Episode 117– Embargoes

The Hanseatic League undergoes a fundamental transformation in the second half of the 14th century. It turned from a guild of merchants trading across the Baltic and the North Sea into an alliance of trading cities. An alliance that has proven that it can fight and win wars against major territorial powers. That sits quite uncomfortably with the existing European rulers who wonder what to do with this alien inside their body politic.

The Hanse had acquired a wide range of trading privileges in their main Kontors in England, Flanders, Norway and the Republic of Novgorod. These privileges did not only disadvantage the locals who were unsurprisingly hostile but also challenged the authority of the princes. That was just about bearable as long as this was just a community of grubby merchants from the Empire. Now that these merchants had built formidable cities, commanded great navies and toppled kings, it became an entirely different ballgame.

Furthermore, the legitimacy of the Hansa was fragile. The Hanseatic Cities, apart from Lübeck and Dortmund weren’t free imperial cities, making them at least formally subject to their territorial lords. As such they could not form an actual league of cities as the Northern Italian republics had done a hundred years earlier. Nor were they allowed to conduct foreign policy against their territorial lord, though they sometimes did. These fault lines will become ever more apparent as we go forward with our history.

This week we will get a first glimpse at what will lead to the ultimate demise of the League as we get into the year 1388, a year when the cities face off against three of the most powerful political entities in Northern Europe, the kingdom of England, the county of Flanders and the Republic of Novgorod.

Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 117 – Embargoes

The Hanseatic League undergoes a fundamental transformation in the second half of the 14th century. It turned from a guild of merchants trading across the Baltic and the North Sea into an alliance of trading cities. An alliance that has proven that it can fight and win wars against major territorial powers. That sits quite uncomfortably with the existing European rulers who wonder what to do with this alien inside their body politic.

The Hanse had acquired a wide range of trading privileges in their main Kontors in England, Flanders, Norway and the Republic of Novgorod. These privileges did not only disadvantage the locals who were unsurprisingly hostile but also challenged the authority of the princes. That was just about bearable as long as this was just a community of grubby merchants from the Empire. Now that these merchants had built formidable cities, commanded great navies and toppled kings, it became an entirely different ballgame.

Furthermore, the legitimacy of the Hansa was fragile. The Hanseatic Cities, apart from Lübeck and Dortmund weren’t free imperial cities, making them at least formally subject to their territorial lords. As such they could not form an actual league of cities as the Northern Italian republics had done a hundred years earlier. Nor were they allowed to conduct foreign policy against their territorial lord, though they sometimes did. These fault lines will become ever more apparent as we go forward with our history.

This week we will get a first glimpse at what will lead to the ultimate demise of the League as we get into the year 1388, a year when the cities face off against three of the most powerful political entities in Northern Europe, the kingdom of England, the county of Flanders and the Republic of Novgorod.

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Last week we ended on the Peace of Stralsund the masterpiece of the diplomacy of Henning von Putbus, the leader of the Danish Royal council. After the crushing defeat at the hands of the Hanseatic League and its allies, king Waldemar Atterdag and even the kingdom of Denmark itself had been done for. The allies’, i.e., the counts of Holstein, the king of Sweden, the duke of Mecklenburg and some of the great aristocratic Danish families intent was to turn the clock back to 1340 when the kingdom did not have a ruler, its great provinces had been mortgaged to German princes and the Hanse controlled to Oresund as well as the herring market in Scania.

By driving a wedge between the Hanse whose interests were mainly mercantile and its allies, the princes, whose interests were purely territorial, Henning von Putbus managed to preserve the kingdom of his absent monarch. It came at a price though.

Denmark had to cede control of the main castles that controlled the passage between the Baltic and the North Sea to the Hanse for a term of 15 years. Throughout that period the Hanse could collect 2/3rds of the tolls for the use of the Oresund and -even more important – could control who was allowed to go through and who wasn’t. Being able to block access gave the Hanse a monopoly on all trade with the Northeast of Europe. The Hanse had control of the export of Baltic herring a staple of European diet, of the finest beeswax that lit up the great cathedrals and monasteries and the large shipments of grain from the Hinterland of Pomerania, Prussia and Livonia that fed the large cities of Flanders and England.

