The last two episodes may have left you with a sense of gloom and foreboding about the great Hanseatic cities. But here is the counterintuitive fact, the Hanse may continuously loose political power and economic relevance, but the cities that make up the association are flourishing. Not all of them but some, Hamburg and Danzig in particular.

Why it is that the Hanse declines, but the Hansards are doing mightily well is what we are looking into this week. So let’s see….

Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 125 – The Rise and Rise of Hamburg

The last two episodes may have left you with a sense of gloom and foreboding about the great Hanseatic cities. But here is the counterintuitive fact, the Hanse may continuously loose political power and economic relevance, but the cities that make up the association are flourishing. Not all of them but some, Hamburg and Danzig in particular.

Why it is that the Hanse declines, but the Hansards are doing mightily well is what we are looking into this week. So let’s see….

But before we start, I would like to thank all my patrons and those of you who have made a one-time contribution. It is not just the monetary generosity that I find so humbling, it is also how much you care about the podcast. The other day one of you, Michael B, an almost excessively generous patron sent me a book I would have almost certainly overlooked. This book, J.K. Dunlop’s history of Hamburg from 800 to 1952 was originally written for British officers stationed in Hamburg to help them familiarise themselves with the place they were now administrating. First up, the book itself is a fascinating artefact of that period, but it is also charming and written in a crisp and concise, almost military style I enjoy enormously. Quite a bit of it features in today’s episode. So, thanks so much Michael. And I also would like to thank Hajo G., Kristi S., Timothy K-H and Brian C who have kindly signed up on

Last week we left the Hanseatic League, or more precisely Lübeck the city that had so often taken the lead in the political ambitions of this merchant’s association defeated and humiliated. Its populist dictator, Jürgen Wullenwever had dragged the city into the wars over the Danish succession following the deposition of king Christian II. In that war Wullenwever had pursued an impossible objective, forcing the Danes to close the Oresund to all Dutch shipping, something no Danish king could ever grant. Without the Oresund tolls a Danish ruler would have been too weak to control his powerful aristocrats who for centuries had not only chosen their king, but also deposed a few of them.

Following his military and political defeat, Wullenwever left Lübeck and was quickly apprehended, not by a party to the conflict, but by the archbishop of Bremen and his brother the duke of Brunswick who had him tortured and finally executed.

After the defeat the reconstituted patrician council of Lübeck quickly made peace with the king of Denmark, the Protestant Christian III. That wasn’t quite the end though. Emperor Charles V had another go, supporting another candidate for the Danish throne. That conflict lasted until 1544 and ended with a peace treaty giving the Dutch free access to the Oresund. Lübeck did not get involved at all.

Lübeck made one last attempt at military dominance of the Baltic during the Nordic Seven year’s war or sometimes called the war over the three crowns. That war was a bust-up between the successors of Christian III of Denmark and Gustav Vasa of Sweden. Though formally fought over the question whether the king of Denmark could carry three crowns on his coat of arms, behind it stood a set of much more tangible issues. Ivan IV, known to us as Ivan the Terrible had, before he was consumed by paranoia and madness pursued a successful expansion policy that gained him most of Livonia. The Teutonic Knights who used to rule the territory were pushed back to just Kurland and its last Landmeister, Gotthard Kettler dissolved the ancient order of the Livonian Swordbrothers and became duke of Kurland as a vassal of the king of Poland.

Ivan the not yet Terrible had sponsored the city of Narva as his preferred harbour for the export of fur and beeswax. Narva had not been allowed to join the Hanse thanks to the opposition of Reval, modern day Tallin. Narva became a great success and Lübeck merchants travelled there instead of going to Tallin where they had been subjected to protectionist rules for the last century. At the same time Tallin sought protection from Russians and Lubeck under the mighty arm of Sweden so that when war broke out, Sweden seized 32 Lübeck ships.

Lübeck had to respond. It declared war on Sweden and tried to gather support amongst the other Hanse cities. But again, nobody followed suit, in part because Lübeck had supported the city of Narva over its fellow Hansards at Tallin. Seems you cannot call for Hanseatic solidarity when you have failed to live it first. Lübeck found itself again as isolated as it had been under Wullenwever.

