The Frisians are an ethnic group indigenous to the coastal regions of the Netherlands, north-western Germany and southern Denmark, and during the Early Middle Ages in the north-western coastal zone of Flanders,[9] Belgium. They inhabit an area known as Frisia and are concentrated in the Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen and, in Germany, East Frisia and North Frisia (which was a part of Denmark until 1864).[10]

Friezen (West), Fresen (North), Fräisen (Sater)
Total population
c. 530,000
Regions with significant populations
Netherlands (excluding Friesland)120,000[4][b]
Canada4,590 residents of Canada reported having Frisian ancestry in the 2016 Canadian Census.[6][7]
United States2,145 (ancestry estimate)[8]
Frisian languages
Low Saxon (Friso-Saxon dialects)
Dutch (West Frisian Dutch and Stadsfries)
German (Missingsch)
Danish (Sønderjysk and Southern Schleswig Danish)
Protestant majority (Calvinists and Lutherans)
Roman Catholic minority

There are several theories about the origin of the name of the Frisians, which is derived from Frisii or Fresones, names used by the Romans to describe a Germanic tribe that inhabited the same region but disappeared during the 5th century before the appearance of the Frisians. Most probably the name is derived from the verb fresare in Vulgar Latin, meaning 'milling, cutting, grooving, crushing, removing shells'; this name may have been given to the Frisii because they 'cut the land': digging ditches and dykes to irrigate the wet marshlands where they lived.[11] Compare fresar el paisaje in the Romance language Spanish. Another theory is the name derives from frisselje (to braid, thus referring to braided hair).

The Frisian languages are spoken by more than 500,000 people; West Frisian is officially recognised in the Netherlands (in Friesland), and North Frisian and Saterland Frisian are recognised as regional languages in Germany.



Prior to the appearance of the modern Frisians, their namesake, the ancient Frisii, enter recorded history in the Roman account of Drusus's 12 BC war against the Rhine Germans and the Chauci.[12] They occasionally appear in the accounts of Roman wars against the Germanic tribes of the region, up to and including the Revolt of the Batavi around 70 AD. Frisian mercenaries were hired as cavalry to assist the Roman invasion of Britain.[13] They are not mentioned again until c. 296, when they were deported into Roman territory as laeti (i.e., Roman-era serfs; see Binchester Roman Fort and Cuneus Frisionum).[14] The discovery of a type of earthenware unique to fourth century Frisia, called terp Tritzum, shows that an unknown number of them were resettled in Flanders and Kent,[15] probably as laeti under Roman coercion.

Germanic tribes in the 5th century
Historical settlement areas of the Frisians, and areas where a Frisian language is spoken

From the third through the fifth centuries, Frisia suffered marine transgressions that made most of the land uninhabitable, aggravated by a change to a cooler and wetter climate.[16][17][18][19] Whatever population may have remained dropped dramatically, and the coastal lands remained largely unpopulated for the next two centuries. When conditions improved, Frisia received an influx of new settlers, mostly Angles and Saxons. These people would eventually be referred to as 'Frisians' (Old Frisian: Frīsa, Old English: Frīsan), though they were not necessarily descended from the ancient Frisii. It is these 'new Frisians' who are largely the ancestors of the medieval and modern Frisians.[20]

By the end of the sixth century, Frisian territory had expanded westward to the North Sea coast and, in the seventh century, southward down to Dorestad. This farthest extent of Frisian territory is sometimes referred to as Frisia Magna. Early Frisia was ruled by a High King, with the earliest reference to a 'Frisian King' being dated 678.[21]

In the early eighth century, the Frisians mostly worshipped Germanic gods such as Thor and Odin outside the vicinity of Utrecht.[22] Slightly later, the Frisian nobles came into increasing conflict with the Franks to their south, resulting in a series of wars in which the Frankish Empire eventually subjugated Frisia in 734. These wars benefited attempts by Anglo-Irish missionaries (which had begun with Saint Boniface) to convert the Frisian populace to Christianity, in which Saint Willibrord largely succeeded.[23]

Some time after the death of Charlemagne, the Frisian territories were in theory under the control of the Count of Holland, but in practice the Hollandic counts, starting with Count Arnulf in 993, were unable to assert themselves as the sovereign lords of Frisia. The resulting stalemate resulted in a period of time called the 'Frisian freedom', a period in which feudalism and serfdom (as well as central or judicial administration) did not exist, and in which the Frisian lands only owed their allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor.

