In the best known legend about Frisian chieftain Radbod (d. 719), from The Life of Wulframn of Sens, he stuck his toe in the baptismal font and asked a profound question: would he see his ancestors in the afterlife? Told that his kin were in hell while he would be in heaven, Radbod refused the rite. He would rather spend eternity damned with the ancestors he loved rather than be in paradise with the Franks he hated.
We have no way of knowing whether this particular story is true, but it might reveal Radbod’s reasoning for considering conversion but staying with his pagan gods. Both decisions had more to do with politics than spirituality.
Around the 690s, Radbod had been fighting with Frankish Mayor of the Palace Pepin II and had even lost Utrecht and Vechten, which Pepin then colonized with Austrasian nobles. (Although Francia had a Merovingian king at that time, the mayor of the palace was the one who raised and led armies.) In addition, Pepin supported the efforts of the Northumbrian Christian missionary Willibrord, hoping to win God’s favor and a Christian Frisia that would ally itself with Francia rather than pagan Denmark or Saxony.
Unlike his predecessor, Radbod was hostile to Christianity. He might have associated a foreign religion with a foreign power.
So why would Radbod consider baptism if he hated the religion? It was a way to make peace. The bargain could have been that Radbod agree to accept baptism and stop burning churches and killing missionaries and Pepin would not try to take any more land. For an agreement to be valid, the two parties needed to swear vows, but to whose deity? To the Christians, only one is acceptable.
However, Radbod had a complication: he might have derived his power from his ties to his ancestors, especially if his family claimed to be descendants of a Germanic god. He might have thought continued war with Pepin was a better alternative than losing his right to rule.
Radbod and Pepin found another way to make peace: arranging a marriage between their children. His daughter wedded Grimoald II, a son of Pepin and his wife, Plectrude, and Radbod apparently was willing to accept his daughter’s baptism. We don’t know if that union between two people taught to hate each other was happy. Considering what happened next, I have my doubts.
The alliance fell apart when an aging and ailing Pepin died on December 16, 714. Both his sons by Plectrude were deceased, so he had named two grandsons as mayors of the palace of Neustria and Austrasia. As Plectrude tried to rule as regent, Ragenfred, a Neustrian rebel, seized power from one grandson and formed an alliance with Radbod, despite his ties with Plectrude’s late son. Together, Ragenfred and Radbod tried to take Austrasia. In the meantime, Charles, Pepin’s son by his other wife, Alpais, entered the fray.
See “Willibrord: A Saint Enmeshed in Politics” to find out what happened and the difficult choice facing Willibrord, later a saint known as the Apostle of the Frisian.
The Carolingians: A Family who Forged Europe, Pierre Riché, translated by Michael Idomir Allen
Early Carolingian Warfare: Prelude to Empire, Bernard S. Bachrach
Heaven’s Purge: Purgatory in Late Antiquity, Isabel Moreira