Posts filed under 'Hanseatic League'

1350: Tidericus the organist

Add comment July 2nd, 2019 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1350,* the plague-ravaged city of Visby burned a man remembered as Tidericus (Diderik) the organist.

The Gotland capital at this point stood at the fore of the Hanseatic league; the medieval maritime Laws of Wisbuy reflect its influence. The arrival in this year of the Black Death would begin Visby’s passage from merchant power to its present-day station as the “City of Ruins”. (The beautiful remains of its medieval grandeur make Visby a UNESCO heritage site.)

Small wonder that the city took its abrupt fall from greatness as an infernal conspiracy, the dimensions of which posterity decodes from a few surviving bits of correspondence.

In the midst of the plague, Gotland arrested nine itinerants as well-poisoners. For people struggling to cope with the sudden, inexplicable ravages of Pesta the inference of a malevolent hand ruining the water supply was a natural one; it emerges frequently during pandemics.

Tidericus the organista — either an organ-builder or an organ-player or both — is the only one of the Visby nine whose name we know; it seems that “with no prior coercion, [he] clearly admitted how he would poison all the wells in the cities of Stockholm, Vasteras and Arboga, and every lake, fresh water source, and various wells as he travelled around Sweden, everywhere poisoning away with his concoctions.” See, all they had to do was ask him.

What’s more, at the same time he [Tidericus] admitted that there are many who belong to a certain society which consisted of rich merchants and all the kinds of people who hold office all over the world, as many people know they do, and each of them goes around with silver belts, and they are all half mad or crazed in some other way. Also, they are all marked with a letter written in Greek or Hebrew. In his last moment he said “Need I say more? All Christendom has been poisoned by us villains and the Jews.”

It seems the well-poisoning mission had been funded by merchant-Jews in Germany named Aaron and Moses. A few different letters between Hanseatic cities around this time attest to a similar fear of Semitic contagion, possibly hinting at a wider panic outside the scanty lines of primary documentation. One letter from Lübeck (cited here) mentions a person named Keyenort who burned at the stake after confessing to pocketing three solidi from Jewish agents who wanted him to poison wells across northern Germany and Prussia; another from Torun has a more ambiguous reference to an apparent mass arrest of “baptized Jews”.

A few years after this organist’s coda, the Danes defeated Visby on the battlefield; Danish control would persist until the 17th century and consigned the once-proud Hanseatic port to a distinctly lesser stature. By century’s end, Visby would be the haunt of the Victual Brothers pirates.

* Citations are split between July 1 and 2; the sources are few, indirect, and barely dated so even the outline of events in this post is somewhat inferential.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanseatic League,History,Jews,Murder,Public Executions,Sweden

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1393: Karsten Sarnow, Stralsund mayor

Add comment June 28th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1393 the mayor of Stralsund was beheaded.

From the perspective of that Hanseatic city‘s hereditary patricianate, Karsten Sarnow was a chancer — a burgher who championed the political reforms that enabled his own self to enter the city council.

He cinched his municipal preeminence by taking leadership of the naval campaign against some Baltic pirates and successfully suppressing them, marching a hundred or more of them through town for execution.

With this prestige he attained the mayoralty and attempted to implement an ambitious constitutional reform that chased the leading grandee family from the city.

This house, the Wulflams,* successfully intrigued against Sarnow from the Hanse sister-city of Lübeck and eventually Wulfhard Wulflam had the pleasure of revenging the slights against his station by ordering the decapitation of both Sarnow’s person and his constitutional innovations.

This coup scarcely resolved the simmering class and faction conflicts in Stralsund, as discussed by F.L. Carstein in Essays in German History, which notes that “from the beginning of the 14th century the patrician rule was attacked time and again by movements and revolts of the urban Commons, especially in the most important town of Pomerania, Stralsund.”

