Episode 114 – The London Steelyard

If like many of you, you are listening to this podcast on your morning or evening commute and you happen to live in London, you may be one of the 20 million souls going through Cannon Street Station every year. Few of them will be aware that under their feet lay the vestiges of the great Hanseatic Kontor in London that goes back to 1176. If people know about the Steelyard, it is mainly through the portraits of merchants painted by Holbein between 1532 and 1536 at a time when the Kontor had only about 60 years left.

But there is a lot to tell about this now vanished building, its inhabitants and trade. It is a story of infighting between the various cities that were still to officially form the Hanseatic league, of trading privileges granted to fund first a crusade and then the hundred year’s war, and it is also a great opportunity to introduce the oldest, largest and richest member of the Hanseatic League, the city of Cologne.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 114 – The London Steelyard If like many of you, you are listening to this podcast on your morning or evening commute and you happen to live in London, you may be one of the 20 million souls going through Cannon Street Station every year. Few of them will be aware that under their feet lay the vestiges of the great Hanseatic Kontor in London that goes back to 1176. If people know about the Steelyard, it is mainly through the portraits of merchants painted by Holbein between 1532 and 1536 at a time when the Kontor had only about 60 years left.

But there is a lot to tell about this now vanished building, its inhabitants and trade. It is a story of infighting between the various cities that were still to officially form the Hanseatic league, of trading privileges granted to fund first a crusade and then the hundred year’s war, and it is also a great opportunity to introduce the oldest, largest and richest member of the Hanseatic League, the city of Cologne.

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Last week we talked about the two Kontors at Bergen and at Bruges. The Hanseatic Counting Houses or Kontors are the most visible manifestations of the League, an organisation that had no common foundation treaty, no statutes, no administration (at least not until 1556), no army, no treasury and no seal. They are like the tip of the iceberg that points to the mass of interconnections below the surface. They were also one of the key reasons first individual merchants and then whole cities wanted to be part of this association.

Being admitted to the Kontor of say Bruges meant that you could now trade freely with other foreigners on the greatest exchange in Europe, you were protected from local justice, nobody could call you out for a trial by combat. And even more tangible you paid either no or much reduced tariffs on the wares you imported or exported and you could have them weighed by the Kontor, a place you trusted a lot more than the local scales.

There were in total four major Kontors, Novgorod, Bergen, Bruges and London. Beyond that there were others, for instance in Oslo or Smolensk, but they were either small or short-lived. Today we are going to talk about the one closest to our Anglo-Saxon listeners’ heart, the Steelyard or Stahlhof in London.

The Kontor in London goes back to the year 1176 when King Henry II of England declares quote: “Henry, by the grace of God king of England, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou to all his viscounts and baillies of London – greetings. I hereby allow the people of Cologne to sell their wine on the same market where the French wine is sold, and at a price of 3 pence per pint. And I prohibit anyone from hindering them or doing them any harm”. End quote.

In a second ordinance he grants them the right to set up their Guildhall where they themselves and all their wares should be protected. That guildhall is the steelyard.

And note that this privilege is not given to all the merchants of the Holy Roman empire or the Gotlandfahrer or the Hanseatic League, but only to the people from Cologne and only for their import of wine. I am not the expert on Cologne, that is Willem Fromm over at the History of Cologne Podcast.

But as an avid listener of the History of the Germans you are sure familiar with it. One of Germany’s oldest cities, a metropolis since the days of ancient Rome, Cologne in the 12th century was the largest settlement in the empire north of the Alps. Its citizens lay in almost perpetual conflict with their overlord, the archbishop of Cologne and had achieved a significant level of independence already. They would gain even more freedoms after the battle of Worringen in 1288 and by 1475 Cologne had become a free imperial city.

In 1259 the archbishop Konrad of Hochstaden granted Cologne the right of the Staple. That meant that any merchant who passed by the city was required to unload his goods and offer them for sale on its market. Given Cologne’s position along the North-South route from Italy to England and the East west route from France onto the Hellweg and further on into Poland and the Baltic, Cologne’s market was the place to find almost anything that was traded in Europe. Cologne merchants sat at the centre of it and thanks to right of the staple could become the intermediaries of Northern European commerce.

