Baltic Pirates

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  • #1726
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    From the Hamburg Chronicle (via translation “Chronicles of Three Free Cities” – Wilson King 1914

    “The Vitalian brothers, on the other hand [in contrast to the Teutonic Knights] were vulgar pirates, water thieves, murderers, with no redeeming features, yet about whom a certain atmosphere of romance has clung, as it has clung about the freebooters of the Caribbean islands and the Spanish mainland [of Latin America]. Their fame was so great that rogues and desperadoes flocked from all parts of Northern Europe to join them. They took themselves very seriously, and perhaps regarded theirs as a legitimate, yet extra hazardous, business which they, at any rate, took care to ensure by gaining the sanction of the Church. Two knights and eight men at arms joined in paying to have a daily mass said for the benefit of the Vitalian brothers, in Stockholm, and in Verden the two most eminent pirates gave twelve fine windows to the cathedral and endowed a periodical distribution of bread to the poor.

    Yet the world at large refused to look upon them as worthy of honour, and, when their plundering had gone on for some time, growing as it went, until it culminated in the capture and looting of Bergen [first of many], the Teutonic Knights declared war, and as we have seen, drove them from their headquarters at Wisby.

    Several of the Frisian chieftains received them with open arms. The city of Stralsund defeated one of their fleets and captured and hung one hundred and thirty of them, including their captain, von Moltke; but a new leader was found named Godeke von Michelsen, and new headquarters were established in Heliogoland. Michelson’s chief captains were Wichmann, Wigiboldt, and above all, Klaus Stortebecher, whose fame soon outshone all the others.

    Stortebecker is said to have been a nobleman from Verden. He was brave, unscrupulous and enormously strong. He took part in numerous wars on land, and was knighted; but he squandered his patrimony on riotous living, and then took to robbery as a means of livelihood. During a debauch in Hamburg he was arrested, and, after investigation, his knightly spurs were stripped from him and he was turned out of the city. He fled to the coast and joined the Vitalians, who soon recognized his worth and placed him in command, second only to Michelsen. In Frieseland he met the beautiful daughter of the famous chieftain Keno Ten Broek. There seems to have been love at first sight followed almost immediately by marriage, after which his wife accompanied him on nearly all his expeditions, and, it is said that, after she joined the brothers, no quarter was ever shown to prisoners. Those who had friends or relative on shore willing and able to pay heavy ransoms were sometimes spared, all others were thrown into the sea unless they were young and strong and willing to become pirates. In such cases a vast jug, or beecher, of wine or beer was brought in, and if the candidate could empty it at one draught, he was accepted as a recruit, otherwise he was thrown overboard. From this peculiar custom of initiation the nickname of Stortebecher was derived.”

    #1727
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    “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

    #1729
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    The English author used a lot of sources but the most important and credible source for this data up above is this guy:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Martin_Lappenberg

    …who was the 19th Century chief archivist and chronicler for Hamburg and a Hamburg senator. He was the author of the Hamburgische Chroniken in niedersächsischer Sprache “Hamburg Chronicle in Low German”. He also published the Bremen chronicle. These are available online but in Low German. I painstakingly translated some stuff from the naval battles in 1401 which included the fact that Hamburg captured a 12 cubit long ‘feldschlange’ cannon from the Mad Dog. We estimate this to be about 19 feet which is huge.

    #1730
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator
    #1784
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victual_Brothers

    The Victual Brothers were organised as a brotherhood or guild. Their main naval enemy in 1392 was the powerful Hanseatic town of Lübeck, which supported Denmark in the war. Apart from Lübeck, the Hanseatic League initially supported the Victual Brothers. Most of the Hanseatic towns had no desire for a victory for Denmark, with its strategic location for control of the seaways. For several years from 1392, the Victual Brothers were a strong power in the Baltic Sea. They had safe harbours in the cities of Rostock, Ribnitz, Wismar and Stralsund. They soon turned to open piracy and coastal plunder. In 1393 they sacked the town of Bergen for the first time and in 1394 they conquered Malmö. They occupied parts of Frisia and Schleswig. They also plundered Turku, Vyborg, Styresholm, Korsholm and Faxeholm castle at Söderhamn in Hälsingland.[4]

    At the climax of their power, the Victual Brothers occupied the island of Gotland, Sweden, in 1394 and set up their headquarters in Visby. They also operated from the Turku archipelago; Knut Bosson, who was the chief of Turku Castle from 1395 to 1398, had allied himself with the people of Mecklenburg, which is why he supported the hijacking activities of the Victual Brothers and allowed them to operate in the area

    #1825
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    This is from Philippe Dollinger, “The German Hansa” 1970. Dollinger is basically the top 20th Century expert on the Hanseatic League. This first part is kind of the origin-story of the Victual Brothers:

    “In 1389, when a rebellion of the Swedish nobility drove Albert [of Mecklenburg] from his throne and put him in prison, she [Queen Margaret of Denamrk] became also queen of Sweden. Stockholm, however, remained loyal to Albert, thanks to the support of the German population of the town.

