The Hanseatic League

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On 24 May 1870, over the city hall of Stralsund – a small, German city on the southern coast of a Baltic Sea lagoon – flew a red flag with a white arrow, unfamiliar to a modern viewer. The flag was the city’s Hanseatic banner, and the date of this assembly was, by no means, random: instead, it recognised the five hundredth anniversary of the Peace of Stralsund and the conclusion of the Danish-Hanseatic War – a war in which a corporation challenged two states and nonetheless won.

In our modern world, such a feat seems improbable. Indeed, no corporation has ever wielded such power in Europe as the Hanseatic League did. At its apogee, this confederation spanned from the Netherlands to Russia, from Estonia to Southern Poland and played a crucial role in the economic development of late medieval Europe.

Whilst the reach of this Hanse (association) ultimately spread over nearly 200 merchant towns and guilds, it began as nothing more than a few German towns with shared trade interests. The League’s history began in earnest when two merchant guilds united: the guild of Germanic merchants from Eastern Europe, who had secured a monopoly over the Baltic trade, and of Western traders of the Rhineland, who had grown prolific in the Low Countries and England.

In the Baltic, merchant trade centred around Visby, a town on the Swedish-controlled island of Gotland, whose wealth had been swelled by international trade. In fact, the town had such an internationalist policy than in the late 13th century it constructed a wall to restrict access to local peasants and encourage foreign merchants to trade. Coin hoards from Central Asia and the Arab world have also been uncovered in Visby, providing further testament to the city’s international relevance.

Meanwhile, in Western Europe, merchants from Cologne and towns of the Rhineland enjoyed trading privileges not only in Flanders, but also in England. For instance, in 1157, Henry II bestowed ‘special favours’ upon the Hanse of Cologne in London, including the privilege to sell wine at any market where it was also sold by the French.

The link between these two disparate confederations in the Baltic and Western Europe was the city of Lübeck – a North German city rebuilt in 1159. It soon became a popular area for both Westphalian and Saxon traders due to its favourable geographical position. In 1226, Lübeck was afforded the status of a free imperial city by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and it thus began to propagate its municipal law (known as Lübeck law) to neighbouring towns and cities, demonstrating its increasing international influence. 

Still, it was not until 1241 that there were the first signs of larger-scale collaborations between these cities, when Lübeck signed a formal alliance with fellow free-city Hamburg against robbers and pirates. After this, the allied cities had near-complete control of the Baltic meat curing market; Lübeck and Hamburg, as well as other rapidly growing cities such as Danzig and Riga, looked westwards. The Lübeck-Hamburg Hanse began to expand into areas controlled by the Rhineland merchants and obtained trading privileges in the area. Subsequently, they created Hanses in London in Bruges, ultimately leading to the merger of the Cologne Hanse and Lübeck-Hamburg Hanses by 1282. 

There were clear benefits to joining this rapidly expanding Hansa. The Hanseatic League had improved security provisions for its members, such as by constructing lighthouses and taking common action against thieves and pirates. Moreover, joining the League entitled members to special (i.e. duty-free) trading privileges in affiliated towns and allowed members to trade in markets in which the League had a monopoly.

Preferential treatment was also extended to the League by foreign monarchs. For instance, in 1303, Edward I issued the Carta Mercatoria which privileged foreign traders. Although the decree was rescinded under Edward II, it was later brought back under Edward III, but applied only to the Hanseatic League, demonstrating the growing influence of this association.

Over the following 50 years, further agreements for co-operation cemented across East and West, with the consequence that, by the time the first official meeting of the League took place in 1356, the Hanseatic League already effectively existed. The meeting-place was Lübeck, which, although now only the 35th-largest city in Germany, once dominated this mighty organisation. Appropriately, therefore, it became known as the ‘Queen of the Hanseatic League’ in the 14th century and would host all meetings of League until 1669, when the members last met.

At the first meeting, three Drittel (divisions) were configured, splitting the League into three distinct geographical areas: the Wendish-Saxon Drittel, with Lübeck as its chief city, the Westphalian-Prussian Drittel, led by Dortmund, and then Cologne, and the Gothlandian-Livonian-Swedish Drittel, dominated by Visby.

The Teutonic Order (a Catholic religious and military order) was also closely linked to the League. Indeed, the only non-merchant invited to Hansa board-meetings was The Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. This partnership bore fruit in the form of quasi-monopolistic access to eastern markets such as Russian timber and Swedish ore and allowed the League to further expand its influence eastwards. 

Although peculiarly neglected in Hanseatic history, the City of London was nonetheless significantly affected by the League. As a plaque on Cannon Street railway notes, some 400 Hanseatic merchants lived peacefully in the City of London in a self-governing German enclave. Indeed, the economist Jens Tholstrup has suggested that “at any given time they (the League) probably had about 15% market share of English imports and exports”.

Nevertheless, the League’s unbridled prosperity was short-lived: in the mid-14th century, as the Hansa approached its peak, there was a Europe-wide stagnation of trade in the aftermath of the first wave of the Black Death. Coupled with growing pushback against the League from local merchants, the situation was looking increasingly bleak.

