The Fight at Finnesburg took place at Finn’s stronghold in Frisia. All we can guess from the Finnesburg Fragment and the episode in Beowulf is that Finnesburg was a defended hall with a settlement around it, and that it was cut off from ships by winter ice.
The location of the fight at Finnesburg is currently unknown. All we know is that it occurred somewhere within the lands of the Frisians and was named after the local king, Finn. Furthermore, we know the place was fortified and likely in a strong geographical position relative to its surroundings. It is likely that it was an island.
This article will try to find the location of Finnesburg based on the little evidence we have. I will not shy away from the possibility that Finnesburg was in East Anglia.
Two sources of evidence for Finnesburg
Our main sources of information about Finnesburg and the fight there, come in the form of a story within Beowulf and a fragment of dubious heritage. We can draw on some other sources for the time and for some of the characters, but we are lacking in full detail about the background of the fight, those involved, and what happened next.
Let’s quickly deal with Beowulf because I’ll go more into it in a long series of articles. It’s a 10th century West Saxon composition, probably by a monk in Malmesbury, but contains enough Anglian words to suggest East Anglian origins. I’d suggest the monk was aiming to make a pan-English tale for all of us by sewing different bits together.
The fragment is more complex. It was found and copied by George Hickes though almost as soon as he had it copied and printed in 1705, the original disappeared never to be seen again (though we live in hope of a miracle). Therefore we cannot tell how old the original was or whether it was copied accurately. All we know is that Hickes claimed to have found the 50 line fragment describing part of the Fight at Finnesburg among a group of semi-Saxon homilies in the Lambeth Palace library.
Quick overview of The Fight at Finnesburg
The fragment and the episode within Beowulf are important because they provide tantalising details about a big fight between kings, princes, and wraecca in Frisia. There appears to be a tangle of sides in the dispute including Frisians, Danes, and two factions of Jutes. This includes people such as Finn, Hnaef, and Hengist. The latter being the founder of Kent as well as the instigator of the Germanic rebellion against the British tyrant Vortigern.
What do we know about the location of the Fight at Finnesburg?
As we only have two sources, let’s try to reconstruct what we can about the physical location of Finn’s Hall and his stronghold.
The Fragment: No details on location. All it says is that the hall had two doors. One was held by the Segcan prince, Sigeferth as well as Eaha, and the other by Ordlaf and Guthlaf with Hengest behind them and possibly Garulf too.
The Episode: The majority of the episode centres on the conflict and Hildeburh’s role/feelings as she mourns her brother (Hnaef) and son. We get some physical details of what happens after the funeral pyre is burnt out:
Gewiton him tha wigend wiga neosian
Freondum befallen, Frysland geseon,
Hamas ond heaburh.
This line tells how the warriors left the location after the battle to look on Frisia. It’s not certain if that means the surrounding land or to travel to Frisia. All it says is there are homes (hamas) and high fortified places (heaburh). From there the poem points out that winter locked the seas in ice (winter ythe beleac isgebinde) and forced Hengist to stay where he was – evidently this points to one of the Frisian islands.
From this evidence, we’re looking at a stronghold with sea access. It is entirely possible that it was at the time a full island. We also know it must be accessible to the Danes and Jutes as well as the Frisians. It’s not much to go on, is it? But we do have a name.
What is the etymology of Finnesburg?
Quite simply, and not very helpfully, Finnesburg literally means ‘Finn’s citadel.’ A burg or borough is a fortified settlement. These are usually central to a small region, tribe, or kingdom. In old English laws one of the oaths of freedom is to help maintain the local burg. All we get from the name is that it was Finn’s place.
Maybe the poets did not know the name or perhaps this really was what the settlement was called. It may be possible to infer that Finn’s stronghold was new. If it had been long established it may have a different name. This does not mean it is necessarily in new or conquered land, only that Finn chose that place and built or rebuilt his stronghold there.
What were the limits of 5th century Frisia?
Now our quest leads us to define the search area. This means understanding the extend of Frisia in the 5th century. At the time it was more powerful than it is now. At the moment Frisia remains a shrunken region within northern Netherlands.
At the time it would have be divided into Greater and Lesser Frisia with lands under Roman influence and lands independent of the Romans. According to Tacitus, the Frisians were west of the Zuyder Zee. He indicates they were moving westward into non-Germanic lands.
By the 6th and 7th centuries they had a famous trading port of their own near modern-day Utrecht beyond the great lakes and deep into western Netherlands. This port was called Dorostates Frisionum which does sound like it was part of the Roman empire. Today we know this as Wijk bij Duurstede.
While Duurstede was once a good trading port, geographically speaking, it is too landlocked to be considered Finnesburg. The Frisians were a loose-knit tribe and in those days this place would have been more Roman and part of Lesser Frisia. Finn, as a king and overlord, is more likely to have been further north and west as part of the Greater Frisians.
