Episode 122– Calamitous Victories

In 1435 the Hanse can look back at a string of successes. Another war with Denmark won, the patrician regime in Lübeck and elsewhere restored, conflicts with Burgundy and England settled in their favour. But as Winston Churchill once remarked, “The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult.

And these problems are raising their ugly heads….

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 122 – Calamitous Victories

In 1435 the Hanse can look back at a string of successes. Another war with Denmark won, the patrician regime in Lübeck and elsewhere restored, conflicts with Burgundy and England settled in their favour. But as Winston Churchill once remarked, “The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult.

And these problems are raising their ugly heads….

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Last week we talked about the constitutional crisis of 1406-1418 when the city of Lübeck was incapacitated by tensions between the ruling patricians and the upper middle class and the artisans. The old leadership emerged victorious from the conflict, leaving the city council as dominated by the wealthy as it had been before.

Though the uprising had failed, the conflict left a mark on the Hanse. The patricians who had defended their position in many of the member cities agreed to make the Hanse an instrument in the preservation of their power. The Diet of 1418 instituted the right of the League to interfere in the internal affairs of the cities, specifically to expel any city that had overthrown their patrician rulers. Merchants who wanted to partake in the Hanse privileges now had to prove that they were a resident of a current member city, not just that they were from the Holy Roman Empire

With that the Hanseatic League moves one step further on its trajectory from a largely voluntary association driven by mercantile interests to a more structured, political entity though it is still a long way from a league of cities with its own institutions, bureaucracy and army. Proposals by Lübeck to go down that route had been rejected.

Lübeck, though still not the capital of the Hanse became its general secretariat. Most Hanseatic Diets took place in the city on the Trave River, the city council maintained the Hanseatic archives and disputes between members of the Hanse were settled here.

Most importantly, Lübeck was in charge of the agenda for the Hanseatic Diets. The Diets weren’t parliamentary debates as we know them where – at least in principle – the members could change their minds. The delegates of the different cities usually arrived with explicit and detailed instructions from their home towns. And these instructions were based on the agenda and proposals set out in the invitation, which was drafted by – the city council of Lübeck.

The cities who received this agenda were in practice limited to a yes/no decision on the proposals from the Baltic shore. If they had an alternative proposal, their delegate could initiate a debate. But the proposal could not really be agreed upon on the same diet because few of the other delegates had discussed it with their councils back home, so they would not have the power to vote in favour. So, even if the majority of delegates agreed to an alternative proposal, these would still have to go back to their hometowns for ratification. Therefore, the Diet usually went with the Lübeck proposal.

Another constraint was that very few of the 70+ members and 200 associate members actually went to the Hanseatic diet. It was usually just the most important ones and those with a strong interest in the matter at hand who shouldered the expense of sending a delegation. The smaller cities left their representation to the large cities who led their Regional Hanse association. These were Cologne for the Rhenish cities, Brunswick for the Saxon ones, Gdansk for the Prussian and Westphalian ones and Lübeck for the Wendish cities. Other regular attendees were Rostock, Wismar, Stralsund, Magdeburg, Hamburg, Bremen and Lüneburg. Usually, there were only about a dozen delegates. Even the important diet of 1418 counted only 35 participants which still made it one of the largest gatherings on record.

This set-up put Lübeck into the driver seat. And mostly they made proposals that benefitted all of the cities. The Hanseatic Diet spent a lot of the 15th century standardising and simplifying the laws of commerce. Rules about shipping, contracts, sharing of risks and the like were very much in line with the main purpose of the effort, removing barriers to trade.

So the city fathers were serious about making the Hanse a success but in the end the shirt is closer than the jacket. When interests diverged, the interest of Lübeck was the one that prevailed.

It did not take long after 1418 for the imbalance of the system to become apparent.

The issue that brings it out in the open goes back to 1370 and the peace of Stralsund. The victorious Hansards were given not just the fortresses on the Oresund for a period of 15 years, but also effective control of the great herring market in Scania for an indeterminate period.

The Hanse used these powers to expel their Dutch and English competitors from Falsterbo and Skanoer. As you may remember, the herring market was much more than a market for herring. Traders came from all over to sell their wares, cloth from Flanders and England, spices and luxury items from Italy, fur and beeswax from the North, grain and wood from Prussia and Livonia. Everything and anything was traded there.

But when the English and Dutch were banned from the fair, their cloth and spices did not get there. Hanse merchants who might have bought them in Scania now picked up these wares in London or Bruges. Within a short period of time the once huge fair was reduced to just a fish market, an enormous fish market, but just a fish market.

