|Bei Störtebekers Bart!
|While Sweden and Denmark were at war from 1389 until 1392, the dukes of Mecklenburg hired a
group of freebooters known as the Vitalienbrüder or the "Victual Brothers" to help them subdue
Denmark after Danish Queen Margaret had imprisoned Swedish king Albrecht of Mecklenburg and
his son. The word "victualia" means provisions and refers to the first mission of the Victual Brothers:
to bring food to the besieged town of Stockholm. They grew into a strong power in the Baltic,
enjoying safe harbors throughout.
Their biggest enemy was Lübeck, who supported Denmark, but most Hanseatic towns allowed them
free reign, especially Rostock and Wismer. They occupied Gotland in 1394 and set up a stronghold
in Visby, and soon their depredations not only collapsed the whole Hanseatic Baltic Sea and North
Sea maritime trade, but threatened northern government itself. However, from 1395, after Queen
Margaret united Denmark, Sweden and Norway into the Kalmar Union, she used her powerful
position to convince the Hanseatic League to cooperate in repelling the pirates and she arranged a
treaty with Albert of Mecklenberg which allowed Stockholm to be surrendered to the Hansa for a
three year term and be handed over to the Queen afterward. The Hanseatic and Scandinavian fleets
then worked together to drive out the Victual Brothers.
During this time, an accident happened in 1396: The fleets of Denmark and the German Hanse
mistakenly took each other for pirates and began shooting at each other. The great battle was won
by the German Hanse. Then came the realization of their actions, and the embarrassed captains
retreated silently with what was left of their ships to their home ports. The Victual Brothers,
meanwhile, went on raiding and plundering, uttering the cry, ”Godes vrende unde al der Werlt
vyande” or "God's friends and the whole world's enemies."
They managed to capture ships of England, Holland, Russia and even Germany. King Albert and
Queen Margaret conceded Gotland to the Teutonic Order in 1398, and they destroyedVisby and
drove off the Victual Brothers, who were now reduced to out and out robbery and open piracy for
decades. They attacked Denmark, sacked Bergen and other Norwegian towns and occupied parts of
Frisia and Schleswig. The best known pirate was Nikolaus Storzenbecher, alias Klaus Störtebekerr,
who was born around 1360 in Wismar. Störtebeker allegedly got his name because he could gulp
four litres of beer in a single swallow. His first headquarters were on Rugen, but when the Hanse
was able to secure the Baltic, he operated from locations in Friesland, following his friend and tutor
Goedeke Michel into the North Sea and then raiding as far as France and even Spain, engendering
fear and panic. The skull pictured at the top of page is attributed to pirate Klaus Störtebeker and is a
modern reconstruction of the face.
Alas, in 1401, Störtebeker and 73 of his companions were tricked into going to Heligoland by a
fisherman who turned out to be the enemy, although some accounts claim that Störtebeker's ship
had been disabled by a traitor who cast molten lead into the links of the chain which held the rudder
of the ship. In any case, a Hamburg warship under the command of Simon of Utrecht caught up
with Störtebeker and engaged in a three day battle.
Störtebeker and his crew were finally overwhelmed and the survivors were taken to Hamburg where
he and his men were beheaded on October 21 of either 1400 or 1401. It is said that in the trial
against him he tried unsuccessfully to buy his life and freedom with the promise of a golden chain as
long as the circumference of Hamburg and he claimed that his mainmast had a core of pure gold. It
is also said that he asked the mayor of Hamburg to release as many of his companions who he could
walk after he was beheaded. After he was beheaded, his headless body allegedly got up and walked
past twelve of his cohorts before being tripped by the executioner, but they were executed anyway.
After the pirates were decapitated their heads were spiked on poles and lined up at the river Elbe.
Many attempts have been made to find his elusive and still missing treasures. The history of the
Vitalienbrüder was not yet ended, however. Only months later Godeke Michels was captured.
Godeke Michels, or Godeke Wessels until his marriage into the well-known and important
Michaelsen family, had acquired a residence in Eissel. Godeke, known as an erudite man from noble
lineage, helped the German Hansa sack Danish ships and supply beleaguered German cities with
food during the war with Denmark. Due to his family relationships in Pommerania, Godeke and
Störtebeker often hid out in these locations and even donated food to the poor folks of Lüneburg.
Godeke Michels' homeport was Heligoland, an ancient island in the North Sea.
The Prussian cities decided to bring his activities to an end in 1401 and sent their fleets after him.
With a crew of 200 men, Godeke and his companion Wigbold sailed to Norway. The German Hanse
was furious at his escape and in retaliation set the castle of Godeke's protector Chief Sibrands of
Loquard on fire. But time ran out on Godeke Michels, and in April, 1402, he was captured with an
80 man crew and they were all taken to Grasbrook in Hamburg and beheaded.
Remnants of the pirates, calling themselves "Likedeelers," allied themselves to the East Frisian
chieftains, and in 1429 these descendants of the Victual Brothers attacked and plundered Bergen
again, burning it to the ground. The Likedeelers were a menace until around 1440.