The Hanseatic League and its Decline
by Prof. Rainer Postel, Bundeswehr Universität
A paper read at the Central Connecticut State University, New Britain, CT, on 20 November, 1996.
My home town is Hamburg, Germany - to be exact: the free and Hanseatic city of Hamburg. This is its official title. In practical terms the Hansa does not exist any longer, and when Hamburg adopted this name, the Hansa had obviously expired one and a half centuries before. But in fact the real end of it is as hard to determine as its beginning, and even its nature has long been misunderstood. Let me try to explain.
In historical research, the Hansa had a long shadowy existence, for when interest concentrated on princes, powerful realms and heroic battles, a loose community of towns mainly inspired by mercantile considerations attracted little attention.
Georg Friedrich Sartorius, in his Geschichte des hanseatischen Bundes in 1802 called it a half-forgotten antiquity. In the meantime there have been intensive studies. But on the one hand they nearly exclusively treated the first half of its history, the time of rise and success in the Middle Ages rather neglecting its later fate. And on the other hand the Hansa experienced a lot of political and nationalistic misinterpretations in former historiography.
Its definition was a problem already under discussion in its time. After having deteriorated since the middle of the 15th century, English relations with the Hansa reached their lowest point when in the summer of 1468 English ships were seized in the sound by Danish vessels. The Hansa was suspected to have at least shared responsibility for that. King Edward IV straight away imprisoned the Hanseatic merchants in London and confiscated their goods in order to compensate the English merchants. The Hansa, he explained, was a society, cooperative or corporation, originating from a joint agreement and alliance of several towns and villages, being able to form contracts and being liable as joint debtors for the offences of single members.
In the Hanseatic reply the Lübeck syndic stated that the Hansa was neither a society nor a corporation, it owned no joint property, no joint till, no executive officials of their own; it was a tight alliance of many towns and communities to pursue their respective own trading interests securely and profitably. The Hansa was not ruled by merchants, every town having its own ruler. It also had no seal of its own, as sealing was done by the respective issuing town. The Hansa had no common council, but discussions were held by representatives of each town. There even was no obligation to take part in the Hansa meetings and there were no means of coercion to carry through their decisions. So, according to the Lübeck syndic, the Hansa could not be defined by Roman law and was not liable as a body. This was in fact correct and deliberately ambiguous; the Hansa was frequently urged to give a self-definition as well as the exact number of its members and deliberately left all this unclear, thus leaving questions for historians as well.
Examining the ambiguous term Hansa does not help us very much; it means a crowd or community as well as their membership dues or common law. Besides, the sources give numerous names to characterize the Hansa. But these are mentioned more or less casually and don't explain the subject.
According to a widely held opinion, the Hansa was a community of low German towns whose merchants participated in the Hanseatic privileges abroad. Where politically convenient it stressed the solidarity of its merchants, and at the latest since the Lübeck meeting in 1418 there were repeated efforts to obtain a firm federal constitution. On the other hand, the Hansa was lacking the essential legal elements of a federation. There was no pact of alliance, no statutes, no obligation for certain economic and political aims, no chairman with representative authority, and no permanent official, until Dr. Suderman became Hanseatic syndic in 1556. And there were no means to punish disobedient members apart from exclusion, whereas instruments to be used externally were blockade, embargo and even war. So the Hansa in some way resembled a federation, but it was more a legal community as to its privileges abroad.
One might even doubt whether such confederational concept is justified. Institutional strength was missing and clashes of interests within were evident, partly irreconcilable. So more recent views are quite cautious: Ahasver von Brandt spoke of a community of interest, existing and being in individual cases able to act at a time only in so far as the interests of the individual towns or citizens really coincided. Its only aim was to attain privileges abroad and to secure their undisturbed use by its members. Klaus Friedland called it a trade alliance in an eventual case of emergency. Obviously the Hansa cannot be described appropriately in terms of national law.
It is difficult as well to find out is members. The Hansa left this deliberately unclear and avoided giving precise details about which towns belonged to it, which means which merchants were admitted to its privileges. In fact exact information would have been hard to give, as final decisions on membership were made by the foreign trading posts that sometimes ignored the decisions of the Hansa meetings. Incidentally the membership was in a permanent change.