The ban from the herring market had an obviously detrimental effect on the Dutch and the English. They still wanted to trade in salted fish, grain, beeswax and the like. So once the Oresund was open again, they sailed past Scania all the way to the source of these goodies, to Livonia and to Prussia.

They also found a solution to the exclusion from the fish market itself. The Dutch started fishing for Atlantic Herring on the Dogger Bank. Atlantic herring may be less desirable than the Baltic subspecies, but in the end it came down to price and availability. Atlantic herring was cheaper and available, whilst Baltic herring was no longer as abundant as it had once been. The gradual cooling of the sea and more importantly, the intense overfishing of herring who had not yet spawned led to a gradual decline in the stock of Baltic herring.

There were widely divergent views on how to address this issue of intensifying competition on their doorstep. Some saw opportunities in working with the newcomers, whilst others argued for protectionist policies. The Livonian and Prussian cities initially preferred a collaborative approach, granting the English and Dutch traders a place at the table, even admitting some to the Artushof. But when the English abused the hospitality granted, Gdansk expelled them. But the Prussians and Gdansk in particular kept a close relationship with the Low Countries where they sold a lot of their wood, ash and grain.

Lübeck and the Wendish cities were more consistently protectionist against both the Dutch and the English but were more open to admitting Southern Germans.

Protectionist measures usually included a blanket ban for foreigners to trade with other foreigners, to contact the producers, the strict enforcement of staple rights and the prohibition of joint companies with foreign merchants.

Things got more heated when war with Denmark breaks out again. In the meantime, the great Margaret had passed, and her successor was Eric of Pomerania, a much less accomplished political operator.

Eric had supported the patrician old council in the constitutional crisis and had expected the grateful senators to return the favour by helping him in his conflict with the counts of Holstein. The counts of Holstein had become dukes of Schleswig as vassals of the Danish crown. As it happened they weren’t exactly as faithful a vassal as the Danish king would have liked. Or maybe the king just wanted Schleswig full stop.

The Lübeck Patricians weren’t quite so convinced they owed that much to Eric. Their primary concern was to keep the land and river route between Lübeck and Hamburg open. Remember that they had spent vast amounts of money on the Stecknitz canal that provided a direct shipping connection between the Baltic and the North Sea. And that money that had been the trigger for the civil discontent that had brought the Hanse to the brink of extinction. No way they would risk a war with the count of Holstein whose lands lay between the two cities and who could cut the connection any time he wanted.

Eric was to say the least, a bit disappointed and he was the sort of man who did not like to be disappointed. He retaliated by inviting the Dutch and the English to trade with his vast territories, which included not just Denmark but Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Faroer and Shetland.

He also supported the Poles and Lithuanians in their struggle with the Teutonic Knights. At the risk of spoiling the next season I have to mention here that at the battle of Tannenberg in 1410 many knights had fallen, including their grand master, Ulrich of Jungingen.  Even though they negotiated a favourable peace treaty the Teutonic knights were no longer the force they once were. In the subsequent decades they would lose more territory to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including the city of Gdansk.

And then Eric introduced a new toll for passing through the Oresund, a serious impairment to the Hanse trade.

The Burgermeister of Lübeck Jordan Pleskow, the same who had engineered the return of patrician rule in the city was able to maintain peace despite these constant provocations. But once he had died, the hawks on the city council got their way.  The Wendish cities declared war on Denmark and closed the Oresund.

They quickly realised why their shrewd old Burgermeister had counselled against war. Only the Wendish and Pomeranian cities were prepared to support the war. The Prussian and Livonian cities, in particular Danzig, Riga and Tallinn were outraged by the blockade.

The reason was economic, which should not be surprising in an association run by merchants.

There were only two trade routes to ship goods out of the Baltic. One was the land route between Lübeck and Hamburg. The other was via the Oresund. The route via the Sund had gained in importance as time went by. The grain, wood and ash that made up the majority of the exports from Prussia and Livonia was extremely bulky. As a consequence, ships got bigger and bigger. Unloading them in Lübeck and putting the wares on smaller vessels to go via the Stecknitz canal and the Elbe River to Hamburg and reloading them on another ship there was very expensive and time consuming. So expensive and so time consuming that the route through the Sund and around the tip of Jutland became more and more attractive, even if it involved spending days in harbour waiting for fair winds.

Gdansk, Riga, Tallinn and many other cities on the Northern end of the Baltic were now shipping their goods through the Oresund and around Jutland. A war with Denmark closed that route and forced them to use the Lübeck route.  

