Based upon a description now attributed to Pier’s contemporary Petrus Thaborita, the 19th-century historian Conrad Busken Huet wrote that Grutte Pier was "a tower of a fellow as strong as an ox, of dark complexion, broad shouldered, with a long black beard and moustache. A natural rough humorist, who through unfortunate circumstances was recast into an awful brute. Out of personal revenge for the bloody injustice that befell him (in 1515) with the killing of kinsfolk and destruction of his property he became a freedom fighter of legendary standing.
Pier is the direct descendant of the powerful Frisian chieftain Haring Harinxma (1323-1404), Schieringer and potestate of Westergo. Pier is also the third cousin of Jancko Douwama. Grutte Pier and Jancko Douwama are considered the heroes of Frisian freedom.
Grutte Wierd (Wijerd Jelckama) is often described by eighteenth and nineteenth century authors as the nephew of Grutte Pier. Contemporary Worp van Thabor identifies him simply as Wierd van Bolsward. Modern authors such as J.J. Kalma doubt the nephew connection while Brouwer in the Encyclopedia of Friesland states that Grutte Wierd was not the nephew of Grutte Pier but his ‘lieutenant’ who was probably born in Bolsward and died in Leeuwarden on 30 November 1523 being beheaded.
The Landsknecht were in the employ of the George, Duke of Saxony, and were in Friesland to suppress the civil war. The Black Band were notorious as a violent military force who when their pay was insufficient or lacking, which was not uncommon, would exact payment by any means from innocent local villagers.
During the sacking of Kimswerd, Pier's wife, Rintze Syrtsema, was allegedly raped and killed, the village church was burnt to the ground as was Pier's residence at Doniastate. Seeking revenge Pier started a guerrilla war campaign against the Burgundians and allied himself with Charles of Egmond, Duke of Gelre (1492-1538), the foremost opponent of the Burgundian Duke Philip the Handsome (1494-1506), and later his son Charles V (1515 - 1555).
Pier fought the ships that travelled the Zuider Zee and was very active in 1517, when he used his ‘signal ships’ to attack ships in the region of the West Frisian coast, to which he transported Geldrian forces, setting ashore at Medemblik. Pier bore a great hatred for Medemblik and its inhabitants. In earlier years, soldiers from Medemblik collaborated with the army of Holland, then under the command of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. It was in Medemblik in March 1498 that representatives of the Schieringers met with the Saxon ruler duke Albrecht to request Saxon protection from the Vetkopers — a request that resulted in the Saxon occupation of Friesland. On June 24, 1517, Grutte Pier and his Arumer Zwarte Hoop, consisting of some 4,000 soldiers from Frisia and Gelre, sailed to West Frisia, passing Enkhuizen, landing near Wervershoof and advancing to Medemblik. They swiftly captured Medemblik, killing many inhabitants and taking many others prisoner. Some were released on payment of a high ransom. Some of the town's inhabitants fled and found safety at Medemblik Castle. The castle's governor, Joost van Buren, succeeded in keeping the aggressors outside the castle walls. Realizing they would be unable to take the castle, the Arumer Zwarte Hoop plundered the town and set it on fire. As most houses were made out of wood, the town, including the church, monastery and town hall, were completely razed. With this partial victory, Pier and his army stormed Nieuwburg castle and Middleburg Castle, which they plundered and set on fire, leaving these mighty castles in ruins.
In 1517, the Arumer Zwarte Hoop captured the city of Asperen, slaughtering virtually all its inhabitants. They then used the heavily fortified city as a base until they were driven out by Holland's Stadhouder.
In response to the attacks on Medemblik and Alkmaar and the failure of the Captain General of Amstelland, Waterland and Gooiland to defend his territories, the Stadhouder of Holland agreed to fit out a war fleet in July 1517. The fleet came under the supreme command of Anthonius van den Houte, Lord of Vleteren, appropriately titled "Admiral of the Zuider Zee". In the name of Charles V, van den Houte announced he would free the region of Frisian and Gelder piracy. Although van den Houte was initially successful, with some of the Frisian vessels going up in flames near Bunschoten, Grutte Pier responded by seizing 11 of Holland's ships in a battle off the coast near Hoorn in 1518.
Shortly after, Pier defeated 300 Hollanders in Hindelopen.
According to legend, Pier forced his captives to repeat a shibboleth to distinguish Frisians from Hollandic and Lower German infiltrators:
Grutte Pier was also credited with coining the old Frisian slogan "Leaver dea as slaef" ("Better dead than slave").
Despite his successes, Pier could not turn the Burgundian/Habsburg tide and he retired, disillusioned, in 1519. He died peacefully in bed at Grootzand 12 in the Frisian town of Sneek on October 18, 1520. Pier is buried in Sneek in the 15th-century Groote Kerk (also called the Martinikerk).
His tomb is located on the north side of the church. Pier’s nephew Wierd Jelckama took over the command of Pier’s forces.
In 1791, Jacobus Kok wrote that above the 'portaal', entrance or porticus, of the New City Hall of Leeuwarden, two remarkably large swords were found which were said to have belonged to Grutte Pier and his nephew Wijard Jelckama. Donia was noted for the ability of wielding this great sword so efficiently that he could behead multiple people with it in a single blow. This was a feat never before seen and never again succesfully repeated.
Today, a great sword that is said to have belonged to Pier is on display at the Fries museum in Leeuwarden. It measures 2.15 meters (7 ft) in length and weighs about 6.6 kg (14.5 lbs). To have wielded such a weapon, he must have been a man of unusual stature and superior physical strength. People who had met him often put his height at least 7ft tall. Pier was alleged to be so strong that he could bend coins using just his thumb, index and middle finger. A huge helmet said to be Grutte Pier's is kept in the town hall of Sneek.
The seventeenth century Friese poet Gysbert Japicx (1603-1666) wrote in his composition ‘Tjesck Moars See Aengste’ [Grandmothers’s Sea Anguish] the following verse in reverence to Grote Pier (eng. trans., Tall Peter):
Grandmothers’s Sea Anguish
Stories about Pier grew into legends that often share themes with stories of other strong men in Germanic heroic literature. For example, one story says Pier ploughed his land by pulling the plough himself instead of using horses. Another story states that Pier could lift a horse above his head. Fiveval is the name in Frisian of a Frisian legend. It tells the story of Pier killing five Hollandic mercenaries sent to kill him:
It is said that Pier killed the mercenaries at Donia Estate, Kimswerd. The place where he killed them is known as Fiveval, (Lit. Five fall) for all five of them fell to the ground.
In the 1970s, in the Dutch Floris series, Donia was a major character played by actor Hans Boskamp. Although he was a villain and the enemy of the leading character, many children learned about Donia, albeit in a historically incorrect way, and it brought Grutte Pier back into popular culture. He was also a major character in the German remake of the series, although he was less popular than in the Netherlands.
The Greate Pier rugby club in Leeuwarden is named after Donia. The club plays on regional level. Many other clubs are named after him and quite a few ships. There is also a skutsje sailing cup named after him which is held annually in Friesland.