Apart from that role as a broker, they also brought in products from the surrounding areas. There was the steel produced in the Sauerland and the Westerwald they bought up for either further distribution or to be turned into swords and armour in the city itself. The great reliquary of the three kings attests to the quality of the gold and silversmiths in the region whose products graced churches in many parts of Northern Europe.

When you think of things Cologne is famous for today, it is Carnival and drinking copious amounts of the delicious straw-yellow beer called Kölsch. So, was that also one of the main exports? As it happens no. For two reasons, one is the obvious. Kölsch is served in small 200ml glasses because it goes off incredibly quickly. And the other even more compelling reason is that it only got going properly in the 17th century.

But alcohol is not far off the mark. The by far largest business of the merchants of Cologne was in what they called the wine of the Rhine. This was the mainly white wine not just from the classic Rheingau and Rheinhessen region between Bonn and Speyer, but included the valleys of the tributaries, the Ahr, Moselle, Saar, Ruwer and Main and even further upriver.

The largest supply actually came in from Alsace. Alsace wine was amongst the most popular across Northern Europe and the quantities were astounding. We hear that the region around Colmar produced as much as 100,000 hectolitres of the stuff in the 14th century. That is 13 million bottles. Today the whole of Alsace produces 150 million bottles, but one has to take into account not just improved agricultural technologies but also the fact that Europe’s population has grown by factor 15 since then.

The trade in wine was not only massive, it was also ancient. In 1878 workmen discovered an ancient Roman funerary monument in the village of Neumagen on the Moselle. The monument comprised two stone ships, each 3m long carrying barrels of wine. Scaled up these ships were about 17m long carrying 22 oars and 44 rowers. Given their size and shape, it is believed such a ship was suitable to transport wine not just on the Moselle and Rhine Rivers but even on the North Sea, which means that at least theoretically the export of Moselle Wine to England goes back to the 3rd century or even earlier.

The Cologne merchants had a stranglehold over the trade. They had established a purchasing model where they would themselves travel south to buy the wine and then ship the barrels up to Cologne and from there to the main export destinations, Flanders and England. But not only there. Cologne merchants are known to have shipped their wine all the way up the Baltic to Tallin, and in no small quantities.

German Wine from the Rhine was so popular in England, it compelled king Henry II to grant the merchants of Cologne royal protection and the right to settle in their own trading yard. That is hard to believe given that today German Wine is best known in England and the US for excessively sweet plonk branded Liebfraumilch or Blue Nun. Before World War I German wine, in particular the Riesling from the Rhinegau and Moselle was considered on par with Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux. Prices were similar if not higher. The prestige of German wine went through the roof when queen Victoria visited the town of Hochheim in 1850. German wine was called Hockeimer or just simply Hoch after the town in Hesse. If you read English novels from the 19th century, the upper-class protagonists are constantly drinking Hoch. But that came to an end during the World Wars as export links were cut and drinking German wine was seen as unpatriotic.

Nowadays the great wine critics, be it Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker will make a stand for German Riesling, but to no avail. In part that is for reasons of taste as the sweeter Auslese, Beerenauslese and Eiswein are simply not what wine drinkers prefer. But there are some spectacular crisp, dry Rieslings made all along the Rhine, Moselle and my favourite, the Nahe that leaves any similarly priced Sancerre in the dust. I am going to put a list of my favourite producers in the show notes. Try it, you will not regret it.

Nor did King Henry II regret his sponsorship of the Cologne merchants in 1176. The merchants of Cologne constructed their guildhall on the shores of the river Thames, one of the largest buildings in England entirely dedicated to trade. Henry II’s son, Richard the Lionheart granted them relief from all taxes and dues in exchange for fitting out three ships for the crusades, a deal of truly epic stupidity proving again that this favourite of English kings was a bit of a dunce.

The Cologne merchants were however not the only Germans that started to show up in England in the 13th century. When we talked about the Herring trade in Scania we mentioned that English traders who had come to the Oresund with the salt from the Baie of Bourgneuf and competed with the Hanseatic merchants. Their trade was quickly disrupted by the Hansards from Gdansk as well as the other cities along the Baltic shore who had no salt of their own.

