Bremen was geographically and politically quite different from the other cities, ploughing its own furrow. In response the other Hansards did not trust the citizens of Bremen. There is also the minor issue that Bremen sheltered a lot of pirates. Still as the Hanse declined politically, Bremen took on an ever-larger role until becoming one of the last three Hanseatic Cities that kept that long-dead medieval relic plodding along until the late 19th century. A story of rebellion, stubbornness, piracy and emigration to America, I thought worth telling.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 126 – A brief History of Bremen

The initial idea for this episode was to draw this season to a close with a talk about the art and culture of the Hanse. But then, when I started drafting, I realised that I have almost entirely omitted one of the great Hanseatic cities from our narrative, Bremen. And that isn’t right. One cannot have a 20 episode podcast series on the Hanseatic League and not talk about Bremen. But it wasn’t that I skipped Bremen on purpose. The reason Bremen barely featured in our narrative is that Bremen had a very ambivalent relationship with the Hanse.

Bremen was geographically and politically quite different from the other cities, ploughing its own furrow. In response the other Hansards did not trust the citizens of Bremen. There is also the minor issue that Bremen sheltered a lot of pirates. Still as the Hanse declined politically, Bremen took on an ever-larger role until becoming one of the last three Hanseatic Cities that kept that long-dead medieval relic plodding along until the late 19th century. A story of rebellion, stubbornness, piracy and emigration to America, I thought worth telling.

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Back to the show. When I said Bremen hadn’t featured much in the History of the Germans, what I meant was the city of Bremen, not its archbishops. Those we have met many times. In Episode 96 we talked about Ansgar, the 9th century archbishop of Hamburg who had to retreat to Bremen in the face of Viking raids.

From the 10th century onwards the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen kept clashing with the great Saxon nobles over the treatment of the Slavs on the other side of the Elbe. The archbishops wanted to convert them so that their bishopric could expand into Scandinavia and the Baltic States. The dukes and counts mostly just wanted to plunder. You may remember the story of Adalbert, one of Bremen’s most formidable archbishops and Gottschalk, the prince of the Abodrites in episode 101.

The reign of Adalbert in the 11th century was the highpoint of archepiscopal influence. He had been the almighty chief minister of Henry III and later the young emperor Henry IV. Adalbert had been offered the papacy by Henry III but turned it down, preferring to build out his archepiscopal see in Bremen and Hamburg. That ended in 1066 when the emperor had to dismiss Adalbert under pressure from his court, an event that led ultimately to a hardening of the imperial position, which led to the Saxon revolt which contributed to the Investiture controversy and Canossa, basically most of Season 2 of the Podcast.

After Adalbert it went sharply downhill with the archbishops of hamburg-Bremen. They kept faith with the imperial side during the wars between the Saxon nobles and the emperor and supported him in his conflict with Pope Gregory VII. That put them straight into the crosshairs of the dukes of Saxony. The dukes, supported by their friends amongst the Saxon nobles and even emperor Henry V constantly degraded the power of the archbishops. The archbishopric was at one point the metropolitan see for all of Scandinavia from the Faroer islands to Uppsala, but that ended when the pope elevated the bishop of Lund to archbishop. At which point the archbishopric had only three subordinate bishoprics, Oldenburg, Ratzeburg and Schwerin.

One last moment of hope came when Hartwig, the heir of the wealthy county of Stade became archbishop and proposed to make the archbishopric the heir to his fortune a story we looked at in episode 108. That could have made a huge difference to this archdiocese which was now by far the poorest and least significant archbishopric in the empire. But that was not to be. Henry the Lion coveted the lands of Stade and being best mates with the emperor Barbarossa, managed to expel Hartwig from his ancestral lands. And as a final nail in the coffin, the emperor also removed the three remaining suffragan bishoprics from Bremish control, handing them over to Henry the Lion.

That is the situation in the 12th century when the Hanse is getting going. Bremen, an ancient city is the seat and only possession of the poorest archbishop imaginable.

The archbishop may have become poorer and poorer in the 300 years from 900 to 1200, but the city and its burghers had prospered in the medieval economic boom.

Bremen is in a very attractive geographical position. It sits near the mouth of the Weser River, roughly 50 km from the North Sea. That sounds like a long way, but the river is still tidal down to the city which allowed even larger ships to come up all the way. Moreover, the city sits on the highest point of a 23km long ancient sand dune that gives it a mighty elevation of 15.2m above sea level. Not exactly alpine but given the vast marches between Bremen and the sea averaging an elevation of just 3.3m, the significance of this dune becomes clear. Bremen was one of the few places for miles around where your feet remained dry even in High Water.

