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Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Medieval Pirates
By Cindy Vallar

Covering nearly one thousand years, the Middle Ages encompasses the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century to the Renaissance of the sixteenth. The most famous pirates during this time period might be the Vikings, and since they’ve been covered in separate articles, this article looks at the High Middle Ages from the eleventh century onward.

Upheaval was the byword of medieval times and the idea of nation did not yet exist as we understand it. It was still evolving. Power fluctuated from one group to another, but throughout this time period, piracy remained a problem throughout the world.
In the absence of professional navies, and with small royal fleets made up of ships which could still be challenged by well-armed private vessels, maritime power was essentially fragmented. In addition it was marked by an inescapable intermingling of public and private interests. (Appleby, 13)
Nor was there any concerted effort to stamp out piracy, although attempts were made with mixed results. A monarch might extend a letter of reprisal to a merchant whose ships had been attacked by pirates of another country, but that country’s monarch could and did do the same. Power, influence, economics, and politics combined to thwart bringing pirates to justice. Merchants, seamen, and landowners supported pirates on land, while rulers and warlords maintained private warships that sometimes carried out piratical deeds.
. . . the growth of maritime depredation was assisted by conflicting and ambiguous attitudes, which continued to undermine attempts to deal with the problem of piracy well into the seventeenth century. . . . During the 1420s and 1430s, for example, Henry VI effectively sold off his navy at a time when the author of the Libel of English Policy was urging the King to secure lordship over the sea. (Appleby, 22)
Not until 1228 did England try and execute a pirate, William de Briggeho, for the first time.
While the names of most medieval pirates aren’t familiar to people, one particular rogue appears in most historical accounts of piracy – Eustace the Monk, also known as The Black Monk. His origins and early life are unknown, but he may have been a younger son of a noble of Boulogne. He apparently took holy orders with the Benedictines, but he might also have been involved in sorcery. After quarreling with the Count of Boulogne, whom Eustace worked for as an administrator, he fled to Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, where he soon fell in with pirates around 1203. Before long, he became their leader, and together they attacked English and French merchant ships. Two years later King John of England enlisted Eustace the Monk’s help in raiding French ships and towns from Calais to Brest. In 1212 the pirates decided to also attack the English. King John then invaded the Channel Islands, and Eustace fled to France where he became a mercenary for King Philip II. In retaliation for the attack on Jersey, Eustace and his followers attacked Folkestone, England.
At some point, Eustace decided there was more profit in providing protection than plundering, so he set up a protection racket. If merchants paid his fee, he safeguarded their ships. If they refused, he attacked them. When civil war broke out in England in 1215, he supported the rebels, supplying these noblemen with arms and supplies. King John died in October of the following year and his son, Henry III, assumed the throne. Eustace’s continued support of the rebels, as well as his interactions with Prince Louis of France, eventually led Henry to gather a large fleet of ships to put an end to Eustace’s piracy. In 1217, while the pirate ships were anchored off Sandwich Island, this fleet surprised Eustace and his men. English archers fired bolts from their crossbows, then as the pirate ships came alongside for boarding, the seamen flung quicklime into the pirates’ faces, blinding them. Eustace the Monk was dragged before the English admiral, Hugh de Burgh, who offered the pirate one simple choice – where his execution would take place, the center of the ship or off to one side. Matthew Paris, a historian and Benedictine monk who chronicled these events, never explained which choice Eustace the Monk made. He merely noted the pirate, whom he described as viro flagitiosis-simo (a real pain), was beheaded.

