Pier Gerlofs Donia, often referred to as “Big Pier,” “Grutte Pier,” or “Greate Pier,” is an oft-forgotten pirate as well as a beloved folk hero of Frisian legend. Perhaps one of the strongest pirates in history, Grutte Pier is said to have been capable of lifting a horse on his shoulders and decapitating several opponents in one swing. Exaggerated accounts of his size and strength posit that Pier was over seven feet tall, a veritable mountain of a man. If this seafaring giant is beginning to sound Paul Bunyan-ish to you then you are on the right track. It is vanishingly unlikely that Pier Gerlofs Donia was truly a seven-foot-tall beast capable of bending metal coins with just his thumb and forefinger. Fascinatingly, though, beneath layers of embellishment the more probable facts of the life of Grutte Pier are almost as impressive as the myths that surround him.
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A Frisian Folk Hero
While Pier Gerlofs Donia often appears on lists and in fiction as one history’s strongest and most fearsome pirates, in the region of Frisia he is better known as a freedom fighter and folk hero. In the late fifteenth century, which is around the time Pier was born, Frisia (which is a region including northern portions of the Netherlands and western Germany) was in a very precarious position. Facing onslaught after onslaught of Danish kings, neighboring dukes, and eventually the formidable Habsburg empire, the people of Frisia had little hope for maintaining their independence and freedom. It is against this backdrop that the legend of Grutte Pier begins. (1)
Pier Gerlofs Donia is said to have led a quiet existence in his homeland of Frisia until circumstances mandated otherwise. Believed to have been born around 1480, Pier was wed to a woman named Rintsje Syrtsema with whom he had two children. Pier’s delicate peace would be shattered when a ruthless band of warriors under the employ of the Duke of Saxony raided his village. Around the year 1515, this band of raiders destroyed Pier’s village and allegedly raped and murdered his wife, Rintsje. In Pier’s case, so the legends say, greed was not the reason he became a pirate. Grutte Pier became a pirate to enact revenge on the forces that threatened Frisian independence and had caused the death of his wife and the loss of his home. (2)
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A Mountain of a Man
Bent on revenge and backed by an army of Frisian guerilla warriors, Grutte Pier began sailing the Zuiderzee in search of enemy ships to plunder. According to some legends, Pier would force captured prisoners to recite the following phrase: “Bûter, brea en griene tsiis: wa’t dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries” meaning “Butter, bread, and green cheese: if you can’t say that, you’re not a real Frisian.” The idea behind this was to identify Dutch or German interlopers claiming to be Frisian allies. Supposedly, some of this phrase made it easy to spot a Dutch or German accent or dialect.
Further legends surrounding Grutte Pier’s pirating days include beheading many foes at once, wielding a two-handed sword larger than most men could even lift, and waging battle after battle on both land and sea against the relentless forces of Frisia’s enemies. Before very long, though, Pier began to recognize the impossible odds Frisia was facing. Less than five years after beginning his career as a pirate and rebel leader, Grutte Pier returned to the city of Sneek in Frisia where he died peacefully and is buried to this day.
History’s Strongest Pirate: Truth or Fiction?
In certain circles, Grutte Pier is a surprisingly controversial topic. His alleged sword, especially, is hotly debated. The Fries Museum in Leeuwarden claims to possess a sword that Grutte Pier once wielded. The two-handed fifteenth century “Biedenhander” is seven feet in length and weighs nearly fifteen pounds. Many historians insist that such an unwieldy sword would not be useful in actual combat and must have been intended for ceremonial purposes. For fans of the Grutte Pier legend, though, this enormous sword is just further evidence of the superhuman strength that Pier possessed. So, was Grutte Pier the strongest pirate who ever lived? Was he really seven feet tall? Did he really wield a sword so large that it towers in height over most adults? The answers to these questions, as is usually the case, are unknowable. What we do know, however, is that the enduring legend of the fearless, righteous, and noble pirate warrior continues to inspire the imagination to this day.
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