    In their almost desperate situation the Mecklenburgers decided to wage the war of piracy with added vigour. In a sensational proclamation they promised to open their ports ‘to all those who at their own risk would got to sea to harm the kingdom of Denmark‘. The appeal was highly successful. Knights, townsfolk, peasants and gallows-birds hastened to enlist under the leadership of the Mecklenburg nobility. Rostock and Wismar became pirate bases, where ships were armedand equipped, raids planned and booty safely stored and divided up. Piracy soon made navigation almost impossible in the Baltic, for the corsairs did not confine their attacks to Danish ships. The Hansa not only suffered material loss in the war, but was once again torn by an internal crisis, when two of the Wendish towns, through self-interest and loyalty to their overlord, dissociated themselves from the common cause.

    It was in this period that pirates were first called Vitalienbrüder, a name which has remained associated with them. It is of French origin. At the beginning of the Hundred Years War, the vitalleurs were the soldiers responsible for supplying the armies, which they eventually did by brigandage pure and simple. At seat the name was given to ships carrying supplies to fleets and ports, and finally it reached the Baltic, where it became synonymous with pirate.

    Piracy enabled the Mecklenburgers to win some resounding successes. They were able to succour the garrison of Stockholm on several occasions, to carry out devastating raids along the Danish and Norwegian coasts, and to inflict serious losses on the Danish fleet. In 1391 the Mecklenburgers captured Bornholm, Visby, which provided them with an excellent base for their operations, Abo, Viborg, and various strongholds in Finland. Two years later Bergen was sacked, and its inhabitants took an oath of loyalty to Albert of Sweden. In the following year Malmö too was pillaged.”

    #1826
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    The previous entry was from page 79, this is page 80.

    “The Hansa tried to bring pressure to bear on Rostock and Wismar to stop themsheltering the pirates, but the two towns made the loyalty due to their overlord an excuse for refusing to take any action against the pirates or even to return goods which had been looted. The insecurity at sea was such that the [Hanseatic] diet of 1392 had to order a suspension of all trade with Skania for a period of three years. As a result, according to Detmar, the price of herring rose, in Prussia to three times the previous level and in Frankfurt ten times. Lübeck and Stralsund fought a hard battle with the pirates simultaneously. But if the seaways were to be made safe the co-operation of the Teutonic Order was indispensable. However the Grand Master, Conrad von Jungingen, was dreaming of further territorial expansion in the Baltic; he intended to profit by the war and did not choose to further the cause of Denmark.

    A great step forward was finally achieved in 1395 when the Hansa induced the belligerents to accept its mediation. By the peace of Skanör Albert was set free, and Stockholm was handed over to a group of seven Hansa towns – Wendish, Prussian and Livonian – to be ceded to [Queen] Margaret [of Denmark] after three years against a ransom of 60,000 marks, which however was never paid. This treaty ensured Margaret’s triumph over her enemies. In 1397 she caused a proclamation to be made at Kalmar establishing the union of the three Scandinavian kingdoms under her grand-nephew, Eric of Pomerania. This union was to remain in existence, at least in theory, for more than a hundred years. A year later, in 1398, the queen made a triumphal entry into Stockholm, after confirming the Hanseatic privileges in all three kingdoms.

    The Peace of Skanör removed the justification for piracy, but it remained rampant in the area around Gotland and would have persisted even longer if the Grand Master had not at least decided to co-operate with the Hansa in putting a stop to it. He may have been afraid that if he refrained from doing so he would lose to Denmark all the benefits of pacification. So he assembled 84 ships and 4,000 men at Danzig, and captured Visby without difficulty. The combined fleets of Lübeck and the Prussian towns then pursued the pirates so energetically that by 1400 the Baltic was entirely free of them.

    However most of the Vitalienbrüder had merely moved on to another theater of operations. They took refuge in the North Sea, where they met with a friendly reception from the count of Oldenburg and the minor lords of east Frisia. Bremen and Hamburg only got the better of them by a considerable effort, but in 1400 the pirates suffered a serious defeat in Frisia, and in the following year the last of their leaders, Godeke Michels and Klaus Störtebecker, were captured and beheaded in Hamburg, together with hundreds of their companions, whose heads weere displayed to the people.”

    [this is where the Chronicles of Three Free cities excerpts up above take over for a minute]

    #1830
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    We need to explore all these guys next time

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_privateers

    and then do the Anglo Hanseatic War!

    #1888
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    Another mysterious figure with a great portrait

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Scolvus

    #1912
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator
    #1960
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator
    #1962
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator
    #1963
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    The Frisan / Saxon peasant republic

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dithmarschen

    https://books.google.com/books/about/Dithmarschen.html?id=3TFoAAAAMAAJ

    Eddie Izzard tries to speak Old English in Friesland

    #1964
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator

    Reference to the 19 foot Feldschlange gun recovered from Storebekcer

    https://books.google.com/books?id=X0dLAQAAIAAJ&dq=Beneke+Hamburgische+Geschichten+und+Sagen&pg=PA110&hl=en#v=onepage&q=kanone&f=false

    #1971
    Hans Hellinger
    Moderator
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