Martial Merchants of the Baltic

The German Hanse, the loose association of German merchants which operated in the Baltic and North Seas from the middle of the twelfth century to the mid-seventeenth, is often referred to in modern historical surveys as the ‘Hanseatic League’. It was no such thing. The term ‘league’ implies a well organized structure which it simply did not possess. It had no charter, no sovereign territory, no corporate treasury and no standing military; it did not even have a permanent governing body. Its only legislative assembly was the Hanse Diet, called the Hansetag, which met infrequently amid sparse attendance. It had neither a seal nor even an official title until the mid-thirteenth century, when its members adopted the name Hansa Teutonicorum, dudesch Hense. Even the heading ‘Hanse’ is somewhat amorphous. It was derived from hansa, the Latinized version of a word found in the fourth-century Gothic translation of the Bible by the missionary bishop Wulfila, meaning ‘troop’ as in a ‘warrior band’. It eventually came to be applied to groups of travelling German merchants who banded together for mutual protection and increased profit, as in a ‘guild’. Aside from ethnicity, the only traits they had in common were language (Middle Low German) and commercial enterprise. The Hanse itself provided perhaps the most precise definition in a 1469 missive to the English Privy Council:

The Hansa Theutonica is … a firm confederatio [confederation] of many cities, towns and communities for the purpose of ensuring that business enterprises by land and sea should have a desired and favourable outcome and that there should be effective protection against pirates and highwaymen, so that their ambushes should not rob merchants of their goods and valuables.

Accordingly, Philippe Dollinger, the doyen of Hanseatic historians, determined that the German Hanse should more appropriately be labelled the ‘Hanseatic Community’, a confraternity of German merchants who cooperated in matters of common commercial interest. The venerable French scholar was, however, quick to point out, ‘This did not prevent it from replacing the feeble imperial authority and thus becoming a front-rank political power in northern Europe, capable of conducting victorious wars against neighbouring states, though these always served economic objectives.’ It has been estimated that by the end of the fifteenth century the Hanse controlled, in the aggregate, a fleet of around a thousand vessels (excluding coastal lighters), boasting some 60,000 tons, making it Europe’s leading naval power of the period. It used this power to dominate the Baltic for nearly two centuries.

Foundation and Expansion (1159–1356)

The German Hanse began with the rebirth of Lübeck as a Baltic trading centre in 1159 at the behest of Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony. Its location in the Trave estuary on the southwestern shores of the Baltic made it the perfect port for German merchants to partake in the rich eastern trade which the Frisians and Scandinavians had exploited for centuries. Merchants flocked to Lübeck from Westphalia, Saxony and the Rhineland. Henry the Lion amplified the community’s commercial prospects by negotiating a trade agreement with the Scandinavians of Gotland Island in 1161. Gotland, located in the central Baltic, was the gateway to lucrative trade routes through European Russia to the East, so German merchants from Lübeck soon thronged there, setting up their own community at Visby on the island’s west coast. These German merchants then travelled with their new-found Gotland trading partners down the Neva river to Novgorod, where in 1189 they won a trade treaty (their first) with Prince Yaroslav III Vladimirovich. This led to the establishment of their own community near the Novgorod market, called Peterhof, which Prince Konstantin Vsevolodovich officially recognized around 1206 as the first Kontor (‘counting house’) or merchant quarter of the Hanse. Other major Kontors would eventually blossom in Bruges, Bergen and London.

