The gradual expansion of the German people eastwards, following upon the conquest and Christianisation of the numerous Slav tribes beyond the Elbe, together with the foundation of towns in the conquered area, were the two conditions that rendered the rise and development of the Hansa possible. Initiated by the Saxon Emperors, the building of towns was continued by their successors and other territorial lords, so that by the twelfth century many of the later Hansa towns already existed. Among them, Hamburg and Lubeck, prominent in subsequent history, had arisen upon the site of older settlements several times destroyed. Both owed their importance to their situation near the sea and upon rivers that then afforded the easiest and safest roads to the interior. Henry the Lion must have realised the unique advantages possessed by Lubeck, when he conferred upon it extensive privileges of local self-government and invited foreign merchants to trade there absque theloneo et absque hansa, “without tax or toll”. This grant, confirmed, amplified, and extended by Frederick Barbarossa and his successors, made Lubeck an imperial city, free from the cramping influences of local feudal potentates, enabling her subsequently to play that decisive role which earned her the title of “Queen of the Hansa.”
By the end of the twelfth century medieval Germany had begun to assume its familiar features. The imperial power, everywhere declining, was already almost a negligible factor in the north. Of greater importance was the rapidly rising commerce along the Baltic shore, Germanised and colonised by the joint efforts of the Church and the military Orders of the Brethren of the Sword and the Teutonic Knights. The towns that arose in these regions gave the Germans the control of the great river mouths, so that commerce, and not conquest or colonisation, became their goal, until merchant and townsman became synonymous. Nature had herself marked the course which the fearless energies of the Germans, when directed to foreign trade, were to take. The rivers, flowing from the south-east to north-west, from the central European uplands to the North and Baltic Seas, were the first highways of medieval commerce; and the lands they drained produced the materials and afforded the markets exploited by the adventurous trader in search of profit. The first mention of such traders occurs about the year 1000 A.D. when the “men of the Empire,” who probably came from Cologne, are deemed “worthy of the good laws of England.” About the same time German merchants had already created a settlement in the island of Gotland, almost ideally situated for easy access to Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Quite early, the island had become a mart for the “peoples of many tongues”, and an interchange of privileges had taken place between its inhabitants and the Germans. By c. 1163 the latter were sufficiently numerous to enjoy the then coveted right of being judged by their own officers, administering their own laws. This points to a permanent settlement of traders, obliged under the conditions then prevailing to spend a considerable part of the year abroad. The need for companionship in a strange land, the desire to take part in religious exercises in the mother tongue and after their own practices, the occasional necessity for performing the last rites for a colleague, the collection of debts, securing and safeguarding freedom of trade, were the centripetal forces impelling the Germans in Gotland to form an association for mutual assistance and protection. Nor was this an isolated instance of combination for common ends. Almost at the same time (1157), the “men of Cologne”, and some Westphalian towns associated with the Rhine city, obtained from Henry II of England protection for themselves and their hansa in London. From Gotland the Germans had, before the end of the twelfth century, established a factory, or “Kontor”, at Novgorod, on Lake Ilmen in Russia, whence later they reached out to Pskov, Polotsk, Vitebsk, and Smolensk, where subsidiary factories were afterwards founded. The Russian settlement, from its earliest days, epitomises both the difficulties of medieval trade and the methods employed by the German associations and their successor, the Hansa, to overcome them. To the heavy duties and other obstacles interposed by the local officials the foreigners replied by a suspension of trade, lasting a whole decade (1189-99), until the town authorities yielded. In 1199 it concluded a treaty “with all the German sons, with the Goths and the whole Latin tongue”, which redressed most of the grievances that had arisen, arranged for uninterrupted trade, regulated the punishments for offences, and determined the conditions that should govern the arrest of the goods and persons of the foreigners.
The close association among German traders which this implied is equally well illustrated by events in England. Here Lubeck, Hamburg, and Wisbv, the capital of Gotland, obtained various grants from Henry III that placed them on an equality with Cologne. By 1282 all of them are definitely amalgamated into one body, described in a document of that year as “the merchants of Almain trading in England who have their house in London, usually called the Gildhalla Theutonicorum”, responsible, in return for the freedom of trade conferred upon them, for the watch and repair of the Bishop’s Gate. About the same time the subsidiary “hansas” at Boston and King’s Lynn are first mentioned. But both London and Novgorod were soon outdistanced as centres of German trade by Bruges, already by 1200 the greatest international emporium of Northern Europe. Conditions of commercial intercourse in Flanders were at first as uncertain as in Russia, but they improved rapidly when Hamburg and Lubeck appeared on the scene in 1252 to negotiate on behalf of themselves and their associates. Describing themselves as “nuncii speciales mercatorum imperii habentes plenam potestatem per quarundam civitatum ipsius imperii patentes litteras super hoc”, the envoys obtained a charter containing extensive trading privileges. A permanent settlement followed, and Bruges was made the staple for the furs, wax, copper, herrings, and other commodities imported from the north-east and exchanged for Flemish cloth and manufactured articles of the west. German trade in Flanders was thus centralised, and the weapon already effectively employed against Novgorod, the commercial blockade, was employed with equal force and success against Bruges whenever the chartered privileges were infringed. First resorted to in 1307, it extorted from Bruges freedom from the control of the town brokers and the authority to settle all legal disputes according to their own customs.
The circle of foreign depots was completed by the creation of the settlement at Bergen. Though Norway owing to its economic backwardness had at first failed to attract the Germans, the grants of freedom to trade made by Hakon IV (1217-63) to Lubeck, Hamburg, and other towns, soon induced them to enter into commercial relations with the northern kingdom. The privileges obtained formed the foundation for the superstructure of commercial supremacy which the Hansa subsequently erected upon them. Thus by the end of the thirteenth century north German, i.e. Hansa, commerce had staked out its claims, with London, Bruges, Bergen, and Novgorod as the chief foreign centres in Northern Europe, the nodal points of the vast region whose trade they were to dominate for so long.
Simultaneously with the formation of these foreign settlements, the towns themselves were beginning to enter into close alliances, impelled by common interests, such as the protection of trade routes or the adoption of a common legal system or common currency. The former was the motive for the treaty of 1241 between Hamburg and Lubeck, which older writers regarded as the foundation of the Hansa; while by the end of the thirteenth century some nineteen towns had adopted “das lübische Recht” as their system of local self-government, and a number of them, “in subsidium omnium mercatorum qui iure Lubicensi gaudent et reguntur”, jointly devised measures for suppressing piracy. Similar common action deprived Wisby of her leadership in Novgorod, transferred appeals from the settlement to Lübeck, and decreed that no seal of the “common merchant” should any longer be kept in Gotland. Even more important was the alliance of the so-called Wend towns under the leadership of Lubeck, for it was this group that shaped and directed Hansa policy during its effective existence. The maintenance of peace, indispensable to trade and industry, became a primary object of the Wend towns, and to further it they allied themselves with a number of local potentates in the Landfrieden of 1283.
The strength of these alliances was soon tested by the ambitions of Denmark. The early attempts of Waldemar II to obtain control of the southern Baltic shore had been crushed by the battle of Bornhövede (1227), but they were revived towards the end of the century by Eric VI Menved (1286-1319), who compelled all the Wend towns, except Stralsund, to accept his overlordship. His timely death, however, saved the nascent Hanseatic League from being strangled at its birth. Not until it recovered from the disintegrating anarchy into which it fell was Denmark again a menace to the Hansa, but by that time it was powerful enough to affront and defeat its aggressive power. Almost at the same time these towns successfully blockaded Norway, whose King, Eric II Priesthater (1280-99), and his officials had infringed the trading privileges granted to them. So effective did this method prove that the king agreed to submit the dispute to the arbitration of the King of Sweden (31 October 1285), whose decision was wholly in favour of the towns, though it was not finally settled until 1294 when the Treaty of Tonsberg was concluded with Norway. Though containing no new principles, this treaty formed the basis of all future commercial intercourse between the Hansa and Norway. On this occasion, too, the towns for the first time resorted to the expulsion of a member (later called Verhansung) for refusing to act jointly with its colleagues. For more than half a century Bremen remained outside the growing organisation. Despite the Treaty of Tonsberg, relations with Norway, dependent largely upon the relations between Norway and Denmark, always caused the towns great anxiety. The Hansa now played off the one against the other, but not until the weak reign of Magnus Smek (1319-55) was it in a position fully to exploit the privileges it had acquired, create the famous centre, the “deutsche Brücke” at Bergen, expel its English and Scottish competitors, and almost entirely monopolise Norwegian trade with the rest of Europe.
