So Long, Satire

How political humor has paved the way to political hell

No more Daily Show; no more Last Week Tonight; no more Full Frontal; no more Real Time. I’m off them all. It will be hard, and it will feel like a loss, but I’m solidly done. “Why?” you might well ask, and I’ll tell you: It’s Malcolm Gladwell’s fault.

I’ve read pretty much everything Gladwell has written, and when it somehow got by me, a friend told me about his podcast, Revisionist History. I heartily and unreservedly recommend RevHist and, indeed all of Gladwell’s work¹—he’s made a career of questioning conventional wisdom and digging into poorly understood and overlooked topics.

In one RevHist episode, “The Satire Paradox”, he covered political humor, focusing on whether or not it was effective in terms of changing opinions or achieving actual change. It resonated with some events that were current when I was listening to it, but that’s was as far as it went—I agreed with Gladwell that we shouldn’t let politicians off the hook by ignoring their political issues and instead treating them with humor.

But Gladwell does his homework, and he shares that homework with us. For every episode of his RevHist, he supplies a section of Reference Docs, and reading, watching, and listening to this additional information is a great way to get some of the depth that his 45-minute format doesn’t permit.

For this particular episode, one of the Reference Docs was an article in the London Review of Books called “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, written by Jonathan Coe and discussing Harry Mount’s The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson. And this piece gives the topic both barrels. Or maybe every possible barrel.

The article begins by discussing the rise of anti-establishment political humor in the UK. Coe traces the lineage of the genre from Beyond the Fringe to Monty Python, Have I got News for You, and That Was the Week That Was. He points out that the creators of this brand of comedy are essentially those “trained to lead” the establishment they criticize, engaging in some good-natured rebellion during or after attending Oxford or Cambridge. He also points out that being anti is a vague and not necessarily pointful position.

Then he gets mean. He cites Steve Fielding, introduced only as “an academic”:

[I]n accepting this view of politicians as uniformly corrupt and useless, the public are embracing a dangerous new stereotype, since it ‘can only further reinforce mistrust in the public realm, a mistrust that some political forces seek to exploit’.

The Fielding thread goes on:

The idea that politicians are morally inferior to the rest of us is ‘a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not to blame because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong’.

Indeed, the amazing depths to which the tone of political discourse has fallen can easily be seen to reflect this. The “low standards” to which we hold egomaniacal charlatans are the standards we have created and accepted. The fact that it’s become difficult to distinguish news from satire has been so often remarked on that #NotTheOnion has become a thing, but this is neither weird nor eerie; it’s a causal relationship.

Turning to the comedians themselves, Peter Cook, a widely acknowledged “comic genius” and perhaps one of the greatest practitioners of this form of humor seems to have grown to understand it limits:

Famously, when opening his club, The Establishment, in Soho in 1961, Cook remarked that he was modelling it on ‘those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War’.

Michael Frayn, a critic, takes even squarer aim:

[T]he middle classes felt some vague guilt accumulating for the discrepancy between their prosperous security and the continuing misery of those who persisted in failing to conform, by being black, or queer, or mad, or old. Conceivably they felt the need to disclaim with laughter any responsibility for this situation, and so relieve their consciences without actually voting for anything which might have reduced their privileges.

Bullseye.

The piece returns to Boris Johnson, whom the book reviewed is ultimately about, and who has been able to cleverly take advantage of this climate to rise to political power, even satirizing himself in order to render himself “safe” to the public through laughter. This bullying xenophobic demagogue, with clear echoes this side of the pond, is the type of political leader that we have come to deserve.

So goodbye Trevor, adieu John, adios Sam, and auf wiederschauen Bill.


Notes

  1. Things have changed since the writing of this article.

Magical Staves

Old Norse magical symbols, and ones that aren’t (Viking Esoterica, Part 3)

A while back a friend on Facebook shared a link to an interview with Björk from 1988. In the video, she’s talking some endearing nonsense about televisions and lying poets. But what struck me immediately was the tattoo on her upper arm.

