Our history of the Hanse has come to an end, not with a bang but with a whimper. Of the things that have remained we have already talked a lot, the ideal of the honourable Hanseatic merchant, the cultural and political links to Scandinavia and the stories. The stories of the famous pirates, Klaus Störtebecker and Hans Benecke, the heroics of the wars fought with Denmark and the antics of Jurgen Wullenwever.

But there is something that reminds us of the days when traders speaking low German fed Europe fish, beer and grain. And that are the cultural achievements, the town halls, weighing houses and stores that became symbols of civic pride, the artists whose works adorn churches and palaces across the Baltic sea and last but not least the brick churches that shaped the way these cities still appear..…let’s have a look.


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 127: The Art and Culture of the Hanse.

Our history of the Hanse has come to an end, not with a bang but with a whimper. Of the things that have remained we have already talked a lot, the ideal of the honourable Hanseatic merchant, the cultural and political links to Scandinavia and the stories. The stories of the famous pirates, Klaus Störtebecker and Hans Benecke, the heroics of the wars fought with Denmark and the antics of Jurgen Wullenwever.

But there is something that reminds us of the days when traders speaking low German fed Europe fish, beer and grain. And that are the cultural achievements, the town halls, weighing houses and stores that became symbols of civic pride, the artists whose works adorn churches and palaces across the Baltic sea and last but not least the brick churches that shaped the way these cities still appear..…let’s have a look.

And since podcasting is a most unsuitable medium to talk about visual art, I have added a few images to the episode webpage which you can find at historyofthegermans.com/127-2

But before we start it is my privilege to thank all the patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website, historyofthegermans.com. Your help is much appreciated. And for those of you who are still on the sidelines, come and join. You can become a knight of the realm for the price of a cappuccino per month, equally stimulating, less calorific and much more prestigious. And here are the names of four amongst your number who have already taken the plunge: John C., Ole S., Luis-Felipe M. and Edward B. Thanks you guys so much.

Now back to the show. The Hanse ended officially in 1669 with the last Hanseatic diet. But for centuries afterwards the cities of Hamburg, Lubeck and Bremen were the caretakers of the remaining tangible possessions of the institutions, specifically the Kontor Buildings in London, Bruges and Antwerp. The three cities would also maintain joint embassies and consulates abroad and after the unification of Germany in 1871 maintain a Hanseatic representation in Berlin that lasted until 1933.

Thanks not only to this cooperation but multiple other factors, the three cities weren’t integrated into territorial states until the 20th century when Lubeck became part of Schleswig-Holstein. Hamburg and Bremen are still city states with their own state government and a seat in the Bundesrat, something the other great free imperial cities, Frankfurt, Nurnberg, Augsburg and Cologne to name just a few, did not achieve.

So, in a way one of the legacies of the Hanse is the existence of the city states of Hamburg and Bremen. But beyond the political, what is left today?

Let’s start with the language. One of the defining factors and some of the glue that kept the Hanse network together was the common language spoken by merchants from Novgorod to Bergen, Low German. As you may have noticed by now, I am no linguist and every time I comment on this topic, I find myself in hot water. So, I will not go into a detailed analysis of Low Middle German, Low Saxon and Low Franconian. There were clear differences between these languages/dialects but one important point was that they could understand each other easily, much more easily than they could understand people living south of a line from Cologne to Frankfurt an der Oder who spoke a version of High German. Whether this linguistic gap was a function or a cause for the great rift between the Emperors and the Saxons that dominated the 11th to 13th century, I am not qualified to comment on.

Low German-speaking area before the expulsion of almost all German-speakers from east of the Oder–Neisse line in 1945. Low German-speaking provinces of Germany east of the Oder, before 1945, were Pomerania with its capital Stettin (now Szczecin, Poland), where east of the Oder East Pomeranian dialects were spoken, and East Prussia with its capital Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia), where Low Prussian dialects were spoken. Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) was also a Low German-speaking city before 1945. The dialect of Danzig (Danzig German) was also Low Prussian.

