grutte pier

frisian freedom fighter
grutte pier

grutte pier and his sword

folk hero or pirate

The sword of Grutte Pier is now on show in the exhibition Freedom, Feuds & Purgatory: The Middle Ages in the North. This exhibition shares new scientific insights about life in the North during the full and late Middle Ages. The idiosyncratic, lost world of Friesland between 1067-1567 is brought to life using the Fries Museum’s wide-ranging archaeological collection of medieval objects, supplemented with (inter)national loans. The exhibition runs until 7 May 2023.

sword of grutte pier
sword of grutte pier

In the early sixteenth century, Friesland was under the authority of George, Duke of Saxony. However, Charles, Duke of Egmond or Guelders, was also keen on possessing the Frisian region, resulting in a battle between their supporters. After George, Duke of Saxony, had given the territory to Charles of Egmond, yet another war broke out, this time between the Frisians and Holland. This war formed the backdrop for the rise of Pier Gerlofs Donia (circa 1480–1520), better known as Grutte Pier (Great Pier). Grutte Pier and his sword have become an inseparable duo, symbols of the Frisian struggle for independence.

Pier, a farmer from Kimswerd, had managed to elude the war until Saxon soldiers burnt down his farm in 1515. Pier and his companions in adversity decided to take up arms against first, the Saxon oppressors and later, against Holland, forming an armed band called ‘Arumer Zwarte Hoop’ (‘Black Gang from Arum’). Pier became leader of the ‘seinschipsluyden’ and fought as a pirate in battles on the Zuiderzee, capturing many English and Dutch ships. Frisians regard him as a freedom fighter, but to the Dutch he is an outlaw.

Grutte Pier, his sword and his deeds became ever more exaggerated and ‘greater’ in popular legend. He is said to have been 2.15 metres tall and that he could pick up a plough with one hand! Measuring 2.13 metres and weighing 6.6 kilograms, the sword in the Fries Museum is indeed extremely long and heavy, and it without a doubt served as inspiration for these tales.

This sword that has been known for as long as living memory as “Grutte Pier’s sword”, is a fifteenth-century Biedenhänder, a weapon that must be wielded with two hands. In all likelihood, this sword with identifying marks and a goat-leather haft, came from Germany. Perhaps Pier seized it from a Saxon soldier…

There are many legends about Pier and his exploits. One of the most popular is the – still popular – Frisian phrase ‘Bûter, brea en griene tsiis, wa't dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries’. Only a true Frisian can pronounce this, so Pier knew instantly whether someone was an enemy who deserved a beheading. It is said that he could decapitate several of his foes with a single blow from his sword.

bûter, brea en griene tsiis

The legendary status of Grote Pier as a Frisian folk hero has endured over the centuries and has been assimilated into popular culture. Many know Grutte Pier as a character in the 1969 TV series Floris. A computer game based on his life is in development. For a while, the profusion of folk tales about Pier that attributed him with supernatural qualities, made people think that these were just stories, but Pier is a real historical figure and his awesome sword can be admired in the Fries Museum.

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