Through the Peterhof Kontor, these German merchants acquired coveted commodities such as furs, wax, tar, honey, flax and oriental luxury goods. Moreover, their community in Gotland enabled them to tap into the rich herring fisheries of Skania as well as the copper and iron mines around Falun in eastern Sweden. It also facilitated the establishment of outposts in ancient Livonia on the northeastern shores of the Baltic, where Albert of Buxhoeveden’s crusading Brothers of the Sword founded such towns as Riga (in modern Latvia) in 1201, Reval (now Tallinn in Estonia) in 1219 and Dorpat (Tartu, also in Estonia) in 1224. From Livonia the merchants procured timber, amber and resins. The southeastern Baltic was subsequently opened to the Hanse by the Teutonic Knights. In the 1220s Herman von Salza, Grand Master of the Teutonic Order of St Mary’s Hospital in Jerusalem (the Teutonic Knights), set about conquering Prussia from the indigenous Slavic pagans at the invitation of Duke Konrad of Masovia (east-central Poland). Operating from Kulm on the east bank of the river Vistula, the Teutonic Knights eventually succeeded with the result that Danzig (modern Gdańsk in Poland) became a vital German port on the Pomeranian coast. It adopted Lübeck law around 1235 and merchants of the Hanse began shipping wheat, rye and barley from its harbour shortly thereafter.

In exchange for all these eastern goods, the merchants of the Hanse imported textiles from Bruges in Flanders, wine from Cologne in the Rhineland and metalworks from Goslar in the Harz Mountains of Lower Saxony. By the second quarter of the thirteenth century the merchants of Lübeck had mastered this lucrative synthesis of land–sea commerce, so aptly symbolized on their 1224 town seal which shows two men on a cog – one a land-based merchant from Westphalia, the other a seafaring trader from Schleswig – swearing an oath to one another. In 1226 Lübeck became a freie Reichstadt (‘a free imperial city’), governed by a constitution that catered to its commerce. Called ‘Lübeck law’, this maritime mercantile code became the template for the charters of Hanseatic towns all along the shores of the Baltic.

As the marriage of land and sea trade routes grew more profitable, the need to protect it from brigands and pirates became more acute. In an age of waning imperial power, the merchants assumed greater responsibility for their own safety through cooperative action. This inevitably led to an alliance of mercantile cities. Lübeck and Hamburg were the first of these. The road between them was one of the most critical commercial arteries in northern Europe. Goods brought from the British Isles and southern Europe by way of the North Sea were transhipped at Hamburg for overland carriage to the Baltic by way of Lübeck. The reverse was true for merchandise from the Baltic bound for the North Sea. This was because the sea passage around the Skaw (Cape Skagen) of the Jutland peninsula through the Skagerrak Strait was notoriously long and treacherous. (Records from the late nineteenth century show that 125 modern ships ran aground on well marked Anholt Island in the adjoining Kattegat in a 23-year period alone.) Accordingly, the citizens of the two cities concluded a pact in 1241 to secure the land route between them. This was the beginning of what Dollinger deemed the ‘Hansa of the Towns’.

By 1265 other Wendish cities had joined – most prominently Kiel, Wismar, Rostock and Stralsund.16 As the Hanse network of towns grew, more opportunities manifested themselves. Hamburg controlled the road to Lüneburg and its saltworks, which the Hanse used to supply the saltfish fairs of Skania. It has been estimated that such herring markets sold 200,000 to 300,000 tons of fish every year at their peak. As demand for saltfish increased, Hanse vessels began bringing additional salt shipments from the Bay of Bourgneuf south of the Breton peninsula. Cargos of wine from Bordeaux naturally followed. Wool came from Yarmouth, Hull, Lynn (King’s Lynn), Boston and London in eastern England to feed the textile mills of Flanders by way of Bruges and Ghent, while cod came from Bergen on the southwest coast of Norway to expand the saltfish market. Inevitably, more permanent enclaves were needed in the major market towns to handle the burgeoning volume of merchandise. In 1252 and 1253 Margaret, countess of Flanders, ceded the Hanse a number of commercial privileges which led to the establishment of a Kontor in Bruges, integrated into the merchant community. In 1266–7 Henry III of England granted the merchants of Hamburg and Lübeck privileges equal to those of Cologne, who had traded in the realm under royal protection since 1157. By 1281 the traders of the three towns had formed a single German Hansa in London with its own Kontor. It became known as the Stalhof or ‘Steelyard’. The last of the four key Kontors to be founded was the Tykebrygge (‘German Quay’) of Bergen, the statutes of which were blessed by King Magnus VII Eriksson of Norway in 1343.