Lübeck then had to double down and built the largest warships of its time, the Adler of Lübeck. 78m or 257 feet overall, 68 large cannon spread over three decks, made it one of the earliest ships of the line. But it did not help. When the ship was commissioned in 1567 the naval war had already gone terribly badly for the city on the Trave. Its main fleet including its flagship and the commanding grand admiral had been lost in a storm off Gotland. So, when the Adler was splashed it could no longer be deployed successfully. So, no shot was ever fired in anger. In 1570 the war was over.

In the peace agreement Lübeck got its trading privileges in Narva reconfirmed. But that wasn’t worth anything. Because in the meantime Ivan the Terrible had gone full on mental, killing people on a near industrial scale, which made it difficult for him to hold on to Livonia. Sweden conquered the province and took over Narva. At which point Lübeck merchants no longer held any special trading rights in commerce with what is slowly becoming Russia.

It is also the last time Lübeck embarked on any kind of military adventure.

For the Hanse as a whole the decline in the fortunes of Lübeck was a clear indication that the world had changed. They began to arrive at the correct analysis of why that was. Not the Dutch and English merchants were the problem, but the change in the political landscape. Other traders could count on the support of powerful states opening up trade routes and protecting their wares. The kings of England were sponsoring the Merchant Adventurers who received patents to form the Muscovy company, the Levant company and most famously the East India Company. The Dutch had the support of Charles V and the Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Russian rulers had shaken off the monopolistic powers of the Hanse. What the Hanse cities knew they needed was a powerful sponsor.

The natural supporter of what used to be the Hanse of the Merchants of the Holy Roman Empire would have been the emperor himself, Charles V and later his brother Ferdinand I. But both of them were Catholics which made them suspicious, and far away which made them ineffective. Denmark was close and its ruler protestant but having fought a war too many against Copenhagen made that impossible. Danzig kept proposing the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth whose territory kept growing and growing, but that was a long shot for Cologne or Brunswick.

Nothing came of this. Instead, the four lead cities, Cologne, Brunswick, Lübeck and Danzig did the next best thing. They gave up their ancient tradition of being a loose federation and became a real organisation. They initially agreed an alliance for 10 years but that was extended multiple times. The main tenets of the agreement were that each city would contribute towards a common budget that should fund the maintenance of the Kontors, joint provision of security for transports on land and at sea, dispensation of justice and if needed military retaliation against breaches of the peace.

And for the first time the Hanse was to be given its own bureaucracy. The role of the council of Lübeck as general secretary of the Hanse that calls the Hanseatic diets and sets their agenda was given to the newly created Syndicus of the Hanse. A Syndicus is an ancient Latin word denominating someone tasked with defending the rights of an association or organisation, but not necessarily leading it. In modern German parlance, a Syndikus is the general council of a company.

Most of the Hanseatic cities had a Syndicus whose job it was to represent the city in negotiations with other cities or in court, whilst the major political decisions were taken by the city council and the Burgomaster.

So, the role of Syndicus of the Hanse wasn’t designed to create a CEO, but to be a go-to person for foreign powers who would discuss issues that he could then propose to the Hanseatic Diet for resolution. The first Syndicus was Heinrich Sudermann, a merchant from Cologne. An excellent choice. He had the social standing necessary as his family was one of the great families of Cologne. His father had been Burgomaster. And he had the necessary qualifications. A Doctor of Law from one of the great Italian universities who had been on diplomatic missions for his hometown several times before.

Sudermann stayed in post for an impressive 35 years. Still his megaproject turned out to be a disaster. Having seen the Kontors in Novgorord and Bergen going under, Sudermann was intent on not letting that happen to the other two remaining ones, in London and Bruges.

Bruges was the one that looked most at risk. Trade in the city had declined sharply since the end of the 14th century. Many of the foreigners who had made Bruges such an important centre of trade had moved to nearby Antwerp. That also included the Hanse merchants.

