Episode 118 – Pirates

History of the Germans

In 1878 workmen building the Speicherstadt, the magnificent city of warehouses in the harbour of Hamburg made a gruesome discovery. In the mud of the Grasbrook, an island at the entrance of the medieval harbour of Hamburg emerged two piles of wood connected by a wooden bar. An ancient beacon guiding ships. What made it so special was what was nailed on to the bar, human skulls. Whoever these men were, they had been decapitated and their heads displayed as a warning. One of these skulls was quickly identified as that of Klaus Störtebecker, the notorious pirate.

The skulls were brought to the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, the Museum for the history of Hamburg. There they reconstructed the facial features of Klaus Störtebecker so that vistors can get a better picture of what Hamburg’s greatest nemesis looked like.

If you leave the museum and turn right you quickly get to Simon von Utrecht Strasse, named after the man who captured Störtebecker on his agile small cog, the Bunte Kuh, the painted Cow.

Störtebecker was brought to the Grasbrook where he and his 72 companions were beheaded on October 20, 1401. As his last wish, Störtebecker asked that all the men he could walk past after his head had fallen should be freed. That wish was granted, but when the headless pirate had passed 11 of his shipmates, one of the members of the city council tripped him up and in the end all of his men were killed, including those he had walked past.

Hundreds of books have been and will still be written about Störtebecker and Simon von Utrecht. Some of those I have devoured as a child and this is why it hurts so much to have to tell you – all a lot of nonsense. Störtebecker lived and robbed until 1413, 12 years after his execution, which is a long time for a headless corpse. And Simon von Utrecht was just a lad when he allegedly seized Hamburg’s greatest adversary.

The story may be a tall tale, but piracy and the Victual Brothers were real and they were a real threat to the Hanse, or at least I believe it was.

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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