The Life of The Notorious German Pirate Klaus Störtebeker

Klaus Störtebeker was born in Wismar in 1360,and would go on to become one of the most feared men at sea.

Since his birth he has been portrayed differently throughout the years, but he mostly became known as a sort of German Robin Hood figure. In reality though, he probably gained his notorious reputation as a pirate by been brutal and ruthless.

Some famous pirates throughout history stand out as being feared across the seas, and Nikolaus Störtebeker is definitely one of them.

The North and Baltic Seas are generally not associated with piracy, but as one of northern Europe’s main trading routes hundreds of years ago, it was a magnet for someone like Störtebeker to use to his advantage.

Klaus Störtebeker ‘s Life In Piracy 

Störtebeker’s career in piracy began when became part of the Victual Brothers, originally formed as quasi-official privateers working to defend Mecklenburg (now northern Germany) against Danish ships.

He joined the Victual Brothers during a time of war between Denmark and Sweden in the late 14th century. His job initially was to get food to the Swedish people, while trying to sink Danish ships along the way.

As the Victual Brothers became highly successful at their job, they soon realized they could expand their operation, and not just focus on Danish ships. They turned to general piracy under the battle cry of “God’s friends and the whole world’s enemies,” they began to plunder ships, taking whatever loot they could get their hands on.

During the time in which the Victual Brothers took their operations to a new level, a group of traders known as the Hanseatic League were in their prime. Trade was exceptionally good, moving large amounts of gold and goods between cities such as Hamburg, Lübeck and Rostock.

Störtebeker became the bane of traders. He plundered their cargo taking shiploads of gold and goods from greedy merchants, and legend has it, he used to send portions of loot to people living in poverty, hence his later reputation as the Robin Hood of Germany. One story claims that Klaus Störtebeker was also a heavy drinker, and was able to drink a four-litre mug of beer in one gulp, though that story is obviously an exaggeration, it does more to highlight his drinking habits.

Execution

Klaus Störtebeker was eventually arrested and put on trial for piracy. The main story of his arrest claims that when his ship was seized, it was found to be packed full with gold and silver. These riches were taken and put to use in paying for the building of the spire of Hamburg’s Katharinenkirche.

Another story gets a bit more imaginative, and claims that Störtebeker offered his captors a gold chain that was so big it could be wrapped around the entire city of Hamburg, in exchange for his release. 

What we do know though, is that in the year 1401, Störtebeker and his fellow pirates were captured by the authorities, and taken to Hamburg to face trial. The men were charged and sentenced to be executed, however, legend has it, that Störtebeker tried to make a last minute deal in order to save the lives of his men. The deal he tried to make was bizarre. He told his executioners that after he was beheaded, his headless body would try to walk past as many of his men as possible, and those he managed to walk past should be saved. Legend has it, his headless body had managed to walk past eleven of his men, but the authorities failed to keep their end of the bargain and proceeded to execute all 70 or so of his men. Their severed heads were displayed publicly as a warning to anyone else thinking of taking up piracy. 

The Impaled Skull of Klaus Störtebeker

The head of the pirate Klaus Störtebeker was long thought to have been lost, but in 1878 during construction work, a skull was unearthed in the right location. This skull has been on display at the Hamburg Museum since 1922.

Although the skull has made it into the museum of Hamburg, it’s not entirely known if this is indeed the skull of Germany’s infamous pirate. It has been dated to the 14th century, but a DNA test in 2004, proved inconclusive when researchers tried to match the DNA of the skull with the DNA of Störtebeker’s descendants.

The skull would become a target for thieves in January 2010, when it was stolen from the museum, only to be returned again a few days later. It is now on display next to a bust created by the sculptor Elisabeth Dayne, which was cast from the skull.

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