The final concession Putbus had to make to secure a deal was to give these plebeian merchants a say in who would become king of Denmark once Waldemar Atterdag were to die. By the way, I initially called him Waldemar Dawn, which is a translation of the Danish word Atterdag. But I found it more fun to say the word Atterdag than the word Dawn, and if you search for Waldemar Dawn on Google you will struggle to find anything useful, whilst Waldemar Atterdag will get you straight there.

So, Waldemar Atterdag had no son. With his current wife still very much alive and past child-bearing age, the succession was likely to go through one of his daughters. The older, Ingeborg was married to Henry of Mecklenburg who in turn was the brother of the current king of Sweden as well as the son of the duke of Mecklenburg. The younger one, Margaret was married to Haakon, the king of Norway. Both of them had male children, Ingeborg’s son was called Albrecht and Margarets was called Olaf. 

Both were infants in 1375 meaning that their guardians, i.e., either the duke of Mecklenburg or the king of Norway would effectively rule Denmark. 1375 was the year king Waldemar Atterdag passed.

When the royal council of Denmark asked the Hanse, who amongst the two pretenders they were to choose, the Hanse went for the Norway option, king Olaf II who was five at the time. That seemed like the right decision since the Mecklenburger already had Sweden and were the overlords of Rostock and Wismar. It seemed a lot better to let the Norwegians have Denmark. Norway was a lot smaller than Sweden, further away and, as we heard before in the episode about Bergen, utterly dependent upon grain shipments from Lübeck and Prussia.

This was one of those decisions that were entirely rational but turned out to have been a majorly wrong in hindsight. What the Burgermeisters and city councillors did not know and probably could not even have imagined, was that Margaret, youngest daughter of Waldemar Atterdag was the greatest Scandinavian politician of the Middle Ages – full stop.

I heard Simon Sebag Montefiore saying on a different podcast that there is a fashion to elevate the role of women in history – presumably beyond of what their actual impact warrants. That may be so, but in the case of Margaret of Denmark there is no bigging up possible. She is undeniably an exceptional political operator, a crucial figure in Scandinavian history and the Hanse’s most formidable opponent.

But for now, you should park Margaret in the back of your mind. She will make her presence felt very soon. For now, we need to contemplate how the rest of Northern Europe felt about n association of cities taking charge of the fate of entire kingdoms.

For the last 150 years or so the counts of Flanders, the kings of England and the rulers of Norway and Novgorod had regarded the men who had come on their cogs from the east with furs, beeswax, grain, copper and whatnot as merchants. Which is not surprising given that was exactly what they were.

But in these years from 1360 onwards it had become clear that they were not just merchants. They had proven they could muster a navy that could bring down a king any time they so wanted. If the Hanse is not just a trading association but a political power, the trading privileges they held in Flanders, England or Novgorod take on a very different meaning.

No longer are they concessions made to attract trade and grow their own markets. They are also concessions to a foreign power that can use the benefits to fit out ships that could attack their harbours and castles. Moreover, some of these privileges meant the Hansards operated outside the jurisdiction of the local rulers. Cases against them for breach of contract had to be brought before their judges, not the local magistrate. In criminal cases they were either immune from the royal officials or were smuggled out of the country before they could be brought to heel.

In a world where the monarchies move gradually towards a modern understanding of the state as the holder of a monopoly on violence, these ancient privileges become increasingly hard to swallow.

All these misgivings were boosted by the constant complaints of the locals. The rulers own subjects  have to cough up for all the tolls and taxes these foreigners do not have to pay. The Hansards have privileges in the markets and in many places can even compete directly with their commerce by selling to retail customers.

And finally, along with the growing role of the state comes the understanding that all this economic activity actually matters. In 1319 the company of the Merchants of the Staple is established in England by Royal Charter. The merchants of the Staple are given the monopoly in the trade with wool, leather, lead and tin. That was intended both to concentrate the trade, making it more efficient as well as facilitating the collection of taxes and dues. A little later a competing association of Merchant Adventurers forms who trade in all the goods not covered by the monopoly of the Merchants of the Staple. They too receive a royal charter in 1407. And their major competitors are the Hansards.

