In the year 1500 a girl by the name Tjede Peckes was born in the hamlet of Padingbüttel in Land Wursten, on the eastern banks of the River Weser. A salt marsh area the Wurstfriesen ‘Wurst-Frisians’ had managed to embank and cultivate. For centuries they had enjoyed living in a lord-free farmers republic. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, the Wurstfriesen came into conflict with the bishop of Bremen and the duke of Sachsen-Lauenburg, who preyed on their fertile, rich lands. During the many battles, not only men but also women went to war. Yes, in great numbers even. According to tradition, no less than 300 women went to battle in the year 1517. Teenager Tjede Peckes was the standard-bearer of the Wurstfriesen.
The battle in 1517, known as the Slacht am Wremer Tief ‘battle at the Wremer stream’, was lost. It happened on December 23. In total 300 Wurstfriesen lost their lives against a far superior force of bishop Christopher of Bremen. This force consisted of 3,000 to 4,000 Landsknechte ‘Germanic mercenaries’, 1,000 cavalry, and 8,000 infantry (Von der Osten 1902). So, in total about 13,000 men. Pay of Landknechte often was pillaging the area. The bishop’s army gathered at Lehe north of Bremerhaven, where it was split in two. A smaller force attacked from the south as a diversion, whilst the main force made an outflanking movement via the geests or geestlands (i.e. the elevated sandy soils more inland) and attacked from the north. On December 23, the Wurstfriesen were defeated at the mouth of the Wremer stream where they had entrenched themselves. The reason to attack Land Wursten in winter time was because without frost the wet marshland would be too inaccessible, and thus too much of a risk for a large, attacking army.
Bishop Christopher (1487-1558) was consecrated bishop of Bremen recently, in 1512. Only 25 years old. Besides being young and ambitious, Christopher was of noble stock too, a member of the House of Welf. Bishop Christopher’s worldly aspirations were aided by the fact that at the time Land Wursten no longer could rely on the support of the free Hanseatic city of Bremen. Land Wursten had buttered up relations with count Edzard of Ostfriesland recently a bit too much, whilst the council of Bremen feared a too powerful count in the region (Von Lehe 1969). Favourable circumstances to challenge the already back then famous friesische Heldensinn ‘Frisian heroism’ of the Wurstfriesen.
Earlier, in the year 1484 with the Battle of Alsum, and in 1499 with the Slacht am Grauen Wall ‘battle at the grey wall’ near Weddewarden, the people’s militias of Land Wursten still had been able to ward off external threats. The Battle of Alsum in 1484 was won also because the Wurstfriesen had opened the sluices and inundated their low-laying marshlands. During the battle in 1499, the Wurstfriesen had defeated the Schwarzen Garde ‘black guard’ mercenary army of duke Magnus von Sachsen-Lauenburg.
A year after the disastrous battle of 1517, bishop Christopher forced the Wurstfriesen to erect Burg Morgenstern ‘castle battle-flail’, a Zwingburg or coercion castle. Like slaves who fettered themself (Von der Osten 1932).
Notwithstanding castle Morgenstern, the Wurstfriesen revolted once more. And again a battle took place, namely the Slacht an der Mulsumer Kirche ‘battle at the Mulsum church’ in the year 1524. Albeit the situation continued to be agitated for much longer, this battle did mean the definitive end of the Frisian freedom in Land Wursten. The battle of 1524 was total. Tradition says that the bishop’s army completely ransacked and destroyed the land. Only seven houses remained and everyone fled. In 1525, the Stader Frieden ‘Peace of the city of Stade’ was signed, formally submitting Land Wursten. The end of yet another freies Marschenvolk ‘free marsh people’ living on the Wadden Sea coast. It must be noted, Land Wursten was the last Frisian marshland republic of the Wadden Sea coast to lose its freedom. The real last marshland republic of the Wadden Sea coast was the Saxon peasant republic of Dithmarschen, the area between the rivers Elbe and Eider. They were subdued in 1559 (Knottnerus 2004).
1517 was a remarkable year anyway. Extreme drought during the first half of the year in large parts of north-western Europe caused crop failure and much death of livestock. This led to very high prices of food and wine. On top of that, the black plague thrived in Westphalia and in the centre of the Netherlands, causing people to migrate. According to the chronicler Philippe de Vigneulles, 1517 was the year of the three swords: war, hunger and death. More in general, the first two decennia of the sixteenth century were dominated by an overall discontent of the lower and middle classes in northern and central Europe. People demanded, among other, lower taxes, church reforms, and representation in government (Van Engelen 1998). On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his famous Ninety-five Theses to the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg.
If the reader has read our post In debt to beastly Westfrisians, parallels with the wars between the counts of West Frisia/Holland and the people’s militias of the lord-free region of Westfriesland in province Noord Holland are undeniable. Like in Land Wursten, also in the farmers republic Westfriesland coercion castles, inaccessible marshlands, guerrilla warfare, continuous uprisings, and finally total destruction and utter cruelty by the aggressor.
