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 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 rather than killing them and triggering a war of vengeance. It’s quite easy to imagine the Frisians setting Willem free on the condition 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 they’d eventually have to return the king’s body, and, I’d venture, his effects, including the sword, which were 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’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 Beatrix, daughter of Jean de Avesnes’ hated rival, Gui de Dampierre, in 1269. With things in the rest of the Low Countries seemingly thus settled, the purpose of avenging his father’s death 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 areas 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 went 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 wasn’t much more than that, and moreover in an area wracked 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 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 controlling 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 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 Floris’.

Edward 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 who 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 Floris 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’ nickname, Der Keerlen God, which reflects the sentiments of his subjects.

The tale I have presented here strongly suggests 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 in 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 the Solving the sword series

Part 5: The Dutch Defense

Read previous articles in the Solving the sword series

Part 1: The Sword in the Site

Part 2: From Count to Emperor

Part 3: De Gouden Koning


  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.

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