Dorestad, one of the most important trading towns of Northwestern Europe in the Viking period, was situated in the central river area of
the Frisian coast lands. This place, in the present day town of Wijk bij Duurstede in the central part of The Netherlands, was excavated
mainly in the past decades.
A general view on Dorestad
In the beginning of the seventh century the trading town of Dorestad was established on the banks of the rivers Rhine and Lek, probably at
the base of the walls of a former Roman fortress. Goods from the Meuse-Rhine area and from the North Sea region were traded here.
From the beginning the town was at the mercy of the fighting Franks and Frisians, contesting each other on this place, until the Franks
permanently occupied the central river area. The Frankish authorities, and later on especially the Carolingian kings, supported the staple
market among others by giving the merchants and artisans special privileges.
Dorestad prospered and soon expanded to the north into a new quarter along the left bank of the River Rhine. The two parts of Dorestad:
the Merovingian 'Upper Town' (in Dutch 'Bovenstad') with its fortress and the Carolingian 'Lower Town' (in Dutch: 'Benedenstad') were
connected with each other by a road along the Rhine, comparable with the London Strand. This road, the 'backbone' of the town, can still
be recognized nowadays in the course of the Hoogstraat.
The 'Lower Town' was organized like a Frisian Einstraßenanlage, including a huge harbour front with many causeways in the river. To
the west, on 'The Heul' quarter, a mainly agrarian settlement was situated behind the harbour area. The length of the inhabited area was
about 3000 meters, so the town was fairly huge for the period.
Only the Carolingian 'Lower Town' was examined in detail by archaeologists. The harbour area, called 'Noorderwaard' and 'De Heul' quarter
could be studied before building activities of the expanding town of Wijk bij Duurstede covered the remains of Dorestad. Along the main road,
probably paved with wood, many causeways of earth and wood extended into the river. They were elongated as the river meandered in eastern
direction, away from the harbour front. On the land site of the main road fairly narrow parcels with some rows of wooden, rather small
buildings, matched with the causeways laying in front of these parcels (1). The southern part of the 'Lower Town', called 'The Engk' was
almost completely eroded by a meander of the River Rhine, now moving to the west. Only a rather small area, just outside the settlement,
where many graves were discovered, could be investigated.
The 'Upper Town', nowadays situated on the opposite bank of the river Lek, was never excavated. The only evidence for early occupation on
this side comes from phosphate research of the soil and from objects that were discovered while dredging for sand for the local industry.
Apart from Carolingian objects, most findings, like pieces of tuff, can be related to a former Roman fortress, mentioned as the
castrum Duristate in an anonymous historical compilation on the history of the Franks, known as 'the continuator of Fredegarius' (2).
Here the Frisians and the Franks gave battle at the end of the seventh century. The fortress was eroded and washed into the river in the
Carolingian period. Tuff blocks from the fortress and its buildings were used by the Dorestad population for building activities, and were
found scattered around the place.
In the 'Upper Town' we can presume the stronghold of the count, the administrative center of the representative of the king. Most trading
activities must have occurred here in the first period of Frankish occupation and Frisian reconquest in the seventh century. In many places,
like Mainz, Worms, Cologne and Strassburg a small strip of land between the water and the city wall (mostly still dating from the Roman
period) was used as a trading quarter. Something similar we can expect at the base of the castrum at Dorestad. A part of the 'Upper Town'
was granted by the Frankish king to the Church of Utrecht, that started to exploit the banks of the River Lek.
On 'De Heul' a Carolingian settlement with rather an agricultural character was found situated behind the harbour quarter. According to the
findings of many domestic products we can also assume here some industrial activities (4). Next to this agricultural quarter the remains
of a building were found, on a large grave field among Christian inhumation graves, that was interpreted as a church (5).
No ditches or walls were found around the 'Lower Town' of Dorestad. Other trading towns also lack such defenses. Later - mostly in the tenth
century - defenses were erected like the wall around the trading town of Hedeby (Haithabu). Or the merchants moved their trade within the
walls of a nearby situated - mostly Roman - stronghold, like they did in London.
Northwest of the agricultural settlement at 'De Geer' a structure of Carolingian ditches was discovered, enclosing a large area. Because
of the large dimensions of the ditches the place possibly had a defensive function. Some special objects also point to a curtis, a
distinguished dwelling-place or farmstead of a nobleman, situated on the highest point in the environment. In the thirteenth century a
fortified farmstead was built on the same place. Habitation on 'De Geer' ended simultaneously with most of that in the 'Lower Town'.
Thus a connection between both settlements at close distance from each other can be expected. Did the stronghold at 'De Geer' serve as a
refuge for the population of Dorestad, like the Hochburg near Hedeby and the Hammaburg near the trading center of Hamburg? Bishop Rimbert
also mentioned in his account on the missionary Anskar a refuge at Birka in Sweden where the inhabitants and merchants sought refuge during
an attack (6).
Hoist your sails, flee and leave behind the (towns of) Dorestad.
You do not have the fortune of a hospitable roof offered by Black Hrotberct,
Neither the greedy merchant loves your poem.
In this poem of the English clergyman Alcuin, written at the end of the eighth century, the trading town is spelled as 'Dorstata',
consequently in the plural form (7). This also points at the division of Dorestad in an 'Upper Town' and a 'Lower Town'.