These events reacted upon the movement towards unity among the towns. Terms like the “ghemeene Koepman”, “universitas omnium mercatorum”, or “merchants of the German Hansa”, now occur with increasing frequency in the documents, especially those relating to Norway. The older privileges, obtained by single towns, were transformed into Hansa privileges, and those not entitled to them were rigidly excluded. At the same time the foreign associations were being more closely organised; thus the Kontor in Bruges received new statutes (1347). Though its members still styled themselves “de ghemeenen Koeplude uten Roomischen rike van Almanien,” the term “dudeschen hanse” soon replaced it. In Bruges too we find the division into “Thirds” which sometimes figures in Hansa history. These were: a Wend-Saxon group under the leadership of Lubeck, a Westphalian-Prussian under Cologne, and a Gotho-Swedish-Livonian under Wisby. Six aidermen, two from each group, administered the affairs of the Kontor. The difficulties encountered by the Bruges settlement, partly due to the economic crisis produced by the Anglo-French war, led to the final step in the formation of the Hanseatic League. Infringements of the German privileges by the town authorities, as well as disputes among the Thirds, caused the allied German towns to intervene. Their representatives, who in 1356 visited Bruges, compelled the Kontor to accept the towns as the superior authority, directing the foreign policy, protecting the merchants who ventured abroad and safeguarding their privileges. The greater solidarity thus obtained was at once utilised against the town. The staple was transferred to Dordrecht in Holland and trade with Flanders suspended. This step was the work of the “stede van der dudeschen hense”, the term by which the League was henceforth known. The evolution of the Hansa had been slow and halting, but it had at last emerged as a union of towns organised in the pursuit of trade by land and sea and prepared to spare no efforts in the attainment of that end. As such, it soon became a power to be reckoned with in its use of political means for commercial objects. Bruges was the first to realise the strength of the new power. It felt the absence of the German merchants most keenly. By 1360 the town and its overlords yielded to the pressure, and confirmed and extended the older privileges, with the additional one of exemption from the town brokers and brokerage. The settlement was made none too soon, for the Hansa was on the eve of a greater conflict, fraught with far-reaching and enduring consequences to itself and the whole of Scandinavia.
After twenty years of successful labour in restoring the royal authority, Waldemar IV of Denmark felt powerful enough to resume the ambitious schemes of his predecessors. He began by arranging a marriage between his daughter Margaret and Hakon, heir to the thrones of Norway and Sweden, and then wresting the province of Scania from the latter. This immediately aroused the anxiety of the Hansa, for the herring-fishery of Scania was the corner-stone of Hansa prosperity. During the fishing season this remote region of Europe, with its villages of Skanor and Falsterbo, became an international mart of the highest importance. On account of the rights the Hansa had secured from Sweden, the trade in herrings and the subsidiary industries associated with it were almost entirely under Hansa control. At each change of sovereign the Hansa had been most careful to obtain the confirmation of its extensive privileges. Waldemar, however, could only be induced to do so after prolonged negotiations and the payment of a substantial sum of money by the Wend towns, the most directly interested in the herring trade. The king’s next act was an even more direct challenge to the Hansa. He attacked Gotland and sacked Wisby. Though the town was no longer the chief foreign centre of the League, it was still a staple of the Baltic trade, in which a considerable amount of German capital was invested, the head of one of the “Thirds” at Bruges, and it shared with Lubeck the supervision of the settlement at Novgorod. Though Waldemar restored its former rights, Wisby never recovered from the blow inflicted upon it. The Hansa reply to the king’s high-handed act was the immediate suspension of all trade with Denmark and the building up of a great coalition against the aggressor. Within six weeks of the attack on Wisby, an alliance was concluded between the Hansa, Norway, Sweden, and the Teutonic Order (31 August 1360), which Holstein joined later. Preparations for war were made and a poundage upon all exports imposed to meet its expenses. The Kings of Norway and Sweden agreed to hand over four castles of Scania to the League until it had reimbursed itself for its outlay, and confirmed all its privileges in the province when it should be reconquered. In the first stages of the war, however, the Hansa received but little assistance from its allies. But the League realised the grave import of the struggle for its future, “quod nunquam tarn necesse fuit omnibus mercatoribus et mare visitantibus in resistendo, sicut nunc est”. Nevertheless it was severely defeated at Helsingborg (1362) by Waldemar, who then detached the Kings of Norway and Sweden from his enemies by concluding the marriage previously arranged between Margaret and Hakon. The Hansa was glad to accept a truce, followed by a definite peace (22 November 1365) that left many important questions unsettled, more especially the considerably enhanced dues imposed upon its traders in Scania and elsewhere. The defeat had broken up the formidable coalition and caused many towns to waver in their allegiance to the common cause. Waldemar, continuing to exploit the weakness of his enemy, disturbed Hansa trade in Scania and upon the sea. Urged by its Dutch and Prussian members, to whom the freedom of the Sound was indispensable, the Hansa met at Cologne to consider the situation. The meeting, out of which the famous “Cologne Confederation” emerged (1367), was fully representative, the envoys describing themselves as “plenipotentes legati suarum et aliarum quarundam civitatum.” Vigorous prosecution of war was decided upon and preparations made accordingly. Once more a number of princes joined the coalition, including the Duke of Mecklenburg whose son sat uneasily upon the throne of Sweden. War was declared in 1368, trade suspended, and the German merchants recalled from Bergen. But, prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Waldemar had left Denmark in search of allies in Germany. Before he could accomplish his aims, the League had won a signal victory over his forces (1369) and seized Scania. Master of the Sound, the League was content with its achievement, and readily entered into negotiations with the Danish Council. Preliminaries, signed at Stralsund (30 November 1369), were converted into a definitive peace on 24 May of the next year and accepted by the envoys of all the Thirds present.
The Treaty of Stralsund is epoch-making for Hanseatic and Scandinavian history. On the economic side the Hansa obtained complete freedom of trade throughout Denmark, exemption from the laws of wreck, authority to appoint its own officers at the fishing centres and in all German settlements in Scania, while matters of currency, retail trade, customs and other dues were also regulated. As political guarantees for the security of these invaluable concessions, the Hansa was to hold four of the most important castles in Scania and receive two-thirds of the revenue of the province for fifteen years. Furthermore, no successor should ascend the Danish throne without the consent of the Hansa and without confirming its privileges. This sweeping agreement required the king’s ratification. Waldemar delayed giving this until, by skilful diplomacy, he had somewhat softened the drastic character of this remarkable treaty. The victory over Denmark made the League the dominant power in Scandinavian politics, a power it utilised for building up its commercial supremacy in the north.
Waldemar, fortunately for himself, did not long survive his humiliation. By his death, in 1375, he made room for his celebrated daughter Margaret. As regent for her young son Olaf in Denmark, and from 1380 also in Norway, she now began to play a decisive and lasting role in northern affairs. Olaf had a rival in Albert of Mecklenburg, King of Sweden, also a grandson of Waldemar. Both claimants competed for the support of the Hansa, but Margaret outwitted the League by securing the election of her son, so that the Hansa had reluctantly to acquiesce in a fait accompli. On the other hand, it obtained favourable terms from Hakon of Norway in the Treaty of Kallundborg (14 August 1376) which terminated the war with that country. Margaret now followed her husband’s example and confirmed the Hansa privileges, together with the Treaty of Stralsund and all that that instrument implied, except that the League abandoned its claim to interfere in Danish royal elections. Peace at last reigned in the north, though it still rested on insecure bases.
The position so hardly won required constant vigilance on the part of the Hansa to maintain. The rivalry between Margaret and Albert of Sweden soon developed into a war in which the latter, supported by his father the Duke of Mecklenburg, created a monster—piracy on the grand scale and under the cloak of legitimate warfare—that became a curse to all peaceful commerce and in particular to that of the Hansa. Under the pretext of provisioning Stockholm, long besieged by the Danes, the pirates formed an organisation, notorious for the next half-century as the Vitalian Brethren, and played an important and sometimes even decisive role in the events of that period. Hansa trade suffered enormously from the depredations of the pirates, and the League had at last to equip patrol ships, so-called “Friedenschiffe”, to protect its trade. The task was made more difficult by the protection that two of the Wend towns, Rostock and Wismar, which were subject to Mecklenburg, openly afforded the sea-robbers. The situation was further complicated by the efforts of Margaret to obtain the release of the Scanian castles, pledged to the Hansa for fifteen years by the Treaty of Stralsund, and by the friendliness of the Prussian members of the League and their overlord, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, to Mecklenburg-Sweden. The conflicting interests of all the parties were most difficult to reconcile, despite the seemingly endless negotiations and frequent truces that were arranged, to which the pirates were sometimes a party. Margaret’s tortuous but skilful diplomacy at last succeeded in retrieving the Scanian castles, since the Prussian and Dutch sections of the League which had hitherto opposed their surrender were now threatened by other dangers: Prussia by the Jagiello succession in Poland, and the Dutch by the rising power of Burgundy. Piracy was also for a time scotched by the extraordinary procedure of farming out the task of suppressing it to a private citizen of Stralsund. He was of the real condottiere type, having no motive but financial gain; and he achieved a certain measure of success.