The Weser is one of the three main German rivers going into the North Sea. The largest and commercially most important is the Rhine, which gave rise to the wealth of Cologne. The next significant is the Elbe which comes all the way from beyond Prague and through its various tributaries connects Dresden, Leipzig, Erfurt, Halle, Magdeburg, Berlin and Luneburg to Hamburg.

The Weser is the shortest of these three, less than half the length of Elbe and Rhine. But still the river connects some important medieval trading centres with the North Sea, namely Hannoversch Munden, Eisenach, Hameln, Minden, Hannover, Celle and foremost of all, Brunswick.

Being able to collect products from such a large hinterland, Bremen embarked on fruitful trading relationships with England, the Low Countries, Norway and Scotland well before the Hanse and Lubeck in particular got going.

Bremen traded in many of the wares other Hanse cities traded in. Grain, Wood and most importantly Beer were great exports going North. One of Bremen’s beer specialities was Grut-beer made without hops but with a variety of herbs, which made it stronger and more aromatic. Bremen was the first of the German cities that exported beer into the Low Countries. But that position did only last until the early 14th century when Hamburg took over. The difference was that the council in Hamburg maintained strict quality controls in beermaking, whilst Bremen did not. Unscrupulous makers of cheap beer eroded the Bremen beer brand. For the avoidance of angry mail, let me assure you that this problem has been resolved by now and Bremen hosts Becks, one of Germany’s most famous and most delicious brands of beer.

The Wine trade seems to have been of huge importance too. The Bremer Ratskeller, technically a restaurant in the vaults under the Rathaus but in reality one of the preeminent distributors of quality wine in Germany was first mentioned in 1342. One key export market for wine from Bremen was Scotland, a rather unexpected pairing.

In the other direction Bremen merchants brought fish from Norway and Denmark as well as cloth from England and Flanders up the Weser River into what is today Lower Saxony, Thuringia and Hesse.

One trade that would start much later in the 17th century was Coffee. Bremen had the first coffee house in Germany and still today some of Germany’s best known coffee brands like Jacobs, HAG and Eduscho come from Bremen.

So, in many ways Bremen was a perfect fit for the Hanse. Similar products and similar target markets in Flanders, England and Norway.

But in many other ways it wasn’t. Bremen was oriented on a North-South direction, similar to Cologne. The Hanse’s focus on the Baltic and the trade between East and West had little interest for Bremen. In fact, many of the Hansards provided unwelcome competition to the traders in Bremen.

Beyond the differences in economic conditions, the city of Bremen was also politically in a very different position. Bremen lay at the outer edge of the Hanse territory. The closest Hanse cities were Stade and Buxtehude, both more than 80km away. Instead, their neighbours were to the south the powerful dukes of Brunswick, the descendants of Henry the Lion. To the West and North were the Frisian chieftains and the counts of Oldenburg, powers who played little role in imperial politics but had a habit of devastating each other’s lands with a sheer incessant set of feuds.

The major flashpoint between Bremen and its neighbours was the control of the Weser River all the way to the sea. The city tried to reduce attacks on shipping in the river by first building castles along its banks. When that failed, they tried to wrestle the whole territory from their rulers, which made Bremen one of the few, if not the only Hanse city with serious territorial ambitions.

And the social structure is different too. The ruling families, at least until the mid 14th century were landowners and rentiers who had become rich in the service of the archbishops, not the successful merchants. In 1304/5 a first crisis was caused by the murder of a member of that city aristocracy. The subsequent feud ended with the creation of a new statute for the city that reduced the power of some of the Geschlechter, the great aristocratic houses. The story repeated itself in 1349 when an aristocrat accidentally murdered a merchant member of the council, creating another armed conflict that ended with the expulsion of another batch of aristocrats. The council is reorganised in 1308 and 1330 and now recruits from three separate groups, the first are members of the 30 patrician families, the second, the Meenheit, are representatives of the upper middle classes, the artisans and smaller merchants  and finally the Wittheit, a sort of assembly of experts.

And finally, there was still the archbishop, technically the overlord of the city.

These differences may explain why Bremen had been expelled from the Hanse on multiple occasions. The first time in 1285 when the Hanse was forcing the king of Norway to accept the privileges for the Kontor in Bergen. Bremen had been trading with Norway and exporting stockfish from before Lubeck was even re-founded by Henry the Lion. They hence saw no reason to support the Hanse interlopers in their embargo. Their calculation was that if they would support the Norwegians, they would gain all the privileges the other Hansards were trying to gain by force. Let’s just say it did not work out and Bremen took a long time to get back into the Stockfish trade.