Low German was not only the language of the common people, but also the language of business and of law. Since most of the Hanse cities on the Baltic had adopted the law of the city of Lubeck, the court cases were held in the dialect of that city. Likewise, the cities who had adopted Magdeburg Law often adopted that dialect for their legal procedures.

In the 14th century Low German, in particular the version spoken in Lubeck, replaced Latin not only in the local courts but also as the language of diplomacy and politics. The records of the Hanseatic diets had originally been kept in Latin. But from 1369 onwards, i.e., from the time of the victory over the Danish king Waldemar Atterdag, the Hanse kept their records in Low German. Not only that, the Hanse was in such a powerful position, it could insist on the use of Low German even in correspondence with the Scandinavian rulers and the Flemish cities. This transition to the common tongue instead of Latin happened somewhat earlier in the Hanse than for instance in France, where Francois 1 declared French the official language only in 1539. Why that is we can only speculate. One reason may be that many city officials who had spent their life trading, simply never learned enough Latin. Equally, some of the smaller Hanse cities could not or did not want to pay for a scribe proficient in Latin. And finally, the church and its Latin-speaking clergy played a much smaller role in the world these men and women inhabited than they did in the rest of Europe.

Low German may have become the language of business, law and politics, but did not gain much traction as a literary language. Most of the literature of the time, like the Minnelieder and chivalric Romances were written and read in Middle High German. The one literary works that gained national significance was Reineke Fuchs, the story of the wily fox who escapes from an ever-mounting pile of evidence of his wrongdoings by framing his archenemy, Isegrim the wolf. The story of the clever fox is just one iteration of a well-known tale that goes back the Aesop and the Roman de Renart in the 13th century and continued well into the Fantastic Mr. Fox. But Reinecke Fuchs was the most successful version in the German lands and after translation into High German was even picked up much later by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Reynke de vos: Incipit der Lübecker Inkunabel von 1498

Really great literature from the Hanse cities came in the 20th century, to name just the giants, there is the Mann family, Thomas, Heinrich, Erika, Klaus and Golo probably the most gifted literary family in the German language. Gunther Grass you already met. Wolfgang Borchert is another one of my favourites. I could go on. They all wrote in High German.

Though the belletristic literature wasn’t exactly the late medieval Hansards cup of tea, history was. From very early on the cities or the patrician societies sponsored writers to record the past of their cities, which is why we have a fairly uninterrupted record of historic events all throughout the Middle Ages.

The use of Low German in commercial and political communications declined almost exactly in line with the decline in the influence of the Hanse. In part that was due to the Lutheran church that emphasised Luther’s translation of the bible into high German and from 1530 published all church communications in high German. At the same time the southern German traders like the Fugger took an ever-larger role as counterparts to the Hanse merchants and they insisted on High German. The reforms of the imperial administration and legal system by Maximilian I and Charles V shifted the legal language to High German. Finally, the Renaissance led to a revival in the use of Latin.

By 1631 even Lubeck had changed the language of its announcements to the general population from Low German to High German. Low German became the language of the lower classes whilst the patricians and university educated professionals spoke High German. The same process took place in the Hanse cities along the Baltic Coast, in Gdansk, Riga, Tallin and East Prussia. Since the late 19th century efforts have been made to rehabilitate Low German. Authors write in the language and one of Hamburg’s largest parks is called Planten un Blomen, a forthright description so characteristic for Northern Germany.  Today Low German or Plattdeutsch is recognised as a regional language and submissions in low Germans have to be accepted by courts and authorities.

Plamnten un Blomen – Hamburg

A rather unexpected element of Hanseatic culture was a love for chivalric romances and their heroes. As we mentioned before a couple of times, the patricians despite most of them being in trade, saw themselves the equals of the knights and lower aristocracy. They did engage in aristocratic pastimes like hunts and tournaments. Moreover, they did get very fond of the nine great heroes or nine worthies. This is rather motley crew comprising three heroes of antiquity, Hector, Alexander and Julius Caesar, three chivalric heroes of the Old Testament, Joshua, David and Judas Maccabaeus, and finally three Christian heroes, King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon. Nobody can explain what drove this choice, but we find them most beautifully depicted in the Hansa hall of the Rathaus of Cologne and the Beautiful Fountain in Nurnberg.