The social political structure
Like other trading places Dorestad became a toy in the political arena. Especially the political developments in the Frankish empire played
a determining role in the rise and fall of the place. The importance of the Rhine-Meuse delta increased with the rise of the Eastern Frankish
kingdom of Austrasia at the beginning of the seventh century. Especially the castrum, controlled by Frisians and ideally situated on the
bifurcation of the Rivers Rhine and Lek, must have been the nodal point of the trade between the Austrasian hinterland and the North
Sea area. As more trading towns arose the character of the trade started to change. More and more consumer goods were traded instead of
the traditional luxury goods. Also regional trade strongly developed at the cost of long distance trading, which was traditionally
controlled by the central authorities. Ship loadings of goods arrived and had to be stored, besides, all the ships had to be moored.
The ship-crew needed accommodation, awaiting new freight or favourable weather conditions. So it is understandable that in the eighth
century the harbour works grew rapidly (9). At last local noblemen got hold of the trade and at the same time the Frankish kings lost
control. They reacted by granting large parts of the town to the nearby situated Church of Utrecht. As a result the power was now
undesirably divided between the religious center of Utrecht and the secular center of Dorestad. Several Frankish kings confirmed the
rights of the Church of Utrecht, necessary against the pressure of the local nobility and the Church of Cologne.
Around 830 the harbour constructions were hardly extended any more. It seems that Louis the Pious was less interested in Dorestad. Despite
several Viking raids on the town between 834 and 839 he did not take many measures concerning Dorestad and rather reorganized the coastal
defenses in general. With the divisions of the empire in 839 and 843 Dorestad became part of the Middle Kingdom of Lothair I, so in a
political sense the connection with the Austrasian lands between the Rivers Meuse and Rhine was sustained. But Lothair and his offshoot
were less able to assert their independence between the rising powers of Western and Eastern Francia. The economical decline of Dorestad
can be archaeologically observed, in a way reflecting the diminishing power of Lothair and his son (10).
The Upkirika, the upper church
When the Franks finally conquered the castrum of Dorestad and its surroundings, it fell to the royal domain. The Carolingians granted
the Church of Utrecht one tenth of the revenues of this domain. Later it appeared that this privilege was changed into all the revenues of
a defined trading zone (11).
In this zone we probably can expect the newly built church of the bishop of Utrecht, the 'Lower Church' upon 'De Heul'. During the eighth
century the Church of Utrecht expanded its interests considerately as the Frankish rulers granted the bishop the Upkirika, the
'Upper Church' with accessories. This church, dedicated to Saint Martin, probably was founded by the Frankish king shortly after the Franks
conquered Dorestad upon the Frisians at the beginning of the eighth century. Also the surrounding territory and the ripaticum, 'mooring
tax' on the banks of the River Lek, belonged to the church (12). So the church of Utrecht possessed two different areas of goods: an area that
can be recognized as a trading zone and the 'Upper Church' with surroundings.
Somewhere during the ninth century the 'Upper Church' was eroded, like the castrum, and was washed into the Rhine. The church probably
was rebuilt a couple of hundred meters to the south and the church was, of course, also dedicated to Saint Martin. This church was included
in the list of goods of the Church of Utrecht from the early tenth century, in the villa of Rijswijk (13).
In 1019 Heribert, archbishop of Cologne, granted the curtis Wijk to the Abbey of Deutz (14). This farmstead with accessories was
given to him by Emperor Otto III around 1000. (15) The Abbey of Deutz also acquired the church and villa in Wijk through the
archbishop. Finally the abbey possessed almost all royal goods that did not belong to the Church of Utrecht. Probably the archbishop had
successfully claimed old rights from the Church of Cologne dating from the time of the Austrasian mayors of the palace. These goods were
concentrated in the area of the late Medieval town of Wijk bij Duurstede.
In the ninth century Dorestad was occupied by Danish rulers, although intermittently, for almost half a century. Their presence was
introduced by a series of Viking raids on the trading town, initiated by Lothair I. This Carolingian king, who was in conflict with his
father Louis the Pious, had intrigued with the Danish political exile Harald 'junior' and incited him to plunder the Frisian coast lands.
In the process Dorestad was struck several times. Afterwards Lothair granted the place to this Dane and his brother Rorik (Hrrekr) to
consolidate his military position against the other Carolingian kings.
Rorik was able to protect the emporium (staple market) from most raids, at first with the help of his Danish followers, but
gradually also with forces he locally recruited. Unfortunately for Hrrekr his position in Dorestad was not of much use to him because
the trading town was already declining. The importance of the long distance trade had declined ever since regional trade increased.
Moreover the growing power of the local elite made it difficult for the Frankish kings to keep control over Dorestad. An attempt to
reduce that power by granting property in the Dorestad area to the Church of Utrecht was not very successful. Due to this development
the Carolingian kings lost interest in Dorestad. The minting stopped and constructions in the harbour were no longer extended. The
economical decline sustained when Dorestad was appointed to the Middle Kingdom of Lothair I. The trading town became less attractive for
those merchants that stayed behind. They rather moved to places outside the territory that was ruled by the Danes, like Deventer and
Tiel, both rising merchant towns just outside Frisia.
The key position of Rorik at the Treaty of Meerssen in 870 was the cause that his territory - and therefore also Dorestad - was appointed
to the kingdom of Charles the Bald. That is why the trading town became politically isolated from the hinterland in the Rhine-Meuse area
and was doomed to decline. Rorik now only held the West Frisian coastal area with the declining trading town of Dorestad. The few merchants
that stayed behind were persuaded by Louis the German with special privileges to move to Tiel and Deventer.