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Who were the Hanse?

Updated on April 18, 2019
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The Hanse, were also known as the Hanseatic League and they came to prominence in the fourteenth century. The Hanseatic League was made up of powerful and thriving ports centred around the North Sea and the Baltic area of Northern Europe. The Hanse have their roots in the German City of Lubeck. Lubeck was founded by the Slav peoples of the east who had been converted to Christianity by the policies of King Charlemagne. He repatriated his loyal Slavic allies to the territory once inhabited by his hated heathen enemies the Saxons.

They founded a settlement with good access to the Baltic and the North Sea. These new settlers prospered even in the face of piracy along the coastline. Before Lubeck was captured by the Germanic Duke of Saxony in 1160 AD, it had little involvement in continental trade. This started to change with a growing increase in artisans and merchants flooding into the City of Lubeck with the encouragement of the new ruler.

The Hanseatic League

A map including members and trading stations of the Hanse.
A map including members and trading stations of the Hanse. | Source

Growth of the Hanse.

By the early fourteenth century Lubeck and other cities of the German coast, were starting to trade among themselves and forge merchant alliances. From these early sporadic arrangements an understanding was reached and concessions were reached for the greater good. Soon the German States found their cities were starting to dominate the trade along the Baltic and Western European routes. This reversed the supremacy that the Scandinavian nations had held for hundreds of years.

In the 1270's the towns of Lubeck and Hamburg who had already acquired trading privileges with the rulers of Belgium and England, formed an alliance with its former rivals over the River Rhine to exploit trading revenues overseas. By the mid 1280's this guild or "Hanse" of German merchants trading throughout the West of Europe and the Baltic, banded together to create the Hanseatic League of Europe.

The overall aim of the Hanse was to organize and control trade throughout Northern Europe by expanding commercial privileges for the German Cities. The Hanse attempted to establish monopolies inside and outside the Germanic zones of economic interest. The Hanse did this by establishing trading bases in foreign lands and promoting the guilds merits to the royalty of European civilization. The league established permanent commercial enclaves, which cemented their influence overseas. The Hanse could be found in a number of foreign towns, such as Bruges, Bergen in Norway, Novgorod in Russia, and in London, England.

Other Cities Influenced by the Hanse.

  1. Lubeck
  2. Cologne
  3. Bremen
  4. Stetitin
  5. Hamburg
  6. Wisby
  7. Gdansk

Surviving Hanse Warehouses in Kings Lynn, England.
Surviving Hanse Warehouses in Kings Lynn, England. | Source

The Hanseatic League's Achievements

The Hanse was able to ingratiate themselves with the monarch's of Northern Europe, by offering favourable loans or by presenting majestic gifts. The Hanse soon became highly influential in European politics. As the Hanse power continued to grow, they lavished their newly acquired wealth in their foreign trading bases. It was here were many of the merchants had expensive homes constructed, portraits commissioned and other works of fine art financed by the leading artists of their time. The prominent members of the Hanse gave money to build public works and maintain their lofty status in the German States and in other nations that offered them further opportunities for greatness.

Although the Hanse had no standing army, it was able to impose its will on sovereign nations with a show of force, they used mercenaries and conspired with receptive princes to initiate joint hostile ventures. The Hanse had faced a serious challenge in the fourteenth century, its economic control of the Baltic by the Danish King Valdemar IV had been under threat. The Hanse merchant members raised an armed force that defeated the Danes in 1368 AD. The Hanse had used ships to blockade Danish ports and they paid ship captains to raid Denmark of her wealth in pirate actions.

In the Peace of Stralsund 1370 AD, the Danish King was forced into a humbling settlement with the Hanse. First he had to recognize that the Hanse controlled all of the Baltic trade and then he had to pay the league a percentage of the Danish treasury revenues for over a decade as reparations for the costs incurred by the Hanse. To humble the Dane's even further, the Hanse now had a voice in the succession of future Danish kings due to the extended influence of their merchants in the royal court.

The Hanseatic League succeeded in enforcing the will of the North German merchants on the rulers of other nations and opened up the continent for Germanic trade. The Hanse had also secured the safety of members shipping, they made their trade ships travel in convoys which reduced the chance of pirates to strike successfully. This reduced the overall costs for the guild members and the security of the convoys limited financial damages to the merchants, making more money for the German merchants.

The Hanse opened up European trade and allowed the rapid expansion of European trading hubs. Even those cities not officially members of the Hanse, grew rich off the League's trading enterprises. Soon Wool from East Yorkshire was transported to Bremen for Wine and pottery. English towns such as Kingston Upon Hull, Kings Lynn and Norwich expanded rapidly and this growth was matched in other European nations.

The Hanse had helped start a mercantile revolution. The fresh rise of the middle classes and republicanism can be seen in later Hanseatic actions.

The Demise of the Hanse

The Hanseatic League started to decline for a number of domestic and international reasons. Europe was constantly changing, and the North German dominated Hanse could not expect their dominance of the Baltic and North Sea trade to be eternal. The political landscape of Northern Europe had changed much since the Hanseatic League had formed. The league was a merchant union and although rich and powerful, they could not compete with the new fledgling empires forming by the early 16th century. For those merchants who were not part of the Hanse, the demise of the union would lead to many positives. Not every merchant had access to the Hanse favourable terms of trade and monopolies negotiated with the elder statesman and royal houses, ultimately restricted the success of thouse who were not part of the Hanse.

The alliance of German mercantile towns could not compete with the the rise of nations, the German states were fragmented and could not co-operate long term. The English, Spanish, French and Dutch formed global trading bases and they became world powers, due to the vast naval vessels they could build.

The Hanse failed to look towards the opportunities in the New World and were content to try to maintain their influence over the North Sea area. The newly independent Dutch soon dislodged the Hanse from much of their established trading routes. As the Hanse demised in political power, the naval supremacy of the Dutch and British grew. They were reinforced by their global wealth and the Hanse could not resist the strength of the new European powers.

© 2013 Andrew Stewart


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