Giant Peter

Giant Peter

by Erna, 14/01/2015

Leading a Frisian rebellion between 1515 and 1519.


Pier Gerlofs Donia (ca. 1480–1520) was a Frisian peasant rebel leader and pirate. He is best known by his West Frisian nickname Grutte Pier (Giant Peter) which referred to his legendary size and strength. His life is mostly shrouded in legend. According to the legend, Giant Peter 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.”

The Legend

Peter was born in Kimswerd, a small Frisian village near Harlingen. He had a farm, a wife and children and was a peaceful man. Unfortunately, this changed after some time. Invasions of West Dutch and Saxon rebels brought an end to the peaceful life in Kimswerd. They raided farms and set them on fire. This also happened to the family Donia and many neighbours. The wife and children of Peter were killed, together with the rest of the villagers. Peter was furious and collected an army of farmers, nobles, bandits, thieves and later also warriors from the Mid-east of the Netherlands. As Peter was born very close to the sea (today’s Waddensea) this farmer alias warlord also had strong sea legs. Peter’s armed band, known as the Black Gang from Arum (Arum is a Frisian village), were pirates mainly active against the West-Dutch and Burgundians (East Germanic tribe) at sea. He managed to capture many English and Dutch ships, mainly on the Zuider Zee (today’s ‘IJsselmeer’). During his biggest sea battle Peter attacked 28 Dutch ships. The crew members were simply thrown overboard.

According to the legend, Peter was a man with a height of 2.15 meter, with a dark, sunburnt face, broad shoulders, a long beard and cynical humour. He had piercing, dark sparkling eyes that scared the hell out of each opponent. Peter was incredibly strong; he squeezed coins between his fingers and once carried a horse on his shoulders.

During his battle against the Dutch, Peter came up with a trick. A Frisian sentence that only genuine Frisians could say would separate the good from the bad guys. If you could not pronounce the sentence properly, you would be beheaded with his giant sword and your ship would be plundered by the gang. The Frisian language sentence was: ‘Bûter, brea en griene tsiis, wa’t dat net sizze kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries’. Translated in English: ‘Butter, bread and green cheese, who cannot say this, is not a true Frisian’.

The West-Dutch think of Peter as a immoral plunderer and madman, but most of the Frisians see him as a brave warrior and true Frisian hero who put up resistance against the Habsburg Empire (an important and powerful European dynasty) long before the South-west of the Netherlands did.

Around the year 1518 Peter returned to Sneek, where he died three years later, reportedly because of longing for the sea. He died peaceful in his own bed. Peter is buried in the Great Church in Sneek, in the city centre. His sword hangs in the Frisian Museum in Leeuwarden since 2008. His helmet is in the City Hall of Sneek. A few years ago, an exact replica of his sword was created . It weighed more than 6.5 kilo and was more than 2.15 meters long. Just as long as Peter was.

Big Pier

Location: Friesland

Multiple villages and towns in Friesland. Born in Kimswerd. Black gang from Arum. Piracy on the IJselmeer. Deceased in Sneek.