These traders sailed down to Brittany themselves, picked up the salt and got in on the Herring trade, squeezing out the English. The same happened with the Stockfish trade of Bergen, which also been controlled by the English before 1284. Having pushed the English out of Scania and Bergen, the logical next step was to take over the entirety of their trade, bringing their products, including the beeswax and furs to the English ports on the eastern shore, to King’s Lynn, Boston, Yarmouth and Hull.

These men, called the Easterlings as they came from the east began eying up the lucrative privileges of the Cologne merchants. Getting in on the tax-free status the London steelyard had achieved would have boosted their net take home pay by quite a margin and would have helped to squeeze out the locals. Talking about the locals, the English merchants suffered badly from the German competition.

But still the royal authorities were keen to promote the imports of the luxury goods from the east and hence granted these new arrivals similar privileges to the Cologne merchants. It was the beeswax in particular they cared about. In 1266 the Hamburg and then the Lübeck merchants were granted the right to form their own trade associations and settle in England.

Meanwhile the merchants from Westphalia found their way into England as well which meant that we now have three different groups of German traders in England with ever so slightly different sets of rights and privileges.

This situation led to conflict between the different groups, in particular the old Cologne merchants and the Easterlings. The Cologne guys had the older rights and they worked on the basis of co-operation with their English neighbours, whilst the Easterlings were more aggressive trying to carve out a bigger and bigger share of the business at the expense of the English.

A resolution came about through the mediation by the Westphalians who had their hand in both the Rhine valley trade and the Baltic trade. In 1282 the three groups agreed to form a joint trading association, which they called a Hanse. The word Hanse originally described just an association of individual merchants who came together for a specific purpose. Quite similar to the word Commune in Italy.

It is only over time that Hanse became a term describing a co-ordination mechanism between several cities not just for one temporary purpose but for an infinite term. It is in these charters from 1266 and 1282 that the term Hanse first appears.

Whilst the Hanse as I have said before had no charter or institutions, the Steelyard in London had. Like the Gotlandfahrer and the Kontors in Bergen, Bruges and Novgorod, the Steelyard had its rules that all merchants in the Kontor had to adhere to. The Kontor had two Aldermen, one amongst the merchants who stayed at the Steelyard on a temporary basis, be it for a few weeks or a few years. And another Alderman who had to be a citizen of London whose role it was to maintain the link between the City and the Steelyard.

Other than in Bergen, the relationship between the Kontor and the city was cordial. There were lots of social interactions and many of the German merchants lived outside the Steelyard in their own houses. Fraternisation with the locals and even settling permanently and becoming a citizen of London and an English subject was allowed if not encouraged. Still the Kontor had to maintain strict discipline in particular amongst the young and mainly single male population who had come here for the Middle Ages equivalent of a gap year.

The Kontor took part on city life and took on the obligation to maintain and man the Bishopsgate, one of the main fortified gates of the city.

In 1303 another English king, Edward I tried to streamline the complex system of trading privileges and tax exemptions by introducing the Carta Mercatoria that allowed all foreign merchants to freely settle in the kingdom, trade with locals as well as other foreigners, be relieved of all duties and obligations and receive the protection of royal authorities in exchange for a massive increase in excise duties on wool and leather.

The locals who still had to pay all duties and provide all kinds of services to the king whilst being bullied by the bailiffs were unsurprisingly enraged by the huge favour shown to ruddy foreigners. Hence his much softer successor, Edward II had to recall the Carta Mercatorum.

Most of the rage was directed at the Italians whose importance in trade eclipsed the Hansards. That allowed the German merchants to stay under the radar and they continued to enjoy the grand privileges of the Carta Mercatorum. The next Edward, Edward III of Crecy and Poitiers fame was also a great fan of the German merchants. He kept granting them favours throughout his 50-year reign.

