The most important group of traders in northern Europe during the Middle Ages was the Hanse, often referred to as the Hanseatic League. Their London base was known as the Steelyard and they were crucial to the city’s economy for several hundred years.
The Hanse began as a trading association – ‘confederatio’ or alliance – of individual merchants who traded overseas. Its principal aims were to obtain privileges and protect its members’ interests (such as against burdensome taxes and duties) in places where they traded, and against piracy. The preferential customs rates the Hanse negotiated with medieval English monarchs, and the wool and cloth they could export, attracted them to England, with London eventually becoming their local headquarters. They remained as one the most important groups of merchants in London until the late 16th century.
During the second half of the 14th century membership of the Hanse became restricted to merchants of particular towns and it was the towns themselves that were thereafter the members, although the emphasis of their interest remained solely commercial. It was never a sovereign or political body and the individual towns owed allegiance to different kingdoms. There were generally about seventy member towns, mostly, but not restricted to, German-speaking areas. Non-Germanic member towns included Novgorod (now in Russia but mostly a Swedish area in the Middle Ages) and Riga (now the modern-day capital of Latvia). Towns joined or departed from the Hanse according to their interests, activity and needs, or on very rare occasions were expelled. The Hanse had no permanent officials but matters were debated by a central ‘diet’ or assembly of members that met when necessary, usually at the inland port of Lübeck.
Merchants from Germanic towns, then known as ‘Easterlings’, had already been granted privileges in London by around 1000AD during the reign of King Aethelred II. There was little differentiation in the minds of most Londoners between the merchants from Flanders, Holland, Zeeland and Germanic towns and they were all described as ‘Doche’ (or Dutch, from the German word ‘Deutsch’). Most of those trading in London were from Cologne, while those from Lübeck and Hamburg traded with East Coast ports. In the 12th century the Cologners were primarily importing metal goods from Cologne and the Meuse Valley, as well as Rhine wine. It was probably the Germanic merchants who introduced new methods of weighing to London: official weights of the mid-13th century were known as ‘steelyard weights’.
In 1157 the men of Cologne purchased a hall at Dowgate from Danish merchants and in the Liber Albus book of London regulations, compiled in 1419, it was still being referred to as the ‘Hall of the Danes’. At the same time as their purchase they were given protection by Henry II, a sign of their importance. Further charters and letters of protection were issued by Richard I and his brother King John. During the famines of the mid-13th century the Cologners were able to import grain, and this led to additional privileges being granted by Henry III. It was during his reign that the men of Hamburg and Lübeck gained the same rights as those of Cologne.
“Henry by the Grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Aquitain, etc. To the citizens of London to whom these Presents shall come, greeting: Know ye that, at the Instance of the most Serene Prince of the Roman Empire, our Brother [Richard], we have granted to these Merchants of Almain who have a House in our City of London, which is called commonly Guilda Aula Theutonicorum, that we will maintain them all and every one, and preserve them through our whole Kingdom, in all their liberties and free Customs, which they have used in our Times, and in the Times of our Progenitors, and will not withdraw such Liberties and free Customs from them, nor suffer them to be at all withdrawn from them, etc. Witness my Self at Westminster the 15th of June in the 44th year of our Reign.”
During the second half of the 13th century the merchants of Cologne, Hamburg and Lübeck, plus merchants of Gotland, merged into one community in London, probably based at the Cologne gildhall. It was perhaps demands by Londoners in return for liberties that united the different groups. A disagreement that lasted several years was settled by the Exchequer in July 1282, whereby the Hanse were required to pay two hundred and ten marks to maintain Bishopsgate, the entrance to London from the north, for then and into the future, and contribute to the cost of its watch (in the sense of policing). In return they were freed from payments of murage (a tax to maintain the city walls and civic buildings), could sell corn directly from their granaries, and had the right to appoint an alderman who could oversee their own court. (Bishopsgate was taken back from the Hanse by the City aldermen in the 1460s).
A legal case brought by the London merchant William de Widdleslade in 1316, in which he made claims regarding theft of goods from a ship sailing from Flanders, led the Hanse in England to seek new protection for themselves. In December 1317 they paid the large sum of one thousand pounds to purchase a confirmation from Edward II of previous rights granted, immunity from arrest, and that neither he nor future monarchs could place impositions on them without their consent. Thus, a solid legal foundation was created for the Hanse in England, although political and commercial circumstances would often lead to it being disregarded by monarchs and Parliament in later times.
During the late 13th and early 14th century political events allowed the German merchants to have dominance in shipping England’s main export of wool. Politics caused a swing in the opposite direction by the latter 14th century and the wool trade was lost to them but by then they were trading in English cloth.
By the beginning of the 14th century some members of the Hanse had been permanent residents in London for enough time for them to gain the rights of denizens. Their proximity to the seat of government at Westminster led them to represent the interests of the Hanse throughout England despite greater trade with the East Coast ports. There were numerous occasions when it was necessary for the Hanse in London to defend their rights through legal action, despite Edward II’s grants of 1317. With an increasingly hostile parliament the Hanse thereafter ensured that their charters of privilege were renewed by each succeeding monarch.