“Merchant and pirate were for a long period one and the same person." The Execution of Klaus Störtebeker in 1401

20 October 1401, the pirate Klaus Störtebeker and his crew were executed in Hamburg.

“Merchant and pirate were for a long period one and the same person. Even today mercantile morality is really nothing but a refinement of piratical morality.“ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Reconstructed skull of Klaus Störtebeker

To cut a long story short, the political situation along the coasts of the Baltic Sea was a deep mess by the end of the 14th century. Various factions such as the Kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden, the Holy Roman Empire, the Teutonic Knights, the Hanseatic League and their later rival event, the Kalmar Union, struggled for supremacy and alliances and allegiances changed on a regular basis. And while, for instance, the city of Stockholm, then more or less controlled by the Hansa with a large German-speaking minority, welcomed a Duke from Mecklenburg as their new king, it was a group of privateers that would become the bitter enemy of the mighty merchant’s league. Initially formed to victual Stockholm during the civil war against a Danish and anti-Mecklenburgian Swedish siege in 1389 as blockade runners in the pay of King Albert and harass Danish shipping while they were at sea anyway. During these days the brotherhood gained their name, the “Vitalienbrüder”, Victual Brothers, and when they turned pirate in 1395 and their motto became "God's friends and the whole world's enemies", another nom du guerre for them became famous, Likedeelers ("equal sharers"). Allegedly the medieval pirates shared their booty gained from their raids off Spain and Brabant to England and Norway and, of course, the Baltic littoral factions, among themselves and with the poor living on the coast of their favourite hideouts. They soon became folk heroes.

The Hanseatic flagship "Bunte Kuh" in action off Heligoland

The Hanseatic League could find nothing useful or heroic in the disruption of trade, especially their own trade, though, and when the Likedeelers allied themselves with the stubborn, independent chieftains on the Frisian coast, the Hansa got at them with a vengeance. In 1401, a task-force equipped by the City of Hamburg and commanded by Simon von Utrecht, one of the Hansa's most experienced war leaders, captured the Likedeeler’s most prominent captain and his crew in a hard fought battle off Heligoland: Klaus Störtebeker (Low German for: "down the beaker" - he allegedly could drink four litres of beer in one gulp). Störtebeker was hauled aboard the Hanseatic flagship "Bunte Kuh" ("Pied Cow") and brought to Hamburg for judgement. The sentence was death, naturally, for every Victual Brother caught and Störtebeker and his merry men, 
his helmsman Humbert Grobherz (“coarse heart”) and 71 others were brought to the Grasbrook, an island on the river Elbe, back then Hamburg’s place of execution for pirates, and decapitated. The other Victual Brothers, Gödeke Michels, Henning Wichmann, Klaus Scheld and Magister Wigbold, soon followed. The days of the brotherhood were over, even though pirates were put to the sword at the Grasbrook until 1624, more than 400 in number, including the men of Störtebeker and Gödeke Michels.

Brought to Hamburg for judgement: Klaus Störtebeker after his capture

Legend has it, that the mayor of Hamburg granted Störtebeker a last wish: Everyone of his captured crew he could touch after his head was cut off, might go free. Allegedly, headless Störtebeker touched eleven of his men before his corpse was tripped up by the executioner, one Rosenfeld of Buxtehude. Mayor Kersten Miles then broke his word and had all captured Victual Brothers executed. Rosenfeld decapitated all of them each with a single stroke of his sword. When the council congratulated him on a job well done afterwards, Rosenfeld offered to just get on with it and behead them as well. Not exactly known for their sense of humour, the councillors grabbed Rosenfeld and hacked off his head instead. A skull found in 1878 during construction work on the Grasbrook had been attributed to Störtebeker and is now displayed at the Hamburg Museum and, of course, at the #wunderkammer to be wondered and marvelled at, along with tall tales of the half-forgotten Victual Brothers who ruled the Baltic Sea for a while, took from the rich and gave to the poor and stood up against the Hansa and Denmark and what not.

16th century depiction of pirate mass executions on Hamburg's Grasbrook 

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