View Full Version : Pier Gerlofs Donia

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008, 11:54 PM
Pier Gerlofs Donia


Pier Gerlofs Donia of Kimswerd (c.1480 – 1520) was a Frisian warrior, pirate, freedom fighter, folk hero, and rebel. He is best known by his West Frisian nickname "Grutte Pier" ("Greate Pier" in the Old Frisian spelling), or by the Dutch translations "Grote Pier" and "Lange Pier", or, in Latin, "Pierius Magnus". The nickname refers to his legendary size and strength (historians today assume that he was impressively built, and remembered that way some 500 years after his death). His life is mostly shrouded in legend, but there is no doubt that he really existed. Erasmus the famous Dutch humanist and theologian wrote of the exploits of his contemporary Grutte Pier. As a Hollander and as expected Erasmus wrote more criticism then praise of these exploits.

Based upon a description now attributed to Pier’s contemporary Petrus Thaborita, the 19th-century historian Conrad Busken Huet wrote that Grutte Pier was "a tower of a fellow as strong as an ox, of dark complexion, broad shouldered, with a long black beard and moustache. A natural rough humorist, who through unfortunate circumstances was recast into an awful brute. Out of personal revenge for the bloody injustice that befell him (in 1515) with the killing of kinsfolk and destruction of his property he became a freedom fighter of legendary standing."

Early life and family

Grutte Pier was born Pier Gerlofs Donia (Pier Gerlofs), around 1480 in Kimswerd, Wonseradeel in Friesland. Pier Gerlofs was one of at least four children born to Gerloff Piers and Fokel Sybrants Bonga. Pier's mother Fokel was the daughter of the Schieringer noblemen Sybrant Doytsesz. Bonga of Bongastate, Kimswerd. Pier married Rintze Syrtsema and they had two children, a son and a daughter, Gerloff and Wobble who were born around 1510. In 1525 Pier’s mother Fokel in her last will and testament appoints Pier’s brother Sybren as guardian of Piers children who are still considered minors. Pier and Tijdt's husband, Ane Pijbes were partners in the farming estate of Meyllemastate in Kimswerd.

Pier is the direct descendant of the powerful Frisian chieftain Haring Harinxma (1323-1404), Schieringer and potestate of Westergo. Pier is also the third cousin of Jancko Douwama. Grutte Pier and Jancko Douwama are considered the heroes of Frisian freedom.

Grutte Wierd (Wijerd Jelckama) is often described by eighteenth and nineteenth century authors as the nephew of Grutte Pier. Contemporary Worp van Thabor identifies him simply as Wierd van Bolsward. Modern authors such as J.J. Kalma doubt the nephew connection while Brouwer in the Encyclopedia of Friesland states that Grutte Wierd was not the nephew of Grutte Pier but his ‘lieutenant’ who was probably born in Bolsward and died in Leeuwarden on 30 November 1528.

Reasons for going to battle

Pier Gerlofs was a farmer in the West of Friesland at the beginning of the sixteenth century, in the village of Kimswerd near the city of Harlingen. His village was plundered on 29 January 1515 by a band of marauding saxon mercenaries called the Black Band, during a civil war between the Vetkopers and Schieringers. The former were against the Burgundian/Habsburg rule over the Low Countries, while the latter were in favour of it. The Black Band were a brutal regiment of the Landsknecht and were quartered in Franeker a Frisian village approximately 7 km north-east of Kimswerd.

The Landsknecht were in the employ of the George Duke of Saxony and were in Friesland to suppress the civil war. The Black Band were notorious as a violent military force who when their pay was insufficient or lacking, which was not uncommon, would exact payment by any means from innocent local villagers.

During the sacking of Kimswerd, Pier's wife, Rintze Syrtsema, was allegedly raped and killed, the village church was burnt to the ground as was Pier's residence at Doniastate. Seeking revenge Pier started a guerrilla war campaign against the Burgundians and allied himself with Charles of Egmond, Duke of Gelre (1492-1538), the foremost opponent of the Burgundian Duke Philip the Handsome (1494-1506), and later his son Charles V (1515 - 1555).

Band of warriors

Pier's armed band, known as the Arumer Zwarte Hoop (English: Arumer Black Heap, as in "group/mass of"), were pirates mainly active against the Dutch and the Burgundians at sea. He managed to captured many English and Dutch ships, mainly on the Zuider Zee (today's ‘IJsselmeer’). In the biggest battle of his career, in 1515, he captured 28 Dutch ships, which earned him the nickname "Cross of the Dutchmen". He then bestowed the title "King of the Frisians" on himself.

Pier fought the ships that travelled the Zuider Zee and was very active in 1517, when he used his ‘signal ships’ to attack ships in the region of the West Frisian coast, to which he transported Geldrian forces, setting ashore at Medemblik. Pier bore a great hatred for Medemblik and its inhabitants. In earlier years, soldiers from Medemblik collaborated with the army of Holland, then under the command of Charles v of Habsburg. It was in Medemblik in March 1498 that representatives of the Schieringers met with the Saxon ruler duke Albrecht to request Saxon protection from the Vetkopers — a request that resulted in the Saxon occupation of Friesland. On June 24, 1517, Grutte Pier and his Arumer Zwarte Hoop, consisting of some 4,000 soldiers from Frisia and Gelre, sailed to West Frisia, passing Enkhuizen, landing near Wervershoof and advancing to Medemblik. They swiftly captured Medemblik, killing many inhabitants and taking many others prisoner. Some were released on payment of a high ransom. Some of the town's inhabitants fled and found safety at Medemblik Castle. The castle's governor, Joost van Buren, succeeded in keeping the aggressors outside the castle walls. Realizing they would be unable to take the castle, the Arumer Zwarte Hoop plundered the town and set it on fire. As most houses were made out of wood, the town, including the church, monastery and town hall, were completely razed. With this partial victory, Pier and his army stormed Nieuwburg castle and Middleburg Castle, which they plundered and set on fire, leaving these mighty castles in ruins.

