History of Europe

The legendary death of the pirate Klaus Störtebeker

Mysteries still surround the life of the pirate Klaus Störtebeker - and also his death. On October 20, 1401 he is said to have been beheaded on Grasbrook in Hamburg.

The motto of the pirates is carved in stone on the base of the Störtebeker monument on Hamburg's Grasbrook:"God's friend, the world's enemy". On the formerly uninhabited Elbe island - today the location of Hafencity - the mayors of the Hanseatic city had pirates executed for centuries. Death was the usual punishment for raiding merchant ships owned by wealthy Hamburg merchants, the so-called pepper bags. To deter passing sailors, the executioners impaled the severed skulls of the delinquents on a wooden frame with long nails.

Execution of Störtebeker:Twelve meters without a head?

A memorial stands at the spot where Störtebeker is said to have been beheaded.

According to legend, the legendary North German privateer Klaus Störtebeker, who was up to mischief on the North and Baltic Seas, also met his end there. It must have been 620 years ago, probably on October 20th, 1401, when he and more than 70 of his cronies were beheaded on this place of execution. How old Störtebeker was when he died is unclear, his biography is incomplete. A Hanseatic armada around the flagship "Bunte Kuh", which was equipped by the Dutch merchant Simon von Utrecht from Hamburg, is said to have confronted the pirates in a naval battle off Heligoland.

An old woodcut shows the beheading of pirates on Hamburg's Grasbrook - once a common punishment for buccaneers.

According to legend, before his execution, Störtebeker had made a deal with the then mayor of Hamburg, Kersten Miles:the executioner was to spare those in a line of pirates who the decapitated man could still walk past. Literally without a head, Störtebeker marched past eleven men until he collapsed and died. He supposedly couldn't save her life anyway because Miles didn't keep his word. Is that how the story happened? In any case, modern forensic medicine considers it physiologically impossible.

A skull is a mystery

Canadian DNA experts were also unable to clarify whether a skull found on Grasbrook in 1878, which was pierced with an iron nail and is on display in the Museum of Hamburg History, is one of Störtebeker's mortal remains. The bones were too old to isolate genetic material that scientists could compare to living namesakes.

However, according to the Hamburg Museum, it is likely that the skull of the man executed between 1390 and 1450 was that of one of the captains of the Vita Brothers, to which Störtebeker also belonged. This is indicated by the fact that the hole for the nail was pre-drilled with the utmost care to increase the durability of the severed head.

Keyword privateer

Unlike pirates, buccaneers traveled with the consent or on behalf of governments or private individuals. These issued the seafarers with a document, the letter of marque. This ensured the privateers the protection of their country's fleet. In return, they had to hand over parts of their booty. However, many buccaneers would not accept if their letters of marque were withdrawn - and continued their raids as pirates.

Störtebeker:Drinking habits as namesake?

This etching by the artist Daniel Hopfer is often referred to as a portrait of Störtebeker. But it shows the knight Kunz von der Rosen.

It is also unclear where Störtebeker came from, when he was born and how he got his name, which translated from Low German means "drop the cup". Was the buccaneer called that because - as has been handed down - he could drink a mug of four liters of beer or wine, which was common at the time, in one gulp? It is possible, but this thesis cannot be proven.

A mention in documents from the city of Wismar suggests that Störtebeker could come from the Hanseatic city on the Mecklenburg Bay:In 1380 a certain "Nicolao Stortebeker" was injured in a fight and his opponents were expelled from the city. Other sources indicate that Störtebeker came from Danzig and was not a pirate but a merchant who lived until about 1413.

Was Klaus Störtebeker a Gdańsk merchant?

After the naval battle at Heligoland, Störtebeker is said to have been captured and brought ashore in Hamburg.

It is likely that Störtebeker and Captain Gödeke Michels actually existed. Their names appear repeatedly in British chronicles documenting pirate raids on English merchant ships in the years 1394-1399. Experts consider Michels to be the real leader of the Vitali brothers. At the end of the 14th century, these seafarers had ended a blockade of Stockholm by Danish troops and later attacked ships in the North and Baltic Seas.

A pirate as a folk hero

Disguised as a Störtebeker, an actor distributes herrings and brown bread to passers-by in Verden.

Even today, the pirate Störtebeker is glorified as the "Robin Hood" of the poor. The legend persists that the Vital brother supported the poor and needy with part of his booty. Every year, for example, Verden in Lower Saxony celebrates the so-called Lätare donation, during which herrings and brown bread are distributed on the town hall square exactly three weeks before Easter. According to tradition, Störtebeker left the town an inheritance for this purpose, from which the meals are paid.

"Störtebeker is alive"

Even among the supporters of the left-wing scene, there seem to be admirers of the Vitali brothers:in April 1985, unknown persons damaged the monument to the pirate vanquisher Simon von Utrecht on Hamburg's Kersten Miles Bridge. The statue was decapitated and smeared with anarchist slogans such as "We'll get all the pepper bags", "Not all heads only roll after 500 years" or "Störtebeker is alive".

A classic:The Störtebeker Festival on Rügen

In the socialist GDR, Störtebeker was glorified as a folk hero and celebrated at the Rügen Festival in Ralswiek between 1959 and 1981. Since 1993, the Störtebeker Festival has once again enjoyed great popularity with the public at the same location. This year, however, they are canceled due to Corona. In the East Frisian town of Marienhafe there is also a tower museum in the Störtebeker tower, in which, among other things, the building history of St. Mary's Church is documented - Störtebeker is said to have once found shelter there.