Fair Trade? A Look at the Hanseatic League

Replica of a 15th century Hanseatic ship. Lisa von Lübeck - Photo by Doris Schütz (Wikipedia)

By Sandra Alvarez

In the 14th century, an ongoing feud ensued between the Hanseatic League and non-Hanse merchants. The Hanse, an organization that was initially founded to protect economic interests in market cities, quickly evolved into an aggressive monopoly, leading to conflicts between locals and Hanse merchants. Here’s a quick look at the rise and fall of the one of the most powerful organizations of the Late Middle Ages.

Lübeck: The Birth of the Hanse

The Hanseatic League was a loose federation of initially German merchant guilds that dominated Baltic trade for over 400 years. It had its own legal system, and kept its own army, but it was not a city-state like the Italian city states of the time. The Hanseatic League (Hansa = “guild”) was officially born when the German city of Lübeck was rebuilt in the mid-12th century by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria (1129-1195). In 1241, Lübeck entered into an alliance with Hamburg and Cologne followed suit in 1260.


What’s Not to Love?: The Perks of Being a Hanse Merchant

Hanse merchants were exempt from paying customs or tariffs on goods, or other fees such as pontage (a toll levied for the repair or building of bridges), they were also free from arrest. German cities dominated trade from the 13th to the 16th centuries, with Lübeck becoming an import base for Hanse merchants. Cities like Lübeck and Hamburg were “Free Imperial Cities” (autonomous, self-ruling cities, represented by the Imperial Diet, the assembly of various German estates, with the Holy Roman Emperor at its head). These cities answered only to the Emperor, unlike other cities that were under the control of Princes or Dukes, and Counts.

The Extent of the Hansa about 1400 – from H.F. Helmolt, History of the World, Volume VII (1902)

English Resistance to the Hanse

In 1157, the Hanse convinced Henry II of England to exempt their merchants from paying tolls in London and to be able to trade freely at fairs across England. The Hanse were also granted a charter from Henry III forming a powerful Hanseatic group in London. The Steelyard (currently, the location of Cannon Street station) was their guildhall. No prostitutes, no Englishmen (in case they learned Hanse secrets), no goldsmiths, and no barbers were permitted to enter.


During the second half of the 14th century trouble was brewing between the Hanseatic League and English merchants. England posed a serious threat to the Hanseatic League’s stranglehold on Baltic trade. A back and forth power struggle ensued between English merchants and members of the Hanseatic league stemming from privileges and concessions granted by the English Kings to the Hanseatic League merchants in London that were not reciprocally granted to the English merchants in Hanse cities.

What ensued was a bitter stand off between the two; parliament refusing to accept the charter of privileges until English merchants were given the same treatment, and Hanse merchants refusing to budge on extending their privileges to the English. Resentment against the Hanse was at an all time high and war erupted between England and the Hanseatic league from 1469-1474.


Hamburg Ship Law. Cover picture from the section on sea law ‘Van schiprechte’ (‘Of shipping laws’ in Middle Low German) of the Hamburg town law from 1497

Lack of reciprocity, perceptions of exclusivity and mistreatment of merchants in Hanseatic cities in Prussia, Norway and Sweden, caused a spate of attacks against Hanse merchants. Attacks increased across Europe from the 13th century onwards as resentment of their privileges grew. In 1284 Norwegian guild merchants attacked Hanse merchants because they didn’t want them to trade there.

In 1419, 40 Hanseatic ships were captured and their cargo destroyed near La Rochelle in a tussle over guild rights between Spanish and German merchants. This caused a war between Spain and the Hanseatic League that lasted for 20 years. In Livonia, irate Dutch merchants attacked and seized a dozen Hanse salt ships in 1438. Hanse merchants were attacked numerous times in London. In 1469, their guildhall, the Steelyard, was stormed, plundered and destroyed. In 1493, an angry mob of 500 Londoners attacked and injured several Hanse merchants, and set fire to the rebuilt Steelyard. Suffice it to say, being a Hanse merchant wasn’t exactly a well liked occupation outside the safety of its guild walls.


The End of the Hanseatic League

What caused the end of this powerful monopoly? Disagreement among the cities was one issue. Cities like Cologne encouraged trade with the outsiders, while cities like Gdańsk (Danzig) were not so keen. The opinions on what to do with traders varied, and because there were no set policies, non-Hanse merchants were able to gain some ground in the middle of all the indecision. In addition, new, restrictive admission measures were introduced so that only merchants who were born in a Hanseatic city could become members. Trade restrictions increased causing costs to rise, English and Dutch merchants were finally making headway in trade, and the turmoil of the Protestant Reformation compounded troubles for the Hanse.

On top of this, conflicts with Flanders, England and Russia further weakened their grip on trade. In Russia, Ivan III (1450–1505) closed the Novgorod Kontor (Hanseatic trading post) in 1494. He had the Hanseatic German merchants arrested and their property confiscated. Edward IV eventually returned Hanse privileges under the Treaty of Utrecht after the Anglo-Hanseatic War concluded in 1474, but the die was cast; the Hanse continued its decline over the course of the 16th century. Queen Elizabeth I eventually abolished the Hanse in London in 1597, and the Steelyard closed permanently in 1598. The last Hanse Diet of 1669 was only attended by nine members. The Hanseatic League officially collapsed in 1862.

Learn more:

England’s First Attempt to Break the Commercial Monopoly of the Hanseatic League, 1377-1380

The Hanseatic League and Hanse Towns in the Early Penetration of the North

Hanseatic Cogs and Baltic Trade: Interrelations between Trade Technology and Ecology

Top Image: Replica of a 15th century Hanseatic ship. Lisa von Lübeck – Photo by Doris Schütz / Wikipedia