From the 15th century on there exist numerous lists of members for different purposes, out of which a core of about 60 towns between the rivers Ijssel and Narwa becomes evident. But those lists are neither complete nor reliable and partly contradictory.
Numbers in the literature vary between 70 and about 200 members. Depending on the intensity and duration of participation in Hanseatic activities one can also distinguish different degrees of attachment. Since the 15th century, often 72 member towns are mentioned; besides that, there was a number of smaller and economically weaker towns unable to send representatives to the Hanseatic meetings on their own. They were represented by bigger neighbor towns. So there was a smaller circle of Hanseatic towns that took part in trade, were invited to the meetings and influenced their decisions, and a wider circle, whose merchants also benefited from Hanseatic privileges. Attending the meetings was no exclusive right, but rather a tiresome and expensive duty one liked to evade.
To become a member, first the town's merchants had to take part in Hanseatic trade. From the middle of the 14th century (when the step from Hansa of merchants to the Hansa of towns had already been made) the Hanseatic meetings had to decide on formal applications; their decision depended on whether admission was advantageous to the Hansa or not. So in 1441 Kampen was admitted again, but Utrecht refused in 1451. Smaller towns could be admitted informally by one of the bigger ones. A special case was Neuss in 1457, being raised to the rank of a Hanseatic town by an imperial privilege. Loss of membership occurred by not using Hanseatic privileges, by voluntary withdrawal or formal exclusion (Verhansung) in case of serious violations of Hanseatic principles or interests. And both - admission as well as exclusion - did not concern a confederation of towns, but privileges or German law. In most cases it was hard to find out and sometimes a point of disagreement when a member was admitted.
As I mentioned, it was above all unknown since when the Hansa itself existed. There was no founding date or act. Even contemporaries did not know how it came into being. In a lawsuit in 1418 Cologne searched for the founding charter in vain.
There were important preconditions, such as the German medieval colonization of Eastern Europe, the opening up of the Baltic area, the founding of Lübeck in 1143 (resp. 1159), and the formation of a merchant cooperative on Gotland. But none of these was the foundation of a community of merchants and towns.
The first mention of a "Hansa Almaniae" comes from 1282, concerning merely the community of the London trading post. A communal spirit beyond such single communities became apparent only in the middle of the 14th century, when King Magnus Erikson of Norway in 1343 granted freedom of trade and customs to the Wendish towns and to all merchants "de hansa Teutonicorum." Soon afterwards members of the Hansa appeared in different places, self-confidently standing up against hinderances of their trade. "Hansa" soon meant the North German merchants in the North Sea and Baltic area as a whole. In historical sources, too, it became more and more concrete.
First signs of a common Hanseatic awareness can even be seen one century earlier, when in 1252/53 delegates from Lübeck and Hamburg, in the name of all German merchants trading in Flandres, negotiated with Countess Margaretha, even though the different regional groups got separate copies of their privileges. Obviously all persons affected saw their interests looked after by these negotiators. On the other hand, particularly in England, distrust and frictions between the Colognes (having been privileged here since the middle of the 12th century) and the "Osterlinge" (who appeared some decades later) arose, though the Lübeck and Hansa merchants in 1266/67 got the same privileges by the King as the Colognes. A general Hanseatic solidarity here seems to have been lacking until in 1281 the Colognes and the "Osterlinge" became reconciled and began to build up a trading post community of the German merchants in London. This London trading-post community, one year later called "Hansa Almaniae," was an important nucleus of the later Hansa. Another one was the early connection between Hamburg and Lübeck that in the 13th century gained the leading role in the Baltic trade, thus preparing its leadership in the Hansa itself.
This could be observed by the statutes of the big trading posts abroad. Nowgorod for instance in 1293 raised Lübeck to be its court of appeal. In general these trading posts were regulated more strictly than the Hansa as a whole. Here the statutes of the Bruges office 1347 are to be mentioned, which divided its merchants into three rather independent groups related to their origin. This indicated the considerable differences of interest and was the example for the organizational division of the Hansa into thirds in the 15th century. When in 1554 it was divided into quarters, this already indicated its decay.
