Founded in the 14th century and still around today it is the largest grouping of towns and cities in the world. The Hanseatic League is an alliance that has flourished for centuries based on European trade and co-operation – Freedom of movement of people and goods. It was the forerunner of the EEC and the EU. Goods were traded duty free by negotiation with different European countries.
Origins of the Hanseatic League
The Hanseatic League started from humble beginnings in the late 13th century by inter trading between the 39 Germanic states, which were ruled by princes and aristocrats, along the rivers that flowed between the different states. Then they got really ambitious.
It was decided to further trade possibilities with other countries through cooperation between merchants and politicians. Lubeck was chosen as the headquarters due to its position on the Baltic Sea, still close to the North Sea.
Lubeck was unusual as it had its own law which was administered by burghers rather than the nobility. It had a certain degree of autonomy and it spread the law via the Hanseatic League to other towns and cities up the Baltic coast. Many German town laws are still based on Lubeck Law today.
Every year merchants were invited to Lubeck to discuss the workings and agreements of the Hanseatic League in a process known as the HanseTag (‘Hanse day’). In fact it was more than a week of meetings. It took 100 days to sail from Bergen in Norway to Lubeck, which was one reason why the talks went on for many days. Agreements were made but were difficult to police.
Of ships, trade and pirates
The ships (kogge) were designed to be the largest ships afloat at the time, with cargo capacity of 300 tons and sailing properties designed for the Baltic and North seas. They carried passengers as well as cargo. While being the best available at the time, they would have not been suitable for the transatlantic trade pioneered by the Spanish and Portuguese in later years.
The ships were designed to prevent attacks by pirates by having high bows and sterns which allowed archers to fire down on any attacking pirate ship. The ships sailed in convoys which also protected them from would be attackers – a system still used in conflict areas today.
The most famous and for many years the most successful pirate who robbed Hanseatic ships was called Klaus Stortebecker. He was born in 1360 and beheaded in 1401 in Hamburg. He managed to extract a promise from the mayor that every crew member that he managed to run past after his head was chopped off would be saved from execution. According to legend, he managed to run past 11 men until the executioner tripped him up, but the mayor went back on his word and executed the whole crew!
The ships were owned by up to 30 merchants. If the ship was sunk, each merchant lost 1/30th of the value of the ship and cargo rather than the entire value. Interestingly, this was the forerunner of Lloyds of London.
The ships were flat bottomed so they could land on a beach. When the tide went out, they discharged and loaded cargo. When it came back in the ships floated off. This enabled them to trade with smaller towns without proper harbours. They traded with many ports as most of the space on the ships was taken up by cargo the crew and passengers had to sleep on deck. Wherever possible they put into harbours at night.
Domination of trade routes in the Baltic and North Seas
The Hanse had to compete over time with other European countries and in particular the Kalmar alliance (Denmark, Norway and Sweden) 1426–1435. The conflict arose after the Danish king opened up the Baltic trade routes to Dutch ships and imposed a toll on all foreign ships passing through the ‘Oresund’ to the Baltic Sea. The war concluded when the Hanseatic League were given free access to the Baltic, but the Dutch ships were allowed to trade in the Baltic sea.
The Hanseatic League led by Gdansk and Lubeck won the war with England from 1469 to 1474, which was also about English pressure against the trade of the Hanseatic League on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. It was eventually settled with England paying the Hanseatic League a substantial monetary settlement.
Agreements existed that suited all parties. For example, at the start of the 100 years’ war in 1337, Edward III of England pawned the crown jewels to the Hanseatic League who housed them in Cologne. The Hanseatic League were granted valuable access to the tin mines of Cornwall and English wool exports for the return of the crown jewels. They handled 90% of the English wool exports following this agreement.
Demise of the medieval Hanseatic League after 500 years
There were various reasons for the eventual fall of the mighty Hanseatic League.
- National governments wanted to take control of their own trading interests.
- The English merchant adventurers received a charter from Henry VII of England in 1505 which gave them a monopoly on the export trade of English wool.
- Queen Elizabeth I of England expelled the Hanseatic League from their Kontor (trading house) called the Steelyard in London in 1598.
- In the 16th century, European trade moved south and west to the New World, led by Spain and Portugal.
- At the same time, the herring moved from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea, which was the backbone of the prosperity of the Hanseatic League.
The modern Hanseatic League
In 1980 in Zwolle in the Netherlands it was decided to restart the Hanseatic League. Lubeck was still to be the headquarters and the new Hanseatic League spread very rapidly with the aim of tourism, culture exchange, development and business links. It has since formed a large and successful ‘Youth Hansa’ and has formed cultural routes through continental Europe connecting Hansa towns. It now champions fair trade and sustainability and consists of around 200 towns and cities in Northern Europe, from 17 different countries including England and Scotland.
In order to be a member of the modern Hanseatic League you have been either a member or trading partner of the original medieval Hanseatic League. You are required to submit your evidence to the headquarters, who verify or otherwise your claim. There are now two members in Scotland and six members in England, including Hull and Beverley in Yorkshire. In medieval times we also know that York and Scarborough were members, so they too could join the modern Hanseatic League if they wished.
The modern Hanseatic League enables young people from across Europe to continue to mix together and become friends. Towns benefit from the tourism and exchange of ideas on matters such as sustainability and tackling climate change, promoting fair trade, wetlands and land and water management. Renewable energy is a topic we’re all interested in – sustainability is a hot topic.
HanseTag in the modern Hanseatic League
HanseTag is still practised today. Every year the Hanseatic League towns and cities meet for four days in a different Hansa town. The most recent was in Neuss in Germany, where around 500,000 people met to discuss many of these topics. We also discussed the dreadful war in Ukraine and what the Hanseatic League can do about it, as we have members from Russia and Belarus. These members have been suspended until the end of hostilities.
At our marketing tent in the town marketplace, we talked to lots of people, encouraging them to visit us in England. We discussed the possibility of a cultural route, joining up all the English Hansa towns which is something we hope to introduce in 2023. It would be great to also arrange a visit from the replica Hanseatic ship from Medieval times, the Kogge.
We took two young people with us to the HanseTag in Neuss, from Beverley High School and Grammar School. They stayed on a ship with their own ensuite two-berth cabin. They were able to join 78 other young people aged 16 to 25 years old on the ship. They had a great time involving lectures, debates, sightseeing, rafting on the river Rhine and parties and generally getting to know each other.
Next year in 2023 we will be in Torun in Poland for the HanseTag and if you are interested, please get in contact via the editor-in-chief.