“Iron Hand” – Meet the Middle Ages’ Toughest Knight

Götz von Berlichingen, also known as "Iron Hand", learned how to fight in the teeth of the Swabian War of the late 15th Century.

Götz von Berlichingen, also known as “Iron Hand”, learned his deadly craft during the Swabian War of the late 15th Century.

“In an astonishing 47-year military career, Götz did battle in a series of bloody civil wars throughout Central Europe and fought campaigns against the French and the Ottomans.”

Götz von Berlichingen.

Götz von Berlichingen.

FEW OUTSIDE OF Germany have probably ever heard of Götz von Berlichingen, the colourful 16th Century knight, mercenary and outlaw. But at some point in your life, you’ve probably uttered the famous phrase he coined: Mich am arsche lecken or “kiss my ass”.

According to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who penned highly acclaimed play about the hard-fighting Teutonic warrior, von Berlichingen supposedly uttered the now-ubiquitous rejoinder in response to a surrender ultimatum during a siege at Jagsthausen Castle. In fact to this day, the expression is known in Germany as the “Swabian salute”. But the celebrated knight is remembered in his homeland for more than just turning a bawdy phrase. In an astonishing 47-year military career, Old Götz did battle Medieval-style in a long series of bloody civil wars throughout Central Europe, as well as in campaigns against the French and the Ottomans. During that time, he fought, plundered and generally raised hell, both as an ally and even an enemy of two Holy Roman Emperors. Along the way, von Berlichingen earned the sobriquet “Germany’s Robin Hood” for his role in an abortive Peasant Uprising, and also became known as “Iron Hand” after he replaced his severed right arm, shot away by a cannonball, with an actual mechanical limb a la The Terminator. And if that’s not enough for you, here are some more incredible facts about this larger-than-life historical figure.

Von Berlichingen's famous 500-year-old iron hand is on permanent display at Germany's Jagsthausen Castle.

Von Berlichingen’s famous 500-year-old iron hand is on permanent display at Germany’s Jagsthausen Castle. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Knight in Training

Born into a wealthy Württemberg family in 1480, von Berlichingen enlisted in the army of Brandenburg-Ansbach before his 17th birthday. Over the next two years, he fought on the side of the Holy Roman Empire in a number of battles of the Swabian War. At 20, he retired from the service and established his own mercenary army, which he promptly rented out to the Duke of Bavaria. While fighting in a siege at Landshut Castle, the 24-year-old soldier-of-fortune lost his right arm to a cannonball. Undeterred by what would normally be a career-ending injury, the wealthy nobleman commissioned the design of a mechanical limb made of iron to take the place of his missing appendage. The arm featured a metal hand with movable joints and fingers that were supposedly strong enough to hoist a sword, yet sensitive enough to hold a quill pen. [1]

Making a Killing


Von Berlichingen dressed to kill. (Image source: WikiCommons)

For more than a decade, von Berlichingen worked on contract as a soldier for hire, partaking in at least 15 petty feuds among Germany’s nobility. Sometime around 1512, Götz ran afoul of Emperor Maximilian I after plundering the goods of some influential Nuremburg businessmen. The irritated king issued an imperial ban on the disgraced warrior – a sort of in-country house-arrest that striped him of his rights and standing in the realm, while making it perfectly legal for anyone to kill him without consequence. After enduring two years in this state of professional exile, von Berlichingen agreed to pay a considerable fine of 14,000 gold coins and had his status restored. Soon he was back on the warpath. But it wasn’t to last. Götz found himself in the royal doghouse again a few years later, this time for capturing and ransoming the Count of Waldeck during yet another feud. Under a dark cloud once more, the now middle-aged knight hoped to redeem his status by enlisting to fight the Swabian League as part of the army of Württemberg. While fighting at Möckmühl, the 42-year-old von Berlichingen himself was captured, ransomed and paroled, only after swearing to never again raise arms against his old enemies. The end? Not quite.

Rebel Without A Cause

By 1525, it seemed Götz turned his back on the life of a stately knight and joined in the so-called German Peasants Revolt. The uprising, which consisted mostly of farmers with pitchforks, was handily crushed and nearly 100,000 rebels butchered. Von Berlichingen was called to account for his role in the insurgency. Facing yet another ban (or worse), Götz freely admitted to joining the insurgency against Medieval Germany’s one-percenters, but said he abandoned the movement in disgust when he realized its members were little more than a bloodthirsty mob. The emperor acquitted him and the aging swordsman ended his adventures and retired to his home at Hornburg Castle. Or did he? At 62, Götz emerged from obscurity once again to join Emperor Charles V in his 1542 campaign against the Turks in Hungary. Two years later, he was on the march with the Holy Roman Empire in France.

Götz von Berlichingen's Fortress of Solitude: Hornberg Castle.

Götz von Berlichingen’s Fortress of Solitude: Hornberg Castle.

“My Life As An Ass Kicker”

17th SS Panzergrenadiers insignia, an homage to Götz von Berlichingen. (Image source: WikiCommons)

17th SS Panzergrenadiers insignia, an homage to Götz von Berlichingen. (Image source: WikiCommons)

By 1544, the age of chivalric knights was coming to an end. With warfare changing and his health in decline, von Berlichingen finally agreed to call it quits. He retired to his estate and spent the next 16 years looking back on a tumultuous half-century career as a man-at-arms. He died in 1560 at the then impressive age of 80. Amazingly, before shedding this mortal coil, Götz penned his memoirs, which were republished in 1731. The writer Goethe was so enthralled with the work that he composed his own version for the stage. He painted his protagonist as a rugged but aging man of honour that stands in defiance of a world that’s changing (and not necessarily for the better) – a sort of Clint Eastwood character for the Late Middle Ages. It was a depiction that resonated among 18th century Germans. Von Berlichingen’s Autobiography was re-published once more in 1841 at the very height of the Romantic Period. A century later, Germans would again celebrate Götz’s enduring martial spirit – this time, during the Second World War. The 17th SS Panzergrenadiers named itself after von Berlichingen. What’s more, his iconic iron hand was a popular symbol that was painted on the hulls of German warships and submarines. The logos sometimes featured the hero’s name or were accompanied by his immortal phrase: “Kiss our asses.”


3 comments for ““Iron Hand” – Meet the Middle Ages’ Toughest Knight

  1. 23 June, 2014 at 9:36 am

    Mich am arsche lecken, that’s probably the best German phrase I’ll ever learn! Very interesting Knight though 🙂

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