Reply To: Baltic Pirates

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Hans Hellinger

“For four years longer, from 1398 to 1402, the pirates prospered and were the terror of the seas and the coasts, even as far as Spain. From a Spanish convent, which they sacked, they brought much gold and some precious relics of St. Vincent. The gold was all divided among the brethren, but the relics were taken by Stortebecker and Michelsen, who always wore them about their persons, believing that they were thereby protected from all wounds.

Stortebecker was famous for his vast physical strength, and many terrible tales were told of him throughout the country; while the distinguishing characteristic of Michelsen was the astonishing quickness with which he moved from place to place, giving him a reputation for ubiquity.

In 1400 a Hamburg fleet, under Senator* Albert Schreye, attacked and defeated several pirate ships off the Frisian coast, and captured Emden, thus bringing Stortebecker’s father-in-law to a realizing sense of his sins. Later in the year there was another fight, in which eighty pirates were killed and thirty were captured and taken to Hamburg, where they were properly hanged.

The indignation in pirate circles was very great. Only a year later pirates swarmed in the river Weser, where a Hamburg fleet found them and fought them, and carried off seventy-three of them who were hanged in Hamburg.

The pirates retorted by proclaiming that hereafter no quarter should be shown; but as they had shown none before it mattered little. After these reverses the two leaders seemed maddened, and their depredations were more constant and terrible than ever.

In 1402 a new expedition was fitted out against these corsairs, whose audacity was such that they had taken their fleet to the mouth of the Elbe and captured all of the ships coming from or going to Hamburg. The senate secretly prepared a small fleet under the command of Burgomeister Niclaus Schocke. The lrgest vesel in this fleet was called Die Bunte Kuh – ‘The Brindled Cow**” – and was commanded by a young man named Simon von Utrecht***. The night before the expedition sailed a pilot named Peter Krutzfeldt rowed out in the dark and tampered with the rudder of Strortebecker’s flagship, the Mad Dog, so that she could not answer her helm.

The pirate fleet was lying off Heilgoland, expecting no attack and waiting for a fleet of trading ships about to sail from Hamburg or England, full of rich booty, which they expected to have no difficulty in capturing. Instead, came this fleet of Hamburgers keen for battle. The great Brindled Cow made strait for the Mad Dog, which could not be maneuvered, because of her rudder; but Wichmann’s ship, seeing this, sailed in between and fired a broadside at the Cow. The Mad Dog also got in a broadside, but the Cow got to close quarters between the two, and fired a double broadside which did great damage. She then charged, bow on, into Wichmann’s ship, completely wrecking her and leaving her to drift.

Meantime, Stortebecker, on his Mad Dog, was raking the Cow with his guns, until Simon von Utrecht*** got in a second broadside at close quarters and then lay alongside, grappled and boarded the Mad Dog. A terrible hand-to-hand fight ensued. Simon*** and Stortebecker met and fought. The latter’s enormous strength was met by superior suppleness and skill.

When both swords were broken, and their axes dropped, they grasped each other in a death struggle. Both were very nearly exhausted, but von Utrecht was underneath and getting the worst of it, when two of his friends, who had successfully disposed of their special opponents, saw the struggle, and tied up before they realized who he was or that their own captain was underneath. St. Vincent’s relics had done their work. Stortebecker had no wounds, but he had been captured unhurt, though out of breath.
Meanwhile, the other Hamburg ships had attacked the other pirate craft, and had done good work. Some small vessels were taken and two large frigates****, commanded by Michelsen, finding the enemy too strong for them, sailed away and owing to their superior fleetness, soon escaped. Watchmann’s ship, which had been disabled by the Brindled Cow, was fired at and sunk by the other ships.***** Only a few of the crew escaped, but Wichmann himself was one of those picked up alive.

A great deal of booty was taken, a great many pirates were killed, but the main thing was that the famous, invulnerable Stortebecker and some seventy of his chief men were prisoners.

The Hamburg fleet sailed back into the city, carrying the two famous leaders and many of their men. The citizens went wild with joy. They could hardly believe that the terrible Stortebecker was really in their power.

That individual himself found it hard to realize. He is said to have offered to pay vast sums to the senat as a ransom, but no government would have dared to let him go. He and Wichmann and their comrades were all beheaded. We do not know what became of Stortebecker’s cruel wife.

Michelsen and Wigboldt had escaped. The former was a nobleman of Verden , the latter a Master of Philosophy from the University of Rostock, who had taken to evil ways.

It was but a few weeks before the fleet was repaired and refitted and sent out again to search for the freeboters, and again the Brindled Cow was the centre of interest. The Hamburgers tracked the pirates to their lair, and there fought and annihilated them. The two remaining chiefs and eighty others were taken alive, chiefly because of Simon von Utrecht’s skill and courage, and they were all executed in Hamburg.

* Hamburg city council had a ‘Senat’ and the councilmen were called senators.

** aka ‘bright cow’ or ‘colorful cow’ – a reference to the tradition of painting cows in colorful patterns on certain feast days in lower Saxony and Frisia.

*** We now know that the story of the involvement of Simon von Utrecht in this action is apocryphal, he wasn’t involved with Hamburg naval activities until a couple of years later. He did perform a lot of services for Hamburg later on in life including in actions against Denmark in 1428 and against another group of pirates, the Likedeelers, in 1432 and 1433 . Actions attributed to him in the 1401 engagement were actually the work of Hamburg senators Nicklaus Schocke and Herman Lange.

**** This is an anachronism, frigates as such didn’t exist yet. The ships were probably cogs or schigge.

***** This is significant, because if true it would be one of the earliest documented examples of ships sunk by naval gunfire.

A few links:

Magister Wigboldt, the philosopher-pirate.

Verden, the town where many of the pirates came from.

The Bunte Kuh, the famous warship used by Hamburg in their campaign against the pirates.

Simon von Utrecht