What was the geography of Frisia?
Now we’ve established the physical limits of Frisia as best we can, what was the terrain like? Frisia was mostly a collection of low-lying swamp lands and islands. This territory offered some kind of safety from attackers, but was also hard to organize.
It is difficult to look at modern maps to reconstruct where Finn’s island stronghold might have been due to 1,500 years of climate change (cold, hot, cold, warm), coastal erosion, fluctuating sea levels, and human intervention to dry out lands and protect them from flooding.
Are there any suitable locations in Greater Frisia?
Let’s look at Great Frisia for potential Finnesburgs. This is quite tough; especially as I can’t search in Dutch or Frisian. Looking at the existing islands, it’s impossible to tell which one might have been Finn’s stronghold.
With the change in landscapes over the past 1,400 years, it might be possible to look more in land or at least along the Frisian coast. The one that stands out is Ferwoude as it might relate somehow to Folcwalda (the title of Finn’s father), but it’s tenuous and the landscape is too flat.
Further east, north of the present capital of Frisia, Leeuwarden, is the village and parish of Finkum which sits on the Feinsummer river. Again, the land seems flat to me and is not readily apparent as a possible island fortress.
Was Finnesburg in Britain?
The two sources we have for the Fight at Finnesburg are not specific when it comes to exact locations except to say it’s in Frisia. A question we can ask is what was Frisia? Was it solely in the low countries or did it extend across the sea?
In a tantalising section of his book, De Bello Gothico (The Gothic War, iv.20), the 6th century East Roman historian, Procopius, names three peoples in Britain. These were the Anglii, the Frissones, and the Brittones. That is to say the English, the Frisians, and the Britons. This raises the prospect of Finnesburg being in Britain (see below) and of the Frisian territory being larger than currently assumed.
In terms of geographic similarity, modern-day Anglia would have been familiar territory to the Frisians. This is not just because of the region’s deep ties to other traders and peoples of the North Sea, but also because it too was a mixture of marshes and waterways at the time.
Did the English and Frisians interact?
The boundaries of the Frisian lands were never safe nor secure. Indeed, they were forever pressured as were all tribes and peoples during this period. This included the Franks in the south. Toward the time of the Fight at Finnesburg, the Danes were pushing the Jutes (Eotena) westward and the Angles were under pressure too, both ended up at the door of their close neighbours, the Frisians. This is seen in the archaeological record in the form of traded goods such as cruciform brooches (Myers, p.55).
R.W. Chambers in his work on Beowulf, draws an interesting parallel between the Frisian islands and the nature of Northumbrian kingship – coastal forts and island strongholds mixed with vague inland tribal boundaries, feuds, assassinations, and so on.
Furthermore we know that the English and the Frisians were extremely close. King Alfred relied on Frisians for his first navy – both for shipbuilding and for sailors. It was the English who converted the Frisians to Christianity. Furthermore the two nations spoke very similar tongues prior to 1066 and were the closest linguistically to each other.
Evidence of the Frisians in Britain
There is some evidence of Frisian activity in modern-day England. Some of the place names seem speculative; especially those which are cold related. However, there may be potential to some of them and a deeper dive is needed.
J.M. Lyons undertook a place name analysis and it seems two regions in particular were Frisia heavy. These were East Anglia (specifically Suffolk) and the Northeast coast centering on Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. The Suffolk ones are of special interest to me and include:
In the middle of these we do have a place name that directly translates as Finn’s Burg. That’s Great and Little Finborough. This village and hamlet lay near Stowmarket, about halfway between Bury St. Edmunds and Ipswich.
The Frisian place names are not close enough to form an exclusive pocket, but can be seen as circumstantial evidence. I do not know when Finborough was founded, how it got its name, and if it was in any way anything other than a coincidence of names. The same can be said for Finsbury in London, which again has a similar name.
Will we ever find Finnesburg?
No, probably not. What we’ll need is more evidence, research, and a huge dollop of luck. This would come in the form of a place which is Frisian, which was once an island, which has a high point or a high enough point where a stronghold once stood, and which was burnt down in the first half of the 5th century. That’s a lot to ask for, but given there is evidence for Heorot in Gamle Leijre in Denmark, anything’s possible.
Sources used for this piece:
Chambers, R.W., 1921, Beowulf: an Introduction to the Study of the Poem, Cambridge
Lyons, J.M., 1918, Frisian Place-Names in England, PMLA, Vol. 33, No.4
Myers, J.N.L., 1986, The English Settlements, The Oxford History of England, Clarendon Press, Oxford
Procopius, De Bello Gothico
Stenton, F.M., 1971, Anglo-Saxon England, The Oxford History of England, Clarendon Press, Oxford
Tolkien, J.R.R., & Bliss, A., 1982, Finn and Hengest, Harper Collins, London
Unknown, Fight at Finnesburg fragment