Götz von Berlichingen

Götz von Berlichingen was born in 1480 in modern Baden-Württemberg. He became a famous German Imperial Knight, but also impressed as a poet and mercenary. He was also known as Götz of the Iron Hand, due to the prothesis he wore in later life. 

Götz von Berlichingen (17th century copper engraving)
Götz von Berlichingen (17th century copper engraving) – Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Götz von Berlichingen fought in the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I from 1498, but formed his own company of knights in 1500, selling his services to various nobles of the area. It was during one of these engagements in 1504 he came under canon fire and lost his right arm. He famously had two prothesis made, one iron glove and one that was capable of holding objects. Both are on display in Castle Jagsthausen, his birthplace, today. Despite this substantial injury, he carried on feuding and was involved in no fewer than 15 in his own name, alongside several paid engagements. In 1512 for example, he raided merchants from Nuremberg on their return from the great fair at Leipzig, after a dispute with the city leadership, leading to an Imperial ban and forcing him to pay a substantial sum to be released. 

In 1517 Götz von Berlichingen bought Hornberg Castle, where he lived until his death in 1562. In 1518, however, he faced a second Imperial ban after a feud with the Principality of Mainz and ransoming Philip IV, Count of Waldeck. In 1519, he signed up in the service of Ulrich, Duke of Württemberg, who was at war with the Swabian League. He fought in the defence of Möckmühl, but eventually was forced to surrender the town, owing to a lack of supplies and ammunition. In violation of the terms of surrender, he was held prisoner and handed over to the citizens of Heilbronn, a town he had raided several times. His fellow knights Georg von Frundsberg and Franz von Sickingen successfully argued for his release in 1522.

In 1525, with the outbreak of the German Peasants’ War, Berlichingen led the rebel army in the district of Odenwald against the Ecclesiastical Princes of the Holy Roman Empire.  After the Imperial victory, he was called before the Diet of Speyer to account for his actions. On 17 October 1526, he was acquitted by the Imperial chamber. Despite this, in November 1528 he was lured to Augsburg by the Swabian League, who were eager to settle old scores. After reaching Augsburg under promise of safe passage, and while preparing to clear himself of the old charges against him made by the league, he was seized and made prisoner until 1530 when he was liberated, although under oath to stay at Hornberg Castle until Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, released him from his oath in 1540.

He served under Charles in the 1542 campaign against the Ottoman Empire of Suleyman the Magnificent in Hungary, and in 1544 in the Imperial invasion of France under Francis I of France. After the French campaign, Berlichingen returned to the Hornberg and lived out the rest of his life in relative peace. He died on 23 July 1562 in Hornberg Castle at the age of 81 or 82. Berlichingen married twice and left three daughters and seven sons to carry on his family name.

Götz left an autobiography in manuscript form. The text was published in 1731, and republished in 1843. Goethe published the play Götz von Berlichingen in 1773 and his name became famous as a euphemism for a vulgar expression (Er kann mich am Arsch lecken – “He can lick my ass” though in the play it is written as “He can kiss my ass”) which is attributed to him. During WW2, the Waffen SS named a unit after him and in more modern times the German 2nd Fast Patrol Boat Squadron uses his clenched fist as their symbol. 

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