These tensions result in an almighty blow-up in 1388. And it did not happen in just one place, but in three, but all at the same time. Let’s start with the events in Flanders.

When we left the scene in Bruges in 1360 the Hanse had just achieved a major victory. The city of Bruges had attempted to curtail the Hanse’s privileges. In response the Hansards staged a walkout thereby cutting Bruges off from supply of goods from the Baltic. Amongst those the grain from Prussia was the one that hurt the most. Bread prices for the lower classes in the overcrowded city went up, there was fear of riots and the citizens of Bruges, still the largest and most important trading place in Northern Europe had to cave.

For the subsequent 15 years things went reasonably smoothly, but by 1375 tensions rose again. The members of the Kontor complained to the Hansetag that Bruges was claiming import tax on the stockfish from Bergen, that they had banned the import of Hamburg beer and that the city authorities were unwilling to prevent attacks on their warehouses and then failed to honour claims for damages.

The Hansetag sent a delegation to Bruges to negotiate but they ran into a brick wall. After the delegation had returned back home, the Hansards in Bruges decided to take things into their own hands and stage another walkout.

They had to plan this in secrecy, not only because they did not want to give the city or the count of Flanders a chance to stop them, but also because they were no longer allowed to steer the policy of the Kontor themselves. Initially the Kontors were managed by the merchants who were on location at any given time. They would select their aldermen and make the decisions about how to handle any conflict with the locals. In 1366 the cities and the Hansetag took over control of the Kontors. From now on all major decisions had to be taken by the Hansetag and or one of the cities’ representatives on site.

Something went wrong in the process and the secret of the planned walkout came out before the Hansards could get themselves and their wares out of the city. The count of Flanders was apoplectic and had the merchants thrown in jail and their goods sequestered. Since they had acted without permission from back home, they did not get any support from the Hansetag.

Caught in the middle, the German merchants in Bruges had to swallow the demands of the count of Flanders. They were made to stay and to trade from their now much less privileged position. Once released from prison they wrote a bitter letter back home to Lübeck: quote “Now that the lords of the cities are in charge of us, they may also deliberate on the disgrace that has been done to us, for we did not want to give up our privileges.”

This is now quite embarrassing for the cities. They had wanted to take control of the Kontors and upon the first challenge, the new system had utterly failed. They had to do something. Sending a letter of protest was something, so they did that.

But negotiations did not even begin. That had less to do with the lack of seriousness of the letter, but with problems in Flanders itself. In 1379 the Revolt of Ghent broke out. The city of Ghent was rising up against the count of Flanders. Relations between the count and the city had been fraught for a long time.

The count had sided with the king of France during the hundred years war, which had a detrimental effect on the ability to import wool from England. English wool was critical in the production of cloth which is what had made the Flemish cities rich. The city of Ghent had previously revolted in 1338 and established an independent city government that signed treaties with England. But in 1345 the counts had brought Ghent and the other cities back under their control.

Fast forward to 1379 and revolt broke out again. The trigger was that the citizens of Bruges had been allowed by the count to build a new canal to the sea to protect their rapidly silting harbour. As work progressed, Ghent citizens attacked the workers from Bruges, killed a bailiff and burnt one of the count’s castles down. Things escalated and within weeks weavers all across Flanders took up arms against the count.

What followed was a brutal war between several of the cities, including Ghent Bruges and Ypres on one side and the count and his French allies on the other. A war that devastated the richest county in all of Christendom. In 1382 the count defeated the cities at the battle of Roosebeke which led to a series of reprisals against the leading citizens who had supported the rebellion. Only Ghent still refused to surrender and the war dragged on for another 3 years.

Bottom line was that most of the foreign merchants left Flanders during this period to avoid getting killed in the crossfire. By the end of 1382 only about 20 Hansards still held out in the devastated city of Bruges.  One of the reasons the war ended with a peace agreement was that the old count of Flanders died in 1384.

His incredibly rich county went to his son-in-law, the duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold. Philip needed to urgently rebuild the economy of Flanders in order to fund his participation in the hundred-years war. He therefore entered into negotiations with the Hanse about a return of the German merchants to Bruges.  

