The ‘Steel-yard’ at London, now the site of Cannon Street Station, was once the western terminal of the Hanseatic trading system that linked England with Germany, Scandinavia, and Russia, and connected via Bruges with the southwest axis of European trade that linked the north with the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
The first hanse (guild or commercial organization) was the United Gotland Travellers of the Holy Roman Empire, founded at Visby on the island of Gotland in 1161. This loose league of German traders swiftly expanded into a league of German towns who sought to control and regulate trade in the Baltic in their interests. Its expansion was closely linked with German settlement along the southern Baltic coast and the Northern Crusades of the 13th to 15th centuries. The capture of Riga in 1201 was swiftly followed by the foundation of German towns, such as Rostock in 1218, Reval (Tallin) in 1219, Narva in 1223, Danzig (Gdansk) in 1224, and Wismar in 1224-49, that were to dominate trade in the Baltic and the east-west trade between Bruges and Novgorod for several centuries.
The league sought to promote the interests of its members by consolidating rights to anchorage, storage, residence, and local immunity which its members required to conduct their business. Lübeck became its main centre and the home of the league’s court of appeal and the site of the most frequent meeting place of its diet. The Hanse developed a chain of outposts in all the countries it traded in, the most important being the London steelyard, the Peterhof at Novgorod, Bruges, and Bergen, the centre of the stockfish trade. Smaller factories and counting houses in numerous coastal towns around the Baltic and North Sea helped stimulate the economies of their host countries.
Although without a formal constitution and no central government the League could exert considerable influence. Its most effective weapon was the embargo, by which towns and nations could be forced to change their trading policies to suit the Hanse. When necessary the Hanse towns would also go to war as they did in 1361-70. Danish royal claims to passage rights through the Danish Sound originated in 1200 with the imprisonment of Lübeck merchants by Cnut VI until they paid for the right to passage to the Baltic herring fishing grounds. Valdemar IV’s attempts to break the power of the league and extend Danish influence in Scandinavia led to the league going to war. An unsuccessful attack on Helsingborg in 1362 was followed in 1367 by a successful campaign that saw the capture of Copenhagen by league forces. Under the terms of The Peace of Stralsund, 1370, Valdemar recognized the privileges of the league, its right to free trade throughout the Baltic, and was forced to concede that no Danish king could be crowned without the approval of the Hanse.
Lacking centralised power the league’s influence declined in the 15th century as the member towns individual interests began to outweigh common concerns, whilst the shift in the economic centre of gravity in northern Europe to the Netherlands saw Dutch traders achieve dominance in the North Sea. The unexplained decline of the Baltic herring shoals between 1416 and 1425 further impacted its volume of trade. In 1494 its offices in Novgorod closed, followed by London in 1598. By 1699 just nine members attended its last diet and by its dissolution in 1862 only Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen remained as members. Today all three towns prefix their vehicle city registrations with the letter H to commemorate their Hanseatic past.
In 1980 a new Hanse, the Städtebund die Hanse, was established in Zwolle. It’s lofty aims include promoting the ideal of a lasting order of peace in Europe. More prosaically it promotes civic responsibility and the participation of citizens with their town and its objectives. It is open to any town or city that was a member of the Hanseatic League, or that had a Hanse presence for a considerable period of time. It counts 181 towns from 16 European countries among its members. It is a fitting legacy for an organisation that thrived on sturdy local autonomy, international co-operation, and mutual prosperity.
The beginnings of the decline of the Hanseatic League coincides with the rise of the Dutch herring fishery and the disappearance of the Baltic herring shoals between 1416 and 1425. Whatever the cause, migration, submarine disturbance, or a weakening of the influence of Atlantic waters on the Baltic, the effect was a crushing blow to local fishermen and the Hanse merchants. A further boost to Dutch herring fishing was the improved method of curing credited to Willem Beukels, a Dutch fisherman from Bleirvliet in Zeeland. Unlike fishermen from other countries the Dutch cured their herring at sea, rather than onshore. Curing teams set to work as soon as the catch was finished, gutting the fish by removing the gills and most of the viscera. Coarse salt was sprinkled over the fish which were turned over with a wooden shovel until well covered with salt. The salted fish were then packed head to tail in barrels with alternating layers of salt and herring. The barrels were topped after standing for a few days, made airtight and branded with the date of the catch. Dutch-cured herring were found to keep for up to a year with this method.
by Mike Dash
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