On top of that Eric’s provocations were much less harmful to the Prussian and Livonian cities. They did not mind the Dutch and English as much as the Lübecker. And the war against the Teutonic Order was even welcome to an extent since the Knights had suppressed city freedoms and had a commercial operation that competed directly with the merchants.

Renewed war with Denmark was therefore a blow to the trade of Danzig, Riga, Reval, Elbing etc., a blow that they could have accepted had it been for a purpose they supported. But as things stood, it looked almost as if Lübeck was trying to restore its overstretched finances by provoking a war that forced their fellow Hansards to use their harbour and their canal.

Things weren’t helped when the Hanse fleet was beaten by the Danes. The fleet had protected a large convoy of ships coming with salt from Bourgneuf destined for Prussia. That salt was now filling Danish barrels that went to London and Bruges on Dutch and English ships.

News of the disaster were badly received at home. The population blamed the recently reinstalled patrician governments in Wismar, Rostock and Hamburg for the failure. Heads had to roll.

The war went on in this manner for 9 long years during which the Prussians and Livonians grudgingly paid their fellow Hansards for services they did not want to use in the first place. And by the way, because the salt did not get through from Bourgneuf, everyone had to buy the expensive salt from Lüneburg adding to the frustration.

But it gets better. The Wendish cities did win their war, not thanks to their prowess, but thanks to Eric’s total incompetence. His long war with Holstein and lack of sensitivity towards the interests of its different kingdoms had left him in an increasingly precarious situation. In 1434 Engelbrekt Engelbrektsson, a mine owner of German extraction led a rebellion of Swedish peasants against what they believed was Danish overreach within the kingdom. The rebellion forced Eric not only to make wide-ranging concessions to his Swedish subjects but also to end the costly war with Holstein and the Hansards. The counts of Holstein were confirmed as dukes of Schleswig and the Wendish cities were confirmed in their extensive privileges in Scania and elsewhere. These privileges included a relief from paying the recently introduced toll for the use of the Oresund. This latter exemption only applied to the Wendish cities who had fought the war with Eric, meaning the Prussian and Livonian cities still had to pay it, forcing them to use the Lübeck Hamburg route

The next leg makes things even worse for the traders from Gdansk, Riga and Tallinn. In 1438 king Eric is deposed in Denmark because of his failures in war, general incompetence and debauchery. The Danish Royal Council offered the crown to the last descendant of Waldemar IV, Christian, the count Palatinate, a German imperial prince they called Christian of Bavaria. Christian knew nothing about Scandinavia and was supposed to be a puppet monarch whose impressive titles belied a rather weak position. The Wendish cities, on whose support he had relied, were given further privileges and the castle of Helsingor. Lübeck then completely blocked the Dutch from entering the Baltic.

Another blow to the Prussian and Livonian cities. The Wendish cities’ war had cut them off from their preferred trading route and their business partners in Holland. When the Prussian cities claim that Lübeck is acting mainly in its own interest rather than the interest of all Hansards, they do have a point.

Hanse solidarity starts breaking down in other areas as well. The trade in grain in Livonia kept growing with growing demand from the Low Countries. Much of that trade was going through foreign merchants, Dutch and Southern Germans in particular. When these traders were starting to buy their wares directly from the owners of the estates the council of Riga had enough. They banned anyone, not just the Dutch and Southerners, but also their fellow Hansards from buying directly. That hurt the Lübeck traders hard and they went to the Teutonic knights who ruled Livonia and asked them for help against the unruly city. That was a serious breach of protocol. Asking a foreign power to solve an internal Hanse conflict was an admission that the association was unable to serve its main purpose, facilitating trade.

Riga retaliated by confiscating all Lübeck assets in its harbour. The conflict remained unresolved, and Riga persisted with its strict protectionism.

Having such a rift between the Livonian cities and Lübeck was not helpful when the Kontor in Novgorod got under more and more pressure. In 1424 150 German merchants were incarcerated as retaliation for what the authorities believed was an act of piracy committed by Hansards on Russian ships. 36 of these merchants died in captivity. Ownership of the Kontor was restored to the Hansards, but less and less merchants were willing to take the risk of suddenly getting locked up and rotting in a Bojar’s jail, just for some squirrel’s pelts.

Gradually it was mainly Livonians who came down and they took control of the Kontor and they squeezed out the others. In 1471 Ivan the Great, the ruler of the principality of Muscovy, and grandfather of Ivan the Terrible conquered Novgorod. He had no liking for foreigners in general and – more importantly –  wanted to shift trade to his own territories around Moscow.

