The Störtebeker Saga

When the memories of events and individuals live on in the tales of the people for centuries after the fact, it is safe to conclude that these made a deep impression on their contemporaries. The trappings of the same are altered multiple times in legends, but the core of the story remains. One such set of events were the pirate raids of the so-called Victual Brothers in the Baltic and North Seas at the end of the 14th century. Many of these raids have been forgotten, but of their leaders Klaus Störtebeker and Gödeke Michael1) the legend still has plenty to say.

When, around the year 1389, the Danish Queen Magaret2) held the Swedish King Albert3) prisoner, the people of Rostock and Wismar rallied for his rescue and hired a wild group of people who called themselves the Victual Brothers because they wanted to supply the king with victuals4). However, they were soon widely feared for their acts of piracy.

Their above-mentioned leaders were daring adventurers whose business - which by no means was seen as dishonorable at the time - eventually caused them to end up in the hands of the embittered citizens of Hamburg, where they died condemned as criminals. But in the minds of the people they lived on as heroes of the sea, and thus several regions vie for the honor of being the place of their birth. According to Kobbe “Gesch. Theil 1.”, page 2065) Störtebeker was from the Diocese of Verden, and his estate was near Verden in the vicinity of the Halsmühle6) (Pfannkuche Geschichte des Bisthums Verden. I. page 2147)), and the Dauelsen estate of his brother-in-law is still shown today. Furthermore, in a hardly believable tale he and Gödeke are supposed to have donated seven windows (one showing the heraldic sign of Störtebeker: two overturned cups8)) each to the Cathedral in Verden9)) as atonement for seven deadly sins. A yearly donation of rays and herrings to the priests and poor people is also attributed to Störtebeker.

But the fishers of Rügen tell that Gödeke Michael was a squire on the Ruschvitz estate on Jasmund10), while Störtebeker came from the area around Barth in Pomerania11), and allegedly they stored their loot in a crevice in the Stubbenkammer12). In Mecklenburg an old wall of the Gut Schulenburg estate near Sülz an der Reknitz13) was claimed to be part of a castle owned by “Störtebeck” and “Jörte Micheel”. In contrast they are supposed to have had a Schanze14) in Neustadt in Holstein, and the family name “Störtebecker” existed there as late as 1771.

Many further tales are told of them in East Frisia. After they were driven out of the Baltic Sea they found refuge there, such as in Oldenburg15) and in the Groningen area16), and they did business readily with the locals thanks to their loot. However, they spent most of their time in Marienhafe17) where they started to build (but didn’t finish) the high tower at the famous church18). A canal leading there is still called the “Störtebeckerstief”19), and legend claims that Störtebecker anchored his ships at the iron rings integrated into the wall of the church. The same story is told of the church in Holtgaste20) in the district of Jemgum, which now lies almost half an hour away from the Ems river.

But above all, his memory is kept alive in Hamburg. The local Seafarer’s Association21) owns a mighty cup which holds the contents of four bottles and which Störtebeker is supposed to have emptied in one go. Lübeck and Groningen likewise claim to have such cups. Naturally, the German Hero of the Sea also had to be a strong drinker.

He had run quite a few capers against the rich merchants of Hamburg, and even against the Sultan of Constantinople. One hour distant from Harburg into the direction of Buxtehude there is a sandy hill near Neugraben which is called the Falkenberg22) and which is now covered with fir trees. There he allegedly had a castle and blocked the river Elbe with chains.

In the year 1402 he was finally captured between the islands of Neuwerk and Helgoland by a ship arriving from Flanders named “die bunte Kuh” (“the colorful cow”) after a brave fight, both him and M. Gödeke and Wichman Wichelt23) along with 70 comrades. The legend states that a smart man from Hamburg immobilized the rudder on Störtebeker’s ship with molten lead.

As a prisoner, he broke his chains and offered to plate the tower of St. Peter’s Church with gold if they would give him his freedom. But to no avail! He was to be beheaded with all his comrades on the Grasbrook24). Out of love to them he asked as his final wish that all whom he walked past after he was beheaded would be pardoned. As this was granted and the pirates stood in a row before the headsman’s block, he walked, beheaded, until he reached the fifth man. Then the headsman threw a log of wood in front of his feet so that he fell and didn’t get up again.

Source: Friedrich, K. Alterthümer, Geschichten und Sagen der Herzogthümer Bremen und Verden. 1856, p. 83

Notes & commentary: Scourge of the German Seas - The Dread Pirate Störtebeker

Also known as Gottfried Michaelsen in High German.
Magaret I of Denmark, who reigned from 1387 to 1412.
Albert, King of Sweden, reigned from 1364 to 1389, but was deposed when he was imprisoned - though he never gave up his claim until his death in 1412. He was also Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin (as Albert III), where he lived out the remainder of his life after his imprisonment.
From the Latin “victualia” - that is, provisions. They were hired as blockade runners during the siege of Stockholm by the forces of Queen Margaret.
Halsmühlen (“neck mills”) was a small village which now lies in the southern parts of Dauelsen, itself a part of the town of Verden in the modern age. This website has a few postcards of the old mills and their surrounding regions.
Störtebeker” is short for “Stürz den Becher”, i.e. “swallow the cup” - a reference to his prodigious drinking capabilities.
As far as I can tell, this estate used to be on the northern end of the Spyckerscher See lake near the village of Glowe.
As it happens, Barth is also claimed to be near one of the possible sites of the sunken city of Vineta. I will leave any possible significance of this to the imagination of the reader.
The area of the modern-day Jasmund National Park, which includes the famous chalk cliffs of Rügen.
Modern-day Bad Sülze. Unfortunately I have been unable to identify the location of the estate.
A “Schanze” is a temporary field fortification primarily created via earthworks that has no clear English equivalent, although “sconce” comes close. It’s not to be confused with “Schischanze”, which is a ski hill.
That would be Oldenburg in Oldenburg (my current place of residence), not Oldenburg in Holstein - since the latter is on the Baltic Sea coast.
Presumably Groningen in the Netherlands, which was rather more accessible from the North Sea back then than it is in the modern day.
As this map shows, Marienhafe was also more accessible from the North Sea than it is today. However, navigating its shallows required specialized knowledge, which made the city fairly safe from attacks from the ocean.
The Marienkirche (“St. Mary’s Church”). During the Middle Ages, the Leybucht bay reached all the way to this building, and the church served as a waypoint for seafarers. Furthermore, Störtebeker is said to actually have lived within the church, though like so many things about his life this remains unproven.
“Tief” (“Deep”) is a general name for the flowing waters of East Frisia which lie below the sea level and only drain into the ocean during low tide.
The Liudgerikirche, named after Saint Ludger and founded in the 13th century.
A number of German port cities had such “Schiffergesellschaft” societies, representing both captains and crew. They do not seem to have survived into the present.
Neugraben-Fischbek is now the south-westernmost part of Hamburg, which has a street named “Am Falkenbergsweg” next to two small hills. There is an inn called “Am Falkenberg” next to the southernmost hill, indicating that this might be the “Falkenberg” - “Falcon Mountain”.
The Grasbrook collection of swampy river islands just south of the old city of Hamburg. The new HafenCity can now be found at the same location.