I’ll cut to the chase; this strange, eight-legged thing is a Galdrastafur, or Icelandic Magical Stave, and this particular one is the Vegvisir, which is meant to keep one from losing their way. The literal translation is veg, “way” + visir, “guide”. It seems to have been tempting for translators to relate it to German Wegweiser, “signpost”, but while it comprises cognate terms, this is incorrect. It has also been characterized as a “Viking compass”, because of its eight legs, but this is also wrong. There is a wide variety of these staves, with my personal favorite being the Smjörhnútur, which protects one from butter created through witchcraft. I might even have gotten a Björkesque tat of it but unfortunately, it’s a bit nondescript; it just looks like a pentagram with a vertical line down the middle (below). Additionally, as a fencer, I don’t cotton much to the idea of someone jabbing me with a sharp metal object without my being allowed to jab back.

Unfortunately, for those interested in the historical lore of the Vikings, these are not. In fact, they are from a much later date, apparently from around the 15th–19th centuries, with the majority of the corpus coming from the 17th, so in historical terms it would be a mistake on the order of attributing Leaves of Grass to Dante Alighieri. As with the other elements of Nordic esoterica that I’ve discussed in this series, this is partly because of the appropriation of these symbols by various groups, and in particular, Neo-Pagans, though it should be noted, also black metal groups.

The best known Galdrastafur by far is the Ægishjálmur. Performing a quick Google search for it returns “about 166,000 results”, more than triple the population of 50,400 in Iceland in 1703.

Indeed, in addition to many a tat, it has seen increasing use in Vikingy settings of late, appearing in particular on round wooden shields. And again, this is a massive anachronism. It is true, however, that while never used by Vikings, these signs do incorporate elements of runes and pagan symbols.

The place in history of the Galdrastafir matches more closely with the Maleus Malefacarum. The emphasis on witchcraft is a demonstration of the turning back toward superstition of a people who have nominally accepted the Christian faith. Similar to the pentacles of the Clavicula Salomonis or the magical signs, even including some figures quite similar to Galdrastafir, on this scroll I took a picture of in the Tyrolian Museum of Folk Art (Tiroler Volkunstmuseum), Innsbruck.

It’s even shown in a Wikipedia article labeled as ægishjálmr (sic, should be Œgishjalmr), with the article’s name having been backformed from Icelandic into Old Norse. To be fair, this word does exist in Old Norse, it was just never used to refer to this symbol, as it did not exist. Instead it literally meant: “helm of terror”, which was appears to be skaldic language for a terror-striking glance rather than a physical object.

Let me quickly note that Icelandic, which some mistakenly think is synonymous with Old Norse, features several changes to both orthography and pronunciation, including -r → -ur for strong masculine noun endings, made, one imagines to avoid the difficulty in pronouncing a consonant as its own syllable, but it also creates an –ur/-ir pluralization that is linguistically abhorrent. Other North Germanic languages simply dropped the ending, e.g., the Old Norse form of my name is Stigr (the e simply representing a modern spelling variant which the Novelist with the Dragon Tattoo also used).

Back to the Eddas, we read in Fáfnismál

Fáfnir kvað:
“Ægishjalm bar ek of alda sonum,
meðan ek of menjum lák;
einn rammari hugðumk öllum vera,
fannk-a ek svá marga mögu.”
Sigurðr kvað:
“Ægishjalmr bergr einungi,
hvar skulu vreiðir vega;
þá þat finnr, er með fleirum kemr,
at engi er einna hvatastr.”

Fafnir spake:
“The fear-helm I wore to afright mankind,
While guarding my gold I lay;
Mightier seemed I than any man,
For a fiercer never I found.”
Sigurthr spake:
“The fear-helm surely no man shields
When he faces a valiant foe;
Oft one finds, when the foe he meets,
That he is not the bravest of all.”

The conversation is clearly not about an actual helm—shielding against a helm sounds entirely absurd barring an unlikely headbutting reference—but the fear the dragon Fafnir instills in mortals. The place of the word hjalmr in the kenning is locating the cause of fear in the head, or more specifically, the face and eyes.