Despite this shift the Hanse kept insisting on the continued existence of the Kontor in Bruges. The reason was that in Bruges the Hanse had received and was able to maintain a vast set of privileges, whilst in Antwerp they had few such rights. But the economic reality was such that trading in Antwerp even without special conditions was a lot more lucrative than seeking clients in the declining town of Bruges. And as oversight from the Kontor was a lot laxer in Antwerp than in Bruges, the more entrepreneurial traders flaunted the rules openly, setting up trading businesses together with their Dutch colleagues.

Sudermann believed that to rebuild the power of the Hanse in Flanders, they needed to move to Antwerp. And not only that. The Hansards had to be forced to live together in a Kontor as they had done in Bergen and Novgorod, so that discipline could be restored. Only with discipline could the Hanse force the powers in Antwerp to grant them new privileges, as the leaders of Bruges had done in the 14th century.

So Sudermann had an enormous trading Kontor built, near the harbour of Antwerp. The Kontor covered 5000 square metres, its façade stretched for 80 metres, it allegedly had 365 windows, 23 storage rooms, 133 luxury bedrooms, 27 cellars plus communal dormitories, dining halls and several kitchens. The plan was that all Hansards active in Antwerp were to live here at the Kontor, tightly supervised by the aldermen. But take-up was limited. Many of the Hansards in Antwerp had moved there permanently, had married and bought property. When asked to move themselves and their families into the new building, they refused, preferring to be excluded from the Hanse privileges.

Still some Hansards did agree to move in and Sudermann felt that things might eventually work out after all..

But already by 1566 when the Kontor was under construction, the first signs of religious trouble appeared. A wave of iconoclasm overshadowed the grand opening. Antwerp shifted towards Calvinism which brought about a sharp response from King Philipp II of Spain, now overlord of the Low Countries. In 1576 the Spanish troops sacked the city. In 1584 the city was besieged again, in 1585 the Schelde river was blocked by the Protestant Netherlands which further reduced the amount of trade going through it. Because of the declining commercial activity, the Kontor could not service the debt taken on when it was built. In 1591 a special tax was levied on the cities to pay off the debt. Still the Kontor gradually emptied out. It was still owned by the Hanseatic cities of Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen when Napoleon restructured Antwerp harbour which left the building surrounded by water on all sides. It became a warehouse and later barracks. In 1893 it burned down and what remained was removed. In May 2011 the Museum am Stroom opened on the site, displaying the art and culture of the port and city of Antwerp.

For Sudermann the failure of the Kontor in Antwerp was a major setback. That was followed shortly after by the closure of the Stahlhof in London. The English had been enraged by the lack of reciprocity in the trading relations with the Hansards. The German merchants had been insisting on their privileges that dated back as far as the 12th century, giving them free access to the English market. Meanwhile the English traders travelling into the Baltic were hindered at every junction. As the Tudor monarchy consolidated power into a more modern state, these medieval oddities became harder and harder to take. One of the few acts of the short reign of Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII was to recall the Hanse privileges. A few months later his sister and successor, Mary I, bloody Mary readmitted the Hansards but only on paper. The merchants were still being harassed. The Hanse responded with a trade embargo, but could not make it stick, so the situation remained challenging for the remaining Hansards in England.

When fellow protestant Elisabeth I came in, the situation improved a bit, but then the Kontor’s support for England’s allies in the Netherlands was lukewarm, so that Elisabeth resumed her predecessor’s position. The English merchants started trading through the town of Emden, which wasn’t a member of the Hanse. Hansards who wanted to sail to England had to do something, so first Stade and then Hamburg signed an agreement with England, letting the Merchant Adventurers in.

Sudermann tried to keep the Hanse together and form a unified front against the English, but to no avail. He tried to force Hamburg to call off the deal with the English, but the organisation was no longer able to enforce such kind of discipline internally. Nor could they stop Elbing and the Danzig to open their doors.

Lübeck obtained a decision by the imperial court that the English had established an illegal monopoly in the Baltic. Oh, the irony! The English took one look at that and at the probability of emperor Rudolf to leave his cabinet of curiosities in Prague to fight them on the beaches and laughed heartily. Going one further, as they pursued the Spanish back into Cadiz in the year after the Spanish Armada, they burned 60 German ships before Lisbon.