In return the Hansards helped him in what he needed most – money. Edward III’s hundred-years war was an unimaginably expensive undertaking. Edward III borrowed money all across Europe, mostly in Italy though. His biggest creditors were the Bardi and Peruzzi in Florence who lent him 210,000 pounds. But the Hanseatic merchants too were willing to chip in. Their financial muscle was much smaller than the great Italians, but they made up for it by focusing on sentimental value.

Edward III had pawned his large crown to the archbishop of Trier for 50,000 Ecu and the smaller crown of the queen for 10,000 to a consortium of Cologne bankers. When the creditors threatened to sell off the crowns of England to the highest bidder, the steelyard merchants stepped in and paid them off in 1344, saving the king from humiliation. We cannot see whether Edward paid them back, because in 1345 he defaulted on the huge loans from the Bardi and Peruzzi, creating the first international banking crisis, a crisis that allowed the Medici to rise from the second tier to becoming the world’s largest banking house and rulers of Florence.

By then the Germans in the steelyard wound down their lending operations, in part because of the risk, but also because the locals did not take kindly to seeing their tax dollars going offshore as interest payments.

By the 14th century the Hanseatic trade in London had expanded majorly from just selling wine, beeswax and fur. Their interest now lay in the growing cloth production of this sceptred isle. England had been the main supplier of wool to Flanders where the cities of Bruges, Ghent, Ypres as well as the northern French cities of Arras, Beauvais, Amines etc. had become almost industrial centres of textile production. Seeing the enormous wealth that could be made in cloth production and the fantastic cathedrals that could pay for, the industrious English wanted a piece of that pie.  

English cloth was cheaper than the prestigious product from Flanders and found a ready market in the Baltic and across the German lands. English cloth would receive an official lead or wax seal to indicate that it had been produced or dyed in England and that the relevant tax was paid. The process of attaching such a seal was called “stalen” in low German which is one of the reasons the German guildhall became known as the Stalhof in Low German and was then badly translated as steelyard into English and then retranslated into High German as Stahlhof with an “h”. There was some steel traded here, but that was almost certainly not the reason for the name.

King Edward III died in 1377 and with it the great supporter of the Hanse in London went away. Even towards the end of his reign relations between the Hanse and its English neighbours had deteriorated. The English may have been pushed aside by the Hanse in Bergen and Scania and had seen their king favouring foreigners, but they would not let that stand. A new generation of merchant adventurers was taking the Hansards head on, sailing into the Baltic themselves to buy and ship the eastern goods so desired back home.

This conflict will become a long and drawn-out affair that will test the unity of the Hanse itself. That and the other conflicts with Denmark and Flanders will form the centrepiece of the next few episodes when the League reaches the zenith of its power. For that to start you will have to be a bit patient. I am on holiday at the moment, so episode production has slowed.

I also notice that I am making very stupid mistakes such as proclaiming 7 times 12 is 72. Probably all for the better that I have left the world of banking. Normal service will resume in two weeks. But no worries, you shall not be deprived of Hanseatic content.

Next week an episode of the excellent Scandinavian History podcast will drop into your feed where Mikael Shankman discusses the Hanse from a Danish, Swedish and Norwegian perspective. I am sure you will enjoy that. See you on the other side!

Before I go, let me thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans. It is thanks to you this show does not have to do advertising for products you do not want to hear about. If Patreon isn’t for you, another way to help the show is sharing the podcast directly or boosting its recognition on social media. If you share, comment or retweet a post from the History of the Germans it is more likely to be seen by others, hence bringing in more listeners. My most active places are Twitter @germanshistory and my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. As always, all the links are in the show notes.    

And just to remind you, the sub-podcast The Hanseatic League is still running. So if you want to point a friend or relative towards the History of the Germans but want to avoid confusion, just send him there. The Hanseatic League is available everywhere you can get the History of the Germans.

And last but not least the bibliography. For this episode I again relied heavily on:

Derek Keene: Guildhall and Stalhof in London,

Stuart Jenkins: Leben im Stalhof,

both in Die Hanse, Lebenswirklichkeit und Mythos, herausgegeben von Jürgen Bracker, Volker Henn and Rainer Postel

Philippe Dollinger: Die Hanse

Rolf Hammel-Kieslow: Die Hanse