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Who were the Hanse?

Updated on June 19, 2013

The Hanse, also known as the Hanseatic League came to prominence in the Fourteenth century. The Hanseatic League was made up of powerful and thriving ports centred around the North Sea are of Northern Europe. The Hanse roots belong in the Northern Germany City of Lubeck , Lubeck owed its founding to the Frankish King Charlemagne repatriating his loyal Catholic Slav allies to the territory once inhabited by his hated Heathen enemies the Saxon's.

They founded a settlement with good access to the Baltic and the North Sea, and the settlers prospered even in the face of North Sea piracy. Until Lubeck had been captured by the Germanic Duke of Saxony by the 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 .

The Hanseatic League

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

Notable City member's of the Hanse

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

Growth of the Hanse

By the early Fourteenth century Lubeck and other Cities of the Germanic 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 hundred's of years.

In the 1270's the towns of Lubeck and Hamburg who had already acquired trading privileges with the ruler's of Belgium and England, formed an alliance with its former rival's over the River Rhine to exploit trading revenues oversea's. By the mid 1280s 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 their economic interest. The Hanse did this by establishing trading bases in foreign lands and promoting the Guilds merits to the royalty of Europe. The league established permanent commercial enclaves, which cemented their influence oversea's. The Hanse could be found in a number of foreign towns, such as Bruges , Bergen in Norway, Novgorod in Russia, and the Steel Yard in London , England.

Surviving Hanse warehouse's in Kings Lynn, England.
Surviving Hanse warehouse's 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 giving favourable loans and gifts the Hanse became highly influential in European politics. As the Hanse power continued to grow they lavished their wealth in the foreign trading bases, many of the Merchants had expensive homes constructed, portraits commissioned and other works of fine art financed. They gave money to build public works and maintain their lofty status in the German States and other Nation's.

Although the Hanse had no standing army, it was able to impose it's will on Nation's with warfare. The Hanse had faced a serious challenge in the Fourteenth Century to its economic control of the Baltic by the Danish King Valdemar IV. 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 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 the Hanse control of the Baltic trade, he then had to pay the league a percentage of the Danish treasuries revenues for over a decade. To humble the Dane's even further, the Hanse now had a voice in the succession of future Danish Kings.

The Hanseatic league succeeded in enforcing the will of the North German merchants on the rulers of Nations and opened up the continent for Germanic trade. The Hanse had also secured the safety of members shipping, their convoy's of trade ships reduced the chance of pirates to strike successfully. This reduced the costs for the Guild members and the security of the convoys limited 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 Hull, Kings Lynn and Norwich expanded rapidly and this 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 late 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, could not compete with the new Empire's forming by the early 16th Century. For merchant's not part of the Hanse, the demise of the union would be a positive. Not every merchant had access to the Hanse favourable terms of trade, and monopolies restricted non-Hanse success.

The alliance of German 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. The Hanse failed to look at 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 power the Naval supremacy of the Dutch and British grew. Reinforced by their global wealth the Hanse could not resist the strength of the new European powers.


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    • Asp52 profile image

      Asp52 4 years ago from England

      Thank you again.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Well done again, thanks.

    • Asp52 profile image

      Asp52 4 years ago from England

      Good day to you also.

      I have only visited Germany once and loved it, I really enjoyed the views of the German landscape along the River Rhine. I believe a lot of the Hanse funded buildings have sadly been lost, it is a shame they have because most writings of the period describe really ornate and artistic work.

      Thanks for the comments

    • profile image

      Ghaelach 4 years ago

      Good day my Friend.

      Another excellent article on European history. As I've lived here for the last 20 years outside Düsseldorf in what might be classed as middle/west Germany, I can say I have visited the 3 main German members of the Hanse League,Lubeck, Hamburg, Bremen.

      Good research and good info.

      LOL Ghaelach