All of the Magical Staves are essentially material manifestations of Abracadabra—meaningless mummery whose effect, if any, is psychological. These signs essentially represent an evolution: Before writing, there were symbols, then, when writing was created it was magic in itself, as we have seen in our discussion of runes. The defixiones of the Romans, the papyri (πάπυροι) of the Greeks, are magical formulae that are written simply using words—sometimes accompanied by magical charakteres, but the formulae take primacy—and indeed, even in Sumerian, one of the first written languages, apotropaic tablets, as well as ones bearing curses fit this pattern. It is only later, when words are no longer obscure enough that symbols return.

udug’khulne alaḫulne puakuba!

May the evil udugs and the evil alas tremble!

In this Sumerian incantation, an udug is a ghost/ demon of the desert, mountain, sea, and tomb, while an ala is a demon of suffering; the two are often mentioned together. In both cases, but particularly the latter, the descriptor khul—“evil”—seems fairly redundant.

So did the Vikings use magical symbols other than runes and bindrunes? Yes, there were a few.

The best known of these is the Thor’s Hammer (Þórrshmmarr). This is often shown as a simple, T-shaped emblem of the thunder god’s weapon. Some say this might be a cross variant, like a Tau cross, but the crosses found in post-Christian Scandinavian carvings are of a fairly distinct type, and the serpents that also tend to appear with the Þórrshamarr don’t make sense to Christian symbolism, whereas Þórr is a dragonslayer of some renown.

Even as late as the turn of the last century, a T shape was traditionally carved above doorways in southern Tyrol (I’m not sure why the Tyroleans keep turning up here…), for protection from many kinds of evils but storms in particular. In runic carvings it is clear that it is an invocation of the god to hallow and protect.

The so-called valknutr is another one. So-called, because the term is actually a modern coinage, while its true name is unknown, although many point to this passage as referring to it, and personally, I agree:²

hrungnir átti hjarta þat, er frægt er, af hǫrðum steini ok tindótt með þrimr hornum, svá sem síðan er gert ristubragð þar er hrungnishjarta heitir.

Hrungnir had the heart which is notorious, of hard stone and spiked with three corners, even as the written character is since formed, which men call Hrungnir’s Heart.

The image is rendered either as three interlocking triangles similar to the Borromean rings or as a unicursal trefoil knot. There are not many attested, but here’s one:

There is also this image from the Snoldelev Stone in Ramsø, Denmark, which is literally three interlocking horns, and might be either another variant, or the specific sign referred to in the passage above:

There are various lines of thinking on the symbol’s use, mainly in association with Oðinn, and possibly relating to his ability to bind and unbind minds. If the hrungnishjarta name is correct, however, there is also a connection to Þórr, as the slayer of this jǫtunn: The “troll”, Hrungnir, had entered Valhalla (Valhǫll), gotten drunk and was wrecking the place, so they called Þórr. Þórr threw his hammer, and Hrungnir threw his weapon, a massive whetstone. Mjǫllnir shattered the whetstone and slew the giant, with shards raining down on Midgard (Miðgarðr) to become flint, and one jagged chunk lodged forever in Þórr’s head.

The Marvel folks seem to have opted for what is perhaps a more elegant version, known as the triquetra, using the symbol on their Thor’s hammer, but which is not found in Viking art:

The other symbol that the Vikings clearly used, is unfortunately one that can never be taken back: it is the swastika:

It appears on several bracteates like this one, which also includes the alu formula, so showing that it bears a charm. The swastika is also associated with Þórr, and indeed, may simply have been another depiction of mjǫllnir.

Through all three parts in this series, we have seen that Norse esoterica is a minefield of misinformation and appropriation by Neo-Pagans and Nazis. Even beyond this, much of the material has been mishandled and misrepresented. I’m often down with the “rule of cool”, but It’s important to at least understand if you’re taking liberties with historicity, and definitely if you’ve been duped by reappropriations. It’s also important to understand the context of how these things were used, and to take care in how you represent them—even simply doubling sól, the runic equivalent of s, might make someone think you’re into Gene Simmons.