9 gute Helden im Hansasaal des Rathauses Köln

One of those, King Arthur seemed to have struck a particular chord with the citizens of Prussia. The cities of Danzig, Elbing, Riga and Stralsund all had Artus Courts where the patricians met and pretended they were the knights of the round table. Chivalric heroes were pressed into service as defenders of citizens’ freedoms. Reinold of Montauban, one of the four sons of count Aymon became the patron saint and defender of Dortmund whilst statues of the mighty Roland proliferated from Bremen across the Hanse world.

Chivalric heroes were pressed into service as defenders of citizens’ freedoms. Reinold of Montauban, one of the four sons of count Aymon became the patron saint and defender of Dortmund whilst statues of the mighty Roland proliferated from Bremen across the Hanse world.

Reinoldus – patron saint of Dortmund

Painting and sculpture is something that rarely comes to mind when talking about the Hanse. Many great museums in Germany are today in the cities that had once been the capitals of powerful princes with huge budgets for representation, rather than in places dominated by sober merchants. Berlin, Munich, Dresden inherited and then expanded these princely collections. Others like Cologne and Nurnberg had been made centres for the great national collections in archaeology and art. But Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck do not often feature on the bucket list of art lovers. A bit unfairly I have to say since for instance the Kunsthalle in Hamburg houses very interesting exhibitions.

That does not mean that there weren’t some astounding artist active during the heyday of the Hanse. Like everywhere in Europe the congregations in the Hanse cities did their utmost to fill their churches with great pieces of art. Wooden sculptures and monumental altarpieces were their preferred donations. There are a few names of artist we know, like Bertram of Minden and Master Francke from Hamburg. If you want to see works by the latter, there are some in Hamburg, but the largest, most complete work is in the Finnish National Museum. It got there because it was in a small church in a place called Kalanti, today part of modern town of 14,000 people that I cannot pronounce. Seemingly Kalanti was a large enough trading post in the 14th century to order a piece of art from a Hamburg master.

The greatest of these Hanse artists was probably Bernt Notke (1440 to 1509). He had travelled extensively, learning his craft in the Netherlands and in Italy, where he got heavily influenced by Mantegna. He set up shop in Lubeck stayed in Sweden for 15 years where he became the master of the royal mint before returning back to Lubeck. His works can be found in many Hanse cities, including in the church of St. Mary in Lubeck. But again, if you want to see his masterpieces you need to take a ship or plane. Though he was a renaissance artist he remained in many ways wedded to medieval themes and imagery. That is most visible in the Totentanz or Dance Macabre. A Totentanz is a motif that had emerged after the Black death and shows the whole of society from the emperor down to the lowly peasant dancing with grinning skeletons, reminding the viewer that the worldly joys of beauty, health and wealth are temporary and that the grim reaper is waiting for us all. Exceedingly cheerful I know. But Notke manages to depict the skeletons with so much verve and joy, one is almost compelled to join them in their pogo. There used to be two versions, a short one with 13 figures in Tallin and a 30 metre long and 1.9m high high freeze in the Marienkirche in Lubeck.

The Lubeck version had already deteriorated badly by 1701 and was replaced with a faithful copy that was much admired. In 1942 the authorities had a wooden cover built to protect the image against bomb damage. The Royal Air Force attack on Lubeck was the very first of the WWII bombing raids and the city was ill prepared. In particular the use of firebombs was unexpected. As the firestorm raged through the Marienkirche, the wooden cover caught fire and the Danse Macabre came to its long prophesised end.

