Götz of the Iron Hand

Portrait of Götz von Berlichingen, 17th century engraving copper engraving, City Museum of Cologne
Portrait of Götz von Berlichingen, 17th-century engraving copper engraving, City Museum of Cologne


Romanticized in legend as the “German Robin Hood” and remembered as a hero, Gottfried “Götz” von Berlichingen, better known as “Götz of the Iron Hand”, was a German Imperial Knight (Reichsritter), a mercenary, and a poet.

Von Berlichingen’s extraordinary 47-year military career included multiple German civil conflicts, notably the German Peasants’ War (1524-1525), as well as deadly European fights against the Ottomans and the French.

According to polymath Goethe, the Swabian Salute “Er kann mich am Arsch lecken” translated to “He can kiss my ass”, but literally meaning “lick me on the arse”, was coined by Gottfried von Berlichingen.

His impressive military exploits and his unique prosthetic iron hand have made him a memorable figure in history. Götz’s iron hand was versatile enough to allow him to perform everyday tasks. He could hold a pen and write, eat with a knife and fork, and even tie his own shoes. This level of dexterity was unprecedented at the time, and Götz’s iron hand became famous throughout Europe.

Despite his controversial actions, Götz’s bravery and determination on the battlefield have earned him a place in the annals of German history.

Gottfried von Berlichingen

Götz was born in 1480 in Jagsthausen, a small town in Germany in modern-day Baden-Württemberg.

He was a noble-born and the youngest son out of ten children born to Kilian von Berlichingen of Jagsthausen and Margaretha von Thüngen, a noble family dating back to the 12th century, which was rich in property, tradition-conscious, honourable and economically open-minded.

He was lured to the battlefield at the age of 14. He enrolled in the Brandenburg-Ansbach army before his 17th birthday, where he served the Holy Roman Empire until departing to organise his own mercenary squad at the age of 20.

He began his career as a page in the service of his uncle Konrad, a veteran gentleman who was the leader of the Court of the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach and whom he followed on various military campaigns studying the armaments trade. Margrave is the Castilianization of the German word Markgraf, a Germanic title, and the equivalent of marquis (marquess), which is equal to the nobleman who fulfilled the tasks of governor in a Margraviate or marquisate, which was a mark in Carolingian times.

A Young Gottfried von Berlichingen
A Young Gottfried von Berlichingen

Konrad died in Lindau in 1497, and Götz found himself to be in the direct service of the margrave Frederick V of Brandenburg.

Because the young Götz was not used to the opulence of court life, the Margrave sent him to squire for the knight Veit von Lentersheim, thereby steering his career to the military realm.

Accompanying his lord, he took part in Maximilian I of Habsburg’s battles against the French, who were attempting to seize imperial provinces like Burgundy, Lorraine, and Brabant; two years later, they actively participated in the Swabian War against the Swiss Confederation.

During the siege of the city of Landshut in 1504, Götz lost his right hand during a battle in the Peasant’s War. Despite this setback, he continued to fight and became famous for his prosthetic iron hand, which he used to hold his sword in battle. This earned him the nickname “Götz of the Iron Hand” and made him a legendary figure throughout Europe.

Life as a Mercenary

Götz was not only a skilled warrior but also a shrewd businessman. He became a mercenary and fought for various rulers and armies throughout his life. He was a member of the Teutonic Order, fought for the Holy Roman Empire, and even fought for the Ottoman Empire at one point.

During a 47-year period from 1498 to 1544, he was involved in numerous military campaigns, including the German Peasants’ War, a rebellion that broke out in Germany in 1525, and played a key role in the siege of the city of Landshut in 1504; as well as numerous feuds.

Peasants' War - 
Bauernjörg, Georg, Truchsess von Waldburg, the Scourge of the Peasants and leader of the Swabian League and therefore also the enemy of Götz, who sided with the peasants in a half-hearted way near the end of his fighting life. (Christoph Amberger / Public domain)
Peasants’ War – Bauernjörg, Georg, Truchsess von Waldburg, the Scourge of the Peasants and leader of the Swabian League and therefore also the enemy of Götz, who sided with the peasants in a half-hearted way near the end of his fighting life. (Christoph Amberger / Public domain)

Between 1508 and 1519 Götz waged war on his own account and was involved in almost a dozen feuds and quarrels. The main issues were property rights, outstanding payments or inheritance disputes. It was the time of the great feuds against Cologne, Nuremberg, Mainz, Bamberg and against the Swabian League.

At that time, the feud knight Götz commissioned by the injured party acted in a similar way to a debt collection company today. In his feuding practice, Götz refers to the “old right of knighthood”: First, threats are made, if this is unsuccessful, then there are acts of war, looting, hostage-taking, arson, and even loss of life and limb.

Berlichingen has a sufficiently broad economic base. Like his brothers, Götz inherited a considerable estate. He later increased his wealth through clever decisions, such as marrying Dorothea Gailing, who brought a dowry of 700 guilders into the marriage.

He also enriched himself with most of his feuds. Consequently, he did not act out of economic necessity when he attacked merchants, but above all as an advocate of the old law and, of course, out of scuffle.

