The Hanseatic League (Hanse): zenith and decline

Hanseatic League stall with spices and exotic fruits

Replica of Hanseatic League (Hanse) stall selling spices and exotic fruits

Hanse trade was vast

In last week’s blog, I wrote about the rise of the Hanseatic League or Hanse. It became very powerful—and extremely rich—simply by working really hard and trading very cleverly. To give you an idea of how extensive Hanse trade was, take a look at this graphic from the Hansemuseum of all the items traded through Bruges (click to enlarge to read):

Hanseatic League imports and exports through Bruges Kontor

imports: cloth at the top, metals, foodstuffs, weapons, exotic animals, luxury goods and more 
Exports: jewels, pearls, carpets, parchment, sugar, weapons, furs, sponges, dyes and more

Clearly, if you were wealthy enough, you could buy practically anything known at the time. At the top of the blog, I’ve repeated last week’s image of a replica spice stall. But there are more.

Are you looking for metalwork items, from plates and bowls to armour?
Come this way, madam, sir…

Hanseatic League metalwork stall replica

Replica of Hanseatic League Hanse stall selling metalwork, weapons and armour

Cloth, madam, sir? Of course, we have everything from the finest English broadcloth to oriental silks. And furs, naturally. This way, please…

Replica Hanseatic League stall selling cloth and furs

Replica of Hanseatic League stall selling cloth, from fustian to silk, and furs

Overdoing the wealth bit, maybe?

Sumptuous Hanse dressSo it’s no wonder that Hanse merchants became very rich as I showed in that Holbein portrait last week. What’s more, the Hanse men, especially the younger ones in London, tended to flaunt their wealth in what they wore. At the 1518 Hansetag, one envoy complained:

The merchants dress in velvet and silk like kings; there is hardly a boy in the Steelyard without a doublet of satin or damask.

The Hansetag adopted stricter sumptuary laws more than once, but London merchants ignored them. Moreover, the merchants’ business ethics were declining which damaged the Hanseatic League’s reputation and their ability to trade on credit.

All that led to envy and malice, especially in a place like London where the English merchants had good reason to complain that the system favoured the Hanse guys over the home-grown merchants.

Hanse democracy in the 14th century?

The Hanseatic League people wouldn’t have called their system “democracy” but that’s essentially how they ran things. At its height, the Hanse had about 200 member towns and cities. Decisions were taken by unanimity at a diet, called a Hansetag, held in Lübeck most years from 1358. Member towns were entitled to send representatives and be heard. (The graphic below shows how the 21 cities represented at the 1518 Hansetag chose their envoys.)

How Hansetag representatives were chosen

How Hansetag representatives were chosen, two from each city

Seems straightforward, doesn’t it? But think of the travel back then. Even though the Hansetag took place in summer (June-July) when you were less likely to be shipwrecked, it was still a perilous business. And the journey could take weeks, too, especially if you were coming from a long distance. (Danzig arrived a week late in 1518.) But if your town wanted its voice heard, it had to be there.

Lübeck Hanse Hansetage 1518 participants

There was squabbling over precedence at Hansetage—who sat nearest the front and, crucially, who spoke first. But in the end, everyone had an effective veto because the Hansetag continued to discuss a subject until they could reach a position where everyone agreed. Discussion could, one imagines, be very long. Sometimes, if a town’s representatives knew they were going to be pressured into a decision they didn’t want to make, they would leave for home before the diet ended so that their town was not bound by the outcome. Sounds a bit sneaky, doesn’t it?

Expulsion from the Hanseatic League: being verhanst

Subjects at the Hansetag varied from mundane to momentous. One of the most crucial decisions the Hansetag could make was to expel a member town from the Hanseatic League (called being verhanst). A verhanst town or city was in big trouble. Not only could they not use the services of the League to trade, all the other members of the Hanse were forbidden to trade in any way with the verhanst town. Such a sanction could have terrible consequences.