In 1517, the Arumer Zwarte Hoop captured the city of Asperen, slaughtering virtually all its inhabitants. They then used the heavily fortified city as a base until they were driven out by Holland's Stadhouder.

In response to the attacks on Medemblik and Alkmaar and the failure of the Captain General of Amstelland, Waterland and Gooiland to defend his territories, the Stadhouder of Holland agreed to fit out a war fleet in July 1517. The fleet came under the supreme command of Anthonius van den Houte, Lord of Vleteren, appropriately titled "Admiral of the Zuider Zee". In the name of Charles V, van den Houte announced he would free the region of Frisian and Gelder piracy. Although van den Houte was initially successful, with some of the Frisian vessels going up in flames near Bunschoten, Grutte Pier responded by seizing 11 of Holland's ships in a battle off the coast near Hoorn in 1518.

Shortly after, Pier defeated 300 Hollanders in Hindelopen.

According to legend, Pier forced his captives to repeat a shibboleth to distinguish Frisians from Hollandic and Lower German infiltrators:

"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"

Grutte Pier was also credited with coining the old Frisian slogan "Leaver dea as slaef" ("Better dead than slave).

Despite his successes, Pier could not turn the Burgundian/Habsburg tide and he retired, disillusioned, in 1519. He died peacefully in bed at Grootzand 12 in the Frisian town of Sneek on October 18, 1520. Pier is buried in Sneek in the 15th-century Groote Kerk (also called the Martinikerk).

His tomb is located on the north side of the church. Pier’s nephew Wierd Jelckama took over the command of Pier’s forces.

In 1791, Jacobus Kok wrote that above the 'portaal', entrance or porticus, of the New City Hall of Leeuwarden, two remarkably large swords were found which were said to have belonged to Grutte Pier and his nephew Grutte Wierd.

Today, a great sword that is said to have belonged to Pier is on display at the Fries museum in Leeuwarden. It measures 2.15 meters (7 feet) in length and weighs about 6.6 kg (14.5 lbs). To have wielded such a weapon, he must have been a man of unusual stature and physical strength. People who had met him often put his height at at least 7ft tall. Pier was alleged to be so strong that he could bend coins using just his thumb, index and middle finger. A huge helmet said to be Grutte Pier's is kept in the town hall of Sneek.

In popular culture

The legendary status of Grote Pier as a hero or a villain has endured over the centuries his daring exploits retold in book, poetry, song and more recently in film.

Gysbert Japicx

The seventeenth century Friese poet Gysbert Japicx (1603-1666) wrote in his composition ‘Tjesck Moars See Aengste’ [Grandmothers’s Sea Anguish] the following verse in reverence to Grote Pier (eng. trans., Tall Peter):

Grandmothers’s Sea Anguish

Thee I’ll follow, noble Peter,
Thou wert nobler far and greater,
Than the noblest, home-kept lord,
Battling like an ancient roman,
For his country with her foeman,
Whom he chased with fire and sword.


Stories about Pier grew into legends that often share themes with stories of other strong men in Germanic heroic literature. For example, one story says Pier ploughed his land by pulling the plough himself instead of using horses. Another story states that Pier could lift a horse above his head. Fiveval, a Frisian, told the story of Pier killing five Hollandic mercenaries sent to kill him:

Greate Pier wie in hiele sterke keardel. Op in kear wied er us oan 't ploeijen. Hy hie 't hynder foar de ploege spand. 't Wie noch in âlderwetske ploege mei in houten balke. Doe kom der in fremde man op him ta en dy frege: "Wite jo hwer't greate Pier wennet?" Doe sloech Pier it hynder foar de ploege wei. En hy naem de ploege yn 'e rjochterhân en tilde him in ein fan 'e groun en doe wiisde er mei de ploege op in hûs. En hy sei: "Sjoch, dêr wennet er." Mei de oare fûst sloech er himsels op it boarst en sei: "En hjir stiet er."
Grutte Pier was a very strong fellow. One time he was busy ploughing. He had hitched his horse in front of the plough. It was an old-fashioned plough with a wooden beam. Then a stranger approached and he asked "Do you know where Grutte Pier lives?" Then Grutte Pier undid the plough from the horse. And he took the plow in his right hand and lifted from the ground and then pointed with the plough to the house. And he said: "Look, he lives there." With his other fist he hit himself on the chest and said: "And here he stands."


In the 1970s, in the Dutch Floris series, Donia was a major character played by actor Hans Boskamp. Although he was a villain and the enemy of the leading character, Donia was adored by children who watched the show. Thanks to Gloria, many children learned about Donia, albeit in a historically incorrect way, and it brought Grutte Pier back into popular culture. He was also a major character in the German remake of the series, although he was less popular than in the Netherlands.


Friday, February 18th, 2011, 09:03 PM
Interesting piece of history... just came across this searching old posts... very interesting. :thumbup