In his autobiography, he estimates that he fought 15 feuds in his own name, in addition to many cases where he aided his friends, including feuds against the cities of Cologne, Ulm, Augsburg, and the Swabian League, as well as the bishop of Bamberg.

Götz von Berlichingen in Weisenheim am Sand, Germany
A plaque of ‘The Man with the Iron Hand’ with his famous quote: “But he, tell him, he can lick my arse,” from Goethe’s play on display in a street in Weisenheim am Sand, southwest Germany. (Immanuel Giel / Public domain)

Despite his reputation as a skilled warrior, Götz’s life was not without controversy. He was involved in several disputes with other noble families and even kidnapped a bishop at one point to settle a score. He was eventually captured by the Bishop of Bamberg and spent four years in prison.

After his release from prison, Götz retired from military life and settled in his hometown of Jagsthausen. He spent the remainder of his life managing his estates and writing his memoirs, which were published after his death.

It is considered certain that Götz von Berlichingen, especially in later years, posed as a lender and financial broker. With sober calculation, he lent money to princes, counts and noble peers or even cities. Consequently, Götz was not only wealthy but also rich and a respected businessman in wide circles on top of that.

The Man with The Iron Hand

During a mercenary invasion of Landshut in 1504, opposing cannon fire jolted von Berlichingen’s sword against himself, maiming his right arm at the elbow. German medics severed his hand and wrist, thereby ending his military career.

However, the 16th-century German knight and mercenary did not let this handicap stop him from continuing his military career. Instead, commissioned a local blacksmith, named Jörg Sturm, who was known for his skill in crafting metal objects, to build and engineer a sword-wielding iron prosthetic.

The original armour worn by Götz von Berlichingen, on exhibit in the Hornberg museum.
The original armour worn by “The German Robin Hood”, on exhibit in the Hornberg museum.

Sturm was able to create a hand that was strong, flexible, and capable of holding a weapon. The blacksmith fashioned a simple prosthetic hand with four fingers and a thumb connected to a glove. Two hinges on the upper edge of the prosthesis’ palm would allow von Berlichingen to grab and utilise his sword by rotating the four fingers inwards.

A lever mechanism caused the thumb to move in the opposite direction when the left finger block (consisting of the index and middle fingers) was moved. All fingers would bounce back to their extended starting position by pushing a button on the back of the hand. Von Berlichingen became known as “Götz of the Iron Hand” after that.

Von Berlichingen requested a more practical prosthetic after wearing the “iron hand” during multiple battles. His second iron hand was fastened with a leather strap and stretched just below the elbow. He had a blacksmith create three separately articulated joints on each of the four primary fingers and two on the thumb to improve grip.

The iron hand was made up of several individual pieces, including a metal sleeve that fits over Götz’s stump and a series of interconnected plates and joints that allowed the hand to move and grip objects.

The second iron prosthetic hand worn by Götz von Berlichingen.
The second iron prosthetic hand created by Jörg Sturm

Furthermore, each digit’s position could be fixed into place using spring-loaded mechanisms integrated directly into the prosthesis. Two buttons were used to return the thumb and four fingers to their original positions (open hand). A third button would also tilt the wrist by around 15°, increasing the number of actions possible with the upper extremity prosthesis.

The hand was attached to Götz’s arm with a leather strap that went around his wrist, and he was able to control the movement of the hand by moving his elbow.

The iron hand was not just a cosmetic accessory for Götz.  Von Berlichingen could fine-tune the position of his right hand and fingers, allowing him to grab a variety of things, including his sword, shield, quill, the reins of his warhorse and even able to hold a lance while riding a horse.

The complicated mechanical nature of the prosthesis accompanied Gotz throughout his military career, which lasted another 15 years of intense battle and maybe until his death in 1562.

The iron hand was not just a tool for fighting and everyday tasks; it was also a symbol of Götz’s strength and determination. It was a reminder that he would not let his disability stop him from living a full life and achieving his goals.

Both iron hands are presently on exhibit in the Jagsthausen castle museum in Baden-Württemberg, Germany and are considered to be among the best specimens of Renaissance biomedical engineering.

Götz’s iron hand was not the only prosthetic limb of its kind in history, but it was certainly one of the most impressive. Its design and engineering was ahead of its time, and it allowed Götz to continue his military career and live a full life despite his handicap. Today, Götz of the Iron Hand is remembered as a legendary figure in German history, and his iron hand remains an iconic symbol of his strength and determination.


Götz of the Iron Hand died in 1562 at the age of 81. Although not a well-known Renaissance character, he is remembered as a legendary figure in German history profoundly intertwined with Renaissance lore due to his astounding military accomplishments, intriguing life story, and famous iron hand prosthesis.

Berlichingen, detail from tomb sculpture, 1562; in Kloster Kirche Schontal, Baden-Wurttemberg, Ger
Detail from tomb sculpture, 1562; in Kloster Kirche Schontal, Baden-Wurttemberg, Ger

His life has inspired many works of literature and art and his iron hand has become an iconic symbol of his bravery and determination on the battlefield. Indeed, some 200 years after von Berlichingen’s death, the legendary German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a drama based on the charismatic mercenary’s memoirs.

If You Enjoyed This Content, Feel Free To Leave A Tip Or Visit One Of The Sponsor Adverts