Pier Gerlofs Donia: The Giant Frisian Rebel, Warrior, and Pirate
Pier Gerlofs Donia was a Frisian warrior, pirate, and rebel who lived between the 15th and 16th centuries AD. He is more well-known perhaps by his nicknames – Grutte Pier in West Frisian, Grote Pier and Lange Pier in Dutch, and Pierius Magnus in Latin. These nicknames all mean the same thing, and in English, may roughly be translated as Great / Big Pier. This is a reference to his legendary size and strength.
In general, historians regard Pier Gerlofs as a real historical figure. Nonetheless, many stories about him are incomplete or inaccurate. Furthermore, legends about Pier and his exploits were told over time, thus turning him into a figure that is larger than life.
The Life of Pier
Pier Gerlofs is believed to have been born around 1480 in Kimswerd, near the city of Harlingen, Wonseradeel (located in modern Friesland, the Netherlands). His father was a man by the name of Gerlofs Pier, whilst his mother was Fokel Sybrants Bonga, who was the daughter of a Schieringer nobleman. Pier had at least three other siblings.
According to legend, Pier was around 7 feet (around 2.13 m) tall, and was so strong that he could bend a coin using just his thumb and forefinger. Another legend attesting to his great strength is that he was able to pick up a plough with just one hand.
"De dapperheid van Grote Pier" (The bravery of Grote Pier), 1516, Oil on canvas by Johannes Hinderikus Egenberger. ( Public Domain )
Around the beginning of the 16th century, Pier was a wealthy farmer in Western Friesland. During this period, the end of the ‘Frisian freedom’ had occurred (in 1498 to be more precise), following a civil war between the Schieringers and Vetkopers (which is said to have begun in 1350).
Although the Schieringers had emerged victorious, the Vetkopers continued their resistance. Both groups also requested and received aid from foreign powers. Whilst the Schieringers received help from the Duke of Saxony, the Vetkopers were supported by the Duke of Gelre (‘Guelders’ in English).
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From Farmer to Warrior
Amidst this chaos, Pier continued his life as a farmer, perhaps not wanting anything to do with the ongoing conflict. A disaster that struck Pier’s village, however, changed his life forever, and turned the farmer into a warrior.
In 1515, Kimswerd was raided by a band of Saxon mercenaries known as De Zwarte Bende (the Black Band). According to one version of the story, the Black Band had mutinied because they had not received their pay. During this raid, Pier’s farm was destroyed. In some versions of the story, Pier’s wife is also said to have been raped and murdered.
Landsknechte - German mercenary soldiers from the 15th-16th Century. Etching by Daniel Hopfer, c. 1530 ( Public Domain )
The raid infuriated Pier, and he decided to avenge his loss of the farm, his wife, or both. As the Black Band was serving the Duke of Saxony, he held the Duke responsible for his mercenaries’ behavior, and formed an army to fight against the Duke.
It is also said that Pier wanted to drive the Saxon foreigners out of Friesland, and restore Friesian independence - though this spirit of nationalism may have been added later on. The army he joined was made up of peasants who, like Pier himself, did not have any experience in military matters, and was known as Zwarte Hoop (Dutch for ‘Black Gang / Heap’).
Etching of Grutte Pier, from 'Chronycke ofte Historische Geschiedenis van Frieslant' published in 1622. ( Public Domain )
From Warrior to Pirate
As Pier was aware that his army was no match against the Saxon mercenaries on land, he decided to take to the waters, and became a pirate. Pier was a successful pirate, and captured many ships belonging to his enemies that sailed on the Zuiderzee (Zuyder Sea). Pier held a personal grudge against the town of Medemblik, where the Schieringers first met the Duke of Saxony in secret to request his aid. It is recorded that Pier raided this coastal town in 1517, and then again in 1518/9 to avenge the capture and public execution of his lieutenant, Grutte Wyerd.
In battle, Pier supposedly brandished a Biedenhänder, a sword that was wielded with two hands. ‘Grutte Pier’s Sword’ is today kept in the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden. This weapon is as tall as the legendary warrior himself, and weighs 6.6 kg (14.6 lbs).
Picture of Grutte Pier’s Sword. (1953) Fries museum in Leeuwarden. ( The Tallest Man.com )
Based on the sword’s identifying marks and its goat-leather haft, it has been speculated that the weapon originated in Germany. It has also been suggested that perhaps Pier seized the sword from a Saxon soldier. This weapon, whether it was indeed used by Pier or not, would have certainly fuelled the legends surrounding this giant.
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The most popular legend about Pier, however, was not so much about his strength, but about his Friesian identity. According to legend, Pier had an ingenious way of separating his Friesian captives from those who were non-Friesian. It is said that he would order people to repeat the following rhyme “ bûter, brae en griene tsis, wa’t dat net sizze kin, is gijn oprjochte Fries ”, which translates as “butter, rye bread, green cheese, who can’t say this is not a real Frisian”.
Despite the successes in battle, Pier was unable to gain freedom for Friesland. In the end, he was disillusioned with the war, and perhaps even realized that he had become the very thing he had sought to destroy in the first place. Thus, in 1519, Pier decided to retire from war. He died in Sneek on October 28th of the following year, and was buried in Sneek Grute Kerk.
Statue in honor of Grutte Pier in his hometown of Kimswerd . ( Nijeholt/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Featured image: Main: Artistic representation of Piers Gerlofs Donia, ‘cca made by rudy faber.’ Source: Ebou Leigh. Inset: Picture of Grutte Pier’s Sword. (1953) Fries museum in Leeuwarden.
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