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Runes

Part 2: Bindrunes


Notes

  1. I’ve used the translation from Henry Adams Bellows, The Poetic Edda, 1936 here.
  2. This passage comes from the Skáldskaparmál section of the Snorra Edda, as translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, 1916; emphasis mine.

The Dutch Defense

How Willem II’s sword wound up in the Witham (Solving the Sword, Part 5)

I have posited that the mysterious Witham Sword was Dutch, with the inscription it bears associating it with Willem II. If this hypothesis is correct, there were many opportunities for it to move to England after Willem’s son, Floris V, retrieved it from West Frisia: Floris was in the British Isles extensively, arranging his treaty with Edward I of England and making his case in the Great Cause of Scotland (as well as negotiating heavily with Robert the Bruce for mutual support). Floris’ son, Jan I, was raised in the royal court for a decade as well, and Jan’s English wife, Elizabeth, returned to Holland with him but on his death at only 16, she returned home.

Although Jan’s death represented the end of Willem II’s direct line, Jean II was the old count’s nephew and cemented rule of Holland and Hainault upon his succession, also (finally) adding Zeeland. By the succession of his son, Willem III, not only was rulership in the area firmly settled, but his marriage to Joan de Valois, sister of the future king of France, Philip VI, and subsequent marriages of their daughters, Margaretha to Louis IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Philippa to Edward III of England meant that the family was directly connected to essentially all of the major power brokers in Europe.

And Philippa presents yet one more opportunity for the sword’s arrival in England. But regardless of how it got there, why bother bringing it there just to throw it in a river—a misguided attempt to see if the Lady of the Lake’s hand would emerge from the water to catch it? Indeed, I don’t think that’s what happened: Let’s look at yet another sword:

This sword, which was found along with some 80 others in the Dordogne river is presumed to have been from the Battle of Castillon, fixing the date at 1453. The swords, all now in similar condition, were packed into barrels after the battle and shipped away on barges which then sank. The sword is therefore actually 200 years newer than the Witham sword but clearly in significantly worse shape with rust eating away its edges and causing a number of notches to the appear. This strongly suggests that not only was Willem’s sword not lobbed into the Witham during his lifetime, it was probably done much later even than the Castillon sword.

So we’ll turn our focus instead to a motive for ditching the sword: The Low Countries and England have always had a strong connection; although Calais sits closer, it’s not by much, and indeed France was often the mutual enemy that united these two. This became even truer with the rise of their shared Protestant faith on a continent still dominated by Catholicism. Still a significant breach in these cordial relations did occur. We’ll have to go halfway around the world and hundreds of years later to find it.

Ironically, the breach was a direct result of the closeness of the two nations. By the late 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish were in a cold trade war with the Dutch¹ and British. For the most part this was carried out through embargoes, privateering, diplomacy, and the occasional taking by force of colonial outposts. The Anglo-Dutch cooperation against the Iberian powers was formalized with the Treaty of Defense of 1619. Because economic factors were foremost in this alliance, the main bodies involved, rather than the nations, were the British East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC), who additionally created a Council of Defense in Batavia (Modern day Jakarta, Indonesia). So hand in glove did these companies work that their employees were commonly to be found in one another’s vessels and outposts. The treaty’s regulations allowing this were to be tested in a set of unfortunate circumstances in Amboyna, Indonesia (AKA Ambon Island, present-day Maluku), in 1623.

Although the governments and companies were allied on paper, on the ground, they were still competitors; there were more-or-less petty grievances, tensions, jealousies, and mutual suspicions. Amboyna had all of these in abundance: the VOC’s governor for the area, Herman van Speult, seeing signs that the Sultan of Ternate, a former power center in the area, was favoring the Spanish, thought the British might ultimately be behind this reversal of allegiance. Their treaty stated that each country was to maintain and police the posts it occupied, which the governor interpreted as meaning that he had legal jurisdiction in the area. He rounded up suspects, tortured (waterboarding was the method employed), tried, and executed 10 employees of the EIC, nine Japanese ronin (浪人, rōnin), and one Portuguese employee of the VOC.² Four more Englishmen and two Japanese were also found guilty but pardoned.

