The Standing Contest between King Charles and Redbad

By Minjie Su

How many ways are there to win a kingdom? By inheritance, by marriage, by battle, or by endless scheming? But has it ever occurred to you that you can may achieve it by being able to stand very still (and with just a little bit of scheming)?

According to ‘Fran tha koningen Karle ande Redbad’ (‘About the King Karl and Redbad’), King Karl or Charles manages to subject King Redbad to vassalage by beating him in a ‘stand still contest’ – ‘an stille stalle urstanda’ (‘to outstand in standing still’). This little anecdote is recorded in Codex Unia, a manuscript composed in Old Frisian in the late fifteenth century. The manuscript itself has not survived, but, luckily for us, the majority was transcribed some two centuries later, before it disappeared for good. This is how we have this interesting story, along with a large corpus of Frisian laws. Overall, Codex Unia is a legal manuscript, and we shall why the story of King Karl and Redbad is deemed relevant enough to be included.


However, we must point out a few things first, as some sort of background introduction. The title is often translated into English as ‘Charlemagne and Redbad’, but the ‘Charles’ here is more likely to be Charles Martel. Historically, it would make more sense: Redbad died in 719 – quite some time before Charlemagne was born (742). Charles Martel, on the hand, did fight against Redbad and the Frisians; he even suffered (the only) defeat at their hands. But eventually he triumphed and annexed large Frisian lands. Second, Redbad is probably no king in the modern sense; he is addressed as dux (duke) in Latin. Traces of Redbad is found in many Frankish sources, indicating that he was deeply involved in Frankish politics. The best-known story concerning him is probably his false baptism: in Vita Wulframni, just before Redbad (still very sceptical) is about to be baptised by Bishop Wulfram, he enquires about his ancestors. What happens to those who died without knowing the Lord? Are they in Heaven or in Hell? Having been told that they are definitely in Hell, Redbad withdraws one foot from the font, therefore not completing the rite – he would not want an afterlife without the companionship of his forefathers.

Embroidery depicting the legend in which the Frisian king Radbad is ready to be baptized by Wulfram, but at the last moment refuses. From the Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht

The story begins with the clash of two kings – or, rather, the attempt to avoid such clash. King Charles comes to a certain land with an army, while King Redbad comes down from Denmark, also with an army; both claim the land belongs to him. A bloody battle is inevitable, unless they find a less violent way to solve the problem. So, they have decided upon a standing contest, ‘an ordeal in which the participants had to stand motionless, with their arms stretched sideways’. After a while, Charles lets his glove drop; Redbad picks it up (probably just out of habit) and thus loses the game.


Now, this episode is not as simple as it looks, and Redbad loses not just because he moves. According to Rolf H. Bremmer, by presenting a gauntlet to another, the presenter in fact acknowledges the presentee to be his liege lord. Therefore, when Charles excitedly claims that Redbad has become his vassal, he refers to not only Redbad’s failure in the contest but also his unwitting performance of the ritual: Redbad may go back on his words, but he cannot undo the bonds.

Charles laughs, so his dwelling place is called ‘Hachense’; Redbad cries ‘A wach!’, which is ‘woe’ in Old Frisian, therefore his dwelling place is named ‘Wachense’.

Having annexed the Frisian lands, Charles’s next move is to set up rules. Twelve spokesmen have been selected from the Seven Sealands; Charles orders them to choose their laws. Unwilling to subject to Frankish reign, the twelve manage to stall for as long as they could, until Charles’s patience is run out. The king gives them three choices: first, they will all be beheaded; second, they become serfs; third, they will be given a ship and put to the sea, rudderless. They choose the ship.

The law speakers drift with the tides without seeing the coast. Just when they are becoming desperate, one law speaker suggests they pray: Jesus Christ has twelve disciples, and he himself makes the thirteenth, so they should pray a thirteenth one to be sent to show them the way. When they have finished their prayer, they see a thirteenth man sitting at their stern, steering the ship with a golden axe. Thus, they are directed to land, safe and unharmed.


Then the thirteenth teaches them the law. Whence comes all the land-laws of Frisia: ‘Aldus is’t landriucht alra Fresena.’

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Top Image:A statue of Charles Martel in Versailles. Photo by Giogo / Wikimedia Commons