As the route structure and volume of commerce expanded, so too did the membership of Hanse towns. By the middle of the thirteenth century the Hanse controlled a highly profitable trade axis extending from Novgorod through Reval, Lübeck, Hamburg and Bruges to London.By the time the association reached its zenith in the mid-fifteenth century some 180 to 200 towns from the English Channel to the Gulf of Finland belonged to it. About seventy to eighty of these were active members or ‘towns of the Hansa’, who sent delegates to the diets. The rest were considered passive or ‘associate towns’ (Beistädte). Many, particularly the coastal cities, were further linked through the adoption of some form of ‘Lübeck law’. They came to be arranged in three basic geographic units called ‘thirds’: the Wendish–Saxon towns, the Westphalian–Prussian and the Gotland–Livonian. The confederation of Hanse cities was more or less officially consummated in 1356 when it held its first Hansetag in Lübeck, which confirmed the subordination of the four principal Kontors to the combined will of the Hanseatic towns. By then, corsairs and competitors were already posing serious challenges to the trading alliance.

Cogs, Hulks and Caravels: the Ships of the Hanse

The seafaring tradition of the Hanse began with the launch of its leading city in 1159. ‘Lübeck had been founded essentially with seaborne commerce in the Baltic in view,’ writes Dollinger, adding, ‘Its inhabitants began immediately to build ships, so that its merchants, and also those from the interior, might sail for Gotland and Russia.’ And their ship of choice, almost from the start, was the Kogge (cog) which they constructed right in the harbour. English economic historian T.H. Lloyd concurs, saying of the city, ‘It was settled chiefly by west-German merchants who immediately took to the sea in cogs.’ Other coastal communities of the Hanse soon built them as well, often in shipyards along riverbanks called Lastidie. After all, cogs were much better suited than their Scandinavian predecessors for hauling the bulk commodities of the Baltic trade. Based on earlier Frisian precedents, the cog was broad at the beam with a flat bottom, which increased cargo capacity. The Bremen cog of the late fourteenth century (discussed in the previous chapter) was 23.3m (76ft 5in) long and 7.6m (25ft) wide with a capacity of around 80 tons. Boasting a high-sided, box-like hull with nearly perpendicular stem- and sternposts, the clinker-built version of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries was ideal for the coastal carriage of incipient Hanseatic commerce. As a result cogs were depicted on numerous Hanseatic town seals of the era.

The primitive state of navigation at the time dictated that ships be sailed within sight of land. With no compasses and no charts, the most important navigational tool for the early medieval mariners of the region was the lead-line for determining depth (as illustrated in the 1350 town seal for Elbing), which made it possible to hug the low shorelines of the North Sea as closely as possible without running aground. This was particularly true for the shallow tidal waters of Waddenzee, where maritime historians believe the sea-going cog was first developed. The vessel’s low draught and flat bottom allowed it to sail among the sandbars and shoals of this intertidal zone. It could even navigate up coastal rivers like the Eider of Schleswig-Holstein. Since the ninth century, or perhaps even earlier, cogs or similar ships were brought up the Eider and the Treene rivers from the North Sea as far as Hollingstedt and hauled the 16km (10 miles) to Hedeby on the Schlei Inlet leading to the Baltic. Moreover, when the cog reached its destination, which usually lacked sophisticated port facilities like a pier, its nearly level underside permitted it to be beached in shallow waters without heeling over, so that it could be easily offloaded.