But peace was once more disturbed by a change in the political situation. Olaf died in 1387 and Margaret, now Queen of Denmark and Norway, also laid claim to Sweden. Unexampled success crowned her arms. At the battle of Aasle (near Falkoping) on 24 February 1389 she defeated and captured King Albert, his son, and a number of their leading supporters. This merely led to more embittered warfare, in which the Hansa, preoccupied by strained relations with England and Flanders, and weakened by the rise of a democratic revolt against the patrician government in some of the towns themselves, notably in Lubeck, was obliged to remain neutral. Only when, in the piracy that inevitably revived with the prolongation of war, the pirates attacked, burnt, and plundered Bergen did the Hansa abandon its neutrality. Employing every possible weapon, diplomacy, commercial blockade, reprisals, and “Friedenschiffe”, the Hansa at last induced all parties to agree (Lindholm, 17 June 1395) to a peace. King Albert and his son were to be released for three years, and then they could purchase their freedom for 60,000 silver marks or return to captivity. Stockholm, at last freed from its long siege, was to be handed over to the Hansa as guarantor of the peace. Trade was to be everywhere freely carried on according to the local laws, and the pirates recalled. Hansa energy had secured a respite for three years, but the changing politics had prepared the road for the Kalmar Union, consummated by Margaret two years later (1397). For the time being piracy was the chief menace to commercial enterprise. Some of the Vitalian Brethren, driven from the Baltic, transferred their nefarious activities to the North Sea, while others, aided by Mecklenburg, captured Gotland and converted it into a veritable pirates1 nest. A joint Hansa-Prussian force re-captured the island from them, but Margaret, as regent of Sweden, claimed it in the name of the first Union king, Eric of Pomerania, her kinsman. She likewise demanded the surrender of Stockholm, and with this the Hansa readily complied in return for the confirmation of their privileges in all three kingdoms. Margaret, now the undisputed mistress of the north, further strengthened her position by a permanent peace with the Grand Master and Mecklenburg (1404). For a time real peace existed around the Baltic, but the politic Lubeck, looking ahead, constructed the Trave-Elbe canal, which was to render her trade less dependent upon the Sound and those who controlled it. For, despite the almost ceaseless disturbances that had plagued this region since Waldemar IV’s attack on Wisby, the Hansa had tightened its hold upon the trade of the whole north. In Scania the Wend group, ably led by Lubeck, was supreme in the herring trade; in Bergen the same section had ousted all rivals, while the Livonian group dominated the Slav lands and Lithuania.
Not only in the north-east but likewise in the west, Hansa trade was expanding in every direction. In England its progress in the thirteenth century had been slow but secure. It had obtained trading rights and a domicile in London and elsewhere, and when Edward I issued his well-known Carta Mercatoria (1303) in favour of foreign merchants, the Hansa by its closer organisation was able almost to transform this general charter to a particular one in its own favour. Nevertheless, the German merchants in London had constantly to contend with their native competitors in the capital, supported by the city authorities. The strength of the opposition varied with the nature of the government. Under Edward I it had little force, but under Edward II the anti-alien agitation assumed serious proportions. This, however, was mainly directed against the Italians; the Hansa owed its comparative immunity from attack to its relative obscurity1. In fact, in return for some financial aid, Edward II, before the tragic end of his inglorious reign, granted a number of Hansa merchants letters of denization that enabled them to trade unmolested. The position so far won the Hansa was able to develop, since Edward III’s war with France made him even more dependent upon foreign financiers and merchants. Upon these he showered constantly increasing favours and the Hansa naturally shared in them. Their export of English wool increased rapidly, and a consortium of more wealthy German merchants entered upon the less onerous and more lucrative business of advancing money to the king. By 1340 he was already considerably indebted to this group, most of whom came from Dortmund, at this time head of the Westphalian Third at Bruges. For a time they held the customs in pledge, which enabled them to export their wool free of all dues until they had reimbursed themselves for their advances.
Although these financial transactions never attained the scale of the Italian bankers, yet the Hansa group rendered Edward valuable services, especially in redeeming his crown and other jewels from that astute money-lender, the Archbishop of Treves, and some Cologne merchants. The Black Prince also resorted to the Germans and pledged his Cornish tin mines with them for three years. In return for their complaisance, the Hansa merchants reaped a rich reward in the facilities which Edward granted them for their trade. They enjoyed immunities denied their competitors, including exemption from the increased dues imposed in 1347 on cloth and worsteds. England derived substantial benefit from the Hansa privileges. The market for English wool was widely extended; valuable commodities, such as furs, potash, pitch, tar, wax, turpentine, iron ores, copper, timber, wood and wood products including yew bowstaves, cereals, flour, flax, yam, linen, boots, brass, copper and silver ware, silk, woad, madder, drugs, etc. were imported by them in exchange for our raw materials. The trade in herrings and dried cod, indispensable for the numerous fast-days, was almost entirely in the hands of the Hansa. These commodities were imported from the Norwegian and Scanian fisheries. The Hansa zealously excluded all intruders, and even Edward Ill’s intercession on his subjects’ behalf failed to gain them a footing in it. Nevertheless English traders began to penetrate the Baltic lands. From the sixties of the fourteenth century they traded directly with Prussia, claiming privileges in its towns similar to those held by the Hansa in England, a claim that was to prove an almost ceaseless source of friction between the League, the Teutonic Order, and England. The friendly relations between Edward III and the Hansa changed towards the end of the reign with the ever-increasing demands of the king for subsidies and other contributions, as for example in 1371, when tonnage and poundage were raised to 4s. and 9d. respectively. The Hansa resisted these new rates as contrary to its privileges, and when its letters failed to attain the desired end, it sent an embassy to England for the first time (in 1375) to negotiate on the question. But the envoys were presented with a long list of counter-complaints about the treatment of the English merchants in the Hansa towns and in territories under its control. These the envoys merely referred to the next meeting of the League. As for their own grievances they received but little satisfaction.
The struggle between the English merchants and the Hansa persisted with varying fortunes throughout the reign of Richard II. A breach of commercial intercourse might have actually occurred in 1378 but for the divergent interests of the League and its ally, the Teutonic Order. The English traders, led by London, presented four demands to the Hansa: (1) freedom of trade for all Englishmen throughout the Hansa lands, including Prussia; (2) the removal of all restrictions upon trade with Scania; (3) freedom from arrest for debts for which a merchant was not personally responsible; (4) the names of all the Hansa towns. These demands were summarily rejected by a well-attended representative meeting of the Hansa at Lubeck (24 June 1379), but a fresh embassy was sent to London. Here an additional demand was made of them, that Englishmen should be admitted to the Hansa. The Hansa diplomats resisted the Englishmen’s claims so stubbornly that they were tacitly dropped, but on accepting the insertion of a clause in the agreement, in vague and uncertain language, assuring English merchants of fair treatment, they obtained the unconditional confirmation of their privileges—an undoubted triumph for Hansa diplomacy. Complaints on both sides, however, did not cease with this settlement, but the Hansa, owing to its peculiarly loose organisation, was always able to evade responsibility. Thus there was continual tension between England and the League, frequently aggravated by attacks upon each other’s shipping, with the consequential reprisals. These measures led to a suspension of trade in 1386, followed by an English embassy to the Grand Master. A treaty was arranged in August 1388, which enabled the Englishmen to return to Danzig and other Prussian towns, where they were hospitably received, and to enter into closer commercial relations with the Order itself, which was now a great independent trading concern as well as a territorial sovereignty. The Englishmen, with the approval of their king, now tried to imitate the Hansa, and formed an association in Danzig similar to the Steelyard in London, but as they failed to obtain the consent of the Grand Master, this body had only a brief, unofficial, precarious existence. The rival claims of the Hansa, especially of its Prussian group, and the English merchants were irreconcilable, and before the end of the century the treaty of 1388 was suspended. Even Richard Il’s exemption of the Hansa from the payment of tenths and fifteenths failed to induce the Prussian towns to remove their restrictions upon English residents in their midst or their dealings in cloth. So matters stood when the Lancastrian revolution ushered in a new era and new policies in England. The Hansa too was busy with Flemish and Scandinavian affairs, and postponed the English question, declaring that it should be “adjourned with good patience”.
Within the Hansa itself there was no harmony. The accession of Jagiello, Grand Duke of Lithuania, to the Polish throne, brought his duchy into the ranks of commercial peoples, and the Germans were not slow to take advantage of the new situation. At Kovno a settlement was established, chiefly under the aegis of Danzig. Riga, which had for two hundred years monopolised the Lithuanian trade via the river Dvina, resented this intrusion of a rival. Stettin at the mouth of the Oder also acquired additional importance. All three towns were pursuing a selfish, monopolistic policy that brought Lubeck, that stout champion of Hansa rights, upon the scene. It had itself possessed chartered rights in Riga since 1231 and in Danzig since 1298. A lively dispute ensued, which, however, was soon settled, in order not to endanger the valuable trade with Novgorod. The Russian city ranked next to Bruges in its importance for Hansa trade, and its settlement was under the control of two aldermen, one from Lübeck and one from Wisby. The decline of the latter encouraged Riga to obtain equality with the leader of the League, an end she ultimately attained in administrative and trading questions. The Novgorod trade was always liable to disturbances on account of the low commercial morality of the backward Russians and the peculiar political relations between the semi-independent town and its princes. Throughout the sixties and seventies of the fourteenth century there were frequent disputes—embassies, treaties, and agreements notwithstanding. Finally the Hansa, in 1388, resorted to its familiar weapon, the commercial blockade, until Novgorod was almost completely cut off from the rest of Europe. This had the desired effect. Novgorod yielded and agreed to restore all the old treaties regulating its trade with the Hansa (1392)1, and the treaty now concluded remained as the foundation of all future intercourse until Novgorod’s independence was destroyed by the Grand Duke of Muscovy.
About the same time, Hansa trade with Flanders was also encountering fresh difficulties. It had suffered enormously during the first stages of the Hundred Years’ War, but revived rapidly and attained unparalleled prosperity after the Peace of Bretigny. Only the democratic movement of the Flemish towns under Philip van Artevelde set limits to its profitable development. Furthermore, the revival of Anglo-French hostility again endangered the safety of persons and property, for the Norman privateers that infested the Channel preyed upon neutral as well as enemy commerce. The Hansa seemed helpless, especially when its embassies to Flanders returned empty-handed. The feeling of insecurity reacted upon individual towns of the Hansa in opposite directions. At first it brought them into closer union, but when the steps taken failed to achieve their object, fissiparous tendencies at once appeared. On this account it was found impossible to break off relations with Flanders in 1379, since the Prussian group made terms with the count independently of the rest. Matters became worse when Philip of Burgundy became Count of Flanders. Only a rigid commercial blockade with the transfer of the Hansa staple to Dordrecht in 1388 made the Flemings yield. Relations were resumed in 1392 upon the old bases, and new regulations added that strengthened the authority of the Kontor. Despite this apparent harmony, the rise of the House of Burgundy and its extension of the ducal power over the Flemish towns altered the conditions of Hansa trade materially, as the events of the next century were to prove.