When for the first time delegates of the Hanseatic towns met in Lübeck in 1358, this might be regarded as the beginning of the European importance of the Hansa. The assembly had to discuss violations of rights and privileges in Flandres and imposed an embargo against that county. This was completely successful: privileges were restored, legal security was achieved and extended to the whole country, and compensation was paid. By the way, this development showed the considerable independence of the northern part of the Holy Roman Empire, and even the imperial city of Lübeck kept some distance to the Reich.
The effective acting against Flandres encouraged the towns, particularly with regard to the Danish King Waldemar IV. He once had ascended to the throne with Lübeck's support, but later expanded his power in the Baltic at the expense of the Hanscatic trade. The Wendish and Pomeranian towns broke off their trade with Denmark and resolved to act militarily. Though they tried to ally with north European princes, the main burden was borne by the Wendish towns - Lübeck, Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, Lüneburg, Hamburg. Under Lübeck's command, their fleet besieged Helsingborg in 1362. But lacking support, it failed and the outcome was an unfavorable armistice. The Lübeck Mayor Wittenborg was made responsible for that and decapitated. The Hansa continued the war with privateers but could not avert a disadvantageous peace in 1365.
This brought no end to King Waldemars hostile trade policy that now also provoked resistance among Prussian and Dutch towns. From their alliance, joined by the Wendish towns, in 1367 there originated the "Cologne Confederation" that included 75 towns and the Netherlands. For nearly two decades this was a firm federation of the most important Hanseatic towns (though without Hamburg and Bremen). It was financed by a special customs duty and entered alliances with Mecklenburg, Sweden, and the Counts of Holstein. By extreme effort, this confederation raised a powerful fleet and army that surpassed the contractual commitments. For the Hansa the new war on land and sea beginning in 1368 became quite a success, made manifest in the well-known peace of Stralsund in 1370:
By leaving the last unused at the death of Waldemar in 1375, the Hansa showed its main goals to be economic. Its towns gained supremacy in the Baltic trade, controlled the sound and temporarily drove out the Dutch and the English from the Baltic. While particularly the Prussian towns demanded the further occupation of the sound fortresses and the continuation of the Cologne Confederation, under the pressure of the Wendish towns and the Dutch those were returned in 1385 and the confederation not prolonged. Obviously the majority of the towns did not want a formal federation, but only a community of interests without power politics. This showed the diversity of members and interests as well as of goods and trading areas from the Baltic and Russia to the Iberian peninsula. Furthermore, it showed the contrasts between the Prussian towns and Lübeck, that tried again and again to stop their direct trade via the sound to Flanders and England. The Prussian towns found support in the Teutonic Order of Knights (being a member of the Hansa as well). But this Order faced increasing pressure from the rise of the Polish-Lithuanian realm. And Prussian trade to the West met more and more difficulties, since the Danish Queen Margaretha I ascended the Swedish throne in 1389. The Hanseatic towns headed by Danzig imposed an embargo on Denmark and Stockholm, but it had little effect. In 1397 Margareta proclaimed the union of the three Scandinavian kingdoms in the Kalmar Union.
It was her rival for the Swedish throne, Duke Albrecht of Mecklenburg, who from Wismar and Rostock employed pirates - the notorious Vitalienbrüder - in order to hurt the Baltic trade. Together with Prussian towns, the Teutonic Order defeated those pirates on Gotland, driving them out of the Baltic Sea. Their scattered survivors, led by the famous Klaus Störtebeker, were finally overcome by Hamburg sailors in the North Sea. This caused Denmark to renew Hanseatic privileges in the realms of the Kalmar Union. However the Teutonic Order already had passed the peak of its political power. Its defeat in the battle near Grunwald-Tannenberg 1410 shook its position in the Hansa permanently.
For many historians the Hansa in early 15th century had reached the summit of its economic and political development, the Blütezeit (heyday). Nevertheless unfavorable factors already became visible:
In order to resist this, the Hansa diet at Lübeck in 1418 discussed the plan of a temporary alliance of towns. The outcome was poor, as at that time particularly the Wendish towns had to get through serious internal uprisings.
