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Pirates of the North Sea

gmarquardt has an M.A. in history and German from SWTSU and has over 30 years of teaching experience at public high schools.

According to legend, Klaus Störtebeker was a German pirate who roamed the North Sea in the 14th Century. Reputed to be the leader of privateers known as the Vitalienbrüder (Victual Brothers), they sailed the North and Baltic Seas attempting to break the monopoly the Hanseatic League held on trading. However, Störtebeker continued to raid vessels after the war to aid the poor. Akin to a “Robin Hood of the North Sea,” Störtebeker captured merchant vessels and requisitioned the goods for himself and those less fortunate.

Klaus Störtebeker Godeke Michels 1401 Gottes Freund, der Welt Feind God’s Friend, The World’s Enemy

Klaus Störtebeker Godeke Michels 1401 Gottes Freund, der Welt Feind God’s Friend, The World’s Enemy

Born in Wismar, Germany on the Baltic Sea, little is known of Störtebeker's early life. His name, however, is a nom de guerre which means “empty the mug in one swallow.” Supposedly he could consume a four-liter mug of beer in one gulp!

Störtebeker started his pirating career fighting for Mecklenburg during a war with Denmark. Trying to subdue and conquer all of Scandinavia, Queen Margaret I of Denmark battled Albert of Mecklenburg, the King of Sweden and Duke of Mecklenburg. Hired by Albert to run the blockade of Sweden, the Victual Brothers attacked Danish ships and looted their provisions. A loosely organized gang of buccaneers, they sided with Mecklenburg and sailed out of Sweden. Their pirated goods were sent to Stockholm to support the blockaded town. Although Queen Margaret I succeeded in uniting Norway, Sweden, and Denmark into the Kalmar Union, most of the pirates survived the war.

After the major conflict had ended, Störtebeker and other captains of the Vitalienbrüder, who renamed themselves the Likedeelers, (equal shares) continued to loot merchant vessels for the benefit of others. Störtebeker sold the goods and distributed the money to his crew and the poor. By doing so, he garnered the ire of local merchants and traders who were tired of losing their merchandise and money. The merchants petitioned the local Bürgermeister (mayor) to do something. They collected money and hired two new, large ships to attack Störtebeker and arrest him. After much searching, they found Störtebeker and his 73-man crew and attacked. After a three-day running battle, Störtebeker was forced to surrender.

Back on land, Störtebeker and his crew were imprisoned in Hamburg. Tried for piracy, all 74 men were sentenced to death. On 20 October 1401, the crew were to be executed by beheading. Standing in a single row awaiting their fate, Störtebeker asked the Bürgermeister for a final favor. He asked that immediately after his beheading, however many of his crew he could walk past should be spared. The mayor and the executioner agreed. Indeed, the executioner swung his axe, Klaus lost his head but immediately stood up and walked past eleven of his crew. Irate, the executioner purposefully tripped him. The mayor refused to keep his word and all 74 men were executed.

Because of his unselfish acts as both captain and friend of the poor, Klaus Störtebeker is remembered as a hero. A memorial and statue of this pirate turned hero can be found in the Hamburg harbor. The inscription below the statue reads,

Klaus Störtebeker

Godeke Michels

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Gottes Freund, der Welt Feind

Klaus Störtebeker

Gottfried Michaelsen


God’s Friend, The World’s Enemy


FlourishAnyway from USA on October 18, 2020:

I wonder what became of the mayor? Thanks for telling this fascinating historical story.

Ann Carr from SW England on October 17, 2020:

How sad that they didn't honour their promise! Fascinating story.


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