One of the problems with a history of Bremen is that material and secondary sources are much thinner on the ground than elsewhere. Why that is I have no idea, but even the simple question of whether Bremen was involved with the Hanse after the expulsion of 1285 seems hard to answer.

If they were, they were at best a junior partner. But maybe they were just ploughing their own furrow for the next 70 years. Because the next confirmed interaction with the Hanse in in 1358 when Bremen is begging to be admitted back in.

In 1358 Bremen is on its knees. A whole host of night soil men had decanted their commodities over the heads of its unsuspecting citizens. 

It started with what should have been a routine affair. The old archbishop, Otto I was gravely ill and had left the administration of the archbishopric to his nephew, Maurice of Oldenburg. When Otto died in 1348, Maurice was duly elected by the cathedral chapter to get the title for the job he was already doing. But he wasn’t the only candidate.

Godfrey of Arnsberg, the bishop of Osnabruck also wanted to be archbishop and so he bribed the pope Clement VI in Avignon to make him archbishop, which he duly did. The city council initially supported Maurice of Oldenburg. But when Maurice was out of town on business, Godfrey came in and managed to get the city council to accept him.

As was entirely predictable Maurice returned with his supporters and besieged the city. The walls were strong, but the attackers were many. As the battle was waving back and forth, people started to complain about unusual symptoms. Many reported fever, abdominal pain and bleeding. Their skin and tissue had turned black and shortly after the first symptoms appeared, most fell over dead.

The Black Death had arrived. It raged much more ferociously on the Weser than in any other Hanse city. Somewhere between half and two-thirds of its 15,000 inhabitants perished. Warfare had to stop, and the two combatants decided that Godfrey would get the title and Maurice would get the job.

Once the plague had subsided the city needed to rebuild its population. The council therefore opened its gates to anyone, including serfs to come and live in Bremen as free men and women.

That sat increasingly awkward with the count of Hoya who had become archbishop Godfrey’s strongest supporter. The count whose lands lay south of Bremen was losing tenants and serfs by the busload, something he could ill afford since half of his labourers had died as well and the land lay fallow. So, he demanded, in the name of the archbishop, that the serfs and tenants were to be sent back to him. In an unusual act of mercy and compassion, or out of fear the city could simply empty out, the city council refused.

At which point the parties decide to resolve the problem of depopulation by resuming hostilities. Things do not go well for the city and Bremen loses a battle in which several members of the council are taken hostage. The cost of the war and the ransom for the captured councillors ruin the already fragile finances of the city.

In an attempt to restore their fortunes, the citizens of Bremen beg the Hanse for admission after having tried to go it alone for so long. They are admitted and the burghers are preparing to get ready for some much-needed uptick in trade activity.

But no, bad timing. Just as Bremen was joining up things in Bruges had hit boiling point. 1358 was the year the Hanse issued one of its embargoes against Flanders. Trade with one of Bremen’s most important markets had to stop.

The desperate Bremer merchants say sod this for a game of soldiers. So, they break the embargo. At which point the Hanse comes down on them like a ton of bricks. Stick with the embargo or you are expelled and blocked from all Hanse ports. So, they go along, join the embargo taking even more pain.

Meanwhile on the enemy’s side things aren’t going well either. The count of Hoya also spends a lot of cash on war and weapons, cash he does not have. So, he looks for help and finds it in the form of the duke of Brunswick. But the duke’s help has a price. You guessed it, that price is the archbishopric of Bremen.

The count had to get his ally Godfrey to surrender the archbishopric and pass it on to the son of the duke of Brunswick, Albrecht II. A deal is made, Albrecht is confirmed by another bribeable pope and hey presto, we now have three archbishops. Maurice, Godfrey and Albrecht. But thanks to the superior weapons of the duke of Brunswick we find ourselves in 1362 in a situation where there is only one archbishop left, Albrecht II. Albrecht II brokers a peace agreement between the count of Hoya and Bremen. The embargo against Flanders had ended in 1360. Everything should now be fine.

It should, but it wasn’t. The city was still broke from paying the ransom for the captured councillors. Hence a special tax was introduced to repay the debt.