Anyhow the following clashes with Denmark (1426-35) proved Lübeck and the Hanseatic towns unable to preserve the influence over the Scandinavian countries that they had achieved in 1370. On the other hand, disagreement and disunity within the Hansa obviously in most cases led only the most affected towns to be active. Here and more often these were the Wendish towns as an essence primarily interested in the Baltic trade, the Scandinavian privileges and frequently acting politically or militarily for the entire Hansa.
All efforts to resist the growing princely pressure unanimously failed, until in 1442 Berlin-Cölln lost its independence by a surprise coup of Elector Frederic II. A meeting of North German princes in Wilsnack next year indicated the danger of joint princely actions against cities. This finally gave rise to the first Hanseatic "Tohopesate" in 1443, a three-year defensive alliance against internal and external threats and highway robbery. 38 towns took part, passing their test successfully already in the next year in a feud between the town Kolberg and the Duke of Pomerania. Therefore in 1447 this alliance was prolonged, its membership expanded, and in 1451 it was renewed again, as princely threats persisted.
Beyond preserving the freedom of towns which were in danger, it was about a fundamental problem: precondition for Hanseatic membership was the unchallenged rule of the town council inside and outside, not only formally. Only few members were imperial cities (e.g., Lübeck, Goslar); the remaining lay in territories, but were practically independent because of their political and economic strength. By obtaining important sovereign rights, they had achieved far-reaching emancipation from territorial rule. Depriving the council of power was a reason for exclusion, as was explicitely laid down in 1418. This meant that the Hansa was an association for the defense of the council's oligarchies too, in order to maintain the leading, sometimes patrician houses of merchants or guild masters in power. This could be threatened by civic uprisings as well as by princely attacks, dangers obviously increasing in the 15th century, not to mention the growing competition of the English and Dutch trade.
There were also clashes of interest between coastal and inland towns, as coastal towns - instead of the initial idea of common trade on land and sea - tended to take over the more profitable trade on the North and Baltic Sea, pushing down the inland towns to mere suppliers. Especially Hamburg and Lübeck by this contributed to the dissolution of the Hanseatic community. In addition internal conflicts increased because of demands of participation and social contrasts. Due to clashes of interest inside the Hansa, the growing threat of princely power caused no strengthening of the collective Hanseatic federation impetus. The "Tohopesate"-alliances for longer terms were of doubtful use and were no remedy for problems in trade policy. Instead, the more regional leagues of towns rather were stimulated, particularly in the Wendish quarter, where Lübeck was still dominant.
The external threats intensified, especially due to the serious conflict with England (1469-1474). For the Hansa it was embarrassing that the Cologne merchants in England left the Hanseatic line, as England was the most important trading partner for Cologne. Its conflict with the Hansa arose already in 1468, when Cologne declined the taxes decided by the Hansa diet for Brabant and the Netherlands as too high, Cologne having extensive trade relations in that area. Obviously its egoism was prevailing.
The conflict with England arose from decades of discussion over the legal position of English merchants in the Hanseatic towns and over the Hanseatic privileges in England, repeatedly ending up in acts of violence. When finally in 1469, the Steelyard, the Hanseatic trading post in London, was destroyed, this meant war, in the course of which in 1471 Cologne was excluded from the Hansa. But England, too, was weakened by internal factions. Even the king was expelled to the Netherlands in 1471 and could reconquer his throne only with support from the Hansa, especially Danzig. So inspite of several heavy defeats suffered by the Hanseatic fleet, the Hansa achieved a very favourable peace in Utrecht 1474. In fact this was the last outstanding success of the Hansa, though mainly resulting from lucky circumstances: Hanseatic privileges were confirmed, Hanseatic trade in England once more secured for nearly a century. Soon after Cologne was readmitted, but it had to accept severe financial conditions.
The success of the Hansa could not conceal the signs of further decline:
It seems impossible to say, when the decline of the Hansa really began, as it factors existed long since
Another factor was the Reformation, bringing the process of dissolution of the Hansa to a new stage. The spreading of Lutheran teaching in the early 1520's was common to all Hanseatic towns and soon linked with political and social questions. This in some cases became a serious menace to security and established order. The Lübeck Hansa diet in 1525 therefore tried to set up a common defense draft . But due to the varying advance of Lutheranism, being partly violent and in most cases successful, this failed. In some places iconoclasm occurred (Stralsund, Stettin, Brunswick, Münster). At last nearly all Hanseatic towns followed the Reformation, except Cologne, thus increasing its inner distance.