The British, however, did not share van Speult’s opinion of the law. Instead, they believed that the joint body in Batavia should have tried the case, dubbed the incident a “massacre”, and proceeded to put out broadsheets including images drawn from martyrology, demonizing the Dutch and fomenting war.

Still, though anti-Dutch sentiment was clearly inflamed, actual war had to wait another 29 years until the pretext could be employed. The Dutch head of state (stadtholder), Frederick Henry, deeply deplored the regicide committed by Oliver Cromwell, having backed Charles I of England in the English Civil war. Indeed, there were Royalists and pro-Commonwealth factions across Europe plotting and inveigling, which, added to the mix of economic tensions, proved a powderkeg. It was lit when Lieutenant-Admiral Maarten Tromp was slow to lower his flag to General-at-Sea Robert Blake in the English Channel and the latter fired on him.

Although the “Amboyna Massacre” was hardly a true casus belli, it was now used as a pretext, as it was in the two Anglo-Dutch Wars to follow, in 1665 and 1672. It was such a never-forget moment that Jonathan Swift made reference to it in Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, having his eponymous hero board a Dutch ship called the Amboyna in Japan, pretending to be a “Hollander”. When he refuses to trample a crucifix, the Emperor promises to keep it quiet:³

For he assured me, that if the secret should be discovered by my Countrymen, the Dutch, they would cut my Throat in the Voyage.

Many pejorative terms that include the descriptor Dutch entered the English language around this time: Dutch courage—false bravado gained by the consumption of alcohol—being the most common today.⁴ Others include:

  • Dutch bargain or Dutch reckoning: an arbitrary bill that only goes up if you try to negotiate it
  • Dutch-belliedDutch-builtDutch-buttocked or Dutch-cut: poorly built or ungainly
  • Dutch comfort or Dutch consolation: summed up as “thank God it’s no worse”
  • Dutch concert: where every instrument plays a different tune
  • Dutch defense: the treacherous or cowardly delivery of a thing into enemy hands
  • Dutch leave: desertion
  • Dutch nightingale: a frog, alluding to the country’s marshiness, as well as the people’s poor singing ability
  • Dutch uncle: someone who is not a relative, yet offers frank advice and/ or rebukes as if they were
  • Dutch widow: a prostitute

In a similar period of anti-German sentiment, WWI, George V of England changed the name of his House from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor. If occasions like this are enough to make the highest of royals change their names to make allegiances clear, certainly keeping around relics that tie you to whomever national hatred is turned against would also seem in need of remedy.

So much the more so in Lincolnshire, center of the wool trade with the Low Countries since the Late Middle Ages, with its own village of New Holland and district of South Holland. John of Gaunt, son of Phillipa of Hainault and Edward III held the proverbial vast tracts there, and a street in the town of Lincoln bears his name, as does a football ground formerly home to Lincoln City.

It’s hard to trace who lived in Lincoln Castle down the years, or who the descendants of this or that duke might be, but I think the sword was in this area from the time of John of Gaunt, until, during some Anglo-Dutch War, through some combination of spite and desire to not be thought of as pro-Dutch, some successor or inheritor took this ancient relic of a forgotten line and flung it into the Witham.

And for comparison, I present a Hungarian riverfind sword; this one from the 17th century, which appears to have gone into the drink shortly after its creation:

You can see that the condition of this blade bears a strong resemblance to the Witham sword; the grip is gone, there is an eating away of the flat surfaces, but the edge is intact. It is interestingly archaic in type, but I am assured of the date—perhaps it’s a sword of rank, just as the French Sabre de Troupe à Pied Modèle 1831 resembled a Roman gladius.