I guess we all know about what happens when special taxes are levied on the artisans and middle classes for projects that provide them with few or no benefits. If paying for the Stecknitz canal caused a large rebellion in Lubeck, guess what happened in Bremen when they asked the little people to pay the ransom for the moneybags on the City Council.  

The lower classes gathered together in what they called the Grande Cumpanien first to vent their grievances about the tax but that soon turned into demands to overthrow the 30 families, to have elected council members and just generally freedom!. On the morning of September 16, 1365 a large crowd assembled for a demonstration that quickly got out of hand. Leaders of the Grande Cumpanie raised the city banner and armed their followers. They broke into the homes of prominent council members, pushed and shoved them around and said very rude things about their mothers. But they did not apprehend or seriously harm anyone.

The retaliation of the patricians came swiftly. Remember that a wealthy city councillor lived a lifestyle not very different to a knight in the countryside. Most of them were trained in all the knightly arts, namely in the art of killing. These guys put on their armour, closed the gates and rode out to slaughter the insurrectionists – successfully as you would imagine. By the evening 18 leaders of the rebellion have been captured, convicted and executed.  The surviving insurrectionists fled in the night. Their possessions are seized and used to repay the city’s debt.

Ok, that was painful, but now things should be ok, right?

Ah, no, still not. There is our archbishop, Albrecht II, who turns out to be a bit of a bad egg. Albrecht’s biggest problem was that he liked to spend money, including money he did not have. Well, mostly money he did not have.

And the need for money made him do some odd things, including becoming a pirate. The archbishop had an accomplice, Johann Hollemann, the black sheep of family of Bremen patricians. Hollemann had been a successful pirate since the 1350s causing no end of problems for his hometown. But they couldn’t really do much about him since he lived in a fortified castle inside the city of Bremen and had lots of money and connections. Archbishop and noble pirate kept plundering ships that had taken the ground at low tide, claiming they were subject to salvage.

Given this level of financial urgency, archbishop Albrecht was very excited when the surviving insurrectionists from Bremen knocked on his door, a group that included his pirate buddy, Johann Hollemann. Together they came up with a plan to get hold of the city of Bremen and seize the wealth of its great patricians. The archbishop was to hire some mercenaries and Hollemann and the others would organise another uprising.

In the night of 28th to 29th of May the conspirators opened the gates to the archbishop’s soldiers. They quickly take the strategic positions inside the city. The Patricians had erected a wooden statue of Roland, the paladin of Charlemagne and by some warped logic the representation of the city’s independence. That statue was burned. And the usual murdering and settling of scores occurred. Now it was the turn of the patrician members of the Council to flee the city.

A new constitution was introduced that granted the artisans and their guilds the deciding vote in the selection of the members of the council. Bremen was to become a city ruled by the Middle classes under the benign overlordship of the archbishop-pirate Albrecht II.

That experiment in church-sponsored democracy was cut short. The exiled old council, much like their opponents had done only a few months earlier looked round for support. The Hanse immediately expelled the rebellious city. But Konrad of Oldenburg was the man to bring the old order back. After just 4 weeks, the regime of the lower classes, led by the pirate Johannes Hollemann collapsed. The Oldenburger’s army entered Bremen with the help of those who did not want to return under archepiscopal control. The insurrectionists were caught and killed on the spot. Johannes Hollemann was besieged in his castle in the city and once the soldiers had entered, they hanged him and his men in front of the house, or according to other accounts had him broken on the wheel.

Only after that does calm return to Bremen. The patricians accept that to avoid future rebellions the artisans and their guilds need to get better representation on the council. The archbishop Albrecht II is forced to give up most of his rights in the city, apart from a small district around the cathedral.

The role of the bishop in the city’s affairs diminishes even further when Albrecht II’s money problems compound after his capitulation. He offers rights like coinage and market rights as security for loans from the city. When he cannot pay back the city seizes these rights and mints coins until 1862.

And there is a final humiliation left for Albrecht II. In 1376 a member of his cathedral chapter claimed the archbishop was a Hermaphrodite. Albrecht II had to counter these claims by submitting to a public examination of his private parts, not something that increased his standing much.

The subsequent period of peace and independence from the archbishop brings about a huge improvement in the prosperity of the city. Bremen conquered the lands on the left and right bank of the Weser going down to the mouth of the River.

Its most famous monuments date from that time. The City Hall was built in 1405 to 1410. And obviously the mighty Roland, symbol of the city is rebuilt in stone. He looks straight at the front gate of the cathedral on the other side of the market square as a sign of defiance of the independent city from the archbishop. The merchants erect their guildhall, the Schutting on the market square. The current splendid building dates from the 16th century but there was a great assembly hall there since 1444.