The popular movement, however, was not stifled. The council was forced to declare the memory of the executed Sarnow untarnished; his body was exhumed and given a solemn funeral. The populist party triumphed once more, helped by battles against the pirates. Yet after only a short time the rule of the old council was restored; the leaders of the rebellion were executed and 48 burghers were expelled …

The 15th century brought new unrest to Stralsund, of a clearly anticlerical character. The ecclesiastical superintendent of the town was a nobleman, Kurt von Bonow. In 1407 he complained about the low offerings the burghers gave to him, quit the town, assembled his noble friends and appeared with 300 horsemen outside the walls. They cut off the hands and feet of burghers whom they found outside, burnt down the farms beyond the walls and departed triumphantly with cattle and other booty; burning villages marked their path. When the priests in Stralsund added their insults and the rumour spread that they supported their leader with arms and money, the burghers, led by the porters’ guild, rose against the clergy, imprisoned sixteen of them and then attempted to burn the house where they were confined. The council tried to protect the priests, but the enraged crowd shouted they were all knaves and evildoers, they had helped to fan the fires and therefore they must burn. The master of the porters’ guild demanded the death of the three senior priests who were burned in the market place; the others were saved by the council. The news of ‘the priests burning at the Sund’ (i.e. Stralsund) spread throughout Germany. Then the burghers marched out of the town and pillaged the houses and estates of noblemen who had participated in Bonow’s enterprise. The feud between them and the nobility allied with the duke lasted seven years, and several other Pomeranian towns supported Stralsund. All trade languished …

About this time the social conflicts in the Hanseatic towns, especially in Lübeck, became so strong that the League — which meant the ruling merchant aristocracies — at a Diet held in Lübeck stipulated the death penalty for burghers who summoned the Commons to take action or agitated otherwise against the council; any member town in which the council was forcibly deposed by the burghers was to lose the Hanseatic privileges and liberties and was not to receive any help from the other towns. Fear had grown to such an extent that it was further ordained no burgher was to appear in front of the council with more than six companions.

Wulfhard Wulflam himself was murdered in 1409 in a revenge killing by the son of a noble knight whom he, Wulflam, had slain several years prior.

* The family’s Wulflamhaus, an outstanding exemplar of the late Gothic style, is still to be seen in Stralsund.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanseatic League,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,The Worm Turns,Treason

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1573: Hans von Erschausen, Seeräuber

Add comment September 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Hanseatic city of Hamburg beheaded the Seeräuber Hans von Erschausen with his crew, leaving naught but a vast row of pike-mounted heads and some excellent woodcuts.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,Hanseatic League,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions

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1427: Johann Bantzkow, Mayor of Wismar

Add comment November 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1427, the merchant-mayor of Wismar was beheaded — the incidental casualty of a Baltic trade war.

The Hanseatic League, that vast trading cartel stretching from Europe’s Low Countries in the west to Novgorod in the east, was in its glory at the start of the 15th century. The Hanse dominated Baltic trade.

Its major rival was Denmark, which had brought most of Scandinavia together in the Kalmar Union.


Map of the Hanseatic League at its apex, circa 1400. (Via Wikipedia)

Come the 1420s, the Danish monarch was Eric of Pomerania, a handsome and headstrong king. He would come to blows with Hanse cities over the Duchy of Schleswig.

Schleswig is the “neck” of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula. In the present day, the German-Danish border splits Schleswig horizontally: north Schleswig is Danish soil; south Schleswig, German.

To summarize a complicated history, the historical Duchy of Schleswig was long a bone of contention between the pre-modern precursors of those current states. Since Germany was very far from a unitary entity where we lay our scene in the 15th century, Denmark’s immediate rival for Schleswig was that territory’s southern neighbor, Holstein. Eric had fought intermittently in the 1410s and 1420s against the counts of Holstein over who controlled what and upon what terms in south Jutland.

After securing a legal ruling favorable to his claims from the Holy Roman Emperor, Eric in 1426 began enforcing his rights by force.

Holstein in turn sought aid from Hanseatic towns many of whom — wary of Denmark as a rival to its Baltic trading stranglehold — did indeed enter the fray on the side of Holstein. Hanseatic ships began raiding southern Denmark in the spring of 1427.