Tjede, also Thiada, Peckes was one of the 300 deaths to be mourned over Christmas 1517. A Landsknecht mercenary soldier had killed Tjede Peckes with his large Bidenhänder sword. She was literally cut in two. Barely seventeen years old, daughter of a freeman-farmer. Even emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) dedicated some words to her death. His words were essentially fake tears since Land Wursten finally was part of his empire now:
Virginis Wursaticae animi fortitudinem summopere praedicasse, eamque ad procreandum subolem similem omnino vita donandam iusdicasse.Chytraeus (1530-1600)
He [Maximilian] greatly praised the strength of the maiden of Land Wursten, she could have been the mother of hero children like her.
Despite both being teenagers, maidens, farmer’s daughters, and leading armies by bearing the standard, Tjede Peckes was not 100% Joan of Arc, or Jeanne d’Arc, though. Whereas Joan was motivated by religious devotion, Tjede was probably not so much. She even fought against the church. In the years before the battle, Tjede Peckes had joined the women’s movement that was critical of the influence of the Catholic Church in Land Wursten. These women regarded themselves as followers of the Capital Virgins, did not marry, and refused as unmarried women to enter a nunnery. Martin Luther too opposed to the tradition of sending women to a cloister to preserve their piety and virginity. He also criticized the malpractices in nunneries and monasteries.
Being a landowning Jungfrau ‘unmarried young woman’ you furthermore had the possibility to participate in the Bauernräten ‘farmers councils’ of Land Wursten too. Republic Land Wursten was governed by the chosen Sechzehn Ratgeber ‘sixteen counsellors’. In other words, remaining unmarried you could be political active as a woman. Once married, your husband would fulfil this role.
Who knows, maybe if rebellious and church-critical Tjede Peckes had won the battle like Joan of Arc did, she would have been burned at the stake too, just like her leading example.
The Banner of Death
According to the report of a near contemporary, the banner of the Frisians that Tjede Peckes was carrying, had the sign of death depicted on it:
ducente agmen virgine, vexillum imagines mortis insignitum praeferenteChytraeus (1530-1600)
the young woman leading the army, carried a banner adorned with the image of death
Whether a banner with the sign of death depicted on it was indeed the case, has been contested by some. It might just as well have been a banner with the image of Virgin Mary or Stella Maris (Gottschalk 2009).
In the Geschichte des Landes Wursten ‘history of Land Wursten’ however, the banner is described as a burial cloth of a slain (Von der Osten 1902). In fact, this practice might go back to the blood feuds of early-medieval Frisian society. After three days the burial cloth or shroud was taken from the deceased. Through ancient sorcery women made it possible for the slain through his shroud to partake in the fighting as well, and hence able to avenge his own death. The shroud was carried as a banner leading the avenging crowd (Tegge 2004).
In a local saga the banner is described as follows:
Die Bauern haben keinen Kommandeur. Aber eine Fahne, ein weißes Leinentuch, das im fahlen Dämmerlicht der beginnenden Winternacht wie ein Geist dem Heere voranschwebt. Und Tjede Peckes trägt sie.Hake Betken siene Duven. Das große Sagenbuch (1993)
The farmers have no commander. Instead a banner, a white linen cloth, that floats ahead like a ghost of the army in the pale twilight of the early winter night. And Tjede Peckes carries it.
Anyway, bearing the standard in battle was both honourable and dangerous. You were very visible and at the same time less capable to defend yourself. And, like the board game Stratego, the enemy always tried to get their hands on it. Ever since 1517, the name of Tjede Peckes is associated with freedom and courage.
A sixteenth-century Chronicle of Land Wursten, in Low-German language:
Wy eddelen fryen Fresen,
wy syndt nhu also freigh,
dath wy nenen tributh geuenn
vnd ein freigh volck syn
vnd mogen ock henfordt dragen
beyde suluer vnd rodes goldt,
de vns hefft gegeuen
Carll de konink stoldt;
wol wolde dem suluen keyser
nicht syn van herten holdt.
We noble free Frisians, | we are now thus free, | that we give no tribute | and are a free people | and henceforth may wear too | both silver and red gold, | that has given us | Charles the proud king; | who wants the same emperor | not to love his hearts?
Note 1 – Another famous (early-medieval) Frisian standard-bearer is Saint Fris. He fought against the Saracens at the foot of the Pyrenees in the eighth century. He is being worshiped as a saint in southern France to this day. Read our post Like Son, Unlike Father. Yet another glorious, Frisian standard-bearer is Magnus, who gave the freedom to all Frisians. Read our post Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom. And, of course, it was the Frisian Hayo de Violgama who fought in the Fifth Crusade in the year 1217, and who seized the banner of the army of sultan Saladin in Egypt. Check our post Terrorist fighters from the Wadden Sea.
Note 2 – Near the village of Wremen you can find the archaeological site of Fedderson. It is one of the few sites where a terp settlement has been fully excavated. The terp of Fedderson was inhabited between the first and fifth centuries AD. Also close to Wremen, are the early-medieval semi boat graves at Fallward. Unique too and very comparable to the boat grave at Solleveld near the city of The Hague. Check our post Rowing souls of the dead to Britain: the ferryman of Solleveld to learn more.
Note 3 – Land Wursten, a marshland area of circa 150 square meters, is mentioned for the first time in 1203 and written as Worsatia. In Low-Saxon language of today it is Land Wussen. The Frisian language was spoken in this area until the eighteenth century.
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