The Hanseatic League (Hanse): origins and growth

Hanseatic League trading range 16th c.

Hanseatic League trading range in the 16th century and key trading partners

Who in Britain has heard of the Hanseatic League (in German, die Hanse)? And yet the Hanseatic League was probably the most powerful trading network in northern Europe for centuries, from its inception around the 12th century until its demise in the 17th.

What’s more, one of the Hanse’s prime locations—you may be surprised to learn—was London. In 1176, King Henry II granted merchants from Cologne the privilege of establishing their own trading post in London. And from then on, their business flourished.

I recently visited Hanseatic League cities and towns in Germany, from Berlin to Lübeck.

Plan of Berlin, 1737

It was fascinating and I wondered why I’d known so little about it before. In fact, probably my whole understanding of the Hanseatic League derived from German car number plates. Several proud German cities, with Hanse history, use H in their plates. So Hamburg uses HH, for Hansestadt Hamburg;  Lübeck uses HL for Hansestadt Lübeck; Bremen and Rostock do the same. Even though the Hanseatic League is long gone, the memory of its importance survives. (You’ve probably heard of Lufthansa, though. Same root, same pride.)

What was the Hanseatic League?

There was no Hanse, as such, when those Cologne merchants got their London deed from Henry II. But there was considerable trading across the North Sea and throughout the Baltic, especially between Visby in Gotland and Novgorod in Russia. Novgorod gave access to the Russian interior which produced exports like furs, wax and honey. It also linked to the Silk Road and all the exotic merchandise that was available from those far destinations, even in the 12th century, as shown on the map below.

And what does the word Hanse mean? The League didn’t use that description formally until the 14th century. It’s a Low German word meaning band, or group, or similar. The merchants saw themselves as ‘gemene kopmen’, a society of buying men. Their counterparts in Flanders and England called them Eastlings or Easterlings (which some believe is the source of the English term ‘sterling’). Middle Low German was in common use across large areas around the Baltic and was not confined to what we think of, today, as Germany.

How did they travel in the Baltic and the North Sea?

Sailing and trading was a perilous business back then. They didn’t use anything like Viking longships but cogs, built for carrying cargo. Judging by the woodcut above, they don’t look all that inviting or safe. Even if you weren’t shipwrecked, you might be attacked by pirates who wanted to steal your goods and probably kill you. So sailing in convoy with other cogs was a good strategy. As was carrying weapons, which they certainly did.

Merchants bonded with others they knew and trusted, from their guild perhaps, or from their town, or with other towns. They all swore an oath to acknowledge the laws of their group. There was strength and defence in cooperation as you can see from this illustration (click to enlarge to read the English):

Where were the women? Merchants tended to make dynastic marriages. They wanted to know that the wife they chose would bring them help in their business and strong alliances with other wealthy merchant families. But that didn’t make the women into ornaments. No chance.

A merchant’s wife stayed behind to run his business, to receive moneys and ensure everything tallied, to run the household, including the (very hard-worked) apprentices. According to my guide, the merchants were almost totally dependent on the wife back home to ensure they stayed solvent and profitable. But, sadly, I found no mention of that in the Hansemuseum. Shame, eh?

Who governed the Hanseatic League?

We are not talking here about nation states. Nor was there much place for interference from the nobility of the time. One of the great advantages of Hanseatic towns was that their key members had trading privileges within the Holy Roman Empire and so were not subject to any local duke or elector. Hanse trade governed itself and didn’t have to bother about the local petty noble demanding a rake-off.

For example, Lübeck was founded by Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria. The image (right) shows Henry’s bronze lion statue, by the cathedral in his capital, Braunschweig (Brunswick).

Presumably, Henry wanted his new baby to thrive. He granted it free trade rights in the mid 12th century. And it was granted privileges under his 1161 treaty with Swedish Gotland to set up a permanent trading base.

Henry the Lion may also have had something  to do with the deal that Henry II of England did with the Cologne merchants in 1176. Because Henry the Lion was married to Henry II’s daughter, Matilda. Dynastic marriages were pretty common at all levels, back then.

And it got better…

Then, in the 13th century there were more deals for Lübeck: cooperation with Hamburg,  a trade deal with Novgorod and a salt deal with Lüneburg.

Why salt?

We have to remember religion. There were many fasting days in the Catholic calendar when meat was forbidden. Instead, people consumed fish, including dried cod and salted herring. Lübeck merchants were big in salt. They shipped it from Lüneburg which had been exploiting salt since the 9th century. And the canny Lübeck merchants didn’t import herring. Instead they exported the salt to where the fishermen landed the herring (Scania,  modern-day Sweden) and had it salted there. So the herring they eventually sold was bound to have been of better quality that if it had been shipped, for salting, to Lübeck. And by buying their herring at source, the Lübeck merchants got a better price. Pretty sharp, don’t you think?

Salt from Lüneburg to Lübeck to Scania.
Salted herring from Scania back to Lübeck for onward sale

Hanseatic League members and outstations

Members of the Hanseatic League had to be German, but that didn’t stop there being overseas stations. They weren’t manned by locals, but by merchants from the Hanse. The key outstations (shown as bigger on the map at the top of this blog) were Novgorod, Bergen, Bruges, London and, of course, Lübeck, Queen of the Hanse.

What was it like in London?

This image shows the City of London in the mid 16th century:

London mid 16th century with Hanse Steelyard shown in red, upriver from London Bridge

London with Hanse Steelyard shown in red, upriver from London Bridge

Such overseas stations were called Kontors and usually they were areas where all the Hanse merchants lived and worked. They elected a leader, called an Alderman. The London Kontor was called the Steelyard and was directly opposite the church of All-Hallows-The-Great, where Cannon Street station now stands. (There was no steelmaking involved. It was probably a mistranslation of the Low German which related to metal seals on sacks.)