During the 13th century, however, the counts of Holland became increasingly powerful and, starting in 1272, sought to reassert themselves as rightful lords of the Frisian lands in a series of wars, which (with a series of lengthy interruptions) ended in 1422 with the Hollandic conquest of Western Frisia and with the establishment of a more powerful noble class in Central and Eastern Frisia.

In 1524, Frisia became part of the Seventeen Provinces and in 1568 joined the Dutch revolt against Philip II, king of Spain, heir of the Burgundian territories; Central Frisia has remained a part of the Netherlands ever since. The eastern periphery of Frisia would become part of various German states (later Germany) and Denmark. An old tradition existed in the region of exploitation of peatlands.

Migration to England and Scotland


Though it is impossible to know exact numbers and migration patterns, research has indicated that many Frisians were part of the wave of ethnic groups to colonise areas of present-day England alongside the Angles, Saxons and Jutes,[24] starting from around the fifth century when Frisians arrived along the coastline of Kent.[25][26]

Frisians principally settled in modern-day Kent, East Anglia,[27] the East Midlands, North East England,[28] and Yorkshire. Across these areas, evidence of their settlement includes place names of Frisian origin, such as Frizinghall in Bradford and Frieston in Lincolnshire.[29][24]

Similarities in dialect between Great Yarmouth and Friesland have been noted, originating from trade between these areas during the Middle Ages.[30] Frisians are also known to have founded the Freston area of Ipswich.[31]

In Scotland, historians have noted that colonies of Angles and Frisians settled as far north as the River Forth. This corresponds to those areas of Scotland which historically constituted part of Northumbria.[32][33]

Frisians in Denmark


The earliest traces of Frisians in modern-day Denmark date back from the 8th century, when Frisian traders and craftsmen settled down in Ribe.[34] In the Later Middle Ages Frisians farmers settled around Tøndermarsken west of Tønder. The evidence for this are the dwelling mounds or terps (værfter) in the area that are built after the same method as the ones alongside the Wadden Sea further south.[35] Colonists from the south also settled down in Misthusum in the Ballum marshes near Skærbæk during the 12th of 13th century. According to documents around 1400 at least some of them were considered as "Hollanders".[36]

In modern times, Frisian culture in Denmark is described as assimilated and most people of Frisian descent do not consider themselves Frisian. In regards of the Frisian language, very few may speak it as first language but it was traditionally spoken in several polder hamlets near the border with Germany. One estimate puts the Frisian population in Denmark somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000.[35] This number, however, might be grossly exaggerated. Frisian identity in Denmark was promoted by the Eiderstedt farmer and political activist Cornelius Petersen, who built a traditional Frisian farmstead in Møgeltønder in 1914 and founded the rural protest movement Bondens Selvstyre ("Farmers' self-government"). More recently, the retired journalist Benny Siewertsen wrote a partisan pamphlet on Frisian heritage in Denmark.[36][37]


Present-day distribution of the Frisian languages in Europe:

As both the Anglo-Saxons of England and the early Frisians were formed from similar tribal confederacies, their respective languages were very similar, together forming the Anglo-Frisian family. Old Frisian is the most closely related language to Old English[38] and the modern Frisian dialects are in turn the closest related languages to contemporary English that do not themselves derive from Old English (although the modern Frisian and English are not mutually intelligible).

The Frisian language group is divided into three mutually unintelligible languages:

Of these three languages both Saterland Frisian (2,000 speakers) and North Frisian (10,000 speakers)[39] are endangered. West Frisian is spoken by around 350,000 native speakers in Friesland,[40] and as many as 470,000 when including speakers in neighbouring Groningen province.[4] West Frisian is not listed as threatened, although research published by Radboud University in 2016 has challenged that assumption.[41]



Today there exists a tripartite division, of North, East and West Frisians, caused by Frisia's continual loss of territory in the Middle Ages. The West Frisians, in general, do not see themselves as part of a larger group of Frisians, and, according to a 1970 poll, identify themselves more with the Dutch than with the East or North Frisians.[42]