More detrimental to the Hansa were some of the political consequences of the Reformation. In Lübeck the immigrant merchant Jürgen Wullenwever through the support of the Reformation movement ascended even to the mayor's post, overthrowing the old leading class of the town in 1533. His efforts to regain the powerful position Lübeck had in former times, ended in a disaster, enhancing the loss of significance not only for Lübeck but for the entire Hansa. His endeavour to expel Dutch trade from the Baltic matched the Lübeck interests, not that of the Prussian towns. His privateering warfare against dutch trading vessels grew into a big war against Denmark and Sweden, the so called "Grafenfehde" (Counts-feud), as two counts comanded his troops. This war went far beyond Lübeck's forces. The other Wendish towns kept sceptical distance, as Wullenwever followed above all Lübecks own aims and went on too daringly. In order to get allies among north German princes and even Henry VIII of England, he promised them the crowns of Denmark and Sweden, pretending they would soon be at his disposal. Thus he was prepared to widen the conflict all over Northwest Europe. But none of the mentioned risked that adventure. It were the neighbouring Hamburg and Lüneburg that mediated peace in 1536. At that time Wullenwever was already overthrown, and in Lübeck the old council's power had been restored. Wullenwever's end was quite symbolic: he was captured by the Archbishop of Bremen and later handed over to the strictly catholic Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, brother of the former, where he was submitted to a spectacular lawsuit and executed. This was to demonstrate the victory of traditional order and princely rule against urban intent to maintain freedom and independence.
Another mischief was the defeat of the Schmalkald Federation in 1547 (the Federation being named after the place of its origin in 1531 and acting as a defensive alliance of Lutheran towns and territories). Among its founders there were several Hanseatic towns, more of them joining in later, defending with their religious belief simultaneously their independence. Their failure therefore did not only mean a heavy loss of money paid on contributions, war expenses and penalties. It also once again showed their discord, as of course Cologne stayed aloof from that alliance, Lübeck after the Wullenwever adventure did not join the war against the Emperor, and the besieged Magdeburg did not get any help from other Hanseatic towns. But in spite of that defeat the Lutheran faith could be maintained.
Even more unfavourable was the international development. In the Baltic, once dominated by the Hanseatic trade, Denmark and Sweden gained increasing preponderance, more and more refusing foreign trade and preventing all Hanseatic efforts to restore Hanseatic trade to Russia to its former extent. King Christian IV of Denmark and Norway (1588-1648) was a rigorous adversary of urban liberties, harming Hanseatic trade and politics with all his might. In 1604 he cancelled the Hansa's exemption from duty in the sound. He vexed Lübeck's trade and shipping in the Baltic, compelled Hamburg to a formal homage in 1603, denying all Hamburg claims to be subject to the Emperor only and in 1616 built up the fortress Glückstadt at the Elbe in order to hurt Hamburg's trade.
In the west the London Steelyard faced more violent attacks against its privileged position by English merchants. The beginning of the Dutch revolt against Spain led to the expulsion not only of numerous Dutch emigrants, but also of the English Merchants Adventurers Company from Antwerp. Both of them found favourable conditions to settle in Hamburg, bringing profit to this city but hurting Hanseatic rules that forbade tree trade for non-Hanseatic members in Hanseatic towns; even merchants from other Hanseatic towns were restricted. Hamburg was the best example to show that economic success was no longer based on old Hanseatic rules. Protests from other towns had little effect. Lübeck even appealed to the Kaiser to proceed against the English monopolists in the Reich. But the imperial intervention had little influence. It rather caused the closing of the London Steelyard in 1598; incidently the Kaiser himself procured extensive English deliveries. Though the Steelyard was returned in 1606, it did not recover its former significance.
