In the 15th century English merchants formed their own trade alliance, known as the Merchant Adventurers, who competed with the Hanse in the Baltic and at Antwerp. At every opportunity they put pressure on Parliament to limit the Hanse privileges or revoke them entirely. From the reign of Henry VIII pressure on the Steelyard grew steadily stronger. European politics and wars provided continuous complexities. Disputes, ambassadorial negotiations and treaties continued to be a regular feature of English and Hanseatic relations during the following century. Key issues were the levels and types of taxes payable on goods, seizure of ships by one side or the other (normally in retaliation or as compensation), reciprocal rights for English merchants in Hanseatic towns, and the failure of the Hansa to define the towns who were members (and thus allowing anyone they pleased to trade in England).
The influence of the Merchant Adventurers increased during the reign of Edward VI and in 1552 the Privy Council suspended the Hanse’s franchise. Regulations implemented in 1555 introduced quotas, as well as rules regarding where they could sell English cloth. The London authorities were even more severe with the Steelyard, preventing them from buying supplies at Blackwell Hall, the main cloth market in London, located adjacent to the Guildhall.
Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State William Cecil and the Privy Council worked in close cooperation with the Merchant Adventurers. At the beginning of her reign the Hanse were reduced to the status of aliens. It was by then only the government’s need to buy munitions from Hanse towns, during a time that the country was threatened by many of the European powers, and the enthusiastic support of the Marquess of Winchester, that kept the door open.
As part of moves to persuade Elizabeth to marry King Phillip II of Spain, his government banned the import of English wool and cloth into the Spanish Netherlands in 1563. The Merchant Adventurers were thereby excluded from their main market at Antwerp and they persuaded the government to ban the export of those goods to ensure their rivals could not gain an advantage. Hamburg came to an agreement with Elizabeth, infuriating the other Hansa towns. Under pressure from the remaining towns, Hamburg attempted to re-gain the lost Hansa privileges in England. Instead, the Privy Council notified the Steelyard that any remaining rights were to be terminated unless English merchants gained full trading privileges throughout the Hanse towns. Nothing could be agreed, so the Hanse’s privileges in England effectively came to an end in around 1580. In 1587 the Merchant Adventurers finally managed a foot in the door of Hansa territory by setting up a staple in the town of Stade on the western bank of the River Elbe. Thus, the English achieved valuable trading rights in northern Europe at the same time as the Hanse lost theirs in England.
In 1598 the Lord Mayor of London was instructed to repossess the Steelyard and for a time it was used as a naval store. It was given back to German merchants in 1606. On the morning of 2nd September 1666 Samuel Pepys witnessed its destruction in the Great Fire:
So I down to the waterside and there got a boat and through the [London] bridge, and there saw a lamentable fire. Poor Michells house, as far as the Old Swan, already burned that way and the fire running further, that in a very little time it got as far as the Stillyard while I was there. Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the River or bringing them into lighters that lay off.
The name of the Steelyard continued to live on though, with it quite clearly shown on John Rocque’s map of London of 1746. The building that replaced the one destroyed in the fire remained in the possession of trustees from Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg until 1853 when it was sold to the Victoria Dock Company. Just a decade later the site was acquired by the South Eastern Railway Company to become their new Cannon Street railway terminus. Today Steelyard Passage is a covered alleyway running below the station, and Hanseatic Walk is the pathway along the riverside from the station to London Bridge.
Sources include: T.H. Lloyd ‘England and the German Hanse 1157-1611’; L.W. Cowie ‘The Steelyard of London’ History Today (November 1975); Henry Benjamin Wheatley ‘London Past and Present: Its History, Associations and Traditions’ (1891); John Stow ‘A Survey of London’ (1598); J.M. Lappenberg, ‘Urkundliche Geschichte des Hansischen Stahlhofes zu London’ (1851); Fiona Rule ‘London’s Docklands – A History of the Lost Quarter’; ‘The Diary of Samuel Pepys’ (1660-1669); Caroline M. Barron ‘London in the Later Middle Ages’; Walter Thornbury ‘Old and New London’ (1897)