Fortunately Notke’s greatest work survived World War II and it isn’t in Germany either. It is the altar of St. George in the church if St. Nikolai in Stockholm, the Storkyrkan. I have only seen pictures of it and if I ever get a chance to go to Stockholm this is #1 on the list. Commissioned by the Swedish regent Sten Sture who had made a solemn promise to honour St. George before the battle of Brunkeberg. That was the battle that threw out king Christian I of Denmark and led to the collapse of the Kalmar Union. Episode 123 if anyone wants to refresh your memory.

The battle of Brunkeberg was a hugely important event, but hey did Notke do it justice. Depictions of St. George are one a penny in European art, but I have not seen one before where St. George is sculpted in Wood, and including horse and Plinth is 20 feet tall, his sword raised, his horse rearing up in fear before the dragon. And what a dragon it is, not one of those cute little salamanders you normally see cowering at the feet of the saint, ready to be pierced by some dainty lance. No, this is a real dragon, a terrifying monster whose gargantuan mouth could easily swallow a horse’s head in one gulp. The animal has captured the lance and only a well-placed hit with the sword raised high can save St. George and the damsel in distress who praying nearby.

This was made at the same time as the much more famous early equestrian statues of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Venice and Gattamalata in Padova but as Wilhelm Pinder said, it stands up to them as their Nordic counterpoint.

As amazing the St. George is, or seems to be, given I have never seen it in the flesh, painting and sculpture isn’t the most important legacy of the Hanse.

When we think of the great artistic achievements of the Hanse, we think of the humble brick and what could be created with it.

Now before we go into the whole topic of brick gothic, let us not forget that the Hanse comprised more than the towns on the Baltic and North Sea. The inland cities of the Hanse, Cologne, Dortmund, Muenster, Soest, Braunschweig did not build in brick, but in stone and boy did they create some amazing things. The city of Cologne is proud of its history as a free city and conveyed that pride in its town hall and the Gurzenich, a sort of party house with the largest dance floor in the Empire. And since the citizens of Cologne are a sensible bunch, they put a market hall on the ground floor. Muenster too has an impressive Rathaus dating back in parts to the 13th century and famous as the place where the peace of Westphalia was negotiated.  Dortmund has one of the oldest town halls amongst the stone-built cities, and Brunswick one of the most beautiful.

The cities in what art historians called the Hausteinzone or quarried stone area differed not just in terms of material from the brick-built cities from Riga to Bremen. The inland cities were much older than the Hanse cities east of the Elbe River. Not all have roots as deep as Cologne, but Brunswick, Muenster, Soest and Dortmund date back to the conquest of Saxony and featured Romanesque cathedrals and palaces that had already shaped their structure when the Hanse got going.

The cities of the brick-zone, with the exception of Bremen, did not have much if any stone buildings in the 12th century. Some were entirely new settlements like Riga and Tallin or grew up alongside Slavic settlements like in Danzig or Stettin. That left the merchant elite with carte blanche to build cities that reflected their idea of beauty and functionality. And by coincidence, just as they got going, a new architectural style was created back at the Abbaye of St. Denis in France, Gothic. And what added to the sense of consistency in the Hanse cities was that the Gothic style largely persisted well into the 16th century, after which many of these places declined in wealth and importance precluding major rebuilding projects.

The Hanse cities were often planned as rectangles with a market square in the middle. And that market square was to be fronted by a town hall, offering a place to trade, to meet your fellow citizens and to engage in politics. Most often the actual city hall was built on the first floor above the cloth hall whilst the cellar held the wine stores.

The Rathaus in Lubeck became the blueprint for many other brick-built town halls. It initially consisted of two separate comparatively modest buildings, one was the cloth hall and the other a place for social and political gatherings. These two buildings were connected and given a new joint facade. In the 14th century a new wing was added on the eastern side of the market square. And then in the 15th century a further extension was built, and all of that was built in brick.

One of the important things to know about brick is that it is a terrible material if you set your heart on decorating your brand-new town hall with statues, capitals and gargoyles. Brick just cannot really do that.