The other major advantages the ship offered the merchants of the Hanse were ruggedness and simplicity. Nautical historian Timothy Runyan called the cog ‘a durable carrier in the cold and rough waters of the northern seas’. First of all, it was very solidly built. ‘The strakes of the Bremen cog are over twice the thickness (5cm or 2in) and three times the width (60cm or 24in) of the strakes on a Viking ship,’ notes Runyan. The transverse beams which pierced the hull were a massive 40 x 40cm (about 16 x 16in) and it was all held together with what Kasimiers Slaski of the Poznan History Institute characterizes as ‘big, iron, curved end nails’. Its high sides and broad beam enabled it to endure high sea states while the rounded bilge at the edge of the flat bottom gave it an easier ride with better stability. With a square sail on a single mast stepped slightly forwards of amidships, the vessel performed well in a following wind, but could also work to windward if necessary. Initially steered with a side oar attached to the port side, the cog gained significantly improved handling with the addition of the sternpost rudder sometime before the mid-thirteenth century. The vessel proved not only more seaworthy than its Scandinavian precursors, but also more economical and easier to construct. Planks were sawed rather than split, meaning shipwrights needed less wood and fewer skilled craftsmen to produce a ship. Lastly, all the required materials from timber for the planks to iron for the nails were in ample abundance in the Baltic region.

A critical side benefit of the cog was its ready convertibility from commercial to martial purposes. Their high hulls already made them seem like waterborne fortresses to vessels with lower freeboards, such as galleys and other oared ships. The Hanse enhanced this inherent advantage in the late thirteenth century by adding temporary castles fore and aft, following English precedents. Later, the crenellated castles were made integral to the ship’s construction. Thus, ordinary merchantmen could easily be transformed into formidable men-of-war, which the Hanse euphemistically referred to as vredenschepe (‘peace ships’). All that was necessary was to embark ample men-at-arms along with the appropriate engines of war like arbalests and crossbows. By the fourteenth century it had become common practice for Hanseatic ships transiting the Danish Straits to or from the North Sea to proceed in convoy, escorted by at least two such vredenschepe carrying around eighty men-at-arms.

As the fifteenth century opened, commercial traffic had increased to the point that Hanse merchants began seeking a craft with greater cargo capacity. They settled upon an updated version of the hulk shown on the 1295 seal of Shoreham. The Hanseatic hulk of the early fifteenth century (as depicted on the 1400 town seal of Danzig) retained the characteristic banana-shaped hull of clinker construction, but had adopted the keel of the cog, as modified by a curved bottom and rounded bilges. It was broader at the beam with a fuller bow and stern, allowing for larger loads. Also, the crenellated fighting platforms which topped the fore- and aftercastles appear to have been integral to the hull structure. The hulk was still propelled by a single, square sail, but a sternpost rudder had replaced the side oar for directional control. While no hulk has ever been discovered, its design evidently lent itself to enlargement. These vessels grew progressively bigger and more numerous so that by the middle of the century they had almost entirely supplanted the cog.

The final stage in the evolution of Hanse shipping was introduced slightly thereafter. In 1462 a French caravel named the Saint-Pierre de La Rochelle, which had apparently carried a cargo of salt from the Bay of Bourgneuf, suffered storm damage in Danzig harbour. Local shipwrights repaired the damage but in the interlude its owner passed away, causing proprietorship to devolve to the city of Danzig. Re-christened the Peter von Danzig, the huge ship served as a model for Hanseatic shipwrights for decades to come. Sometimes called Das Grosse Kraweel (‘The Great Caravel’), the vessel was immense, measuring 45.2m (148ft) long, 12.2m (40ft) wide with a draught of 5.33m (17ft 6in) giving it a capacity of about 833 tons (though one source estimates as much as 1,225 tons). It owed its size to the skeleton-first, carvel-style of construction in which hull planks were fitted flush to one another and nailed directly onto a prefabricated frame. Contemporary sources considered it a caravel, but its size and rigging (a foremast and a main mast bearing square sails, along with a mizzen mast carrying a lateen sail) suggest a ship more like a carrack. Whatever its precise nomenclature, Hanseatic shipwrights continued to replicate such multi-masted mammoths until the end of the era.