Pier Gerlofs Donia, c.1480 – 1520: Dutch Courage

In 1514, George the Bearded, Duke of Saxony,  sent his crew of landsknechts, the so-called  Black Guard, to put down the lowland upstarts under Edzard I, Count of East Frisia.

There was a good amount of excess in the doing, which came to a head when the Guardsmen, unpaid for too long, started demanding their due directly from the local civilians. They came to the village of Kimsweerd where they did the usual number of robbery, and as a by the way, raped and killed the wife of our subject.

Bad idea.

The Dutch, understand, have a long line of tough.  Serious tough.  Don’t let the pot cafes and the tulips and the cheese fool you.    You don’t pull your own country from the oceans without tough.  You also don;t don’t make a global empire without tough.  And when you kick at the family of a guy like Big Piers, a man who could bend coins with his thumb and forefinger, you will get blowback.

Sounds like a bit of Game of Thrones fan-fiction, but it’s all true.  Donia was a farmer descended of some minor nobility, the kind of nobility that gets where it gets by fighting.  He was said to have been large and strong – the coins –  and however forceful the Black Guard may have been, he was not going to take their excesses lying down.  He  raised the Arumer Zwarte Hoop (Black Band of Arum), local farmers and minor nobility who shared his disdain for the outlander armies of Habsburg loyalists.

They did better than might have been expected.  Guerrilla tactics got them a castle or two.  There was his ability to take off multiple heads at one time with a single broadsword, that helped.

But it was at sea that their best results were achieved.  Twenty eight Dutch ships surrendered to him on the Zuider Zee.   Success like this breeds more success, and anti-Habsburg aristocracy donated money to the cause to help pay mercenaries.

Rebellions run their course, and Spanish Habsburgs were a powerful empire.  Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Habsburg Emperor,  sent in some of his better captains who quashed the affair with extreme prejudice.

Donia, his zeal for the whole thing waning before that happened, fell ill,  retired to the small town of Sneek and died there of natural causes.  The rebellion, with no similarly strong leader, went the way of all failed rebellions, generally forgotten save by those with a particular interest in the sixteenth century or Dutch history.

The jury is still out on his being a hero or knave, freedom fighter (libertatis assertor, so called) or pirate, or a bit of both, but he marked an early example of rebel types who would later in the century get the lowlands out of the Spanish Habsburg power once and for all.  From such roots were born the Netherlands of Rembrandt and Vermeer.

And pot cafes.


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