The dominating commercial and political situation acquired by the Hansa since the Treaty of Stralsund was to be severely tested in the fifteenth century. Its monopolising aims naturally found no favour in other countries, while the vigorous competition between town and town or group and group always tended to weaken the bond of unity. Only when a grave danger threatened, as in 1367, was general assent for common action attainable. Divergence of view was not always due to divergent interests. Not all the towns were free imperial cities like Lübeck, and those that were not, like Wismar and Rostock or the Prussian towns, had always to trim their Hansa policy to that of their feudal overlords. And now a new factor arose that considerably influenced Hansa history. Democratic movements against the patrician oligarchical rule in the towns began to manifest themselves. At first the Hansa was strong enough to repress them, as for instance at Brunswick in 1374, but in 1407 Rostock and Wismar were obliged to admit representatives of the rebellious gilds into the charmed circle of the town council. More serious still was the uprising in Lubeck. For a whole decade (1408-18) the brilliant leader of the League was crippled by its internal dissensions and the League itself almost dissolved. Not until these democratic movements had been suppressed could the League revive, but meanwhile fluid fact had outrun the rigid theory of Hansa policy. In the fifteenth century the league began to find that its old weapons were blunted, that new commodities, new trade routes, new political powers were steadily undermining its position throughout the vast area of its activities. Of the political changes that affected the Hansa adversely, the most important were the renewal of the Anglo-French war with its concomitant privateering and piracy, in which the Scots also took a hand, and the defeat of the Teutonic Order by Poland. Although this meant the crippling of a commercial rival, it also weakened a valuable ally. The Grand Master was treated as an equal by the European sovereigns; his support was invaluable for Hanseatic diplomacy. Moreover the fall of the Order occurred at the height of the constitutional struggle in Lubeck, and the attempts made to maintain the authority of the League by transferring the leadership to Luneburg failed. Even important members refused obedience to its decrees, notwithstanding the persistent reminders by the Bruges staple of the damage suffered by the trade of the Hansa through the continued disturbances.
Eric of Pomerania and the Holstein War
The end of the constitutional struggle in Lübeck witnessed the revival of the League. An unusually large number of towns—35—representative of every group attended the summer meeting of 1418. Its main purpose was naturally to recover the lost ground. In fact the statute of 24 June of that year was the first really united legislative act of the Hansa, binding upon and applicable to all members. Regulations were also framed to support the established government in the towns, to guide the conduct of merchant and shippers towards competitors so as to restore the old-time monopoly. Finally, a close alliance for twelve years was concluded for mutual defence and safeguarding of the land and sea routes; Lubeck was formally invested with the leadership, assisted by the other Wend towns as a kind of executive committee. Recent events had therefore resulted in closer union, with an embryonic constitution capable of further development to replace the inchoate organisation. Nevertheless the revived League was not strong enough to regain its former position abroad. Meanwhile the Scots, the Vitalian Brethren, and a new enemy, Spain, preyed upon its commerce. Its weakness for the first time led the League to seek the aid of the Emperor, but Sigismund’s intervention on its behalf in England, Friesland, and elsewhere merely brought disappointment. It was the attempt of the Kalmar Union king, Eric, to conquer Schleswig-Holstein that compelled the League once more to enter the field of international politics and postpone the solution of many pressing problems in the east and west.
The Holstein war was accompanied by a recrudescence of piracy by the Vitalian Brethren. Their depredations inflicted enormous damage upon Hansa trade, and no sea, from the Gulf of Finland to the North Sea, was safe from them. All efforts to induce Eric to come to terms with his adversary proved fruitless. He continued to seize strategic points and to prey upon all commercial shipping within his reach. He even introduced a debased coinage into Denmark, which reduced all legitimate trading to a gamble. After many efforts to bring about peace, the League was obliged to equip a fleet in defence of its interests. This made the obstinate king somewhat more pliable. He agreed to settle all outstanding questions in return for an alliance with the Wend towns. But as the Prussian and Livonian towns opposed this policy and the Grand Master allied himself to Eric, the unity of purpose necessary for successful action was absent. A temporary cessation of hostilities was, however, provided by Eric’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem, only to be renewed with greater ferocity in 1427 after his return. The naval war developed on a large scale, and both sides recruited ships and men in England. In 1427 the Hansa suffered several defeats and enormous losses. On one occasion a whole fleet laden with Bay salt was captured by the Danes. The sea-going trade of the north was almost brought to a standstill, and old and neglected land routes were revived. Only by sailing in fleets and under convoy, and then only with great difficulty, could Hansa ships pass through the Sound. Even neutrals, like the English and Dutch, suffered from the belligerents as well as from the pirates. The commercial supremacy of the Hansa was seriously threatened; it became war-weary. Many towns even discussed the advisability of continuing their membership. Rostock and Stralsund, two of the Wend towns, actually made separate terms with Eric. At last the Grand Master’s mediation was so far successful as to induce Eric to conclude a truce for five years (22 August 1432). This made the resumption of trade possible and the Hansa returned to Bergen, where the monopoly of the Wends was re-established. The pirate evil however was not laid; as in 1390 so in the Holstein war, it was easier to raise the monster than to destroy it.
Permanent peace was still far off when a rebellion broke out in Sweden, where the Kalmar Union had never been popular. This uprising at last induced Eric to make peace. After the usual preliminaries, a treaty was signed at Vordingborg on 17 July 1435. The conditions were brief and simple. Trade was to be resumed upon the pre-war conditions, while disputes that might arise were to be settled by an annual meeting of representatives of both parties at Copenhagen just before the commencement of the Scanian herring-fishing season. Apart from preparing the way for the break-up of the Kalmar Union, the war had produced great dearth of certain commodities in the north. Salt reached famine prices, since none could be imported from the Bay. On the other hand, the Lüneburg salines, under the direct control of Lubeck, revived. The Prusso-Livonian towns found no direct outlet by sea for their furs, wax, and timber products, and prices fell considerably. Merchants of the Wend towns bought them up, transported them westward overland, and reaped huge profits that enabled them to bear the strain of the war and recover from its ravages.
A more serious and permanent result was the impetus the war gave to Dutch competition. Hitherto Holland had only served the Hansa as a stepping-stone to England or a convenient centre for the Bruges staple when trade with Flanders was suspended. But the Dutch towns made a great leap forward when Philip of Burgundy became the ruler of Holland (1433). Their prosperity, like that of the Hansa itself, was largely founded upon the humble herring. Curing was introduced in 1400, with the result that Brill became a serious rival to Scania. Before long the North Sea herring drove the Scanian from the Rhineland markets, and even began to penetrate the Baltic lands. Dutch progress was materially assisted by the frequent failure of the Baltic fisheries, in part due to the migration of the herring. Up to the end of the fourteenth century the Hansa had ignored these new rivals. The Prussians and Livonians, however, welcomed them as importers of Bay salt and freighters. Moreover the Dutch harbours were more suitable for their own larger ships than the shallower ones of the Zuyder Zee and Flanders, especially when the Zwin, the port of Bruges, was silting up, despite the strenuous efforts of the Flemings to keep it clear. When at last the Hansa realised the menace to its supremacy and wished to take measures to cope with it, a variety of causes led the League to hold its hand. Apart from the war with Eric, there was the threatened breakup of the Kalmar Union, the tension with England, the Anglo-Burgundian alliance, and above all the refusal of the Grand Master and of Cologne to co-operate in a commercial war with Holland, while Hamburg preferred privateering to a blockade. The war between the Hansa and the Dutch, conducted mainly by piratical methods with fluctuating fortunes and interrupted by frequent truces, seemed endless, when a new turn of the political wheel created a new situation. In the west, the League sharpened the commercial blockade of Holland, made peace with England (1437), and broke off relations with Burgundy, now, after the Congress of Arras, the ally of France. In the north, Eric had been driven from the throne and betaken himself to Gotland, which he converted into a pirates’ stronghold and whence he preyed upon all commerce indiscriminately. His activities, together with the Dutch war, had, by 1439, almost destroyed the profitable and indispensable trade in Bay salt. The losses incurred by the League, more especially by the leading Wend group, and the difficulty of reconciling the divergent sectional interests induced the Hansa, after a meeting at Lubeck (12 March 1441), to accept the offer of mediation made by Christopher of Bavaria, who had not only replaced Eric on the throne of Denmark, but had temporarily restored the Kalmar Union. The negotiations ended in a ten years’ truce with the Dutch, the removal of all restrictions upon their trade, and the reference of all outstanding questions to arbitration. The Dutch had vindicated their claims to a share in the commerce of Europe, making a wide breach in the wall of monopoly erected by the Hansa. But the trade in Bay salt fell ever more into Lubeck’s hands. The seemingly invincible strength of the Hansa attracted new members to the League, while others who had withdrawn from it began to seek re-admission. Common hostility led the Dutch and King Christopher to make common cause against the Hansa. The king was determined to diminish the hold the League had in his realms, but he had to bide his time on account of the rising tide of nationalist sentiment in Norway and Sweden, always hostile to Denmark. Accordingly, after many delays the king, in 1445, confirmed the Hansa privileges in Scandinavia and granted it exemption from Sound dues for two years. But the Norwegian officials, especially those of Bergen, still strove to curtail Hansa activities in the country. Christopher, pursuing two irreconcilable policies, maintaining the Hansa privileges and securing the rights of his own subjects, ultimately alienated both parties. His officials failed in their aims. The Hansa tightened its grip upon Bergen. Lubeck and her neighbours had complete control of its chief article of export, dried cod, which they exchanged for corn and manufactured goods. To retain this trade in their own hands they decreed that cod could only be shipped to their own harbours, on pain of expulsion from the Hansa. The peace so painfully reached in the north was again disturbed by the death of Christopher (1448) and the succession of Christian of Oldenburg in Denmark, and the election of a native noble, Charles Knutson, to the throne of Sweden, while Eric, from his stronghold in Gotland, continued to prey upon the commerce of his former subjects and the Hansa. A clash seemed inevitable, but was staved off by a temporary arrangement between Christian, Charles, and the League (1450). Yet Christian still withheld his confirmation of the general privileges of the Hansa and only confirmed those of the Bergen settlement for one year, at the same time encouraging the German artisans in the town to resist the authority of the Hansa aldermen. For the time the League had to acquiesce in this unfriendly attitude, as the West again claimed its attention.
