Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

B3. The Victual Brothers

A serious interruption to the Baltic trade after the glorious peace with Waldemar arose from the notorious gang of pirates known to history as the Victual Brothers. Upon the principle that all is fair in love and war the Hansa, during its campaign against the Danish king, had openly countenanced and even abetted piracy, so long as the attacks of the robbers were directed against their enemies. The chance of plundering under protection was too tempting not to attract a large number of adventurers, who for some years carried on their black trade under the designation of "Victual Brothers," a name chosen because their ostensible aim was to supply with provisions that part of the Swedish coast which belonged to the Hansa.

It seems strange to us of to-day to find as the leading spirits among these Brothers the names of Moltke and Manteuffel, doubtless forbears of the famous modern German generals. These pirates founded masses and charitable institutions on the one hand, and robbed and sacked remorselessly on the other. Peace being concluded, the Hansa naturally had to clear the seas of these pests, but it had been easier to call them into activity than to suppress them. A large body of men had found profitable employment coupled with stirring adventure; this latter being a powerful incentive in those days, and were loth to quit their free wild life.

They continued their association, nay, even enlarged it, forming themselves into a corporation, after the pattern of the Knights Templars, and divided all booty equally among their body. In a brief space they became the scourge of all the commercial cities. "God's friend and all the world's enemy" was their audacious motto. Masters of both seas, the Baltic and the German Ocean, on one occasion they even seized, plundered, and burnt down Bergen (1392) and took prisoner the bishop. Gothland became their stronghold, and Wisby, once the Hansa's glory, was turned into a pirate's nest near which the merchant sailed with fear and trembling.

It seems strange, to our modern ideas, even to think that piracy was once a reputable calling. It was held as such, for example, in ancient Greece, as we may read in Thucydides, book i. chap. 5. No offence was in those days either intended or taken if one Greek asked another if he were a pirate. In the Baltic, like duelling in more polished climes, this practice long survived the positive laws framed against it. Pirates would even give back empty ships to merchants, wishing them a happy return with fresh and fuller cargoes.

In vain did Margaret of Sweden protest against the audacities of the Victual Brothers. She was helpless against them. The measure of her impotence can be gauged by the fact that she begged from Richard II., king of England, permission to hire three ships at Lynn for the protection of her kingdom. In vain, too, on the days when the Hansa met in council, was this theme discussed. For three whole years all fishing on Scania had to be abandoned. The result was severely felt throughout the length and breadth of Christian Europe, for herrings and other Lenten food became rare and costly.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Stronger and stronger grew these pirates, so that at last it was decided to send out an army against them. Once more recourse was had to a poundage tax to raise supplies and thirty-five large vessels with three thousand men were sent to sea in 1394. After long and arduous struggles they at last broke the power of the association, but for long afterwards separate bands of pirates, once members of the mighty gang, rendered the navigation of these seas a peril.

Legend took possession of these robbers from an early date, and we come across them in song and fable. Taking a foremost place were Godeke Michelson and Stortebeker, whose special mission it was to harry the traders with England. Stortebeker, it is said, was a nobleman, indeed noblemen were frequently found in the association. As a youth he had been wild and lived so riotous a life that all his property was gambled and drunk away. When finally the town of Hamburg, the scene of his carouses, in order to pay his debts, deprived him of his knightly armour and forbade him the city precincts, he joined the Victual Brothers.

At this time their leader was Godeke Michelson, who hailed the new confederate with joy, after testing his strength, which was so great that with his hands he broke iron chains like string. And because his new ally was also great at drinking—he could pour down huge bumpers at one gulp—he bade him lay aside his noble name and renamed him instead Stortebeker ("Pour down bumpers"). Once when the pair had plundered the North Sea clean they made a descent upon Spain. As was their wont, they divided their spoils with their comrades, only on this occasion they kept for themselves the holy bones of St. Vincent, stolen from a church, bearing them under their coats upon their naked breasts. Hence, says legend, they grew invulnerable, so that neither crossbow nor axe, sword nor dagger, could harm or wound them.

When the Victual Brothers were conquered by the Hansa and banished from the Baltic, these two chieftains with their followers found good friends in Frisia, where to this day memories of Stortebeker survive, and the chieftain Keno then Broke became his father-in-law, for his lovely daughter lost her heart to the doughty pirate, and followed him on to his ships and his floating kingdom. For Stortebeker was a king in his way. When he made captives who promised him a ransom he let them live. But if they were poor and old and weak, he threw them overboard relentlessly. If they were poor but strong, and so likely to be of use, he tested their strength in this manner. He caused his own enormous goblet to be filled with wine. If they could empty it at one gulp they were his peers, and he accepted them as comrades. Those who could not pass this ordeal were dismissed.

It is said that Stortebeker and Godeke Michelson sometimes had moments of penitence concerning the lives they led. In such a moment of remorse they each presented the cathedral of Verdun with seven glass windows, on which were painted cunningly the seven deadly sins. Stortebeker's "mark," two reversed goblets, is depicted in one of them, probably the one that treats of gluttony. They also founded a charity for distributing bread to the poor.