Despite the economic improvement social tensions remain. Bremen’s history in the 15th and 16th century is punctuated with regular uprisings. In 1427 they kill their patrician Burgomaster which results in a renewed expulsion from the Hanse and even an imperial ban  that lasted until 1438.

The reformation came in 1524 and the city quickly converted. In 1532 Bremen saw a populist uprising similar to the Wullenwever episode in Lubeck but without the foreign policy lunacy that followed there. Bremen oscillated between Lutheranism and Calvinism for nearly 120 years. In 1563 Bremen declared for Calvinism and was expelled from the Hanse for it, but just 13 years later was re-admitted without having changed its religious position.

In 1599 Bremen begins the construction of extensive fortifications. The change in military technology required a fundamental rethinking of the way a city could withstand attacks. The works lasted all in until 1664 but by the time the 30-years war comes around, Bremen is one of the best defended cities in the German lands. In fact, the same is true for Hamburg and Lübeck. Thanks to these enormous walls and bastions the three Hanseatic cities survived the catastrophe largely unscathed. In fact even the inland members of the Hanse did manage comparatively well with the exception of Magdeburg that suffered one of the most famous atrocities of this brutal conflict.

But their survival wasn’t enough to revive the Hanse. Sweden and Denmark have become the dominant territorial states in what used to the naval monopoly of the Hanse. Many once great Hanse cities have accepted Swedish control, like Riga, Visby and Tallin. Wismar and Stralsund too were taken over by the Swedes, whilst Rostock was incorporated into Mecklenburg. The archbishopric of Bremen had become a duchy that was held by the king of Sweden, surrounding the city and incorporating Stade. Denmark stretched to Altona once a town outside the gates of Hamburg and now a part of the city. Many of the inland cities too have finally succumbed to the constant pressure from their territorial overlords, with Cologne and Brunswick the notable exceptions.

In 1629 the Hanseatic diet proposed that only three cities, Bremen, Hamburg and Lubeck were to represent the Hanse from now on. There were more Hanseatic Diets in the 40 years thereafter. In 1669 the last gathering took place.  At that diet no major decisions were taken. It is likely that most participants despite the gloomy atmosphere and meagre attendance realised this was the last time.

There was never a formal decision to dissolve the Hanse. It simply vanished from the political scene. The three cities, Bremen, Hamburg and Lubeck remained legally in charge of the Hanse assets, namely to Kontor buildings most if which were barely used and no longer held any privileges. Weird traditions continued. Lubeck would for example send an emissary to the now entirely empty beach where once the great herring market of Scania had taken place and declared the privileges of the Hanse of the Merchants of the Holy Roman Empire. Only the gulls were listening.

As for Bremen, the city found a new trading destination, the United States. From 1783 Bremen became the #1 port for ships going from Germany to North America. The main export goods were people. Between 1832 and 1960 about 7 million Germans emigrated to the US via Bremerhaven, the port Bremen had built on the mouth of the Weser. 

Bremen and Hamburg survived the tides of history as independent city states until today. That status changed only twice. During the time of the Napoleonic Bremen became part of the French department of the Bouches de Weser and Hamburg of the Bouches d’Elbe. And during the Nazi Regime Bremen and Bremerhafen were incorporated into the Reichsgau Weser-Ems whilst Hamburg was extended to become Gross-Hamburg.

Bremen the smallest of the German Länder maintains many of its historic traditions. The Haus Seefahrt is one of Europe’s oldest charities looking after retired captains and their wives and widows since 1545. They will hold the annual Schaffermahlzeit a splendid dinner for up to 500 people in the great hall of the Rathaus for the 480th time in February 2024. Standing at the windows the guests can see the mighty Roland that still staring defiantly at the gates of the Cathedral from where a higher authority once unsuccessfully tried to suppress the city’s independence. On the right they see the Schutting with the merchant guild’s motto embossed in gold – Buten un Binnen, Wagen un Winnen, away and at home we risk and we win.

We may have reached the end of the Hanse’s history, but that is not yet the end of the series. You have been here long enough to know that the History of the Germans does not close a series with the demise of its subject. Everything in German history has an afterlife, and the Hanse is no exception. So next week we will take a look at the tangible and intangible remains of the Hanse. I hope you will join us again.

And as always let me thank all the patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website, historyofthegermans.com. Your support is what has kept this show going for 2 and a half years and should keep us moving forward for many years to come.

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