If someone visits the Fries Museum in the town of Leuvarden, in the Netherlands, they will see among the exhibits a zweihänder (also called biedenhänder). This is a type of enormous sword, typical of the Modern Age, with a long handle and crossguards suitable for inevitable two-handed use. According to tradition, this weapon belonged to Pier Gerlofs Donia, a farmer nicknamed Grutte Pier or Pierius Magnus for his height and strength, who led a band of rebels against the Habsburgs to avenge the murder of his wife.

In reality, thanks to the marks on its blade and the goatskin wrapping on the handle, experts have determined that the sword in question is of German manufacture. It is possible that Pier Gerlofs Donia seized it from a Saxon soldier, or it may simply be, as often happens with historical weapons, attributed to him as one of the many legends surrounding this figure. He was so popular that his exploits were celebrated in poems and songs, almost always with a hyperbolic tone.

However, he was a man of flesh and blood. A lot of flesh and blood, as he was over two meters tall and so robust that, according to the hyperbolic rumors, he could lift a plow with one arm. That’s why he was called Grutte Pier (“Great Pier”), and the sword attributed to him in the museum measures two meters and thirteen centimeters long and weighs more than six and a half kilos; it is said that with it, he was capable of decapitating several people at once with a single blow and wore a large helmet conserved in the Sneek City Hall, also attributed to him.

The sword preserved in the museum
The sword preserved in the museum. Credit: Fries Museum

The truth is that there are more swords of this type in the Fries Museum, and since they couldn’t all belong to him, logic prevails: the zweihänder had its purpose, which wasn’t necessarily to arm giants, but to cut through the pikemen formations typical of the time or equip soldiers such as ensigns (who carried the flags) or bodyguards. In this case, worse still, it is considered a ceremonial sword to be carried aloft during processions, like those in the Royal Armouries of Leeds.

Let’s move on to the story. Pier Gerlofs Donia was born around 1480 in Kimswerd, a village near the city of Harlingen, in the region of Frisia, which today belongs to the Netherlands but then also encompassed parts of present-day Germany. His parents were Gerloff Piers and Fokel Sybrants Bonga, the latter the daughter of a local noble, and he had at least three siblings. Little is known about his childhood, and we must skip to his adult life to see him married to Rintsje Syrtsema, with whom he raised two children, a boy named Gerlof and a girl, Wobbel, both born at the end of the first decade of the 16th century.

Pier had an estate called Meyllemastate shared with one of his brothers-in-law, Ane Pijbes, and everything seemed to be going well except for one detail they were unaware of: in Franeker, a city about seven kilometers from Kimswerd, was stationed the Schwarze Garde (Black Guard), a famous regiment of landsknechts (German mercenaries) often hired to suppress the sporadic peasant revolts in northern continental Europe. They went into battle shouting Wohr di, Goor, de Buur, de kump! (“Beware, guard, the farmer comes!”).

Location of Frisia on a current map
Location of Frisia on a current map. Credit: Richardprins / Rowanwindwhistler / Wikimedia Commons

In fact, their last intervention of this type had been in February 1500, in Dithmarschen, where, integrated into an army of Danish and Schleswig troops, they were defeated in the Battle of Hemmingstedt when the enemy, simple farmers but far superior in number, opened the dikes and flooded the terrain, immobilizing the landsknechts and causing them eight hundred casualties; even their commander, Thomas Slentz, was among the fallen. It is not known if the Black Guard was disbanded then, but fourteen years later it revived for a new campaign.

Specifically, the one undertaken by George the Bearded, Duke of Saxony, against Edzard I the Great, Count of East Frisia, which was to last three years. George had been appointed stadtholder (something like a governor) of all Frisian territories by Maximilian I of Habsburg, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, something Edzard did not accept. As a result, he was declared reichsacht (outlaw), and twenty-four German dukes and counts invaded Frisia, among their forces the reconstituted Black Guard.