In 1400, the Hansa sent out a fleet to Frisia to combat these chieftains. It was in this war that the Hamburgers attained the honour of conquering the Victual Brothers, dispersing their crew and releasing their captives. Keno then Broke was carried off into confinement, for he had, against his oath and faith, contrived to aid the pirates. With Keno the town of Hamburg made a new treaty. It is said that just as it was signed and the councillors had left the council chamber, Stortebeker managed to slip out of a hiding-place, where he had heard all that passed, and joked with his father-in-law at the expense of the Hamburg aldermen who had once more put faith in him. Whilst so engaged a certain Councillor Naune, who had forgotten his gloves, returned to the hall and overheard them. Hence the war broke out afresh.

Once more many Victual Brothers were captured and beheaded in Hamburg. Their heads were stuck upon poles for the warning of all beholders, while the account books prove that the executioner received eight pennies per trunk decapitated and his servant twenty pennies per body buried. Yet again a fleet had to set forth; for as long as Stortebeker and Godeke Michelson were living there was no peace possible.

Under a Hamburg alderman, Simon of Utrecht, who commanded the fleet on board a mighty ship known as the Coloured Cow, they again set out. The name of this vessel is remarkable, and is the first instance we come across in Hanseatic history of a profane denomination for a ship. All the others are named after some saint or angel, under whose special protection it was supposed to sail. "The Coloured Cow, from Flanders, that tore through the ocean with its great horns," sings the folk-song, the "Stortebeker Lied," which a hundred and fifty years ago was still sung by the people. The Victual Brothers lay off Heligoland. Towards dark one evening in the year 1402, the Hamburg fleet approached them, and a daring fisherman came so near that he was able to pour molten lead upon some of their rudders, loosening them, and rendering the vessels unseaworthy. Next day the battle began. It raged three days and three nights, and only after a desperate resistance was Stortebeker conquered.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Some of the pirates fled, many were killed or thrown into the sea; their ships, richly laden with booty in the shape of linen, wax, cloth, etc., were seized, and Stortebeker with seventy comrades carried in triumph to Hamburg. The cell in which Stortebeker was confined was known as Stortebeker's hole as long as it existed. It was destroyed like so many of the antiquities of Hamburg in the great fire of 1842. Short work was of course made of his trial, and with his companions Stortebeker was condemned to death. When he heard his sentence it afflicted him much, and he offered the municipality in return for his life and freedom a chain of gold to be made from his hidden treasures, so long that they could span with it the whole cathedral and also all the town. This offer was, of course, indignantly rejected, and next day he was publicly executed, together with seventy comrades. In compliance with their dying petition they went to death dressed in their best, marching in stately procession, and preceded by fifes and drums.

After Stortebeker's death the Hamburgers searched his ships for the hidden treasures. Except a few goblets they could find nothing at first, until a carpenter broke the main-mast, which was discovered to be hollow and full of molten gold. With this fortune the merchants who had suffered at Stortebeker's hands were indemnified, the costs of the war paid, and out of the remainder a golden crown was made and placed on the spire of St. Nicholas Church.

Stortebeker was thus out of the way; but there still remained Godeke Michelson. So the Hamburgers with Simon of Utrecht and his Coloured Cow, once more set forth and once more returned victorious, bearing in their train Godeke Michelson, eighty robbers, and the under-chieftain Wigbold, of whom it is said that he had been a professor of philosophy at Rostock, and had exchanged his chair for the forecastle of a ship. These men also were all decapitated in the presence of the burghers and municipal council.

It was a heavy day's work for the executioner, and it is related that he waded up to his ankles in blood. After it was all ended an alderman asked him kindly if he were not much wearied. "Oh no," said the headsman, laughing grimly, "I never felt better in my life, and I have strength enough left to behead the whole lot of you councillors." For this treasonable speech he was at once dismissed from his post.

Various relics exist to this day to keep Stortebeker's memory fresh in Hamburg. Among them were a small whistle with which he gave the signal to his ships during a storm, an iron cannon nineteen feet long, his armour, and the executioner's sword.

But chief of all Hamburg preserved the so-called Stortebeker goblet, a silver bumper, from which tradition says he drank. "Whosoever comes to Hamburg and does not go to the Ship's Company, that he may drink from the goblet of Stortebeker and Godeke Michelson, and write his name in the book that lies beside it, has not been in Hamburg," says an old writer. This goblet is about a yard and a half high, and holds four bottles. A sea-fight is engraved on it, together with other incidents out of Stortebeker's life, and some rough rhymes. Once more modern criticism, destructive and intolerant of all picturesque legend, declares that the cup is of later date than Stortebeker's time, and can never have been his.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Soon after the death of the pirate chiefs, Hamburg sent an envoy as pilgrim to the shrine of San Jago of Compostella. Whether he was employed to bear thither the thanks of the city to the saint for their victory, or to return to Spain the relics of St. Vincent, history saith not. A medal was struck to commemorate the event. It bears Stortebeker's portrait and an appropriate inscription. Simon of Utrecht, the victorious captain of the fleet, who later won other battles for the Hansa, received high honours from Hamburg. When he died he was accorded honourable burial, and a gravestone to his memory was put outside St. Nicholas Church. Happily it survived the great fire. It shows the crest of Simon, a large three-masted vessel, with the figure of a beast at the helm; doubtless, the famous "coloured cow;" a swan draws this ship through the waves. Below is an inscription in Latin verse, recording the hero's feats against the pirates, and enjoining posterity to imitate the great deeds of their forbears, that the fame of the city may not be diminished.