The Hanse thought they had the upper hand and demanded the restoration of all their ancient privileges plus an exorbitant compensation for lost business. And on top of that they demanded that Philip would erect a chapel as atonement for the imprisonment of the Hanse merchants in 1378 as well as three masses to be sung every year to commemorate those who had died during the revolt.

These demands, in particular the chapel went too far for the duke of Burgundy. Even though it wasn’t him who had imprisoned the merchants, it was still his honour that would be diminished by such an atonement.

I am not quite sure what it was that made the Hanse to put forward such an obviously impossible and economically irrelevant demand. In part this may have been to gain a bargaining chip that could easily be sacrificed. It could also have been because the Hanse itself was divided. Lübeck and the Wendish cities were pursuing a hard line against Philip, whilst Danzig and the Teutonic Knights advocated for a more conciliatory approach.

This rift within the association shows that the Hanse was by no means a monolithic organisation. They could align behind one purpose and maintain tight discipline as they had done during the war against Denmark. But it wasn’t something the Hanse cities were usually comfortable with. The confederation of Cologne, that agreement they had all signed in the build-up to the war with Denmark and that demanded strict compliance by all members ran out in 1385 and was not renewed. The Hanse was not a league of cities or a permanent alliance, but something much looser, held together by cultural ties and common interests, not a command-and-control structure. And an outright commercial war with Flanders was not in everyone’s interest.

So, when negotiations with Philip of Burgundy collapsed in 1388, the cities came together on a Hansetag to debate whether or not to place Bruges under embargo again. The Wendish cities did win the support of the majority by a thin margin.

So, the embargo was declared and the merchants in the Kontor of Bruges left the city to settle in Dordrecht in Holland for the time being. And the terms of the embargo were even stricter than in 1358. All trade with Flemish merchants was prohibited. Even entering the prohibited zone without goods was to be punished. Goods arriving had to carry a certificate of origin. Any wares arriving from Flanders in any Hanseatic port had to be confiscated, even if they had come with a neutral ship. Previously the rule had been to just send the contraband back.

But, and there is a big but, the Wendish cities had to make material concessions to the Prussians to get their approval. Danzig, Elbing, Thor etc. were allowed to trade amber with Flanders, they were allowed to import cloth for the Teutonic Knight’s robes and even go to the markets in Brabant.

And as for the Dutch cities like Kampen, they were even more reluctant to comply. They saw a great opportunity to benefit from a major smuggling operation by allowing the grain ships from Danzig to unload in their harbours.

The laxity of the blockade meant that the embargo lasted a lot longer than last time. Only after 4 years did the parties agree. The Hansards had to drop the demand for a chapel and cut the damage claim to 11,000 pounds of silver. In return they got a few more privileges, in particular improved protection against piracy.

By the end of 1392 the merchants of the Kontor of Bruges returned. Again, the Hanse had triumphed over the greatest trading city in their world and one of the most powerful territorial lord on the continent. But the success already rang a bit hollow.

Even before the Hansards returned to Bruges did the local merchants vow not to let these foreigners gain any more headway. The new ruler of Flanders was the duke of Burgundy whose lands extended into Northern France, down into actual Burgundy and Holland. Next time the Hansards want to move their Kontor elsewhere in the Netherlands, they will find it more and more difficult to escape the clutches of the duke.

But most concerning was the constant breaking of the blockade. This unveiled internal disagreements between the cities whose economic interests had begun to diverge.

Flanders wasn’t the only flashpoint for the Hanseatic League. England was another.

King Edward III, the great friend and sponsor of the Hanse had died in 1377. Even by the end of his reign the relationship had cooled off a bit. Gone were the days when the German merchants went out of their way to save his majesty from the embarrassment of having his crown sold at auction to the highest bidder.

England had for centuries been just a producer of wool that was sold to the cities of Flanders where it was weaved into cloth. The merchants who had a monopoly on selling this wool were the Merchants of the Staple, a trading association established by royal charter in 1319 but probably even older.

This monopoly forced others who wanted to participate in England’s most important industry to look for ways to get around these restrictions. What the monopoly of the Merchants of the Staple did not cover was the finished product, i.e., cloth.

There was surely some form of cloth industry in England before the 14th century serving mainly local demand. But by the 1350s this industry had scaled up. The reason was probably threefold.