These landsknechts were sent to Franeker to confront the vetkopers, supporters of Edzard and thus enemies of the schieringers, allies of the Burgundians and Habsburgs. The fact is that the territory was in the midst of a genuine civil war between Frisians, the result of an economic crisis that had been wreaking havoc for decades and had led to the polarization of the wealthy classes into two groups: the haadlingen (Frisian nobility) and the hoofdelingen (Dutch nobility), with the latter occupying the main government positions.

Edzard I the Great portrayed by Jacob Cornelisz van Ootsanen
Edzard I the Great portrayed by Jacob Cornelisz van Ootsanen. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

In practice, the hoofdelingen themselves were divided and split between the vetkoper and schieringer factions, with the more modest supporting the former (defending Frisian self-government) and the wealthier, thus closer to the emperor, supporting the latter. Both groups resorted to hiring mercenaries, sometimes the same ones, as they switched sides if paid more. These soldiers increased their earnings by imposing taxes on villages or simply resorting to looting.

On January 29, 1515, under the command of Hugo von Leisenich, the men of the Black Guard stationed in Franeker made an incursion into neighboring Kimswerd to loot the population. Accustomed to a brutal way of waging war, they entered Pier’s house, which was unoccupied, and not content with stealing, they also raped and murdered his wife and other relatives, before setting fire to the fields and the village church (Luther had not yet nailed his famous theses, but since the 14th century, outbreaks of Protestantism, such as those of the Lollards and Hussites, had been emerging). One can imagine the emotional impact this barbarity had on Pier.

Ironically, his family was of schieringer tradition, with Pier directly descending from Haring Harinxma, a Frisian leader who had been podestà (chief magistrate) of Westergo. Everything changed for Pier, who, mad with grief, vowed revenge and allied with Charles of Egmond, Duke of Guelders, Count of Zutphen, and one of the main Frisian leaders against Habsburg rule. On May 19, 1515, the Habsburgs had bought Frisia from George the Bearded for one hundred thousand florins, and now Guelders was controlled by Philip the Handsome (Duke of Burgundy and King of Castile since 1506 through his marriage to Joanna the Mad, daughter of the Catholic Monarchs).

This work by Bernhard Strigel shows Maximilian I and his wife, Mary of Burgundy, with their son Philip the Handsome and their grandchildren, Ferdinand I, Charles V, and Louis II of Hungary
This work by Bernhard Strigel shows Maximilian I and his wife, Mary of Burgundy, with their son Philip the Handsome and their grandchildren, Ferdinand I, Charles V, and Louis II of Hungary. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Charles, the instigator of what has gone down in history as the Frisian Rebellion, financed Pier to organize an army of peasants and mercenaries, which included some nobles, and was named Arumer Zwarte Hoop (“Black Brigade of Arum”). Aware of his military inferiority, Pier employed guerrilla tactics against the Dutch and Burgundians, whom he considered responsible for his family’s tragedy, achieving victories such as the surrender of two enemy castles and the capture of Medemblik, which collaborated with the enemy.

That city fell—except for its fortress, which held out at the price of witnessing the looting and burning of the rest—thanks to an amphibious landing of four thousand soldiers who attacked the walls by land when the defenders expected an attack by sea. This tactic was repeated in other places like Alkmaar and Asperen. However, Pier’s most notable triumphs were at sea, attacking numerous Dutch and English ships when they entered or left the Zuiderzee (now the IJsselmeer): he sank twenty-eight, earning him the nickname “Cross of the Dutch”.

Pier’s raids lasted five years, partly thanks to the help he received from Duke Charles, who in turn financed a mercenary army under the command of Marshal Maarten van Rossum. But the behavior of his men was no different from that of those lansquenets of the Black Guard; in Asperen, for example, they killed almost the entire population, leading the Dutch stadtholder, who had had to withdraw hastily, to prepare a large war fleet commanded by Anthonius van den Houte, a veteran sailor aptly nicknamed “Admiral of the Zuiderzee”.