The return of the Kontor to Bruges in 1392 had been followed by a period of peaceful prosperity, which the Hansa exploited for its ow n ends. After decreeing that Hansa commodities, except herring, wine, and beer, should, in Bruges, be sold to its own members, it forbade partnerships between members and non-members and sought to remedy abuses in the cloth trade. But in face of the development of cloth manufacture in England and in parts of the Netherlands outside Flanders, the cloth trade in Bruges was declining. This made the town complaisant towards the Hansa and eager to improve its communications with the sea, in order to keep the Hansa staple within its walls. But once more external events proved serious disturbing factors. Of these the worst were the war between Holland and Friesland at the end of the fourteenth century, the renewal of Anglo-French hostilities after the Lancastrian succession, and, above all, the revived activity of the Vitalian Brethren in the North Sea, which not even the severe defeat inflicted upon them by the Hansa could entirely suppress. Moreover the League was crippled by the democratic revolution in Lubeck. The Hansa, though neutral in the Anglo-French war, was attacked by French privateers and their Scotch allies. Its embargo upon trade with Scotland had to be withdrawn because the Grand Master and some important Hansa towns refused to enforce it.
An even more truculent enemy now appeared on the scene, namely Spain. The Spaniards resented Hansa competition west of Flanders and with the aid of their allies, the Bretons, began to attack Hansa shipping, so that many of the Hansa traders sailed under the Flemish flag. In Flanders itself complaints of the Hansa were not so readily listened to. The province was now under Burgundian rule, and the duke could not be coerced to accept the Hansa view in disputed matters. Nor did the frequent embassies bring any satisfaction. On the contrary, the expenses entailed by these missions had compelled the League to impose a levy upon its merchants in Flanders. Many of them, however, refused payment, and the opposition at one time threatened the very existence of the Bruges Kontor itself. Matters grew even worse when the whole of the Netherlands became Burgundian territory (after 1433), and the duke, on breaking off his alliance with England in 1435,expelled the Merchant Adventurers, thereby dealing a severe blow at the Hansa trade in cloth. Protests against the duke’s financial policy met with the reply that he could not brook any interference with his sovereign authority; and now the Hansa could no longer exploit the jealousies and rivalries of a number of local potentates to its own advantage. In fact the Hansa was failing to realise that the old system was passing, that medieval methods and ideas were giving way before new strongly-centralised and nationalist States with little respect for obsolete chartered privileges that hampered their own development. But the League was still strong enough to struggle against its many enemies, though its western problems had to wait until it had made peace with King Eric, and Hamburg had finally destroyed the pirates’ nest in Friesland. The strained relations with Burgundy were further aggravated by an anti-German riot at Sluys in which nearly a hundred Germans were killed (1436). Trade with the Netherlands was forthwith suspended and the staple removed to Antwerp, despite the opposition of the Grand Master and the Prussian towns. This was a most severe blow at Bruges, for the failure of the harvest in Western Europe had sent the price of foodstuffs up to famine rates, which the importation of corn from the Baltic lands might have alleviated. By 1438 the resistance of Bruges was broken. It conceded all the German demands, including compensation for damages; and there was great joy when the importation of com was resumed. The duke remained obdurate, though, after he had made peace with England and the wild naval war ended, matters improved. Nevertheless the star of Bruges was setting.
Antwerp and the Dutch were soon to prove most formidable rivals. Trade between the Hansa and Antwerp rested upon privileges granted the League by the Duke of Brabant early in the fourteenth century. It grew steadily as Antwerp, by encouraging foreign merchants, developed into an international centre of considerable importance. In 1431 Antwerp granted the Hansa specially wide privileges with low tolls and customs dues. Sluys also sought to attract Hansa trade to itself, and succeeded in doing so after it had settled the disputes that had arisen from the riot previously mentioned (1443). In the same year an amicable settlement was likewise concluded with Spain. The Duke of Burgundy was now the only outstanding enemy. In order to negotiate with him, the Hansa first held a meeting at Lubeck in 1447. It was largely attended and included representatives of all sections, as well as of the Grand Master, and the Kontors of London, Bruges, and Bergen. After once more fixing Bruges as the staple, an embassy was sent to the duke, but although it remained in Flanders six months, it returned almost empty-handed. The League did not relax its efforts; a second embassy found the duke more pliable, and he promised to redress the Hansa grievances. His promises, however, proved illusory, and the Hansa once more, and for the last time in its history, removed the staple—this time to Deventer and Kampen, both outside Burgundian territory. This action was opposed by the Grand Master, Cologne, and other western members of the League, the former on account of the unsuitability of the new centres for his trade, the latter on account of Lübeck’s anti-English policy at this time. Consequently Cologne threatened to split the League and withdrew its representative from the meeting of 1452 (2 February). Timely concessions to the Prussians prevented the rift developing. A new regulation divided the articles of commerce into staple and so-called Vente commodities. The former, the costly articles such as wax, furs, metals, and skins, might still only be dealt with in the staple; the latter, mainly Prussian commodities, such as pitch, tar, com, flax, hemp, etc. might be sold anywhere.
The trade in Bay salt
Although these regulations found general acceptance, Cologne refused compliance, as its chief trade was in wine; and as it had too many competitors outside the Hansa, it ran the risk of losing its trade with Flanders as long as the blockade remained. Bruges was helpless, but Ghent, in open revolt against the Duke of Burgundy, loudly disapproved of his policy. The Hansa was also not happy at Deventer; its harbour was too shallow for the large ships used by the Prussians and Livonians, and the staple was removed to Utrecht with no better results, despite the extensive privileges granted by the bishop. Attempts to reach an understanding, several times repeated, failed partly because the Grand Master was at war with Poland and could not exert his power in favour of peace. Moreover, trade was not entirely at a standstill; it was still carried on illicitly and by devious routes through neutral countries. Only when the duke had succeeded in placing his illegitimate son upon the episcopal throne of Utrecht did the Hansa yield. A Burgundo-Flemish embassy attended the League meeting at Lubeck and concluded peace (1457). Reciprocal concessions were made. The Hansa agreed to accept the jurisdiction of the duke’s officers instead of those of the Flemish towns, while the duke promised to set up a permanent commission to deal with future disagreements; the Hansa also renounced its claim to the free import and export of the precious metals, and the duke confirmed all privileges granted by him and his predecessors. The settlement was joyfully acclaimed by Bruges, where special taxes were readily shouldered to pay the compensation allotted to the Hansa. This last use of the commercial blockade against Flanders was only a partial success. The western members of the League had resented it, and so it tended to weaken the organisation. The Hansa itself had learnt the strength of the Duke of Burgundy, and realised that its policy afforded a valuable opportunity to its rivals. Against the most formidable of these rivals, the Dutch, the League, after 1441, renewed the old restrictions upon their trade, to the entire satisfaction of its Prusso-Livonian and Zuyder Zee members. But the Dutch were not so readily repressed. Utilising their ten years’ truce with the Wend towns and the blockade of Flanders, they began to push their trade with energy in all directions. In Christian I of Denmark they found a friend anxious to help them, as a set-off to the Hansa. The privileges he granted them enabled them to use a land route between the Baltic and the North Seas that rendered them independent of the Hansa. But the Hansa was at this time too exhausted for further hostilities and was glad to prolong the truce to 1461. If the Hansa seemed to be losing ground in the north, it had, since the middle of the fourteenth century, developed the trade in what was then a new commodity of international commerce, the so-called “Bay” salt. So great was the demand for salt in Scania during the herring-packing season that the old salines of Lüneburg were no longer able to satisfy it. This supply was, in the fifteenth century, under the complete control of Lubeck; hence the Prusso-Livonians became keenly interested in the Bay salt trade. The Dutch, too, frequented Bourgneuf, either as dealers or freighters. By the middle of the fifteenth century this branch of commerce had assumed such proportions that fleets of a hundred ships or more frequently passed through the Sound en route for various Baltic destinations. To render it secure, the Hansa entered into relations with Brittany, obtaining the necessary privileges from 1430 onwards. Search for salt also induced the Hansa to open up trade with Spain and Portugal. Russia provided a ready market for it, and Riga was the intermediary. But as Castile was the ally of France and Henry V of England had Hansa ships in his service, the Spaniards, who resented the intrusion of the Hansa into their trade, had a ready excuse for attacking their shipping in the Atlantic. By the efforts of Bruges, the Grand Master, and other interested parties, a truce was arranged in 1443 and frequently prolonged. Conditions became more favourable to trade when the English were finally expelled from France, and when the mean but far-seeing Louis XI ascended the French throne.