The Dutch war of independence against Spain since 1567 quickly meant the end of Hanseatic postitions in that area, although the Antwerp trading post of the Hansa had been reopened in 1555 and in 1568 for the first time moved into a new residence, the biggest secular building the Hansa ever erected. It was to be used only for a few years. Disturbance, Spanish plundering and the siege of Antwerp in 1584/85 drove out the last merchants. While some cities had profit from the Dutch refugees, the attempted reastablishing of Hanseatic trade in the Netherlands failed definitely.
Obviously the development was in more than one respect contradictory, as it showed the weakness and internal contrasts of the Hansa, while some of its members, above all Hamburg, were quite prosperous, gaining profits by the Dutch and dealing even with Catholic Spain. In 1607 Lübeck, Danzig, and Hamburg achieved a very favourable commercial treaty at the Spanish Court.
Because of the infirmity of the Hansa since the middle of the 16th century, plans and repeated efforts were made to restore its community. Since princely support was not available, consolidation was tried as to its own organization:
Nevertheless there was still some common spirit as shown by the successfull intervention of several towns, when Brunswick was besieged and attacked by its Duke in 1605/06, and in 1616 they even achieved a defensive treaty with the Netherlands. This however proved to be worthless, when war began. The 30-Years War seemed to accelerate the decay of the Hansa. Obviously the respective towns depended entirely upon themselves, only some of them being sufficiently fortified. Wallenstein - imperial commander-in-chief - occupied Wismar and Rostock. The remaining towns mostly were in danger too, particularly since Sweden had joined the war in 1630.
Therefore the Hansa diet in 1629 authorized Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg - being the most active and well-to-do members - to act for the entire Hansa, as it was impossible to assemble at any time necessary. This mandate of trust then concerned Wallenstein's siege of Stralsund, but remained unspecified and was never cancelled. In 1630 these three cities agreed on a defensive alliance providing help for all member towns in danger. Facing the war this was clearly unrealistic; still this alliance later was prolonged decade by decade, thus establishing the tradition that Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg resumed in early 19th century. This obviously concealed that the decision of 1629 was rather an act of resignation, not a reform.
By the end of the war in 1648, several Hanseatic towns were under Swedish rule (Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, Stettin), Magdeburg was destroyed. On the other hand Hamburg and Danzig had grown, Hamburg mainly profiting from its recent fortification and its bank, founded in 1619, that made it a secure market, a place for diplomatic negotiations and financial transactions (when the Swedish war was subsidized by France) and a shelter for refugees.
When peace conferences began in Münster and Osnabrück, they were attended by Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg, referring to their commission from 1629. Although there was some discussion about the admission of at least Bremen and Hamburg, as their imperial status was in dispute, by skillful diplomacy they achieved a remarkable success. In order to reestablish Hanseatic trade and privileges, which suffered many losses during the war, it was their aim to explicitly include the Hansa in the peace treaty finally sealed in 1648. This was at first denied by the German princes and the Kaiser. But first in 1645 the Hanseatic negotiators managed to be included in the Swedish-Danish peace (at Brömsebro); in 1646 they renewed the defence-treaty with the Netherlands, thus paving the way to be included, too, in the Dutch-Spanish peace treaty in early 1648, restoring the Spanish commercial treaty at the same time. So finally the Hansa was included, too, in the Famous Westphalian peace treaty in late 1648. It was the very first time that the Hansa was mentioned in an official document of the Holy Roman Empire.
This of course was another paradox, as the constitutional establishment (or rather confirmation) of the Hansa matched by no means its actual condition. To stabilize it once more, the forces were lacking as well as political freedom in many cases. There was no help, when Magdeburg was conquered in 1666. Because of lacking attendance (in spite of threatening invitations) no Hansa diet was held until 1669, when merely six towns were represented and no decisions made. It remained the last Hansa diet, the effective end of the Hanseatic league. Europe - as somebody said - did not need the Hansa any longer. Only Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg kept in contact, thus maintaining Hanseatic traditions.
It was around 1800, when Napoleon's army was destroying the Holy Roman Empire and conquering large parts of Europe, that the myth of the Hansa being a federation of strong, free and wealthy cities emerged. This - to end my story - was the reason why Lübeck, Bremen, and Hamburg, having regained political independence, assumed the official title of "Free and Hanseatic cities."