Now the emperor orders the Merchant Adventurers expelled from Germany sanctioning anyone who harbours them with the imperial ban. Elisabeth I reacts immediately, she throws the remaining German merchants out and seizes the Stahlhof. In 1598 the Hanse privileges in England end for good. The Stahlhof is returned 20 years later but never recovers.

As far as the great Kontors and trading privileges in the main international ports are concerned, the Hanse is finished. Their internal organisation may be tighter and more efficient than in the past, but fewer and fewer cities are prepared to pay the levy to fund it. For what? There were few benefits when travelling abroad. And even when trading with other Hanse cities, they did no longer provide much preferential treatment to their fellow members. As we go forward, the Hanse keeps shrinking until the very last Hanseatic Diet in 1669.

This all sounds terribly depressing, doesn’t it. Lost wars, closed Kontors, aggressive Dutch and English competitors, dwindling finances. All these Hanse merchants must have walked around with their heads in their hands bemoaning their lost fortunes, right?

As it happened, they did not. Sure, the fall of Hanseatic power in the Baltic is unlikely to have been something that cheered them up. But on the other hand, business was great. Not just great, really, really great.

One of the reasons for that was the same reason that led to the fall of the Kontor in Antwerp and the loss of the Stahlhof – the Eighty Years war. What was the Eighty Years war you may ask, that is if you are neither Dutch nor Belgian. In that latter case you probably know very much what the Eighty years war was.

Fun thing about the 80 Years’ War, nobody can agree when it actually started. One date could have been the Beeldenstorm the iconoclastic uprising in Antwerp that interrupted the construction of Sudermann’s great Antwerp Kontor. It was definitely under way in 1572 when Dutch rebels against Spanish rule captured the undefended port of Den Briel in South Holland.

The 80 Years’ War or the Dutch Revolt as it is also called was the long and arduous struggle of the Low Countries against the government of the Habsburg Netherlands. Habsburg rule had become unpopular due to its push for centralisation, curtailing the ancient privileges of the cities, its demands for taxes and the local governors aggressive drive to keep the Netherlands in the Catholic Faith.

At the end of this war the Low Countries were divided into the Spanish Netherlands, broadly speaking modern day Belgium and the Dutch Republic, modern day Netherlands.

The war breaks down into two phases, the first was from these unknown beginnings to a truce in 1609. The truce lasted 12 years. Hostilities resumed and continued alongside or as part of the 30-Years’ War. It ended in 1648 with the peace of Westphalia that also ended the 30-Years’ War.   

The Dutch Revolt completely changed the structure of Northern European trade. The rebellious Dutch provinces fought a war for survival on two fronts. One was the military struggle, the other the economic struggle.

Militarily the Spanish kept besieging one city after another. If they succeeded, they sacked them, most famously Antwerp in 1574, if they did not succeed, they devastated the surrounding territory. The Dutch side was gaining the upper hand roughly 30 years in when Maurice of Orange reformed the army and created modern warfare.

All that was great and heroic, but the foreign merchants who preferred not be caught up in sieges or having their goods plundered by unpaid soldiers left Antwerp. As the war continued, the Dutch cities tried to hit the enemy where it hurt most, in its wallet. A large part of the wealth of Habsburg Spain came from the spice trade the Portuguese had opened up when they sailed around the cape of Good Hope. That is where the Dutch now directed their ships, the spice islands of Indonesia. These are the beginnings of the Dutch East India Company, the first joint stock company in the world and a source of enormous incomes, making it the other reason why these few provinces on the edge of the sea could fend off the greatest empire Europe had seen since the Fall of Rome.

For our Hanseatic cities, this reset of the political environment was a huge boon. Both the Dutch and the Spanish had a near inexhaustible demand for things like wood, ash, tear, flax, metals and saltpetre to build their ships and cannons and make sails and gunpowder. All of this could be got from the Hanseatic cities, in particular from Danzig. As a neutral party, Danzig could supply both sides. And it was now part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which stretched all the way from the Baltic almost to the Black Sea, encompassing some of the most fertile lands in Europe.