One was the simple profit motive. As the splendid guild houses in Ghent, Ypres, Bruges and later Antwerp make abundantly clear, there was a lot of money to be made in cloth, a lot more than in just producing wool.

The second was the disruption in the trade with Flanders caused by the hundred-years war. As we just heard, the count of Flanders and then his successor, Philip of Burgundy, supported the French. Hence England would often stop the export of wool to Flanders. That meant the wool producers in England needed to figure out what to do with all that excess wool they could no longer sell. So they began making cloth themselves.

And finally, these ambitious men who did not get a seat in the Merchant of the Staples’ hall opened up export markets for English cloth. They called themselves the Merchant Adventurers. There is still today a society of merchant adventurers in York whose splendid guildhall is well worth a visit.

By the 1350s these merchant adventurers had beaten a path into the Baltic, travelling the long way around Jutland. Their English cloth was cheaper and often easier to obtain than the Flemish product.  The return journey was profitable too as there was a lot of demand in England for wood, grain and copper.

The harbours the Merchant Adventurers sailed to were Elbing, Danzig and Stralsund, rather than Lübeck. They were often well received by the Teutonic Knights who had close relationships with the English aristocracy. British knights would come down to Prussia for sport during the years when the Hundred-years war went into a lull and opportunities for their favourite pastime, fighting, murdering and pillaging had become scarce.

The English Merchant Adventurers rented houses and market stalls and just generally made themselves comfortable in their new home. Soon their business expanded into the great herring market in Scania. Being great sailors and fairly close, they travelled to the Baie of Bourgneuf to load up with salt, turned round and headed for Falsterbo where they bought and pickled the herring they later sold back home or in Flanders.

When that started to bite into the profits of the Teutonic Knights and the merchants of Gdansk they turned against the English. After the war with Denmark, the Hanse had gained control of the Oresund and could therefore simply bar the Merchant Adventurers from coming in.

In return the English now made life difficult for the Hanseatic merchants in the Steelyard in London and their other Kontors along the east coast. Once Richard II assumed the throne pressure increased further. Other than his father, Richard was much more amenable to listen to his own subjects’ complaints against the foreign traders.

Upon Richard’s ascension to the throne the royal council refused to confirm the Hanse’s privileges unless certain conditions were met, including the preparation of a definitive list of Hanse members. The latter was wholly unacceptable to the Hanse as that would have forced them to take on a much more corporate structure with fixed membership and permanent institutions. And finally, the English had the audacity to demand reciprocity, i.e., grant the Merchant Adventurers the same rights in the Hanseatic Cities that the Hansards enjoyed in England. How dare they!

The initial reaction was diplomacy as per the usual playbook. The new Burgermeister of Lübeck, Jakob Pleskow travelled to England and after long and arduous discussions received the confirmation of the old privileges.

But that was just a piece of paper. The king still introduced new taxes on the Steelyard merchants, which they refused to pay on the basis of their ancient rights.

And generally the treatment of Hanseatic Merchants in England remained harsh. A Prussian envoy to the court of Saint James lists the following complaints:

  • In 1375 a Danzig citizen had his ship and contents confiscated by Edward le Dispenser and when he claimed redress his claim was rejected
  • In 1379 a ship was held for 8 months in the harbour of London, losing its owners 100 pound sterling
  • In 1381 a ship ran aground, and the locals took away its entire load worth 6oo pound sterling
  • In Scarborough in 1383 the locals accused a German merchant of being a Breton traitor and refused to pay him for the goods he had sold and handed over.
  • The most outrageous incident had happened in 1378 when another Danzig merchant was murdered together with his three shipmates by soldiers on an English Navy ship.

We can be sure that similar complaints were made by the English Merchant Adventurers about their treatment in the Baltic harbours.

Things escalated further until in 1385 an English fleet attacked German merchantmen in the harbour of Bruges. 6 of these ships belonged to the Teutonic Knights. The grand Master of the Teutonic Knights immediately declared an embargo on England.

To avoid having their goods confiscated, the Merchant Adventurers rapidly left Danzig and Elbing and hankered down in Stralsund where they initially found a friendly welcome.

