Götz von Berlichingen Biography

Götz von Berlichingen, also known as Gottfried, was a remarkable figure in German history. As a mercenary, imperial knight, and poet, he left a lasting impact on the world. Despite losing his right arm in battle, Götz persevered and continued his knightly duties with the aid of an iron glove. This earned him the famous title of ”German Götz mit der Eisernen Hand” (”Götz with the Iron Hand”). Beginning his military career before the age of 17, he served Holy Roman Emperors and led numerous successful campaigns. Notably, he fought against the Turks in Hungary in 1542 and joined the campaign of Habsburg emperor Charles V against the French in 1544. However, his capture of nobles for ransom led to him being placed under an imperial ban multiple times. Despite these controversies, Götz’s autobiography, filled with captivating tales of his life as a knight, continues to entertain readers to this day.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Gottfried von Berlichingen
  • Died At Age: 82
  • Born Country: Germany
  • Family:
    • Father: Kilian von Berlichingen
    • Mother: Margarete von Thüngen
    • Children: Hans Jakob von Berlichingen
  • Died on: July 23, 1562
  • Place of Death: Hornberg Castle, Neckarzimmern, Germany

Childhood & Early Life

Götz von Berlichingen was born in 1480 into a wealthy family in the Jagsthausen Castle, in former German state of Württemberg, south-western part of modern Germany. He was drafted in the army of Brandenburg-Ansbach before turning 17 and served the Holy Roman Empire for two years. He also participated in several battles of the ‘Swabian War.’ By 20, Berlichingen took retirement from serving the royals and built a mercenary band of his own that he rented out to the Duke of Bavaria.

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Loss of Arm and Prosthetic Glove

In 1504, Berlichingen lost his right arm in a battle when enemy cannon fire forced his sword against him. This injury had a huge mental impact on the knight. While still recovering from his injuries, Berlichingen once saw a one-armed servant fighting on the battlefield. The servant’s will-power helped him gain his self-confidence back.

He commissioned a mechanical prosthetic iron glove, custom made by a village blacksmith and saddle maker. The glove also had some intricate detailing, such as sculpted fingernails and wrinkles at the knuckles. However, after a few years, Berlichingen realized that the glove was not providing him enough flexibility to fight like a knight.

The second glove with a better and complex prosthesis reached to the end of his forearm and featured flexible joints on its fingers providing grip on a weapon and spring-loaded mechanisms to lock the fingers into place. The new glove allowed him hoist a sword as well as hold a quill pen. It was after that he got the name ”Götz of the Iron Hand.” Both the metal hands are on display at the ‘Burg Jagsthausen Castle.’

Later Military Career

Continuing with his military activities, Berlichingen participated in several feuds in subsequent years. He fought for both his own army and that of friends and employers. Berlichingen had a rivalry with Nuremberg, the second-largest city of the German federal state of Bavaria. In 1512, he plundered the luggage of some influential Nuremberg businessmen near Forchheim, while they were returning from the great Leipzig fair.

Emperor Maximilian ordered an imperial ban on the knight. The ban was lifted in 1514 after he paid 14,000 guldens. In 1516, he raided Hesse and captured Philip IV, Count of Waldeck, due to his feud with the Electorate of Mainz and its Prince-Archbishop. He was paid a ransom of 8,400 guldens for the count’s safe return. He was once again banned in 1518, but returned as a knight the following year.

In 1519, he fought with the army of Ulrich, Duke of Württemberg, to crush the ‘Swabian League.’ He tried to defend Möckmühl in the district of Heilbronn, Baden-Württemberg, but had to surrender the town due to insufficient supplies and ammunition. In the process, Berlichingen violated the terms of surrender and hence imprisoned. He was then given to the citizens of Heilbronn, a town he had previously raided several times.

On the persuasion of his fellow knights, Georg von Frundsberg and Franz von Sickingen, his release in 1522 was granted, but he had to pay a ransom of 2,000 guldens. He also promised not to mount attacks on the League anymore.

In 1525, despite not supporting the cause of the rebel army during the ‘German Peasants’ War,’ Berlichingen fought for their army in the district of Odenwald against the Ecclesiastical Princes of the Holy Roman Empire. The prime reason he supported the rebels in the war was that he had to stop the excess of their rebellion and that he had no option left but to lead the army. Unfortunately, his plan of leading the rebel army and to control their violence failed. He led the army for about a month and then deserted it.

Berlichingen then successfully settled the rest of the rebellions in his castle in the Burg Jagsthausen. He was, however, summoned before the Diet of Speyer to explain his actions. On October 17, 1526, the Imperial chamber acquitted Berlichingen of breaching the rules. To settle old rivalries, the ‘Swabian League’ tricked him into reaching Augsburg in November 1528, and got him captured and imprisoned.

He was released in 1530 after he once again swore of no more attacks on the League, as he had done in 1522. He agreed to be confined to his Burg Hornberg. In 1540, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, released him from the oath. He then served under the emperor in the 1542 campaign in Hungary against the Ottoman Empire of Suleyman the Magnificent, and finally in the 1544 Imperial invasion of France under Francis I of France. Berlichingen lived the rest of the years peacefully in Hornberg.

Personal Life & Death

Berlichingen was married twice and had three daughters and seven sons. He died on July 23, 1562 in Hornberg Castle. His remains are kept in the ‘Jagsthausen Castle.’

Legacy

Berlichingen’s autobiography, which he had left in the form of a manuscript titled ‘Rossacher Handschrif,’ was later published in 1731 and 1843 under the titles, ‘Lebens-Beschreibung des Herrn Gözens von Berlichingen’ (“Biography of Sir Götz von Berlichingen”) and ‘Ritterliche Thaten Götz von Berlichingen’s mit der eisernen Hand’ (“Knightly Deeds of Götz von Berlichingen with the Iron Hand”) respectively. The 1731 version was adopted into a play, ‘Götz von Berlichingen,’ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Helgard Ulmschneider later published an edition of the manuscript in 1981 for academic purpose under the title ‘Mein Fehd und Handlungen’ (“My Feuds and Actions”). The ‘Waffen-SS’ ’17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen’ and one of the armed merchant cruisers of Kriegsmarine in WWII were named after him, while the knight’s iron glove inspired the emblem on the German submarine ‘U-59’ and ‘U-70.’

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