Which gets us to the other great business, food. As the climate was hurtling towards the true depths of the Little Ice Age, grain became a hugely important commodity. And again, Danzig was in pole position to supply the world with the wheat, rye and barley of Ukraine and Poland that came down the Vistula River.

What made it even more lucrative was that the Dutch were restrained from taking the grain much beyond their homeland. Grain that used to travel to Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean on Dutch ships was now transported on Hanse ships because as neutrals they were allowed to enter these ports. The Spaniards even ordered their Italian allies not to accept grain from Dutch traders during a major famine. Which created a situation where the grand duke of Tuscany and even the pope had to send embassies to Hamburg and Danzig to purchase much needed grain. Trade with the Mediterranean increased rapidly throughout the late 16th end early 17th century mainly bringing down grain, metals and wood and returning with wine, spices and luxury goods. The trade gained such an extent that Hamburg established an admiralty to protect their ships from North African pirates. They had to set up a special budget to buy the freedom of Hamburgers who had been captured and enslaved on the barbary coast. One captured Hamburg captain converted and spent his life as a Muslim pirate called Murat.

The good relations between Hamburg, Lübeck and Danzig with Spain and Portugal meant they could sail even further with Several Hamburg merchants establishing trade with Brasil.

The scale of the expansion of trade is truly impressive. In 1497, the earliest year we have a complete record, 795 ships passed through the Oresund. It stays around the 1,000 number for the first half of the 16th century. Then it rises quickly. During the period 1557 to 1569 the average was 3,280, by the 1590s it had increased to 5,036 journeys and by the end of the century peaked at 6,673 more than 9 times the number of ships than a century earlier. Part of the increase in the number of journeys were advances in marine technology. The Dutch had invented a new type of ship, the Fluite which could do two journeys from the Netherlands to the Baltic and back in one year. And then these ships were much larger than they had been in the 15th century. Economically the Hanse had grown at least factor 5 during this period of its political decline.

What had also changed was the composition of the Hanse cities. During the heyday of the Hanse in the 14th and 15th century the cities were populated by merchants speaking Middle Low German. The cities were happy to take in people from other Hanseatic cities and give them citizen rights, but they did not grant those rights to traders they regarded as foreigners. In particular not the English, Portuguese and Italians.  The Dutch were also seen as foreigners even though at least in part lived in the Holy Roman empire, some of whom had been members of the Hanse in the past and they spoke Middle Low German.

By the middle and late 16th century the picture had fundamentally changed. Portuguese and Italians who had fled the war in the Netherlands had found refuge initially in Cologne. But that lasted only a relatively brief period, so they moved north to Hamburg, which despite being a Protestant city was happy to accommodate them. The same was true for the Dutch who not only travelled to Hamburg and Danzig on their swift freighters, but they also settled in these places.

And finally, there are the English. The Merchant Adventurers sponsored by the Tudor monarchs had been searching for a safe port on the German coast. Emden had been their first base but when the ancient port of Stade on the Elbe River allowed them in, they took the opportunity to get closer to the main waterways and roads south. They stayed in Stade for 20 years but after the defeat of the Armada the city of Hamburg who had so far been hesitant opened its doors to the English, even if that meant heavy repercussions from Lübeck and other Hansards.

The English did not only bring the now dominant English cloth to Hamburg for further distribution, the friendship with England also meant Hamburg merchants could ship their goods through the channel, even goods going to Spain or the Mediterranean. Other Hansards had to take the Northward route over the top of Britain and west of Ireland to escape English privateers in the channel. Going round Britain and Ireland is not fun as anyone who ever did the Round Britain and Ireland race can attest.

Foreign merchants in Hamburg were free to trade on exactly same terms as the locals. They could form companies with other merchants. There were no guilds that restricted certain routes to its members. They were free to practice their religion. 