Wismar, a Hanse wool-trading port just a few kilometers outside of Holstein, was one of these cities. Johann Bantzkow (German link), its merchant ruler, supplied some 200 sail for the Hanseatic flotilla.

Unfortunately for the Hanse, and for Bantzkow, the Danes proved to have naval superiority and dealt a crushing defeat to the Hanseatic fleet on July 11, 1427 — then once again on July 25. A number of Wismar ships were captured in the process.

Public anger in Wismar was intense. That city had seen its own social conflicts in the generations preceding between the town’s patricians and its guilds; now popular anger over the souls lost at sea caused Bantzkow’s fellow-mayor Hinrik van Haren to be slain by the mob. Bantzkow himself was condemned judicially, and his influential family could not manage any better succor than a death by the sword instead of the horrible prospect of the breaking-wheel. Claus Jesup (German link), a leader of guilds, made himself mayor of a rearranged political order.

The prospective realignment was itself reversed in 1430, and the re-established magnates put up a Bantzkowsche Sühnekapelle (German again), or Bantzkow Penance Chapel, to atone for the unjust beheading. Regrettably, the chapel was demolished in the 19th century.

Given setbacks at sea, Holstein and its remaining Hanseatic allies focused on actual conquest in Schleswig, and with much better success. Eric was eventually forced after great expense to sue for a costly stalemate,* an affair which helped to undermine Eric’s own hold on power until he was finally deposed in 1440.

However, Eric’s success on the seas — and his urgent need for funds — led to his establishing Denmark’s Sound Dues on 1429, collecting lucrative tolls from all foreign ships sailing between the Baltic Sea and the Kattegat.** This tax would remain a pillar of the Danish state well into the 19th century, at times providing up to two-thirds of the government’s operating income.

A new Hanse was re-founded in 1980 as a cultural exchange network among the historic cities of the federation.

* Control of Schleswig-Holstein never was definitively resolved, and it re-emerged as a famously devilish diplomatic problem in the 19th century — prompting Lord Palmerston to remark that “only three people … have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business — the Prince Consort, who is dead — a German professor, who has gone mad — and I, who have forgotten all about it.”

** It’s thanks to Sound Dues that Elsinore, the main tolling point, got big and rich enough for Shakespeare to set Hamlet there.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanseatic League,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1537: Jurgen Wullenwever, Burgermeister of Lubeck

Add comment September 24th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1537, Jürgen Wullenwever was decapitated and quartered at Wolfenbüttel.

Photo by Agnete (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wullenwever (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a merchant from Hamburg who came to the fore of a popular Lutheran movement in the Hanseatic port of Lübeck that claimed the power of its old aristocratic council for the city’s burghers.

In this capacity, Wullenwever maneuvered — vainly as it turned out — to arrest the century-long wane of the city’s influence. Lubeck in its day had been “the Queen of the Hanseatic League”. Come 16th century, it was struggling to maintain its trading preeminence against the inroads of Dutch merchants and the fragmentation of the once-mighty Hanse.

This project was doomed in its conception — there was nothing Lubeck could really have done to hold back the historical developments happening around it — and bungled in its execution. The merchant magnates of Wullenwever’s democratic coalition grew suspicious of (too-)popular religiosity.

And Wullenwever’s political high-wire act involved arrangements of convenience with the Anabaptist commune of Münster — spurring rumors of his own radical baptist conversion* — and fomenting Catholic peasant uprisings to meddle in the succession of the Danish-Swedish crown. Whatever else one could say of him, one can’t fault him for a want of daring, a quality that stood him in good stead with romantic era writers.

But Wullenwever’s allies lost their fights, and the political coalition that supported his municipal leadership soon broke up under the pressure of events.

The aristocratic party re-took power in 1535 and didn’t immediately persecute Wullenwever. But the hostile Archbishop of Bremen eventually seized the man on his territory and turned him over to a Catholic Saxon duke for punishment.

