Places
Society in King Egbert's Time- Part 1 (Government, Household, Allegiance, Finances) Part 2 (Great Hall, Cooking & Eating, Food, Feasts, Christmas)
Part 3
(Crafts & Trade, Clothing and Appearance, Hygiene, Medicine) Part 4 (Peasants, Farming, Gardens & Plants, Common Tasks, Home, Village) Part 5 (Art)
Sources and References