With England relations were strained from the commencement of the fifteenth century, despite the fact that Henry IV confirmed the Hansa privileges on his accession. English attacks on Prussian shipping impelled the Grand Master to suspend trade and expel the English traders from his dominions. The Hansa followed suit. Owing to the demand for English cloth on the continent, the blockade was not rigidly observed, and the Grand Master was himself the first to lift it partially and to enter into negotiations with Henry. After many delays and postponements an agreement was at last reached in October 1407 with the Prusso-Livonian groups, followed by another with the Hansa. Two years later the latter obtained further compensation and the renewal of their privileges, thanks to the famine which visited Europe in that year and made England dependent upon imported corn. On account of the Grand Master’s selfishness and the skill of the English envoys, the Hansa had almost split during these prolonged negotiations, weakened as it already was by the internal disorder in Lübeck and the defeat of the Teutonic Order by Poland. This encouraged Henry to disregard the settlement of 1407 and his subjects to continue their attacks upon Hansa shipping. Hansa reprisals were rendered nugatory by the policy of the Grand Master. More than ever Prussia needed the English trade; even Danzig became more tolerant towards English merchants and allowed them to form an association of their own with their own alderman. But this no longer satisfied them. English opinion, as reflected in The Libel of English Policy, demanded rights in Prussia equal to those enjoyed by the Hansa in England. As in the time of Richard II, London again took the lead in this anti-alien agitation, so that when the Germans refused to pay a subsidy in 1423 the Steelyard was closed and its members imprisoned. Still the Hansa insisted upon its privileges, and gradually prevailed upon Parliament to induce the city authorities to be more conciliatory. Fresh fuel was added to the rising flames of passion when the Hansa, at war with Eric of Denmark, tried in 1427 to exclude neutrals from the Sound, and when four years later the English government increased the rates of tonnage and poundage and altered the bases of assessment. The energetic protests of the Hansa were so far successful that the new rates were suspended and the old method of assessment revived. After a meeting of the Hansa an attempt at a settlement was made in 1431. But the negotiations dragged on until they were outstripped by the Congress of Arras, which transformed the whole political situation. Burgundy, now hostile to England, strove to prevent an understanding, but, thanks to Cardinal Beaufort, a treaty was concluded in 1437. This was a triumph for Hansa persistence. Not only were its privileges again confirmed, but it was freed from all dues not mentioned in the Carta Mercatoria. The only concession obtained by the English was a vague assurance that they could trade in all Hansa towns according to the old customs. Even these modest claims aroused hostility in Prussia, and the Grand Master refused to ratify the treaty. Henry VI was being urged to withdraw the Hansa privileges, and after many delays promised to do so if the Grand Master persisted in his attitude. But neither side was anxious to drive matters to extremes, since the renewal of the Anglo-French war had closed the Flemish harbours to the English. Henry VI therefore sent envoys to Lubeck to negotiate with Denmark, the Hansa, and the Grand Master and, after an adjournment, a truce was concluded at Deventer (June 1451) which once more opened the Sound to English shipping. Prospects of permanent peace were disturbed by the seizure by the English of a German and Dutch Bay salt fleet of 110 ships. The Dutch ships were liberated, while those of the Hansa, mainly belonging to Lubeck and Danzig, were confiscated and their cargoes sold. Reprisals by the Hansa naturally followed, but more extreme measures were ruled out by the opposition of Cologne and her western colleagues, who had no interest in the salt trade. Henry VI, faced by the growing discontent with his government that burst into Cade’s rebellion, was ready to settle with Prussia and Lubeck, but the latter demanded compensation for losses and seized an English ship that was carrying English envoys to the Grand Master. Lübeck in fact was prepared to force a breach with England, but receded from her intransigent position and concluded a truce for eight years (March 1456).
Anti-Hansa feeling in England. Treaties of Utrecht
The dynastic struggle which threw England into disorder reacted upon Hansa trade with England. The redoubtable Warwick, now governor of Calais, against whom Henry VI was powerless, preyed upon Hansa shipping, with the inevitable reprisals by the Hansa and its ally Christian I of Denmark, who closed the Sound to English vessels. Before the questions raised by this piratical act could be settled, Warwick’s protégé, Edward Earl of March, had ascended the English throne. But the League, doubting the permanency of his success, did not at first apply for the confirmation of their privileges. Edward, on his part, could not afford to alienate the capital, whose merchants and civic authorities were pressing for the suspension of the Hansa privileges until Englishmen had obtained similar ones in the Baltic lands. He did, however, grant the League a temporary confirmation, pending a full investigation of the whole subject. As the king’s position was still difficult, he was anxious for peace and even sent envoys to Hamburg to bring it about. The Hansa might now have achieved a real diplomatic success, but it was hampered by its own want of unity. Cologne and its associates were pursuing an independent policy, which ultimately led to the withdrawal of the Rhine city from the League for a whole decade. Meanwhile Edward prolonged his temporary grant to the Hansa from 1462 to 1468, on condition that a final settlement of outstanding questions was reached. But when he had made peace with Burgundy and Anglo-Flemish trade was resumed, he refused to send further embassies to meet the Hansa negotiators. The latter had for once shewn lack of wisdom and missed a great opportunity. It had now again to face English hostility and even to bear the blame for Christian I’s seizure of English ships in the Sound. The resentment felt in London resulted in an attack upon the Steelyard, which was partially destroyed, and Germans in England were arrested and imprisoned. This further encouraged Cologne to pursue its particularist policy. It separated itself from the League and formed an association of its own such as it had had in the time of Henry II.
Oil the other hand, Edward had alienated Warwick and so yielded to the pressure of the cloth-makers of the western counties, who felt the loss of the Hansa trade severely, and of his ally, the Duke of Burgundy. On the duke’s mediation Edward liberated the arrested Germans for 4000 nobles and agreed to resume negotiations with the Hansa. But before these could be undertaken, Edward was a fugitive, and Henry VI was again seated on his unstable throne with Warwick in possession of all real power. The Hansa seemed master of the situation. Its alliance was courted by both the English parties and their respective allies, Charles the Bold and Louis XI. After an unusually well-attended meeting of the League in September 1470, trade with England was suspended and an energetic privateering war initiated. Edward himself promised full confirmation of the Hansa privileges in return for assistance to regain his throne. The League as a whole hesitated, hut Danzig accepted, and its fleet formed a considerable part of the armada that brought him home. But Edward IV failed to keep his promise and the war was resumed. All Hansa harbours, as well as those of Denmark and Poland, were closed to English trade. Danzig naturally resented the royal ingratitude and exerted itself to the utmost in the naval war that now developed on a large scale. Edward therefore secretly approached the Bruges Kontor, and this culminated in the negotiations at Utrecht in 1473. These almost assumed the nature of a European congress. Not only the League, but its staples at London, Bruges, and Bergen were present as well as Kampen, Cologne, and some individual Fie mish towns. England, Burgundy, Brittany, and some minor potentates were the other principals to the transactions. The discussions lasted nearly a whole year. Point by point the Hansa diplomats forced the Englishmen to yield, despite the efforts of Cologne to wreck the proceedings. Finally a series of treaties were arranged and signed (February 1474). The Hansa privileges were restored and later received the approval of Parliament; it obtained the ownership of the Steelyard as well as its warehouses in Boston and King’s Lynn, and London again agreed to allow it the partial control of the Bishop’s Gate. The English claim to equality in Hansa towns failed entirely. Though the League had scored an undoubted victory, Danzig and some other towns still hesitated to ratify the treaties, so that the League only entered into the possession of its establishments in London and the eastern ports in the spring of 1475. The treaty with England was followed by similar agreements with Burgundy and the Dutch provinces and towns. With Brittany a final settlement was postponed, but the duke extended his protection to the Hansa until a treaty could be concluded.