* I’m certainly not a specialist, but I’m skeptical of the claim in some sources that Wullenwever was an Anabaptist Manchurian candidate type. Wullenwever confessed to a great Anabaptist scheme … but that was under torture of enemies determined to do him to death, and it was retracted before his execution. The claim implies that all of northern Germany might have gone over to a radically democratic Anabaptism had not the ancien regime overthrown the Burgermeister, and for that reason it’s gained Wullenwever the surprising latter-day embrace of nationalists and revolutionaries.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Dismembered,Execution,Germany,God,Hanseatic League,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Torture

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1401: Klaus Stortebeker, Victual Brother pirate

1 comment October 20th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1401,* “Victual Brother” Klaus Störtebeker was beheaded in Hamburg.

Statue of Klaus Stortebeker. (cc) image from blariog

This legendary freebooter terrorized the Hanseatic League‘s trading channels from Novgorod to London in the 1390s.

He was the most famous of a company of privateers who’d been hired out in 1392 to place their thumb on the scale of Scandinavian dynastic politics** — notably, supplying Stockholm during a siege, from which service they obtained† the nickname Victual Brothers. It stuck, even when operations had moved far beyond the larder.

In the mid-1390s, the “brothers” turned against Danes and Hanse alike, raiding coasts and plundering sea trade from their base in the shattered port of Visby.

Klaus, the most famous of them, is still remembered today “like Che Guevara, a freedom fighter, but also like Robin Hood, because he fights the rich in the name of the poor”:‡ folk hero-outlaws, men of the pirate utopia.

Whatever debunking that legend might invite, its existence speaks to that timeless romance of the road. And then there’s that kernel of truth, or so one hopes: after Stortebeker’s death, the remnants would persist as the Likedeelers, “those who share equally.”

The buccaneer’s end, after capture by Simon of Utrecht, was equally legendary: he’s supposed to have made a scaffold pact with the headsman to spare any of his mates he could walk past once decapitated.

Rising from the chop like St. Denis, the headless trunk of Stortebeker lurched past 11 of them before the executioner himself tripped it up. (In the most embroidered version of this story, Hamburg not only didn’t honor the promise, it executed the executioner when all was said and done. But we’re pretty comfortable saying that once we reach the headless zombie pirate part of the story, the reader has carte blanche to rewrite anything not to liking.)

Drink up me hearties yo ho! “Stortebeker” itself just means, “quaff the mug.”

Klaus Störtebecker is our master
advised by Godeke Michels!
Shoot through the waves like storm, just faster
The Flying Dutchman’s godfather
Gaffer is the ships goblin
Let’s tackle, crew!
Life is bauble!
We are the hell of Helgoland

Our bloody flag is cracking the mast
Rats scurrying on the floor
A skeleton is our guest
On the sail there are strange shadows
The mermaid is swimming in our wake
Laugh, crew!
Life is bauble!
Still ruling is the hell of Helgoland

And when our ship makes its last run
Laugh while like a coffin she goes down
We die an ancient pirate’s way
Today we fight, tomorrow we drown
In green algae and white sand
Land ho, crew, land!
Life is bauble!
Such dies the hell of Helgoland

-Folk song honoring Klaus Stortebeker
(translated here)

* As often for events at this distance of time, the dates are a little bit shaky; 1400, rather than 1401, has been proposed for the actual year of Stortebeker’s execution; October 21 rather than October 20 is also given on some sites. Folklore more so than almanac blogs has the luxury of indifference to such particulars.

** The Victual Brothers were initially retained to oppose the adroit Danish Queen Margaret. She would face (and brush aside) even weirder challenges to her rule en route to lashing together the Kalmar Union under Danish regional hegemony.

Alternate explanation: food-based euphemisms for piracy trace to armies’ victual officers, and their unscrupulous methods of filling the mess hall.

‡ In a continuing spirit of democratic larceny — or as a gang symbol for the local Hell’s Angels, whatever — our man’s alleged skull was stolen from a Hamburg museum earlier this year.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Germany,Hanseatic League,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Outlaws,Pelf,Pirates,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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