But still they did want some decoration and came up with a unique way to impress the importance and wealth of their city upon its visitors. They created monumental facades before the actual buildings that also reached well above the level of the roof line behind, serving no other purpose than decoration. The architects designed large round or pointed gothic openings that they then decorated with quatrefoils, rosettes or more intricate designs. They added finely chiselled gables and columns to add even more decoration. Stralsund is probably the most successful of these designs.

Beyond the town hall, we find similar features on other public buildings like the weighing houses, exchanges and city stores for salt, grain etc. And then the city’s merchants and artisans would compete to have the most impressive guildhall on the best spot on the market square.

But overlooking all of these were the churches. And that is another way in which the Hanse in the north differs from most cities. With the exception of Bremen there is no mighty cathedral that exceeds all other churches in size and splendour of decoration. Even in the cities that had their own bishop like Lubeck, Riga or Tallin, it was the parish church funded by the merchants that was the largest, the most sumptuously decorated and the one featuring the tallest tower.

The Hansards had a thing about having very tall towers. 125 metres seems to have been the standard to beat which keeps Lubeck, Riga and Tallin in the top 20 of highest churches in the world to this day, all taller than Salisbury Cathedral.  Allegedly St. Mary in Stralsund was even 151m high, which would have made it the highest building in the world until it was hit by lightening in 1549. These towers had a specific Hanse-related purpose. They could be seen from miles out at sea or downriver and as sailors returned from long journeys, they are cheered by this first glimpse of their hometown.

Brick architecture remained a key identifier of Hanse architecture, even though many masterpieces of brick gothic like Chorin monastery or the Teutonic Knights castle in Malbrok had little or no connection to the Hanse. When Hamburg reconnected culturally and architecturally with its Hanse roots, they chose visible brick to build the Speicherstadt and then in the 1920s developed an architectural style called Brick expressionism that gave us the Chile Haus, that rises like a curved red ocean liner out of the mass of houses near the Elbe.

It is this reconnecting to the Hanseatic traditions in the 1880s that did not only materialise in the architecture of Hamburg.

When Georg Sartorius sat down in 1802 to write the very first modern history of the Hanse, he did so because he sought refuge from the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, believing that nothing could be further from contemporary politics that this “half-forgotten antiquity”.

But he was quite thoroughly wrong. As a faithful listener to the History of the Germans you know that right around this time historians and pseudo historians began combing through Europe’s past in the hope of finding some German hero stories that could be woven into a new national narrative.

And what could be better than a story of a maritime empire that once controlled the Baltic Sea, beat the Kings of Denmark and England in war and left behind magnificently romantic cities. Quickly the Hanse, that famously had nor organisation, no army and, crucially, no desire to go to war when it could be avoided, was painted as an expansionist united maritime power that rivalled the English and French and was only prevented from conquering the new world by the lack of a strong German state.

Now I initially wanted to go into this in a lot more detail. But as it happened, I may have secured an interview with the person who has literally written the book about the perception of the Hanse in the 19th, 20th and now the 21st century. So, I do not want to forerun this interview, which may come out in mid-December.

And that gets me to the plan for the next Season, the Teutonic Knights. I will probably need as usual 2 to 3 weeks of preparation for that. That might mean no episodes until the end of November, except for maybe some short pieces on little gems I came across along the way.

And just to keep you guys excited about coming back, let me tell you what comes after the Teutonic Knights. We will get back to the chronological narrative. We will resume the story of the Holy Roman empire where we left off, at the death of Konradin. We will wade through the blood-soaked decades of the interregnum that brings one Rudolf von Habsburg to the throne, just in time for him to gain his family the duchy of Austria with well-known consequences. But before the Habsburgs get to settle on the imperial throne for good, history has granted us the Luxemburgers, Henry VII, Charles IV and Sigismund, fascinating figures who shaped Europe from their capital in Prague. I hope you will come along for the journey.

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.

1531-1535, a period of just 4 years is enough to capsize Lübeck’s position as the diplomatic heart of the Baltic Sea, general secretary of the Hanse, ally of both the king of Denmark and the king of Sweden and early member of the Schmalkaldic League. How can that happen?