Hanseatic League stall with spices and exotic fruits

Hanseatic League stall with spices and exotic fruits

Merchants and other Hanse workers in London were required to live in the Steelyard. They had to eat lunch together at midday and eat together again for dinner. Anyone leaving the Steelyard had to be back before the gates were closed, so the rules were restrictive. During the day, the Hanse people spent their time loading and unloading ships, moving goods to and from storage in their warehouses, perhaps making deals.

The London Kontor’s main export was woollen cloth which they sent all over Europe.  The cloth could be bought only in the Blackwell Hall, in the north-west of the City, open from Thursday afternoon to Saturday afternoon. The merchants from the Steelyard accounted for at least a quarter of all England’s wool exports. And they made money doing it, as this Holbein portrait shows. That’s definitely silk he’s wearing.

Hanseatic League London merchant Georg Gisze by Hans Holbein the Younger

Hanse London merchant Georg Gisze by Hans Holbein the Younger


The English wool merchants traded with the Hanse merchants but were also competitors. And conflict was brewing because Hanse merchants had a competitive advantage in London which English merchants did not enjoy in Hanse cities. Under their privilege, Hanse merchants paid 12 pence export duty per bolt of woollen cloth. English merchants had to pay 14 pence.

gold coinsYou can imagine that the English side were not happy.

That, with other issues in other overseas Kontors, was always going to lead to problems, no matter how rich and powerful the Hanseatic League might be. How that played out will be in next week’s blog.

And for a bit of light relief…

Braunschweig lionRemember Henry the Lion, who founded Lübeck and had a bronze lion statue made? There’s a folk tale about how he came to be called “the Lion”.

The story goes that Henry witnessed a fight between a lion and a dragon while he was on pilgrimage. Henry sided with the lion and together they killed the dragon. The lion then became Henry’s faithful pet and went home with him. After Henry died, the lion also died. Of grief.

Yeah, right. Sounds a remarkably long-lived lion, too, since Henry was well over 60 when he died.

This is Henry’s tomb, in Braunschweig cathedral which Henry established (though it was not completed before his death). No sign of a lion…Tomb of Henry the Lion, Braunschweig cathedral

More to come…

Next week’s blog will focus on the glory years of the Hanseatic League and its eventual decline. Do come back for more. Same time, same place.

And if you want to delve deeper before then, you can see a video about Lübeck’s Hansemuseum here. The pictures are great. There is no commentary (which is fine, I reckon) but most of the signage shown is in German, unfortunately. There is also a shorter video in English but it is, frankly, very amateurish and I don’t recommend it. Still if you want to have a go, it’s here.
Finally, BBC Radio 4 did an interesting programme on The Hansa Inheritance back in 2019 and it’s still available on BBC Sounds.

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland


Acknowledgement: Many of the images in this blog are my photographs of displays in the European Hansemuseum in Lübeck which is a first-class source of information on the Hanseatic League

14 thoughts on “The Hanseatic League (Hanse): origins and growth

  1. Ros Rendle

    I first heard of the Hanseatic League when we visited Bergen some years ago. Your article is most interesting. Thank you. My WIP is set in 1340s when Lincolnshire farmers and Cistercian monks were very involved in the wool trade going east.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome Ros and thanks for your comment. Yes, I remember history lessons about the importance of the wool trade and how the Cistercians gained great wealth from it. But until I started looking at the Hanse, I hadn’t realised how much of the trade they were actually controlling. Back then, English wool and cloth was highly valued and went all over Europe. Nowadays a fleece may not make enough to pay for the shearing. Sad.

  2. Sophie

    How absolutely fascinating. I really only heard about them when I started working in the Baltic States some years ago. And I had no idea the Hanse ever had an operation in London. Now I want to know more. Thank you.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, in northern Europe, they’re proud of their Hanse past but Brits have totally forgotten it. I didn’t know they operated in London either. And it was a big deal, it seems. Sadly, the archaeology is buried under Cannon Street station. There is, I think, a Steelyard Street or Lane or Alley but not much more. Anyway, before you go down the research rabbit hole, wait for next week’s blog when there will be more. And one of the fascinating things about the Hanse is that there was no leader or board of directors or similar. It was run on consensus and all the partner towns/cities had a vote. Amazingly democratic in a non-democratic age.

  3. Louise Allen

    King’s Lynn has some well-preserved Hanse warehouses but not as good as Bergen in Norway where there’s a wonderful collection of beautifully preserved wooden Hanse buildings

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think I remember visiting those buildings in Bergen, Louise. Haven’t visited King’s Lynn but it figures in the Radio 4 programme that I linked to in the blog. Sounds worth a trip.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Liz. It gets a bit grittier in part 2. There are bodies. (Not that that will worry a body-merchant such as you have become with “Murder among the Roses” of course.)

  4. Anne Harvey

    I first heard about the Hanseatic League when we visited King’s Lynn ten years ago. Still strong links there, methinks. I have a photo of one of the quays which would have been busy with shipping back in the day but couldn’t see where to post a pic. Anyway, many thanks.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I don’t think WordPress allows commenters to include pics, sadly. As editor, I can do so, but others can’t. King’s Lynn and Boston in Lincolnshire were both immensely important for the Hanse’s wool trade.

  5. John Jackson

    Fascinating! Much of this was aleady known to me – I worked for Hanseatic Shipping for many years. Hanseatic Shipping are owned by Bernard Schulte GmbH, a long-existing Hamburg based shipping company. They were one of the very first German shipping companies to “offshore” part of their operations – in this case, to Cyprus. A decent company to work for! In the words of a friend, “HSC never paid the most, never paid the least, but your monay was in the bank at the end of the month.”

Comments are closed.