Although the treaties of Utrecht brought commercial peace in the West, the arrangements could not last in the face of the rapid dissolution of medieval institutions now going on. The trade with England was, however, still a factor in Hansa policy, but it never attained the importance of Bruges except for the Prusso-Livonian groups. Bruges (though never so closely organised as the other foreign settlements) was the guardian of Hansa interests in the West, and not infrequently it inspired its policy and guided its action. It was dominated by Lubeck, since 1418 the official head, and long before then the directing brain of the League. But the Bruges Kontor, like the parent organisation, did not always command the obedience of all sections. The self-seeking policy’ of the Westphalian group has already been mentioned. Under Cologne’s leadership they had built up a prosperous trade in wine with England, Holland, and Flanders that reached its apogee in the last quarter of the fourteenth century. Decline then set in, so that Cologne felt impelled to oppose the Hansa whenever its action disturbed the peaceful trade between its members and the best markets of the Rhineland towns. At the same time Bruges itself was losing its dominant position as an international market, causing many German merchants to seek trading outlets elsewhere. To arrest the threatening disintegration the Kontor made efforts to obtain privileges in other Flemish towns, in Holland, and elsewhere, and to unify its control by amalgamating the separate funds of each Third into a common fund under the control of one alderman. But, thanks to the prolonged resistance of Cologne, it was only in 1447 that this programme was partially carried out; the funds were amalgamated but the management was not unified. The Kontor was likewise invested with authority over all German merchants trading throughout the Netherlands, and permitted to tax them to defray the costs of embassies and of keeping the seas clear of pirates. This provided a fresh spur to the opposition of Cologne, whose example was imitated by other towns as well as by individual merchants. Serious results followed. Already Bruges was declining, partly on account of the competition of rivals, the gradual silting up of the Zwin, the rise of the English and Dutch cloth manufacture, and the frequent commercial wars of the Hansa, including the ten years’ blockade of Flanders itself (1448-58). Prior to this, the Hansa had, in 1442 and in 1447, issued stringent ordinances that aimed at compelling its members to purchase cloth only in Bruges and a limited number of “free” markets in Flanders and Brabant, while the peace of 1458 included a promise of the League to re-establish the staple at Bruges in all its former strength. The efforts to do so, as well as to levy the contributions previously mentioned, proved an endless source of friction. Cologne even went so far as to invoke the aid of the Duke of Burgundy against the Kontor, an act that broke one of the strongest bonds of the Hansa, since it had always resisted the interference of outside authorities in its internal affairs. Despite all difficulties, the Kontor did not relax its efforts on behalf of the common good. Thus in 1463 and 1464 it obtained special privileges from Louis XI, in 1460 it prolonged the truce with Spain, in 1461 with the Dutch, and it continued to enjoy the protection of the Duke of Brittany. Naturally the Kontor was supported by the League. An ordinance issued in 1465 that all Hansa merchants were to resort to Bruges proved ineffective. Cologne definitely withdrew and submitted its case to the Duke of Burgundy, who, however, failed to give a clear decision on the points at issue between the protagonists. Breslau likewise threatened withdrawal, while the Duke of Burgundy, and Antwerp also, resented the action of the League. Antwerp, therefore, concluded a treaty with the Hansa in 1468 on such favourable terms to the latter that Bruges was severely hit by it.
If the ground seemed to be slipping from under the Hansa in the west, in the north it still continued its monopoly, thanks to the assistance of Christian I of Denmark. Once more he forbade the Dutch to transport Bay salt through Danish waters and restricted English trade in Norway. This encouraged the Hansa to persist in its old methods. The meeting of 1470 renewed all the old regulations relating to the staples, and threatened Cologne with expulsion if it did not submit to the traditional arrangements. As it had incurred the hostility of the Duke of Burgundy and the Treaty of Utrecht threatened its privileged position in England, Cologne was reconciled to the League in 1476 upon terms dictated by the latter. This, together with further extensions of the truces with Holland and Spain for twenty-four years and a grant of freedom of trade by the Duke of Brittany for seven years, shewed that the Hansa was still a power in the commerce of Europe. These gains must, however, be set against other losses. The rapid decline of the Teutonic Order after 1410 deprived the League of a valuable ally. Many Prussian towns suffered impoverishment and practically withdrew from the Hansa. Danzig was the only exception. Lubeck also profited by it, since it annexed the amber trade, formerly a monopoly of the Order, which had exported it to Bruges to be manufactured into rosaries and thence exported to all parts of Europe. Prussia’s losses were Poland’s gains, despite the attempts to destroy its competition. Only one branch of Prussian trade still flourished—the trade in salt with Lithuania. But this too was mainly in the hands of Danzig, from the middle of the fifteenth century almost the sole centre of Prussian overseas trade and shipbuilding. Danzig had established a depot at Kovno with a branch at Vilna. The attempt of the Order to revive its waning fortunes was frustrated by a fierce civil war. Its rebellious towns allied themselves with Poland, receiving valuable privileges in return. Those granted to Danzig were almost sovereign rights that wellnigh made her an independent State. These advantages reacted in favour of the Hansa at a time when they were most useful, when the imbroglio with England and the war between Denmark and Sweden seriously threatened its commerce.
In other directions the middle of the fifteenth century was also a testing time for the Hansa. Christian I was none too friendly until Sweden rebelled against him. He then (May 1455) made peace with the League and added a new clause which annulled any grants of his predecessors that conflicted with the privileges of the Hansa. This, however, found no favour in Norway and could not be exploited in Bergen in face of the hostility of its governor. The Dano-Swedish war again jeopardised the trade of the Baltic, especially as Danzig, which had given shelter to the fugitive King Charles Knutson, was waging a fierce piratical campaign against Denmark. By Lubeck’s insistence, a brief truce between the warring parties was arranged, so that the disputed questions might be submitted to arbitration. Although this failed and old causes of strife were revived, the ceaseless efforts of the Hansa, which armed its ships trading with Riga and Novgorod, and the defeat of the Order in the civil war, brought about a general peace. By the Treaty of Thorn the Order lost all its territory except East Prussia, and accepted the suzerainty of Poland. Trade was able once more to resume its interrupted course, but not along its old lines. Important developments had occurred in the meantime. Thorn lost its pre-eminence as a regional staple, and Stettin replaced it as the mart for trade in Scania herrings; Danzig lost its hold over the Lithuanian trade, since Kovno now had a rival in Vilna; the German merchants withdrew from the interior, preferring to have their merchandise transported for them to the maritime towns. They had followed a narrow restrictive policy which could no longer be maintained. Only Danzig grew in strength as its rivals declined. Denmark, too, required the constant vigilance of the Hansa. Christian I had, on the whole, been friendly, but the Hansa became apprehensive after he had acquired Schleswig-Holstein (1460). Hamburg and Lübeck renewed their old close alliance, since Christian, desirous of developing his new territories, had granted Amsterdam a favourable tariff, as well as the use of a land route that threatened the supremacy of the old one between Hamburg and Lübeck. The king’s hostile attitude even led him to interfere in the internal affairs of the towns, so the League had to exercise its power to prevent him from excluding Wismar from the Scanian fisheries, and brought about a peace between him and Bremen. Christian could not shake himself free from the Hansa. Financial stringency, partly due to the fall in the value of money, and partly to the decreasing revenue from the herring-fisheries when the herring began to exchange the Baltic for the North Sea, had compelled him to impose higher tolls upon Hansa shipping. But he had to yield to the protests of the League and withdraw them.
The Baltic herring trade, though still considerable, was declining rapidly and the great international fair in Scania during the fishing season had ceased; new packing centres outside the Hansa influences arose. Danish towns began to compete with those of the League. These now initiated an anti-foreign policy, and though Christian maintained the Hansa privileges as long as he needed its political support, he was obliged also to encourage his own subjects. The new developments reacted upon the towns in various ways. Stettin had its depot at Malmo and enjoyed the special protection of the king, while Rostock retained its supremacy at Oslo and other Norwegian towns. On the other hand, the Wends were still pre-eminent in the Bergen trade, with Lubeck taking the lion’s share. Political considerations still compelled Christian to acquiesce in this situation, though he resented his dependence upon the League. Peace with Sweden was still far off, so that when the Swedes raised Sten Sture the elder to the throne, Christian had again to purchase the aid of the League. At its instigation he again restricted non-Hansa trade in Bergen and forbade the transport of Bay salt through Danish waters by the Dutch. Meantime the Swedes had inflicted a crushing defeat on the Danes at Brunkeberg (10 October 1471). They initiated a strictly nationalist policy that ultimately liberated them from German influence. The Germans lost their secular right to half the membership of the Stockholm town council, and the Swedes opened their harbours to the Dutch. A durable peace between Denmark and Sweden followed, which brought definite advantages to the Hansa and in particular to its leader Lübeck with its Wend associates. In return for a loan, Christian pledged a number of towns to Lubeck which gave it the control of the harbours of Holstein. The king’s efforts to free himself from the incubus of the Wend towns were frustrated by the peace which for a time succeeded the stormy period through which Europe had passed even after the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War. Thus the commercial domination of the North by the Hansa remained substantially unimpaired, though Christian’s bitterness against the League was displayed in a series of decrees designed to diminish its power. But they remained a dead letter. In Bergen the Hansa was stronger than ever. The English had ceased to frequent it; the Dutch were kept within strictly narrow limits. Only in the trade with Iceland did the Hansa feel the competition of the English, since Christian readily sold permits to them. Nevertheless the close of the fifteenth century saw the rise of new forces that ultimately deprived the Hansa and its leaders, the Wend towns, of the political and economic influence they had so long exercised in the three northern kingdoms.