To nullify these pressing issues, it was evident that the Hansa needed a fortified base of political power. As such, when representatives gathered to examine the proposals for a war against Flanders in 1359, the organisation  formally changed from the “Hanse of the merchants of Germany” to “the cities belonging to the German Hanse,” demonstrating the increasing centralisation of power.

From this point, the League found itself increasingly involved with large-scale European conflict.  Whilst the Danish King Valdemar IV had troubled Eastern Europe and Scandinavia with his expansionist policies in the preceding years, it was not until 1360 that the Hanseatic League became properly involved. The King had annexed Skåne and Öland, southern Swedish provinces, and thereby gained control of the Sound, a strait of the Baltic Sea used by Hanseatic ships. Valdemar’s son-in-law held the Norwegian throne, and, in conjunction, they began to ignore Hanseatic privileges, seize the Hansa’s ships, and threaten the organisation’s trade.

In 1362, the Hansa fought back, albeit unsuccessfully, by launched a counterattack that was repelled by Danish forces at Helsingborg. In the subsequent Treaty of Vordingborg (1365), the League was stripped of many privileges. Nonetheless, the war succeeded in uniting the member states of the League. In November 1367, delegates from the trading towns conjoined in the Hansa Hall in Cologne and proclaimed that “because of the many wrongs and injuries that the kings of Denmark and Norway have done and are doing to the rank and file of merchants, we declare ourselves their enemies and bind ourselves to help one another”.

Barons of the Baltic coast, such as the Counts of Holstein and the Duke of Mecklenburg, were invited to join the merchants in this proposed war and accepted eagerly. Diplomacy did not stop there, too: the traders implored the Pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, Flanders, and the Kings of England and Poland not to intervene. As a result, the Danish forces were utterly humiliated, to the extent that they pushed for peace not even two years after the war between the League and Denmark had been rekindled.

In May 1370, Denmark accepted the Peace of Stralsund which granted 37 Hansa towns and all Hanseatic cities free trade in Denmark and Skåne. Furthermore, the League was granted two-thirds of the revenues of Skåne, alongside control of nearby fortresses (in Malmö, Helsingborg, Flasterbo, and Skanör). The policy of Strandrecht, which dictated that were a merchant ship to shipwreck, any goods retrieved belonged to the local powers, was also abolished.

This was not the only occasion on which the League rivalled state power. In 1426, another Danish-Hanseatic War followed, in which the Hansa defeated a union of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The Hansa were again victorious in the Anglo-Hanseatic War of 1469-1471. However, an earlier loss the Dutch-Hanseatic War (1438-1441) had provided the first indication that the League was not, in fact, infallible and was perhaps overextending itself.

Indeed, despite these grandiose exhibitions of power and military might, the organisation was run ineffectually. The League lacked a proper governing body, officials, a navy and treasury. Meetings were held between members sporadically and the member towns, whilst nominally independent, in truth owed their allegiance to various foreign powers, notably the Holy Roman Empire.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the League’s zenith was not eternal. The League’s monopolies and trading privileges were gradually reduced and foreign powers began to regard the organisation with far more suspicion and enmity. In 1478, for example, the Grand Prince of Moscow, Ivan III, expelled the Hanseatic merchants of Novgorod.

Simultaneously, the English and the Dutch grew increasingly strong in mercantile power and were no longer reliant upon Hanseatic merchants. After the Dutch-Hanseatic war, Amsterdam became the leading port for Baltic grain and even Lübeck lost its pre-eminence. The Kontors of Bruges and London, once emblems of the international prestige and reach of the League, were closed.

In 1447, Henry VI revoked all Hansa privileges in Britain. Such was the unpopularity of the League that the Earl of Warwick, was widely acclaimed when he attacked Hansa shipments from his base in Calais. Increasingly, the League was shunned and ostracised by major European powers.

These external pressures fomented discord within the League between regional groups. The Cologne Hanse, for example, reacted to the humbling of the League by edging closer to the Low Countries and England. In the East, the Danzig Hanses sold fish for high prices to Dutch traders, rather than to the monopolists of Lübeck as they had previously done.

Several final, cataclysmic events were the final nails in the coffin for the League. The religious Reformation fractured the tenuous unity between brokers, whilst the discovery of the New World made  Baltic trade increasingly irrelevant. Finally, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) decimated German civilisation, leading to perhaps as many as 8 million deaths.

As such, when, in 1666, the final Hanseatic diet was called, very few representatives appeared, and those who did were unwilling to support the rebuilding of the League. Whilst the organisation may not have been officially terminated until 1862, this meeting clearly represented the end of the organisation. Indeed, only Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen remained as members until the end.

Nonetheless, its impact is not lost to the world. In 2015, at the opening of a European Hanse-museum, Angela Merkel described the medieval organisation as a role model for the EU, whilst in 2018, the finance ministers of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden declared the formation of a ‘New Hanseatic League.’ Perhaps the organisation will rise once again – certainly its enduring legacy in Medieval Europe cannot be overlooked.

Lloyd, T.H., 2002. England and the German Hanse, 1157-1611: A Study of Their Trade and Commercial Diplomacy. Cambridge University Press.