Historical Tales: 9—Scandinavian - Charles Morris

How the Ditmarshers Kept their Freedom

The name of Ditmarshers was given to the inhabitants of a broad, marshy region adjoining the district of Holstein on the Baltic shores of Germany. They were not pure Germans, however, but descendants of the ancient Frisian tribes who had long occupied the northwest parts of Germany and Holland and were known as far back as the times of the Romans for their courage and love of liberty.

For age after age this people had shown the same bold spirit and made many a gallant stand against the princes who sought to subdue them. Geert the Great and other princes of Sleswick and Holstein had suffered defeat at their hands, and the warlike Valdemar III. of Denmark had been sadly beaten by them. At a much later date the Emperor Frederick had formally given the lands of the Ditmarshers to Christian I. of Denmark, to be joined to Holstein, but the marshmen declared that they were not subjects of Denmark and would not be given and taken at its king's will.

It was in the year 1500 that the most striking event in the history of the Ditmarshers took place. King Hans, the son of Christian I., then ruled over Denmark and Norway and five years before had been crowned king of Sweden. It was due to his dealings with the bold sons of the marshes that he lost the latter throne. This is the story of this interesting event.

When Hans was made king of Denmark his ambitious brother Frederick, who had sought to obtain the throne, was made duke of Sleswick-Holstein, and called upon the Ditmarshers to pay him taxes and render homage to him for their lands. This they declined to do, not recognizing the right of the Emperor Frederick to hand them over to Denmark and to decide that the country which had belonged to their fathers for so many centuries was part of Holstein.

Finding that he had tough metal to deal with in the brave marshmen, Frederick induced his brother Hans to invade their country and seek to bring them to terms. King Valdemar had done the same thing three centuries before, with the result of losing four thousand men and getting an arrow wound in his eye, but undeterred by this, if they knew anything about it, the nobles and knights, who were very numerous in the army led by Frederick and Hans, went to the war as lightly as if it were an excursion of pleasure.

Disdaining to wear their ordinary armor in dealing with peasant foes, they sought to show their contempt for such an enemy by going in their ordinary hunting costume and carrying only light arms. It was a piece of folly, as they were to learn. The marshmen fought like their fathers of old for their much-valued liberty, and the knights found they had no cravens to deal with.

It is true that the royal troops took and sacked Meldorf, the chief town of the Ditmarshers, cruelly killing its inhabitants, but it was their only victory. It proved a lighter thing to get to Meldorf than to get away from it, and of the Danes and Germans who had taken part in the assault few escaped with their lives.

It was the depth of winter, cold, bitter weather, and as the army was on its march from Meldorf to Hejde the advance guard suddenly found itself in face of a line of earthworks which the marshmen had thrown up in front of a dike. This was defended by five hundred Ditmarshers under their leader, Wolf Isebrand.

The German guards rushed to the attack, shouting:

"Back, churls, the guards are coming!"

Three times they forced the marshmen to retreat, but as often these bold fellows rallied and came back to their works. In the midst of the struggle the wind changed, bringing a thaw with it, and as the troops struggled on, blinded with the sleet and snow that now fell heavily, and benumbed with the cold, the men of the marshes opened the sluices in the dike. Through the openings poured the waters of the rising tide, quickly flooding the marshes and sweeping everything before them.

The soldiers soon found themselves wading in mud and water, and at this critical juncture the Ditmarshers, accustomed to make their way through their watery habitat by the aid of poles and stilts, fell upon the dismayed invaders, cutting them down in their helpless dilemma or piercing them through with their long lances.

The victory of the peasants was utter and complete. Six thousand of the invaders, nobles and men-at-arms alike, perished on that fatal day, and the victors fell heir to an immense booty, including seven banners. Among these was the great Danish standard, the famous Danneborg, which was carried in triumph to Oldenwörden and hung up in the church as the proudest trophy of the victory.

As for King Hans and his brother Duke Frederick, they barely escaped falling into the hands of the marshmen, while the estimate of the losses in money, stores, and ammunition in that dread afternoon's work was 200,000 florins.

King Hans lost more than money by it, for he lost the kingship of Sweden. The nobles of that country, when the news of the disastrous defeat reached them, rose in revolt, under the leadership of Sten Sture, drove the Danes out of Stockholm, and kept his queen, Christina of Saxony, prisoner for three years. Hans had no more armies to send to Sweden and he was obliged to renounce its crown.

Norway also rose against him under a brave leader, and his power over that country was threatened also. It was finally saved for him by his son Prince Christian, who used his power so cruelly after order was restored that he nearly routed out all the old Norwegian nobles.

Thus, from his attempt to make the Ditmarshers pay taxes against their will, King Hans lost one kingdom and came near losing another. The only successful war of his reign was one against the traders of Lübeck, who had treated him with great insolence. In a war which followed, the fleet of the Lübeckers was so thoroughly beaten that the proud merchant princes were glad to pay 30,000 gulden to obtain peace. Then, having this one success to offset his defeat by the Ditmarshers, King Hans died.