It is beyond my scope, and indeed my abilities, to eliminate all the variables in drawing equivalencies between these three swords, but we have the dates of manufacture for all three, and approximate dates for the submersions of the swords I’ve brought in for comparison. All three were found in large, slow-moving rivers prone to silting—all were found during dredging operations. None of them appear to have been scabbarded when sunk; generally, while the organic parts of scabbards, just as with grips decay quickly, the metal fittings do not, however none of these finds mention any such pieces. If you’re feeling that these examples are cherry-picked, that seems only natural to me, but sadly I chose them due to the scarcity of reliable evidence rather than its abundance: give me access to the arms collections of several European musea and I’ll be happy to conduct a more thorough survey.

Is the case I made airtight? Hardly, but based on the information I could access, I’ve put together what I think is a fairly compelling hypothesis. Short of making a late career change into academia or being independently wealthy with nothing but time on my hands like the guy in Tim’s Vermeer, this is where the trail must end for me: this blade with which Willem II planned to enforce his ambition to expand his realm, unite the Low Countries, and become a player on the greater European stage, passed through many hands. It was lost to the Frisians but Floris V recovered it. Willem’s family eventually achieved the high rank and status that he had sought, and the sword became an heirloom of the Lancasters. And in a time of ill-feeling between the two nations, someone saw fit to lob it in the river.


Addenda

I ran across a great quote from Sir William Monson’s, Naval Tracts of 1703 that perfectly sums up the anti-Dutch sentiment in England, especially in the latter half of the 17th century:

What trades and artifices of all kinds do they set up, to the ruin of many a poor Englishman that has lived an apprentice and bondman seven years to attain his art and occupation? What trades are there in which they have not stocks going, or scriveners with money to lend? What land is to be sold, or mortgage to be had, that they have not the first refusal of? What marriages of man or woman falls amongst them that they will enrich the English with so long as any of their country or tribe is found amongst them? What maritime town, or other of account within twenty miles of the sea, opposite to Holland, that is not stuffed or filled with their people, to the improverishing of the inhabitants and dwellers? What masses of money and gold have they, against the laws of the realm, transported out of it as truth has made it plain?

I also found more terms of disparagement that include the descriptor “Dutch”, including a different meaning for Dutch bargain:

  • Dutch almanac: gibberish
  • Dutch bargain: a one-sided deal or one concluded over drinks
  • Dutch father: same as Dutch uncle
  • Dutch feast: where the host gets drunk before the guests or monopolizes the booze
  • Dutch fustian: nonsense; thieves’ jargon
  • Dutch medley: same as Dutch concert
  • Dutch nerve or Dutch spunk: same as Dutch courage

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: Solving the Sword

Part 2: From Count to Emperor

Part 3: De Gouden Koning

Part 4: God of the Peasants


Notes

  1. Although some will say it is not technically correct, I’ll use Holland and Dutch to refer to the United Provinces of the Netherlands and its people. This simplifies things and maintains clarity, and is a common usage.
  2. Ronin are “masterless samurai”, i.e., mercenaries.
  3. Emphasis mine.
  4. Dutch treat, also called going Dutch, is tempting, but is actually a US English term from much later, and probably refers to German (Deutsch)-speaking immigrants. There is a plethora of terms like this in the English language, with their time of origin strongly indicating the disfavored group of that day.

God of the Peasants

Revolt, flood, war, revenge, murder, and betrayal in the reign of Floris V (Solving the Sword, Part 4)

During a military incursion into West Frisia in 1256, Willem II of Holland managed to end up with only a small contingent of foot soldiers and floundering in a semi-frozen lake near the town of Hoogwoud where his foes were able to make short work of him. The most current theory of his death is that it was not deliberate. The Frisians simply saw a foreign knight leading his infantry across the iced-over Berkmeer and attacked. Only after the deed did one of them recognize the red lion of Holland and the black eagle of Germany on his arms and ask his fellow warriors what in God’s name they had done.