But political and military events were not the only disturbances affecting the smooth course of trade. Fluctuation of prices, the varying yield of the herring-fisheries, disputes between different groups of the Hansa itself, as for example between the Livonian towns and Novgorod, Cologne, and Lübeck, difficulties that arose from abuses in trade itself, all contributed to create unstable conditions. Hansa merchants frequently complained of the quality of the furs and wax delivered to them by Russians and Lithuanians; the latter retorted in kind and pointed to the falsifications in quality and quantity of the cloth and other commodities sold them by the Hansa. Nevertheless the Hansa managed to retain its hold on the Russian trade by its customary measures to exclude all competitors. It even forbade the Dutch, whose shipping was indispensable to the Livonians, to learn Russian or to trade directly with Russians visiting the Livonian towns. Here Riga took the lead in carrying out the Hansa policy, for the town aimed at attaining a position within its sphere of influence such as Danzig had reached in Prussia. A conflict with Lubeck, representing the common interest of the whole League, was inevitable, especially as Riga’s action again disturbed relations with Novgorod. Peace between the latter and the Hansa had been concluded in 1392, but Novgorod began to demand better treatment for its own traders in Livonia and at sea, just as the English had demanded of Prussia. Though relations were not broken off, thanks to the mediation of Dorpat (Yuriev), yet the Russians and Lithuanians began to press their claims with greater insistence, especially after the fall of the Teutonic Order had lowered German prestige throughout the Baltic region. Consequently suspensions of trade and reprisals were frequent, especially as the Hansa was unable to put forward its whole strength on account of its endless entanglements in the north and west, and earlier in the century on account of the democratic revolt in Lubeck. This enabled Riga to obtain an equal share with Lubeck in the administration of the Novgorod Kontor, since the latter had become ever more dependent upon its Russian and Livonian trade during the prolonged disputes and wars with other parts of Europe. By 1459 Riga, thanks to the rapid decline of Novgorod, was able to prohibit strangers visiting it from trading with one another; even members of the Hansa were no longer allowed to trade directly with the Russians. The constant quarrels between Novgorod, the Livonian towns, and the Livonian Order reacted in favour of Polotsk, though its trade never reached the proportions of that of the older city. But Novgorod’s days were numbered. The rising power of the Grand Dukes of Muscovy was jealous of its independence. In 1471 Ivan III subjected it to his authority, and as he confirmed all the old privileges and customs of the Hansa it seemed to promise a period of peaceful, prosperous trade. Ivan was, however, still hostile to Novgorod. After sacking the town in 1478, he deprived it of its independence, and the proud old city republic sank to the level of an ordinary Russian town. In 1494 the German settlement disappeared for ever before the strong centralised State that had emerged. The history of the Hansa in Novgorod thus bears a close analogy to that in Bruges.
This unexpected development induced the Livonian towns to resume closer relations with the Hansa and to cling more tenaciously to the trade with Polotsk. But in the new world that was arising there was no room for independent or even semi-independent towns. Against the new monarchies that ruthlessly destroyed all those who had formerly withstood the authority of the feudal overlord, the Hansa failed to hold its own. Medieval systems were disappearing, and with them the old Hanseatic monopoly of Russian trade with the west was lost for ever. To this result the Hansa had itself, in a considerable measure, contributed by its selfish and narrow policy. Its frequent blockades and restrictions upon freedom of commercial intercourse not only led to evasions of its decrees, but also to the rise and development of new routes. While the Hansa dominated the Baltic and certain land routes in North Germany, traders who felt the severity of its control created new routes that circumvented those which the Hansa had made its own. These were mainly the work of the South German cities that now became serious competitors to the Hansa as intermediaries between the north and south, and the east and west, of Europe, and in the next century Nuremberg, Prague, Frankfort on the Main, and others outstripped the towns of the League. Naturally the Hansa endeavoured to erect barriers in the way of their development. But the old weapons were becoming blunt and rusty. Artificial limitation and restrictive legislation were giving way to greater freedom and enterprise in all directions. Even Lübeck itself, the tireless protagonist of Hansa monopoly, could no longer dispense with the Frankfort market when its famous fair began to acquire international importance. These South German rivals also profited by the progress of the Turks in South-eastern Europe. The capture of Constantinople closed the market in Venice to the Slav lands and they had to seek new outlets and new routes for their products, and these the south afforded them. That the League did not immediately succumb to the blows it received on all sides is indisputable evidence of its inherent strength and of the political far-sightedness of its leader, Lübeck. Nevertheless the changing conditions were not without their effect. Inland towns gave up direct overseas trading, purchasing foreign commodities from the maritime towns. No longer needing the Hansa, they gradually withdrew from participation in its affairs. Such towns consequently suffered loss of population and of revenue and gradual impoverishment. The fifteenth century was for the Hansa a period of depression, but old systems may long survive unless destroyed by some cataclysmic upheaval. This the Hansa was spared, and so it lingered on as an effective organisation for yet another century. But at the close of the Middle Ages its position had developed somewhat differently from what its earlier days promised. It had drawn to itself the trade of the northern half of the continent, and later stretched its tentacles towards Spain and Portugal. It had created a monopoly in the north, banished the English from the Norwegian trade, and rigidly circumscribed the activities of the Dutch. Only in Venice did it fail to secure that exclusive position which it attained in Bergen, Bruges, Novgorod, or London. Until the accession of the Tudors, it is true, its position in England was strengthened by the Treaty of Utrecht. Even the rise of Burgundy did not entirely destroy the trade through Bruges. A more severe blow, however, was the decentralisation of trade in the Netherlands. This proved fatal to the authority of the Bruges Kontor and the League whose spokesman it was. Even the Baltic, at one time almost a Hansa lake, could no longer be maintained as its special preserve.
Organisation of the Hans
The Hansa had developed out of associations of Germans trading abroad. Membership depended upon the right of the citizens of given towns to enjoy the privileges acquired. These were the special functions of the early associations, and all Germans were allowed to participate in them without too close an investigation of their claims. Later, these unions of individuals influenced the home towns, which began to form close alliances for furthering common interests. With its growing strength membership became more valuable and was limited to citizens of Hansa towns. As the prestige of the League increased, membership was eagerly sought; expulsion, or “Verhansung” as it was called, became a severe punishment. But centrifugal forces were not always under control. Many towns formally withdrew, or allowed their membership to lapse by abstention from the deliberations of the League. An important city like Cologne was, however, compelled, against its will, to remain within the fold. Yet so vague and uncertain were the conditions of membership that no accurate list is extant, nor can such a list be confidently compiled from the existing records, though it has been generally assumed to range about the seventies1. Around the larger centres were often grouped smaller towns and even districts that frequently held local assemblies for common action. Such was the case with the Livonian group that held its first meeting in 1358 and then annually. In Prussia only the six largest towns were members, and after the civil war only Danzig retained any interest in the foreign affairs of the League. It is doubtful whether the Hansa itself ever knew exactly who were members and who were not; and if it did know it kept it a close secret, steadfastly refusing all information on the subject. On several occasions, notably in 1449, 1462, and 1473, the English demanded the names of the members but were categorically refused, either because the envoys of the League did not know or because they would not disclose them. Similarly the League refused to regard itself as a corporation acting through a common head and possessing a common fund or seal. It claimed to be no more than an association of towns for safeguarding trading privileges acquired abroad.
Quite early in its history the League divided itself into territorial groups—the well-known “Thirds,” each later subdivided into two Sixths, but this had little significance outside Bruges and Flanders where it originated. Such importance as it had was due entirely to the supremacy of Slanders in Hansa commerce. In the Middle Ages no other division applicable to the whole organisation existed. Leadership was early assumed by the Wend group, and among them Lubeck was pre-eminent and generally acknowledged as head long before it was officially recognised in 1418 and again in 1447. The Wends formed the nucleus, Lübeck the nerve-centre of the whole system. Yet Lubeck cannot be said to have been the “head” of the League. The highest authority for all purposes was the meeting of representatives, or Hansetage, though only such meetings can be regarded as full Hansetage at which all the Thirds were present. Such complete assemblies were never very frequent; from the fifteenth century onwards they were only held at long intervals of 20 to 30 years. At this time the subjects dealt with mainly concerned commercial and political relations with the north, the monopoly of the Wends. Very few other towns attended. The direction of Russian affairs passed into the hands of the Livonians. Lubeck was by far the most frequent meeting-place.
The number of towns attending was small, rarely exceeding thirty. The smaller towns usually entrusted their representation to the larger ones and furnished them with plenary powers. Some towns, such as Cologne, advanced claims to precedence, but it had to yield to Lübeck and content itself with second place; Hamburg and Bremen contended for the third place. Similar orders of precedence were evolved among the groups and the officers in charge of the packing-centres in Scania. Long notice of meetings had to be given, not only on account of distances and slow travelling, but also because local groups often met beforehand to discuss the agenda, decide upon their policy, and draw up instructions for their envoys. On account of the cost many towns evaded attendance. After 1430 the League imposed a fine upon absentees, and threatened arrest of goods and persons as well as “Verhansung” unless a sufficient excuse, on oath, was furnished; these drastic measures were, however, not enforced. Fines were also imposed upon late arrivals or early departures unless the grounds alleged were satisfactory. Decisions were by majority. Not infrequently members repudiated them; many towns often purposely withheld full powers from their representatives so as to refuse acquiescence in resolutions which they did not approve. The decisions of the Hansetage were embodied in a protocol known as a “Recess” and sealed with the seal of the town where the meeting had been held, since the League had no common seal. Abroad, Lubeck’s seal was so regarded, as all correspondence was carried on from there. The Hansa had no permanent diplomatic service, but the foreign settlements or Kontors, where such existed, fulfilled admirably the duties of an ambassador. For special purposes embassies ad hoc were sent, usually consisting of councillors from the leading towns. Just as it had no common seal, so the League had no common purse. Its nearest approach to one was the poundage levied in 1361, and subsequently for the war against Denmark or for freeing the seas from pirates. This was often collected with great difficulty and under the stress of threats of exclusion from privileges abroad and cessation of commercial intercourse at home.
Though it continued far into the seventeenth century, the Hansa had outlived its great days. It was a purely medieval creation destined to disappear in the modern world. It could not be transformed into a single State nor amalgamate with a territorial sovereignty. The geographical discoveries shifted the centre of gravity of the world’s trade from the inland seas to the great oceans. These the Hansa could not control as it had once controlled the Baltic and North Seas. With the change, its disappearance as a world power was inevitable. Its life in the sixteenth century was but the reflex action, the dying struggles of a once powerful giant.