St Mary in Elsinore - Hans Pothorst

Expedition to Newfoundland 1472

In 1472 an expedition was mounted by the Danish king, Christian I, in order to explore the riches of Iceland and Greenland. Some believe they reached Newfoundland

Hans Pothorst Elsinore
Hans Pothorst in the murals in St. Mary in Elsinore © Medieval Histories

Although notorious pirates, two German brethren in arms, Didrik Pining and Hans Pothorst, were sent out by a royal Danish order in 1473 on an expedition to find out which of several possible policies concerning trade in Iceland should be developed, and which settlements and harbours should be preferred. At this point in time, England and the Hanseatic League had a de facto monopoly on the arctic trade in stockfish from Iceland. However, Pining’s orders further included investigating what formerly, in the 11th century, had been called the regiones finitimae (i.e. “the coasts opposite those still-remembered but obsolete settlements in Greenland”). In 1476 they made a trip, which likely also went to Greenland, where they were reported to have encountered hostile Inuit. Nothing specific suggests the expedition went further west.

Nevertheless, in 1925 a Danish historian, Sofus Larsen published a theory that the expedition had indeed reached Newfoundland, an idea, which was fostered by a letter set to a later Danish king in 1551, describing the expedition as a Portuguese-Danish venture, fostered by the common interest in the cod-fishing on the Great Banks. This hypothesis was later hijacked by German historians, who found that Pining and probably also Pothorst came from Hildesheim. Hence, the discovery of America was German and streets in both Bremen and Hildesheim were named after the two buccaneers. Later, Portuguese historians prompted by the Salazar-regime expanded the story by linking it to the well-known expeditions to Newfoundland in the 16h century.

Today, the jury is still out. Maybe Pining and Pothorst did reach Newfoundland, maybe not. What is known is, that Pining later (in 1478) became governor (höfuðsmaðr) of Iceland. From this base, he proceeded to make his mark on politics in Iceland and Norway (where he was knighted). He was present at the funeral of Christian I in 148, continued to be a politically controversial person.

Pining and Pothorst are believed to have died around the same time. As a later chronicle had it, they “met with a miserable death, being either slain by their friends or hanged on the gallows or drowned in the waves of the sea”.

Not much more is known about the career of Pothorst. But he must have lived in Elsinore, where he was painted with his coat of arms in the late 1480s in the church of St. Mary. In the inscription he is named as donor of the murals in the aisle.

Recent discovery in Newfoundland of a stone hearth used for working iron has preliminary been dated to the Viking Age. However, it might be the remains of another early expedition like the one, which perhaps was undertaken by Pining and Pothorst. C14 and other dating will decide the question.


The Discovery of North America twenty years before Columbus
By Sofus Larsen
Levin & Munksgaard 1925

The German Discovery of America: A review of the Controversy over Didrik Pining’s Voyage of Exploration in 1473 in the North Atlantic.
By Thomas Hughes
In: GHI Bulletin (2003), No. 33, pp. 79 – 82.