Braunschweig St Martini church and old Rathaus

Braunschweig St Martini church, old Rathaus

Take Braunschweig, city of our old friend Henry the Lion. His Braunschweigers had a reputation for being more than a bit unruly.

The city had overstretched its resources and got into debt which damaged the Hanse’s creditworthiness. Taxes had to go up as a result and Braunschweig wasn’t happy about it. The people rioted, murdered key Hanse leaders in the city and drove their families out, naked.

In 1375, Braunschweig, though a key centre of metalworking for the Hanse, was verhanst.

Braunschweig Gewandhaus Drapers Hall

Braunschweig Gewandhaus (Drapers Hall)

The results for Braunschweig were devastating. They couldn’t trade with anyone. If they couldn’t trade, they couldn’t afford to live. It was disastrous.

So Braunschweig pleaded for readmission to the Hanseatic League. It took 5 years before the Hanse relented. Braunschweigers had to appear at the Hansetag on their knees. And they then had to make a penitent pilgrimage to the Pope in Rome as well.

Flanders boycott and Hanse justice

Earlier, in 1358, there was a Hanse boycott of Flanders (area in white on the graphic). This arose because the city of Bruges tried to increase taxes on Hanse merchants to pay for Flanders’ part of the Hundred Years’ War. The Hanse retaliated by moving its Kontor from Bruges to Dordrecht in Holland (pink on graphic) and boycotting the whole county of Flanders.

The result was that no Hanse member was allowed to trade with Flanders. Flemish cloth production collapsed. People starved. Two years later, the Count of Flanders and Flanders cities capitulated to the Hanse.

One German Hanse merchant, possibly because he was related by marriage to families in Flanders, possibly because he saw an opportunity for excess profits, did do some trading with Flanders on the side. The Hanse discovered his breach of the rules.
He lost his head.

It was clearly not good politics to mess with the Hanseatic League at its height. Their justice was ruthless. Remember my comment last week about pirates attacking Hanse cogs? The Hanse was ruthless with them, too, as this woodcut shows. (Note the row of severed heads, top right.)

Hanseatic League's execution of pirates, Hamburg

Hanse challenges and decline

In the first half of the 14th century, things were going swimmingly for the Hanseatic League. Huge trade networks, great wealth, prestige. What could possibly go wrong?


We 21st century people can really sympathise with the Hanse here. Out of the blue came a devastating disease, the Black Death. As an added irony, the plague spread via the Hanse’s own trading routes. And it killed at least a third of Europe’s population, possibly more. As a result of the Black Death, English cloth exports halved; the price of dried fish more than doubled.

Plague spread 1350

The resulting loss of people meant that the leading merchant families could no longer call the shots as they had before. The lower strata, the traders and artisans, wanted a say. The numbers problem meant that the rebels were bound to win there. Eventually, they did and the richest merchants lost some of their power to run things to further their own interests.

Religious upheaval and assertive princelings

Dominican friarsReligious life was changed radically by the theses of Martin Luther (1519) and other reformers in the early 16th century. By 1521, the first Hanse towns had adopted the new faith, though there was much political upheaval and war.

Even before the Reformation, the Hanse had been struggling against the increasing power of local rulers. Some towns were no longer autonomous. At the Hansetag in 1518, it was agreed that such towns could no longer attend any Hansetag and so could not influence Hanse decisions. That created a damaging split in the Hanse: two groups of members with different rights.

Where a town was heavily indebted (as Lübeck was), switching to the new faith provided an opportunity to confiscate the Church’s assets to pay for the religious transition (and help with the debt). Unfortunately for the Hanseatic League, the nobility realised they could do the same and newly Protestant rulers used the wealth they “acquired” to extend their power even further. Henry VIII of England wasn’t the only one to use that trick.

Expansion of world trade

In 1492, Christopher Columbus reached the New World. Merchants from Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, England and France began further exploration, seeking wealth for Europe. Global trade developed quickly and cities like Antwerp and Amsterdam became economic powerhouses.

