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