See also



  1. ^ Number is the number of native West Frisian speakers.
  2. ^ Native West Frisian speakers excluding those in Friesland.
  3. ^ Although only 12,000 are native speakers.
  1. ^ "Groep fan Auwerk". 30 December 2023.
  2. ^ "Interfriesische Flagge".
  3. ^ Gooskens, Charlotte; Heeringa, Wilbert. "The Position of Frisian in the Germanic Language Area". Researchgate. University of Groningen. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  4. ^ a b Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version.
  5. ^ "Die friesische Volksgruppe". Minderheitensekretariat der vier autochthonen nationalen Minderheiten und Volksgruppen (in German). Retrieved 6 January 2020. Geschätzt 60.000 Menschen sind ihrem Selbstverständnis nach Friesen. [an estimated 60,000 people self identify as Frisian]
  6. ^ "Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity Highlight Tables". Statistics Canada. 25 October 2017. Retrieved 31 December 2021.
  7. ^ Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version.
  8. ^ "Table 1. First, Second, and Total Responses to the Ancestry Question by Detailed Ancestry Code: 2000". U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved 2 December 2010.
  9. ^ Faber, Hans (8 August 2021). "A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders". Frisia Coast Trail.
  10. ^ "Herzlich Willkommen".
  11. ^ Faber, Hans (14 August 2022). "A severe case of inattentional blindness: the Frisian tribe's name". Frisia Coast Trail.
  12. ^ Lucius Cassius Dio Cocceianus (229), "Book LIV, Ch 32", in Cary, Earnest (translator) (ed.), Dio's Roman History, vol. VI, London: William Heinemann (published 1917), p. 365 {{citation}}: |editor-first= has generic name (help)
  13. ^ Potter, Timothy W.; Johns, Catherine (1992). Roman Britain. Exploring the Roman world. Berkeley: University of California. p. 190. ISBN 9780520081680.
  14. ^ Grane, Thomas (2007), "From Gallienus to Probus - Three decades of turmoil and recovery", The Roman Empire and Southern Scandinavia–a Northern Connection! (PhD thesis), Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, p. 109
  15. ^ Looijenga, Jantina Helena (1997), "History, Archaeology and Runes", in SSG Uitgeverij (ed.), Runes Around the North Sea and on the Continent AD 150–700; Texts and Contexts (PhD dissertation) (PDF), Groningen: Groningen University, p. 30, ISBN 978-90-6781-014-2, archived (PDF) from the original on 2 May 2005. Looijenga cites Gerrets' The Anglo-Frisian Relationship Seen from an Archaeological Point of View (1995) for this contention.
  16. ^ Berglund, Björn E. (2002), "Human impact and climate changes—synchronous events and a causal link?", Quaternary International, vol. 105, Elsevier (published 2003), p. 10
  17. ^ Ejstrud, Bo; et al. (2008), Ejstrud, Bo; Maarleveld, Thijs J. (eds.), The Migration Period, Southern Denmark and the North Sea, Esbjerg: Maritime Archaeology Programme, ISBN 978-87-992214-1-7
  18. ^ Issar, Arie S. (2003), Climate Changes during the Holocene and their Impact on Hydrological Systems, Cambridge: Cambridge University, ISBN 978-0-511-06118-9
  19. ^ Louwe Kooijmans, L. P. (1974), The Rhine/Meuse Delta. Four studies on its prehistoric occupation and Holocene geology (PhD Dissertation), Leiden: Leiden University Press, hdl:1887/2787
  20. ^ Bazelmans, Jos (2009), "The early-medieval use of ethnic names from classical antiquity: The case of the Frisians", in Derks, Ton; Roymans, Nico (eds.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University, pp. 321–337, ISBN 978-90-8964-078-9, retrieved 9 March 2024
  21. ^ Halbertsma, H. (2000). Frieslands oudheid : het rijk van de Friese koningen, opkomst en ondergang. E.H.P., historicus Cordfunke, Herbert Sarfatij. Utrecht: Matrijs. ISBN 90-5345-167-6. OCLC 905441031.