Generally, slaying royalty was bad business. It was much more profitable to hold them for ransom, trading them either for gold or for various other concessions than slaying them and triggering a war of vengeance. It’s quite easy to imagine the Frisians setting Willem free on the condition that he relinquish his claims on their lands, for example. As things stood, although they couldn’t have known it at the time, they had just doomed West Frisia to another three decades of war with, and ultimately complete subjugation by, Holland.

As things stood they apparently were careful with the king’s corpse, salting his remains to prevent decay, and burying him deep in the ground in a wooden box, rather than trying to hide what they had done by scattering the remains. Some presentiment seems to have been at work that they’d eventually have to return the king’s body, and I’d venture that his effects including the sword were also similarly kept safe.

Floris was only one-and-a-half years old when his father was slain. Just as with Willem’s succession at a young age, his holdings as Count of Holland and Zeeland were kept provisionally by his uncle, Floris de Voogd, until he was old enough to rule for himself in 1266. Unfortunately, eight years before his majority, his uncle passed away, precipitating a battle over the custody of his realms between his aunt Aleid (Willem II’s sister; her husband, Jean de Avesnes had also passed away in 1257, leaving her to rule Hainault) and Otto II, Count of Guelders. Otto’s victory in the battle of Reimerswaal in 1263 enabled him to become regent for the remaining three years.

Presumably to settle the bad blood between the counts of Hainault and Flanders, Floris married Jean de Avesnes’ hated rival Gui de Dampierre’s daughter Beatrix in 1269. With things in the rest of the Low Countries seemingly thus settled, the purpose of avenging the death of his father at the hands of the West Frisians, apparently always in the back of his mind, came to the fore.

Floris first invaded Friesland in 1272, but gained little ground, and had to return home in 1274 as the peasantry of Haarlem, Alkmaar, and the surrounding area joined the West Frisians in a revolt, later known as the Uprising of the Kennemers (Opstand der Kennemers),¹ The Bishop of Utrecht, who had turned against Holland near the end of Willem II’s reign, suborned the nobles whose lands bordered on his bishopric, including Gijsbrecht IV and Arnoud of Amstel, Zweder of Abcoude, and Herman VI van Woerden to seize the opportunity to also join the rebellion. Utrecht’s disgruntled craftsmen further swelled the revolt’s ranks. Floris rapidly put all these forces down, annexing the diocese of Utrecht, the regions of Waterland and Gooi, as well as the borderlands of Amstel and Woerden.

Finally in 1282, Floris was able to return to Frisia, where his victory at the battle of Vronen crushed resistance in the area and he was able to go in search of his father’s bones. Many legends surround both where Willem was buried and how it came to be known, but I’ll relate the most common (although folkloric) of these: By the time Floris reached the area of Hoogwoud, only four old men who knew the location of Willem’s corpse were still alive—after all, 27 years had passed at a time when the average lifespan was well below that, and moreover in an area plagued by nearly constant warfare. These old men were simply executed one at a time until the last begged for his life in exchange for showing the count to the location of his father’s corpse.

Digging down two and a half meters, they found the coffin, which was apparently such a triumph for Floris that he carried the remains back to Middleburg at once and interred them with solemn ceremony in the Abbey Church (Abdijkerk) there.

A chapel was built on the site of Willem’s first burial as well, which subsequently fell into ruin, but has been rebuilt within the grounds of the West Frisian Farm Museum (Museumboerderij West-Frisia).

Floris did not end his war, however, and indeed it took another six years of wars and severe flooding before the West Frisians finally decided they’d prefer to be on good terms with Holland, signing a treaty in 1289.