But as there was no redress to be obtained for the various complaints, the city of Stralsund in agreement with the other Wendish cities confiscated the English merchants’ goods. At which point Richard II confiscated the goods in the Steelyard.

That was in that same year of 1388 when the Hanse declared an embargo against Flanders. The Teutonic knights and the Prussian cities who had been less keen on the embargo in Flanders as we have heard, nevertheless demanded all-out war against England.

Jakob Pleskow Bürgermeister of Lübeck and his colleague from Stralsund, Wulf Wulflam were dispatched to England to negotiate. These two can be credited with avoiding a most likely disastrous military engagement.

Even though the Hanse was still full of the glory of the recent success against Denmark, these two men and their colleagues on the city councils were hard-headed merchants who were used to measuring risk and return. They could think beyond the already massive military challenges posed by an attack on England to the impact such an action could have on an organisation as fluent as the Hanseatic League. And at the same time, they were astute negotiators who could bluff their way through a royal council of noblemen.

They could make their threats of imminent military intervention sound credible, whilst at the same time keeping their demands within a range that would not humiliate the king and his council. This time there were no calls for the construction of a chapel of atonement.

An agreement was finally reached. The confiscated goods were returned and the existing privileges for the Steelyard were again confirmed. In return the Merchant Adventurers were given the right to trade in the Hanseatic ports, even to trade ship to ship with other foreigners.

Who won in this contest is a bit of a debate. Yes, the Hanse managed to retain their privileges in the Steelyard without having to grant full equivalent treatment to the English. But in the long run the deal was probably more beneficial to the English than the Germans.

The Merchant Adventurers established a permanent base in Gdansk, their own guildhall and elected a governor. They went well beyond the agreement of 1388, formed corporations with Hanseatic merchants and offered their goods to retail customers.

In 1398 the Grand Master of the Teutonic knights had enough and unilaterally cancelled the agreement with the English Crown. But nothing came of it. In 1398 the League was no longer prepared to get into a fully-fledged fistfight with England.

That left the legal situation in limbo. Trade between England and the Baltic continued but without an overarching legal framework. Things depended a lot on circumstances and goodwill. Complaints kept going back and forth about how the English prevented the Germans from exercising their rights and how the Hanseatic cities imposed petty restrictions on the Merchant Adventurers, such as banning them from bringing their wives along.

This will go on and on until the closure of the Stalhof in 1598.

To complete our story of the embargoes of 1388 we need to mention the conflict with Novgorod.

The Kontor in Novgorod was the first the Hanse had established and still accounted for much of the export in furs and beeswax. But conflict had existed for quite a while caused mainly by the Teutonic Knights.

The Teutonic Knights weren’t members of the Hanseatic League but exercised a significant influence over it in their role as overlords of the Prussian cities as well as thanks to their own trading activities.

For the rulers of Novgorod, the Teutonic Knights and the Hanseatic league were largely synonymous. So, every time the knights expanded from their holdings in Latvia and Estonia at the expense of the Republic of Novgorod, the Novgorodians retaliated by confiscating the goods in the St. Peterhof.

Tension kept escalating and by 1388 the Hansetag decided to put Novgorod under embargo too. Given the League had shut down trade with England and Flanders, the two major export markets for furs and Beeswax, the incremental damage to their trade was limited.

Again, the blockade was not super tight, but still Novgorod caved. A new trade agreement was signed that confirmed and detailed the respective rights and privileges. This agreement held for almost a century.

But what we see with all these embargoes is that 18 years after the great victory over Denmark and the Peace of Stralsund, the coherence of the Hanseatic League has starting to come away at the seams.

The confederation of Cologne is not renewed. The cities, namely Lübeck, Rostock, Wismar and Stralsund on the one hand and the Prussian cities plus the Teutonic Knights on the other have different economic interests that drives them to demand diverging political positions. And we have not even talked about the wavering cities like Kampen and Bremen who are notorious for their blockade breaking.

Next week we will talk about another chapter in 14th century Hanseatic history, one that is probably the most famous. I talk obviously about the Victual Brothers, the notorious Baltic Pirates and their last leader Klaus Störtebecker whose last walk is part of Hamburg Folklore. I hope you are going to join us again, and quite frankly, why wouldn’t you – its about Pirates!

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