Voyages of discovery

That provided a challenge to the Hanse, trying to protect its markets in the North Sea and the Baltic.

Novgorod fur trader

Novgorod fur trader

The Kontor in Novgorod was soon lost, plundered in 1494 by Ivan III who expelled all the Hanse people. The English Merchant Adventurers found the northern route to Archangel and could sell English cloth without having to cross the Hanse stronghold in the Baltic. Coastal Hanse cities were becoming increasingly involved in trade with the wider world, while inland members were seeking protection against those assertive rulers I mentioned above. And the League’s foreign rivals (especially in England) were out to get the Hanse.

The Hanseatic League’s loose democratic structure was no great help against these challenges, partly because different members wanted different things. With hindsight, decline was inevitable. Merchants no longer needed the security of Hanse convoys or the backing of the Kontor because there were effective local laws to protect them. Many decided to go it alone.

The Loss of the Kontors

Hanse Kontorhaus in Antwerp

Hanse Kontorhaus in Antwerp (hand coloured)

The Hanse had been operating in outstations, Kontors, in Novgorod, Bruges, London and Bergen. Hanse merchants had been expelled from Novgorod in 1494. The Bruges Kontor was moved to Antwerp in the 1520s and a grand Kontorhaus (shown here) was built there in the 1560s. But the wars between the Protestant Dutch provinces and Philip II’s Spain drove the Hanse out in 1584. They never returned. So then only London and Bergen remained.

Not for all that long, either.

Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait)For centuries, there had been antagonism between English and Hanse merchants in London, as last week’s blog explained. The collapse of the European cloth market made the problems worse. In 1577, the City of London permanently denied the Hanse access to the cloth market in Blackwell Hall, though Hanse merchants seem to have continued to trade in cloth, somehow.

Then, in 1597, the Holy Roman Emperor banned English cloth traders from his dominions. Elizabeth I’s retaliation was drastic. In 1598 she closed the Steelyard and expelled the Hanse merchants altogether.

And then there was one.

Bergen dried fish storeThe Bergen Kontor exported mainly dried fish (stockfish) and imported mainly grain and English cloth, the latter for re-export to the rest of Europe. But then non-Hanse traders started sailing to Iceland to buy the stockfish direct and taking it straight to England, bypassing Bergen and the Hanse altogether.

The Bergen Kontor lost its competitive edge and, from 1630, was gradually taken over by the Norwegians. The last Hanse secretary left Bergen for Lübeck in 1764.

Hanse RIP

The Hanseatic League was effectively finished long before that last Bergen secretary in the 18th century. At the Hansetag in 1629, it was resolved that Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck alone would represent the League. But it took 40 years before another Hansetag could be successfully convened and that 1669 meeting—the very last—simply petered out.

The Hanseatic League had disintegrated and the power of commercial cooperation between towns and cities went with it. Nation states and their rulers were becoming ever more dominant in central Europe (and we know how that ended). The Hanse became just a proud memory which is rather sad. It’s especially sad that, for most people in Britain, it’s not a memory at all. But now it is for me, and for you, too, I hope.

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland

Joanna, Hanse fan

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

4 thoughts on “The Hanseatic League (Hanse): zenith and decline

  1. Liz Fielding

    Fascinating stuff, Joanna. And, as you say, pretty much unknown in the UK. That woodcut is chilling. Interesting, too, that it wasn’t just Henry VIII, taking advantage of his fallout with Rome, who decided that it was a useful excuse for looting church property.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes, isn’t it interesting? We here (insular as we are) tend to assume Henry VIII was the only one getting richer via confiscation, but he clearly wasn’t.

  2. Sophie

    Goodness, that is an astonishing sequence of decline. OK, plague and a falling away from their own trading standards may have contributed – but oh dear, mercantile jealousy and princely power grabbing seem to have been the predominant causes. Horrible.

    I wonder far along that road Europe is today?

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