History Wars World War I

An 8-foot warrior declared a war of vengeance against the Habsburg Empire

pier gerlofs donia
Pier Gerlofs Donia battle depiction, and statue of in his hometown of Kimswerd.

The lesson of history tells us the Dutch are not to be trifled with. The Dutch Resistance in World War II was a formidable opponent. The Dutch Republic defeated the Swedish Empire at the height of its military power. And then there’s the story of Pier Gerlofs Donia, also known as “Big Piers,” was a Dutch farmer who turned into a raider and rebel, declaring a personal war on the Habsburg Empire.

In truth, Big Pier had no reason to be a rebel. His life was calm and routine until a group of mercenaries aligned with the Habsburgs came through his village, raped and killed his wife, and murdered his workers. His children survived, but it was cold comfort for Pier, who exacted revenge on the Habsburgs for the rest of his life.

Around 1515, the Frisia area of what is today The Netherlands was ruled by a governor appointed by the Habsburg Emperor. Not everyone was happy about their foreign overlords and some took to fighting against the Habsburgs. To put down the rebellion, the governor hired mercenary landsknechts, specialist pikemen, called the Black Band. The Black Band had taken to pillaging villages to supplement their pay when one day they pillaged the wrong village. 

In January 1515, the Black Band looted Pier Gerlof’s village, burning both it and his farm. One might think the average civilian farmer at the time wouldn’t have the mettle to seek revenge. Those people might be right but Pier was not the average farmer. Pier was described by contemporaries as “A tower of a person, as strong as an ox, dark complexioned, broad-shouldered, with a long black beard and mustache, terrifying eyes as dark as coal. A natural and gruff humorist, who through unfortunate circumstances was transformed into a hideous rough.”

Historians estimate that Pier was eight feet tall, built of pure muscle that allowed him to wield a giant sword while wearing full armor, with an amazing amount of strength in reserve to beahead multiple enemies in a single swing. Five soldiers approached him hunched over his plow, asking where he lived. Legend has it he pointed to his burning house as he rose to full height, and killed all five men with the plow.

“De dapperheid van Grote Pier” (The bravery of Grote Pier), anno 1516, Oil on canvas by Johannes Hinderikus Egenberger, (Arnhem 1822 – Utrecht 1897)

He formed a band called Arumer Zwarte Hoop (“Black Hope”) who hit his enemies by both land and sea. It was made up of other peasants, minor nobles, and pirates who fought an outnumbered war against Habsburg-allied soldiers and mercenaries. At sea, the Arumer Zwarte Hoop captured nearly anything and everything, including English ships, who weren’t connected to the Habsburgs. He and his band began to exact revenge on other cities that had allied against the Frisians in the past.

They sacked the town of Medemblik and slaughtered its inhabitants. They then moved on to Nieuwburg and Middleburg Castle and razed them both completely. In 1517, they did the same to the town of Asperen. Unlike their other targets, the band used Asperen as a base of operations. The threat became so widespread that Holland’s Stadhouder (a kind of noble administrator) launched a massive war fleet to end it. 

The war fleet was only mildly successful, managing to burn some of the Frisian ships. Pier was not impressed. He and his pirates responded by capturing and burning 11 of the war fleet ships, then attacked Hindelopen, capturing hundreds of soldiers. The Habsburgs were never able to subdue him. He retired, dying in his bed in 1520. The man that took over his band was his lieutenant Wijerd Jelckama. Under his leadership, the band’s effectiveness declined until it was defeated in 1523.