Beheading of Eustace the monk
During the 13th century, maritime associations emerged to supervise trade and suppress piracy on the Baltic and North Seas. The first of these appeared in Germany when the cities of Lübeck and Hamburg banded together as the Hanse, or Hanseatic League. By 1300, other port cities had joined until the Hanse was akin to an independent state. Its ships often sailed in convoys, and beginning in 1477, large vessels were required to carry twenty armed men to defend against pirates.
There was an upsurge in piracy during the Hundred Years’ War (circa 1337 to 1453). The dukes of Mecklenburg hired German seamen, who became known as Victual Brothers (Vitalienbrüder) because they supplied food to Stockholm while the Danes besieged it. In reality, though, they were sevore (sea robbers), and since they received no wages, they survived by plundering ships of the Hanse. Once they boarded a vessel, they slew anyone who had dared to resist them. The rest they put in barrels, nailed shut the lids, and stowed them in the hold until they could be ransomed. But the Vitalienbrüder weren’t always successful:
. . . in this year [1391] . . . a number of these Vitalienbrüder attacked a ship from Stralsund and attempted to take it by force, even though they heard and saw that its crew were not Danes but Germans. But the men on the Stralsund ship defended themselves and overcame the Vitalienbrüder and captured more than a hundred . . . . They took barrels . . .  struck the bottoms out of them, and made a hole in the top large enough to hold a man by the neck. Then they stuffed the Vitalienbrüder into the barrels, one after the other, so that their heads stuck out of the top. Then they nailed the bottoms shut again. They stacked up the barrels as one is accustomed to do, but with the men in them, and brought them to Stralsund. The Vitalienbrüder remained in the barrels until they were taken in carts where they were to be beheaded. The Stralsunders had learnt this method of dealing with prisoners from the Vitalienbrüder themselves, who had mistreated and martyred many a poor Dane in just the same way. (Meier, 147)
After the Vitalienbrüder attacked Bergen, Norway in 1393, the Hanseatic League, the Teutonic Knights, Queen Margaret I of Denmark, and Mecklenburg signed a treaty that ordered the Vitalienbrüder to depart the Baltic Sea. Gotland wasn’t covered by the treaty, so many of them went there. Now they attacked any and all merchant ships. Finally, Konrad von Jungingen, Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, gathered an invasion force of eighty-four ships, 4,000 soldiers, and 400 horses and attacked Gotland. Most of the pirates were slaughtered.
Those who escaped found no markets at which to sell their booty and few ports welcomed them. So the Vitalienbrüder sailed to the North Sea, where Friesian chieftains opened their ports and markets to them. One incident recounted that the Vitalienbrüder “. . . took a ship in Norway laden with beer from Wismar, whose master was one Egghert Schoeff of Danzig. In this ship…they captured 14 or 15 ships laden with all manner of goods . . . .  At the same time they also captured a ship which came from England . . . . In this vessel the merchants of our [Hanseatic] lost large quantities of gold and of cloth, and the pirates took these merchants with them to Friesland . . . .  And after they had taken all the ships they wanted, they then sold back to . . . Egghert Schoeff his ship for a sum of money . . . .” (Meier, 153-4)

The survivors of the Gotland raid adopted a new moniker, the Likedeelers, which meant they shared their spoils equally. Their base of operations was Helgoland, an island in the North Sea about forty-five miles from the German coast. Protected by tall sandstone cliffs, this haven was easy to defend against attack and lay near the shipping lanes that linked Hamburg, Denmark, and ports on the Baltic Sea. Their most notorious leader was Klaus Störtebeker, whose surname meant he could drain a mug in a single gulp. As was the case with Eustace the Monk, Störtebeker’s origins are fuzzy. He may have been born in Wismar around 1360, and his real name may have been Nikolaus Storzenbecher. According to legend, he sailed aboard the Seetiger (Sea Tiger), which may have been a cog. Three of his captains were Gödeke Michels, Hennig Wichmann, and Magister Wigbold (Magister being an academic title of the period).
The Likedeeler became so proficient in their attacks on merchant ships that the economy of Hamburg began to collapse because trade nearly halted. The Hanse finally took action and sent a fleet of ships, under the command of Simon of Utrecht, to destroy them. The running battle, which lasted three days, eventually led to the capture of the Seetiger. One German legend says a fisherman of Helgoland, whom the pirates forced to work for them, sabotaged the vessel’s rudder to permit the seizure. Another tale told of the discovery of gold bars found within the mainmast, enough to not only pay for the fleet of ships and men that captured Störtebeker, but also to compensate all the merchants who had lost ships at the hands of the Likedeeler and to pay for the gold crown atop the spire of a seamen’s church in Hamburg.
Seventy-two pirates were taken, including Störtebeker, and ferried to trial in Hamburg. Even though Störtebeker allegedly offered Hanse officials a bribe (a gold chain whose length encompassed the city), he and his cohorts were condemned to death. As he stood beside the executioner, Störtebeker supposedly struck a deal with the man. After his head was severed, Störtebeker’s corpse would walk past his men and however many it passed before collapsing would receive pardons. Legend says he passed eleven shipmates before the executioner tripped the body, but no one escaped. The severed heads were stuck on poles and displayed along the banks of the river. Gödeke Michels and another eighty pirates met similar fates the following year.