  22. ^ Rietbergen, P. J. A. N. (2000). A Short History of the Netherlands: From Prehistory to the Present Day (4th ed.). Amersfoort: Bekking. p. 25. ISBN 90-6109-440-2. OCLC 52849131.
  23. ^ Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "St. Willibrord" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  24. ^ a b Frisians in Anglo-Saxon England: A Historical and Toponymical Investigation (PDF), Fryske Nammen, Fryske Akademy, 1981, pp. 45–94, hdl:1887/20850, ISBN 9789061715979
  25. ^ Schulz, Matthias (16 June 2011). "The Anglo-Saxon Invasion: Britain is More Germanic than It Thinks". Spiegel Online.
  26. ^ "The History of the Frisian Folk".
  27. ^ Homans, George C. (1957). "The Frisians in East Anglia". The Economic History Review. 10 (2): 189–206. doi:10.2307/2590857. JSTOR 2590857.
  28. ^ "The Frisians, their tribes & allies".
  29. ^ Frisian Place-Names in England. PMLA. January 1918.
  30. ^ Gooskens, Charlotte (2004). "The Position of Frisian in the Germanic Language Area". In Gilbers, D. G.; Knevel, N. (eds.). On the Boundaries of Phonology and Phonetics. Groningen: Department of Linguistics.
  31. ^ "How I came face-to-face with East Anglia's 'twin'". Eastern Daily Press. 8 May 2018.
  32. ^ Brown, Peter Hume (1911). History of Scotland to the Present Time. Cambridge University Press. p. 11.
  33. ^ McLure, Edmund (1910). British place-names in their historical setting. Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. p. 120.
  34. ^ Rasmussen, Alan Hjorth (1973). "Frisiske kulturelementer : en introduktion og foreløbig oversigt". Folk og Kultur, årbog for Dansk Etnologi og Folkemindevidenskab (in Danish). 2 (1): 79.
  35. ^ a b Bech-Danielsen, Anne (9 January 2022). "På jagt efter de sidste frisere i Danmark" (in Danish). Politiken. Retrieved 27 May 2022.
  36. ^ a b Knottnerus, Otto S. (2008). "De vergeten Friezen: Mislukt pamflet van Benny Siewertsen over een boeiend thema". De Vrije Fries: Jaarboek uitgegeven door het Koninklijk Fries Genootschap voor Geschiedenis en Cultuur (in Dutch). 88: 213–215. ISBN 978-90-6171-0165.
  37. ^ Benny Siewertsen, Friserne - vore glemte forfædre, Copenhagen 2004/
  38. ^ Kortlandt, Frederik (1999). "The origin of the Old English dialects revisited" (PDF). University of Leiden. Archived (PDF) from the original on 18 August 2007.
  39. ^ "Die friesische Volksgruppe in Schleswig-Holstein" (in German). Diet of Schleswig-Holstein. Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 4 August 2011.
  40. ^ Matras, Yaron. "Frisian (North)". Archive of Endangered and Smaller Languages. University of Manchester.
  41. ^ Menno de Galan & Willem Lust (9 July 2016). "Friese taal met uitsterven bedreigd? (Frisian language threatened with extinction?)". Nieuwsuur (in Dutch). NOS. Retrieved 6 January 2020.
  42. ^ Tamminga, Douwe A. (1970). Friesland, feit en onfeit [Frisia, 'Facts and Fiction'] (in Dutch). Leeuwarden: Junior Kamer Friesland.

Works cited

  • Tacitus, Publius Cornelius (n.d.), "Germania", Internet Medieval Sourcebook
  • Verhart, Leo (2006), Op Zoek naar de Kelten, Nieuwe archeologische ontdekkingen tussen Noordzee en Rijn (Searching for the Celts, new archaeological Discoveries between North Sea and Rhine) (in Dutch), Matrijs, ISBN 978-90-5345-303-2

Further reading

  • Greg Woolf, "Cruptorix and his kind. Talking ethnicity on the middle ground", Ton Derks, Nico Roymans (ed.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009) (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 13), 207–218.
  • Jos Bazelmans, "The early-medieval use of ethnic names from classical antiquity. The case of the Frisians", in Ton Derks, Nico Roymans (ed.), Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009) (Amsterdam Archaeological Studies, 13), 321–329.