Lübeck and the other Hansards saw little reason to come to the protectionist Livonian’s aid and so the Kontor was closed. Over the coming century the trade in furs shifted away from the Baltic Route to the Land route that ended in Leipzig, where a great fair had been established by the Wettiner Margraves of Meissen in 1165 and 1268. Episode 107 if you are interested.

Another Kontor that got hurt in this Hanse infighting was Bergen. Here Lübeck, Rostock and Wismar took sole control in 1446. That led the other Hanseatic cities, including the Dutch members of the League to bypass Bergen and procure the Stockfish directly from Iceland and elsewhere.

In London the situation was even more complex. London was the place where two main Hanse trading routes came together, the East West route from the Baltic bringing fish, grain, beeswax and wood and the South/North route bringing wine from the rhine valley and increasingly from France into England. Traders on these two routes did have little in common. As you may remember there used to be initially two Kontors in London, one for the Cologne merchants and one for the Easterlings.

Things get difficult when the Wendish, Prussian and Livonian cities find themselves in conflict with the King of England. The source of this conflict is the issue of reciprocity. The English merchants are irritated that their German counterparts can trade more or less freely in England whilst they face all sorts of obstacles when they try to get into the Baltic. That sounds fair enough and the English kings, when they are not preoccupied with the 100 years war or the war of the Roses are giving their support to the Merchant Adventurers. Support that goes as far as capturing a fleet of nearly 100 Hanse ships, which results in a declaration of war. Lübeck is again the most bellicose and intransigent warmonger, but there is some support from the Prussian cities on this one. This is by the way the war during which the privateer Paul Beneke captured the galley of Tommaso Portinari (episode 118).

The ones who have no stake in this game and would very much prefer to remain neutral are the merchants of Cologne. They have been welcoming English traders for centuries and their close links go back to the days of emperor Henry V and the empress Matilda, if not beyond.

Still their fellow Hansards insist that Cologne even if they are not willing to fight alongside them, should at least join the trade embargo against England. But that is too much for Cologne. On balance Cologne decided that membership in the Hanse is not worth cutting the trade connections with England. In 1471 the city of Cologne, one of the four leading cities of the Hanse is excluded.

This war between England and the Hanse lasted 3 years and was part of the much larger war of the Roses. Alliances were swapped like crazy and the Hanse was sometimes attacking English shipping, sometimes French or Burgundian. King Edward IV was restored to the crown with the help of ships from Danzig but soon after turned against the Hanse.

In 1474 this episode of the conflict was over. The Hanse was party to the peace of Utrecht which granted them extensive privileges whilst giving minimal right to English traders in the Baltic. The biggest loser in all this was however Cologne. Edward IV had agreed to boycott the Cologne trade as part of his reconciliation with the Hanse. The great Rhenish city was completely isolated and cut off from its most important market. In 1474 it had to beg to be re-admitted to the Hanse.     

Given all these internal tensions, the question is why the Hanse kept going not just during the 15th but well into the 16th century. The answer is that despite all of these tensions, the networks between the individual merchants remained intact and valuable. The patricians on the city councils may gradually turn into land-owning aristocrats seeking honour and glory on the battlefield. But the upper middle classes, the merchants like Bernd Pal kept their business relationships with colleagues in the other cities. To a degree the protectionist measures made such networks ever more important. If you wanted to trade in Livonia, the restrictions meant that a Lübeck merchant needed a local partner to get around these measures. Maybe Bernd was sent up there at the tender age of seven for exactly that reason.

At the same time the standardisation of law and commerce that came in the wake of the Diet of 1418 facilitated trade and was generally regarded as beneficial to all traders.

So, there was still a lot of value in this organisation which is why it persisted. And from the outside it still looked extremely successful. The Hanse had won two great wars, against Eric of Pomerania, the ruler of all of Scandinavia and against England. The tensions were hidden under the surface, invisible to the outside.

What was more visible though was the change in the environment. The rise of the Hanseatic League, the association of the Merchants of the Holy Roman Empire had coincided with the disintegration of that self-same Holy Roman Empire. And other kingdoms, Denmark, Sweden and Norway weren’t in much better shape. England and France were at each other’s throat for a century. But as we head towards the 16th century these medieval principalities are stabilising and becoming pre-modern  states. New powers, like Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth appear on the Hanse’s doorstep adding to the tensions inside and between the cities. That we will discuss next week. I hope you will join us again.

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