One of these floods in particular is noteworthy: known as the Sint-Luciavloed, it was the sixth largest in history. This North Sea tidal surge occurred on the 14th of December, 1287, the day after St. Lucia’s Day, from which it takes its name. It enveloped the river Vlie and a nearby freshwater lake, sweeping away natural clay and dune barriers, and submerging peatlands to create what is now known as the Zuiderzee, also greatly enlarging the Waddenzee and IJsselmeer bodies of water. Starum, Frisia’s oldest city and a powerful trading center, fell into decline as it no longer was accessible from the sea, with the formerly landlocked Griend taking its place even though the island in the Waddenzee it sat on was all but wiped out. Somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 people lost their lives in the cataclysm, with entire villages vanishing completely. Importantly, the Zuiderzee’s inlet now divided West Frisia from Frisia proper, with Holland becoming its sole neighbor and isolation the only alternative to making peace, so peace was made.²

Floris constructed four castles in Medemblik, Wijdenes, Eenigenburg, and Alkmaar, to keep his new and restless subjects in check. However he also built dikes in the area to keep incidents like the Sint-Luciavloed from recurring, as well as many roads, and these structural improvements soon endeared him to the people, as well as increasing Holland’s importance in regional agriculture. He assaulted Frisia proper as well, but even though he gained little more than a beachhead, from 1291 on he appended Lord of Frisia to his titles.

Whatever his expectations might have been when he wed Beatrix, her father Gui seems to have been intractable. The records show that Floris’ attempt at a formal alliance in 1277 was rebuffed, and when, in 1287, Rudolf I of Germany, first of the Habsburgs, gave Floris the rights to the area that controls access to the Scheldt river (Zeeland-bewester-Schelde), thus infringing on Flemish lands, relations hit a new low. In 1290, encouraged by local nobles who supported his rule, Gui invaded the area, and when Floris arranged a meeting to try to work things out, his father-in law imprisoned him in the castle of Biervliet, a town in Zeeland. Only when the Count of Holland agreed to relinquish his claims on the area was he released.

Flanders, as had often been the case, was backed by France, so Floris sought to ally himself still more firmly to England. In 1285, Floris betrothed his son Jan to Edward I’s daughter Elizabeth, also sending the infant to be raised and educated in the English court. The treaty thus sealed provided huge advantages for Holland, including making Dordrecht the center of the wool trade from the island nation and providing fishing rights off its coast.

However, during the Great Cause of Scotland, in which Floris was one of the few legitimate contenders for succession to the throne—his great-grandmother Ada was King William I “the Lion” of Scotland’s sister—Edward I did not support him, ruling John Balliol the rightful king instead. The winds were shifting in the Low Countries as well, with Flanders finally turning its back on France, so Floris seized the opportunity to switch his allegiances as well. His cousin, Jean II of Hainault, having succeeded in 1280, was already allied with the French, and in 1296, persuaded him to join in order to finally crush the despised Dampierres. Far from accomplishing this end, however, it led to his own.

Edward I seems to have appealed to the very same nobles Floris had defeated and disgraced during the Opstand der Kennemers. They set upon Floris during a hunt, and took him prisoner with the object of delivering him to England. But the local peasantry, now solidly behind the charismatic ruler that had brought them such prosperity, rose up to prevent this. When the nobles attempted to leave Muiderslot castle with the count, they were met by an angry mob, panicked and slew him rather than allow his escape. This senseless killing spread the revolt across Holland, with commoners even in West Frisia clamoring for revenge for their count. The murderer, Gerard of Velzen, was captured and executed, while the other lords fled the country for their lives. The title of this section, God of the Peasants, is the English translation of Floris V’s nickname, Der Keerlen God, which reflects the sentiments of his subjects.

The tale I have presented here strongly suggests that Willem’s sword came back to Floris, if not when he recovered his father’s remains, then certainly by the end of his own life, after he had become immensely favored by all the commoners of his realm, which had come to include the area n which his father died, West Frisia. The close relationship between Holland and England, despite some bumps in the road, also grew considerably during his reign, which I’ll discuss further in Part 5.


Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 5: The Dutch Defense


Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Sword in the Site

Part 2: From Count to Emperor

Part 3: De Gouden Koning


Notes

  1. Kennemer is the demonym of Kennemerland, an area of dunes stretching from Haarlem to Alkmaar.
  2. It is known simply as “the Great Storm” in England where there was also massive flooding and damage, with hundreds dead and the decline of the port city of Dunwich.