Not everyone shared Hamburg and Danzig’s attitude towards foreigners. The official Hanse policy, shaped by Lübeck remained strongly protectionist, insisting that guests could only trade with approved local intermediaries, could not create companies with Hansards and had to leave after a prescribed period of time. Some cities tried to enforce these protectionist policies, others like Hamburg and Danzig ignored them.

As the Eighty Years war comes to an end in 1648, the great economic boom that had lasted almost its entire length came to an end. Merchants from the United Provinces were free to sail and trade with everyone again. And thanks to the success of the Dutch East India company they had become the dominant maritime power in Europe. And as that happened, the routes down towards Iberia and the Mediterranean were again serviced by the Dutch making life harder for the Hansards.

It was in particular Lubeck traders found it hard to adjust to these changed conditions. They had kept up with Hamburg and Danzig during the 80 Years’ war. They had founded a guild of Traders going to Spain that had excluded foreigners from taking part. This had prospered but was now caught in a struggle for survival.

Lübeck, always the largest city in the Hanse now fell behind Hamburg and Danzig in terms of population. Hamburg, which had 15,000 inhabitants in 1500 grew to 50,000 by the beginning of the 17th century, making it Germany’s largest city bigger than Cologne and Lubeck.

Its merchant fleet became larger than any other thanks to the addition of many Dutch shipping firms who had relocated to the Elbe. It built mighty warships to protect its convoys. Its foreign traders, in particular the Portuguese had made Hamburg the centre of trade in sugar and spices. The Italians and Portuguese established commercial banks clustered around the Lombardsbruecke. A bourse was opened in 1558, in 1619 the Hamburger Bank became its central bank modelled on the Bank of Amsterdam 10 years earlier.

In 1609 the council of Lubeck accused Hamburg before the Hanseatic Diet that “barely a 100th of its trade is in the hands of its own citizens, but handled by the Dutch, the Southern Germans, French, Portuguese, English and others.” In 1609 Lubeck reconfirmed its right of the staple, requiring everyone trading through his harbour to offer their wares to Lubeck merchants and only to buy from Lubeck merchants. This ordinance remained in force for 150 years, at the end of which Lubeck had become nothing more than Hamburg’s harbour on the Baltic in the same way 300 years earlier Hamburg used to be Lubeck’s harbour on the North Sea.

Trade, as it happens is one of the few things where 1 plus 1 is 3. To say it with good old Adam Smith:  “In general, if any branch of trade, or any division of labour, be advantageous to the public, the freer and more general the competition, it will always be the more so.”

Openness to competition and willingness to accommodate foreigners is why since the middle of the 17th century Hamburg is one of the richest cities in Europe. Today it has 1.8m inhabitants, whilst Lübeck which stuck to its protectionist approach until the very end has 217,000 a mere tenth of its rival.

Let me close with a quote I found in the book by J.K Dunlop. Dunlop had found letters by a certain Dr. Thomas Nugent, a fellow of the London Society of Antiquarians, who visited the city in 1766.

Dr. Nugent visited the English Merchant Adventurers at their “factory” as their counting house in Groningerstrasse was called. There he visited the factory’s bowling green, which was quote “situated near the new church of St. Michael’s in very good air, with a convenient house, surrounded with tall handsome trees, where they frequently meet for recreation and exercise. At the same place there is a regular weekly assembly at which the gentlemen and ladies of Hamburg intermix with those of the factory, amuse themselves with chit-chat, cards and dancing.” End quote.

Nothing illustrates better the Hamburg approach to foreigners coming there to trade than granting them an English bowling green next to the most significant new church in the city. The place where it used to be is still called Englische Planke, after the boards they had set up around the bowling green.

Next week I guess we will conclude our narrative. We will follow through to the last Hanseatic diet in 1669 and take a last look at what the Hanse left behind. The society it created, its culture and architecture. I hope you will join us again.

And as always I want to thank my patrons who have signed up on of the Germans or have made a one-time contribution on Thanks so much. For sources for today’s episode please check the shownotes.


J.K. Dunlop, Hamburg 800-1945, Published by the Anglo-German Club E.V.

Philippe Dollinger, Die Hanse, 6. Auflage, 2012