Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In Memoriam: Balthasar Oomkens von Esens

Claude de Bigny, the blog's historical correspondent, writes:

Today is the 465th anniversary of the death of Balthasar Oomkens von Esens, Lord of Harlingerland, during the siege of Esens by troops of Bremen in 1540.

Balthasar was the son of Hero Oomkens the Younger von Esens (+1522) and Irmgard (or Armgard) Countess of Oldenburg.

He was first cousin to the King of Denmark and a descendant of an old Frisian landowning family which was also involved, after the manner of the time, in maritime trade - otherwise described, by unkind critics, as "piracy" or freebooting. The arrangement was that the lord would commission seamen to carry out raids or boardings of "enemy" ships. This practice aroused the ire of the Hanseatic cities, such as Groningen, Hamburg and Bremen, which fell victim to it (although they were involved in similar piracy themselves).

On one occasion, a crew of 50 "pirates" commissioned by Balthasar fell into the hands of the Bremen city authorities, who in a disgusting act of legal murder, beheaded all of the men. Balthasar's rage was such that he in his turn - according to some historians - beheaded the Bremen hostages held by him in Harlingerland, as was his right.

The County of Harlingerland, which came to Balthasar as a mixed patri- and matrimony, comprised the lordships of Esens, Stedesdorf and Wittmund and had first been pulled together into a single lordship by Balthasar's grandfather, Sibet Attena von Esens. The strand which runs through the lives of both Balthasar and his father, Hero Oomkens the Younger, was that of protecting the ancient liberty of Harlingerland against the depredations of the Cirksena family, which attempted to subjugate the historically free Frisian lands from the late fifteenth century.

Both Hero and Balthasar conducted innumerable campaigns to uphold this ancient tradition of freedom and independence, a struggle which was ultimately successful, albeit at a high price.

There is a picturesque legend associated with Balthasar. During an earlier siege of his residence-city of Esens, a musician and his dancing bear were caught in the city. As the siege wore on, provisions ran out and the people were close to starvation. The bear, who had been put into a tower cellar under the city walls, was quite forgotten. In due course, the bear's hunger and frustration became unbearable, as it were, and he broke out of the cellar and started to climb up towards the light.

When he got to the top of the tower, the bear roared out his displeasure and in his confusion his paws dislodged some of the stones from the old city walls, casting them out towards the besieging army. When the besiegers saw this crazed bear roaring and hurling stones at them from the tower, they thought that if the people of Esens had enough food to feed the bear, they must have plenty for themselves, and could probably withstand a much longer siege. The soldiers were also none too keen on facing this manic beast in close combat, so they called off the siege and decamped.

The citizens of Esens led the bear back down the tower and fed him a meal fit for heroes, and adopted him as the symbol of their city, something he remains to this day (he is in the coat of arms of Esens, of Harlingerland (Wittmund district) and East Frisia).

Balthasar Oomkens von Esens died in a later siege. He died childless, so the inheritance passed through his sisters, Onna (or Anna) and Adelaide. Onna married Otto von Rietberg, and Adelaide married her distant cousin, a descendant of Tancko Omcken (also known as Tancko Oomkens van Ommeland), who lived in the family heartland , the Oldambt, in the Ommelanden of Groningen. Although the family no longer have a direct connection to Esens, their descendants are thriving in Holland today. Balthasar, for his part, is honoured with a yearly festival in his name, "Das Jünker Balthasar Fest".

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