Although over the centuries the reputation of Klaus Störtebeker (1360-1401) took on a legendary aura, almost like a German Robin Hood, in real life he was probably a pirate not different to the others: ruthless, brutal and prone to drunkenness.
He is known as Germany’s most famous pirate and was a leader and the best known representative of a companionship of privateers known as the Vitalienbrüder.
If they were originally hired during a war between Denmark and Sweden to fight the Danish and supply the besieged Swedish capital Stockholm with provisions, after the end of the war, they continued to capture merchant vessels for their own account and named themselves “Likedeelers”.
Born in the Baltic port of Wismar, if Klaus Störtebeker initially worked for a shipping company, later the company itself converted to piracy. At the battle cry of “friends of God and enemies of the whole world”, the Störtebeker pirates became the nightmare of merchants of the Hanseatic League, which controlled merchant shipping in the Baltic.
Many legendary stories are told about the German pirate, whose surname means “empty the cup in one gulp” in Low Saxon. It is not known if Störtebeker was the true surname of the corsair, or if it was a nickname given to him for his supposed ability to empty a four-liter beer mug into a gulp (even if in 2015 ca. there were 200 persons in Northern Germany with the surname Störtebeker!).
Another legend, perhaps due to the name the pirates chose for themselves, wants the pirates to share their booties with the poor people who lived along the coasts.
According to the most popular legend, in 1401, a Hamburgian fleet led by Simon of Utrecht caught up with Störtebeker’s force near Heligoland. It seems that Störtebeker’s ship had been disabled by a traitor who cast molten lead into the links of the chain which controlled the ship’s rudder, so Störtebeker and his crew were captured and brought to Hamburg, where they were tried for piracy.
It is said that the pirate offered, in exchange for their life and freedom, a gold necklace long enough to surround the entire city.
However, the tempting offer was not enough to save them: Störtebeker and his 73 companions – but some sources speak of 30 – were all sentenced to death by beheading.
As legend goes, this was his last incredible feat: he asked the mayor of Hamburg to release as many of his companions as he could walk past after being beheaded.
The request was accepted and later the beheading, Störtebeker’s body arose and walked past eleven of his men before the executioner tripped him with an outstretched foot.
The mayor denied the agreement anyway, all the pirates were executed, and their heads exposed as a warning to the other comrades.
After all executions, the senate of Hamburg asked the executioner if he was not tired after all this, and when he replied that he could easily execute the whole of the senate as well, he was sentenced to death and executed by the youngest member of the senate itself!
According to legend (but not to history) when dismantling Störtebeker’s ship, it was found the masts contained a core of gold, which was used to create the tip of St. Catherine’s church in Hamburg.
What is supposed to be the skull of Störtebeker, with a huge nail stuck in the center, was found in 1878 on an island on the Elbe river, in the place where pirates were usually executed, whose heads were then stuck on poles, as a warning for other outlaws. Although the skull actually dates from the late 14th century, there can be no certainty that it is precisely that of the German pirate. Despite this, the macabre find represents the most valuable asset of the Hamburg Museum, where it has been exhibited since 1922.