Grutte Pier in a 17th-century colored engraving by Pieter Feddes van Harlingen
Grutte Pier in a 17th-century colored engraving by Pieter Feddes van Harlingen. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Van den Houte began his mission successfully, defeating several rival ships; however, Pier managed to capture eleven of his after a tough naval battle near Hoorn in 1518. This gave the rebel a respite, who in Hindeloopen marked another of his semi-legendary milestones by defeating three hundred Dutch, whom, once prisoners, he forced to recite a tongue twister in Frisian to distinguish Frisians from Saxons and Dutch: Bûter, brea en griene tsiis: wa’t dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries (“Butter, bread, and green cheese; if you can’t say that, you’re not a real Frisian”).

All that effort was in vain. Burgundy and the Habsburgs were too tough a nut to crack for the insurgents, and Pier, disillusioned, decided to retire in 1519, passing the torch to his lieutenant—and nephew, according to some later sources—Wijerd Jelckama. Leading four thousand men, the new commander achieved some minor victories but at the cost of significant losses, as he lacked the genius of his predecessor. Moreover, his troops lost the little restraint they had left and spread terror in their wake, becoming a threat to the entire population and thereby losing their support.

Jelckama, coming from the lower nobility, also lacked Pier’s charisma, which prevented him from making agreements with new allies. Gradually, increasingly isolated, he began to suffer defeats, and in 1520 the final blow came: Duke Charles of Egmond stopped providing funds, leaving no way to pay the mercenary troops. Wandering from place to place with his increasingly diminished forces, he was eventually captured and taken to Leeuwarden, where he was executed along with his officers by beheading. It was 1523, and the rebellion came to an end.

Maximilian I had died earlier, in 1519, but Frisia fell under the control of his grandson, the new emperor Charles V, who recognized Charles of Egmond as Duke of Guelders in exchange for ceding Groningen and Drenthe. He also confirmed Edzard as ruler of East Frisia, thereby ensuring peace. Many of the Black Guard lansquenets retired, enriched by plunder, but others split, with some entering the service of the Holy Empire and others that of Francis I of France in their struggle for dominance in Italy.

Pier Gerlofs Donia fighting his enemies like Samson, with a jawbone as a weapon. Painting by Johannes Hinderikus Egenberger
Pier Gerlofs Donia fighting his enemies like Samson, with a jawbone as a weapon. Painting by Johannes Hinderikus Egenberger. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Pier Gerlofs Donia did not live to see any of this. True to his motto, Leaver dea as slaef (“Better dead than a slave”), he died in Sneek three years earlier, on October 28, 1520, and was buried in a tomb inside the Groote Kerk (also called Martinikerk). His son Gerloff, who had survived the raid by the lansquenets that started it all, had no descendants; but his daughter Wobbel married three times, and in her last marriage to Popta, she left several grandchildren for the late Pier.

That peculiar character then entered the Frisian patriotic imagination, embellished with fantastic, mythical, almost humorous exaggerations: he was said to have superhuman strength, capable of lifting a horse with his arms or bending coins using only his index and thumb on the palm of his hand, or knocking down five Saxon mercenaries with a single blow, leaving behind a place name, Fivefal (meaning “Five fallen”). It’s no surprise, then, that the Leeuwarden rugby team is called Greater Pier and that other clubs—and even ships—are named after him.

In his work Tjesck Moars See Aengste, Gysbert Japiks, a 17th-century poet from Boalsert (Frisia, Netherlands) who wrote in the Frisian language, included some verses in honor of Pier Gerlofs Donia, perfect to end this article:

I will follow you, noble Pier. You were much nobler and superior than the noblest, lord protector of the home, fighting like an ancient Roman, for your land with your wife, who was pursued with fire and sword.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on October 16, 2023: Pier Gerlofs Donia, el gigantesco campesino que combatía contra holandeses y alemanes en Frisia

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