Beheading of German pirates
Although the Hanse was the most successful of the merchant trading groups, it was not the only one. The League of the Cinque Ports comprised the English cities of Hastings, Dover, New Romney, Hythe, Sandwich, Rye, Winchelsea, and nine others in the fourteenth century. Like its counterpart, the league’s mission was to protect local shipping from pirates while encouraging trade, but its members tended toward piracy, attacking any and all ships that refused to pay protection money.
The English Channel, the North Sea, and the Baltic Sea were not the only waters where pirates hunted during the Middle Ages. They also plagued the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Adriatic Seas. Byzantium employed pirates and their captains to further its reach. In the 1260s, the emperor primarily used the sea rogues for his navy.
Outright illegal piracy on the one hand and legitimized corsair activity under the licence of political authorities . . .  on the other, were endemic throughout the Mediterranean from the twelfth to sixteenth centuries. No region or time period was free from them, and there was no maritime city, state, or people whose seamen did not participate in them. (Travers, 37)
One of the earliest pirates who engraved his name on the historical record was Margaritone of Brindisi, an Italian knight known as “The New Neptune.” He allied himself with Sicily’s Norman rulers and eventually became that island’s Grand Admiral. In 1185 he proclaimed himself Count of Cephalonia and Zante and used the island for a privateering base. While participating in the defense of Naples in 1194, he was captured by troops of the Holy Roman Emperor and spent the remainder of his days in a German prison.
Giovanni de lo Cabo was a Genoese pirate who captured Rhodes in 1278. The island soon attracted other pirates and slavers and thrived as a haven until 1306 when the Knights Hospitaller seized Rhodes. Another pirate base, located in the Aegean, was known as the “Rock” and was located on the southeast corner of the Peloponnese Peninsula. The lofty fortress was impregnable.
Upheaval in the fifteenth century led to increased piracy back in European waters. One attack, involving the second son of King Robert III of Scotland, had a profound effect on Scottish politics. After the murder of his heir, Robert sent his second son, twelve-year-old James, to France for safekeeping. Pirates from Great Yarmouth captured The MaryenKnyght and sold James to King Henry IV of England, who imprisoned the lad in the Tower of London. News of his son’s capture devastated Robert. He refused to eat and died within a fortnight at Rothesay Castle on the Isle of Bute. While Robert’s brother, the Duke of Albany, became Regent, Henry made certain James received a good education. The lad became a scholar and musician. He remained a prisoner for eighteen years until twenty-one hostages stood as security for payment of a £40,000 ransom payable in six yearly installments. The following year, 1424, he was crowned James I, King of Scots at Scone.
Fifty years later, the 320-ton Mary London set sail from Ross, Ireland with four hundred twenty pilgrims bound for Santiago, Spain. They landed safely, celebrated the jubilee of Saint James, then headed home. Nicholas Devereuz and about eight hundred men, aboard three Waterford ships, attacked the Mary London. “The owner of the vessel was robbed of 140 marks and allegedly imprisoned for three years.” (Appleby, 25)
Nor did the situation improve in the following century. Although Henry VIII of England made vast improvements in the royal navy, his foreign aggression against France renewed that old rivalry, which led to increased pirate attacks. But the world of piracy was about to change and expand. In 1523 French privateer captain Jean Fleury (also known as Florin) encountered three Spanish galleons. Since his country was at war with Spain, he attacked. One vessel eluded him, but subdued the other two. When his men checked belowdecks, they found 680 pounds of pearls, 500 pounds of gold dust, 150,000 ducats of gold, five cases of silver ingots, feathered cloaks, chests of jewels and gold masks, and exotic birds and animals. While rumors abounded in Europe of Spain's riches from the New World, this haul was the first proof that the tales were true. The news brought out many pirates hungry for easy wealth who expanded their haunts to include the Caribbean and South Seas. Fleury, however, didn't survive long. The Spanish captured him in 1527 and made him dance the hempen jig (hanged him) as a pirate.


For more information on medieval piracy, I recommend the following resources:

Appleby, John C. Under the Bloody Flag: Pirates of the Tudor Age. The History Press, 2009.

Dalton, Paul, and John C. Appleby. Outlaws in Medieval and Early Modern England: Crime, Government and Society, c. 1066 – c. 1600. Ashgate, 2009.
Ditchburn, David. “Bremen Piracy and Scottish Periphery: The North Sea World in the 1440s” in Ships, Guns and Bibles in the North Sea and the Baltic States, c. 1350- c. 1700 edited by A. I. Macinnes, Thomas Riis, and Frederick Pedersen. Tuckwell Press, 2000.

Ford, C. J. “Piracy or Policy: The Crisis in the Channel, 1400-1403,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 29: (1979), 63-78.

Haywood, John. Dark Age Naval Power: A Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Activity. Routledge, 1991.

Kongstam, Angus. Piracy the Complete History. Osprey, 2008.
Konstam, Angus. Pirates: Predators of the Seas. Skyhorse Publishing, 2007.
Konstam, Angus. The World Atlas of Pirates. Lyons Press, 2010.

Meier, Dirk. Seafarers, Merchants and Pirates in the Middle Ages translated by Angus McGeoch. Boydell Press, 2006.

Schulze, Andreas. “Pirates of the North Sea,” No Quarter Given IX: 4 (July 2002), 4-5.
Ships and Warfare edited by Susan Rose. Ashgate, 2008.

Travers, Tim. Pirates a History. The History Press, 2009.

Vallar, Cindy. "í víking: Norse who went plundering," Pirates and Privateers (July-August 2003).
Vallar, Cindy. "Alfhild: Princess and Viking," Pirates and Privateers (November 2007).

Ward, Robin. The World of the Medieval Shipmaster: Law, Business and the Sea, c. 1350-1450. Boydell Press, 2009.
Wylie, James Hamilton. History of England under Henry the Fourth. AMS Press, 1969.

© 2010 Cindy Vallar
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