As Edward Gibbon would say: History, in fact, is no more than a list of crimes of humanity, human follies and accidents”.

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 124 – Decline and Fall (Part 2)

1531-1535, a period of just 4 years is enough to capsize Lübeck’s position as the diplomatic heart of the Baltic Sea, general secretary of the Hanse, ally of both the king of Denmark and the king of Sweden and early member of the Schmalkaldic League. How can that happen?

As Edward Gibbon would say: History, in fact, is no more than a list of crimes of humanity, human follies and accidents”.

But before we start, enjoy this moment of Zen when you are undisturbed by your presenter extolling the benefits of online mental health services, recruitment companies or beard trimmers.  I am unsure what is more painful, the humiliation of the presenter pretending to like things he or she is clearly never going to use or the embarrassment of hearing someone who you have grown to respect debasing himself or herself. Luckily that does not happen here on the History of the Germans. istoruy of the  This podcast is entirety funded by the generosity of our patrons who have signed up on Patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website, historyofthegermans.com/support. And thanks a lot to Kevin C, Carl T, Tim B, Carlos Alonso C. and his son Eduardo A, for his patience or, should I say, lack of it. I suppose it would be easier to draw attention from youngsters if I discussed modern day German kaisers, like Tony Kroos”.

Last week we surveyed the lay of the land in the early 16th century in preparation for the dramatic events that led to the fall of Lübeck from queen of the Baltic to wealthy but ultimately no longer significant imperial free city.

And as we are squatting in the 16th century, we should do as the Romans do, which can only mean that this episode should take the structure of a Shakespearian tragedy with a sheer innumerable set of characters, complex plotline a dazzling switch around of locations.

Let’s begin with the dramatis personae:

The Lübecker

Jürgen Wullenwever, moderately successful merchant, by force of circumstance and oratory the de facto ruler of the city of Lübeck – protestant.

Marx Meier, former smith, now commander of the army and navy of Lübeck, a sharp dresser, protestant

The Danes

Ex-King Christian II, perpetrator of the Stockholm Bloodbath, Exile in the Low Countries, brother-in-law of the emperor Charles V. Catholic for political reasons only.

Frederick I king of Denmark and Norway. Successor of Christian II and current ruler thanks to election by the Danish Council of the Realm and support the city of Lübeck. Catholic but lenient on the spread of Protestantism.

Christian, count of Holstein and duke of Schleswig. Son of Frederick I. Ardent protestant.

John, younger son of Frederick I, a minor

Christopher, Count of Oldenburg, a mercenary general, distantly related to the Danish royal house.

Other Princes

Charles V, ruler of Spain, Austria and the Low countries, Holy Roman Emperor and master of an empire where the sun never sets. Brother-in-Law of Christian II. Ardent Catholic

Gustav Vasa, leader of the Swedish revolt against Danish rule following the Stockholm Bloodbath. Now King. Owes his crown and a lot of money to Lübeck. Protestant

Duke Albrecht of Mecklenburg, prince, catholic

Henry VIII, King of England

Act 1, Scene 1,

Summer of 1531, Schloss Gottorp, Schleswig-Holstein, favourite residence of king Frederick I.

News arrive that Christian II, the ex-king of Denmark and Norway after 8 years of plotting and scheming has finally convinced his brother-in-law, the emperor Charles V to give him an army to regain his crown. Initial reports indicate Christian had hired about 6-7,000 mercenaries in Northern Germany and was negotiating with the merchants of Amsterdam over the shipping to Denmark.

Frederick I is concerned about this, not just because of the size of the army that is about to be unleashed, but also because he knows Christian still has support in Denmark. Christian II had aggressively suppressed the nobility, which endeared him to the peasants and even to a degree the burghers of the major cities, Copenhagen and Malmo.

Frederick I deploys his army to Jutland, where he believes his nephew will land his troop and kick off the peasant rebellion.

And he searches far and wide for allies in this struggle. He tries to convince the emperor and the Dutch to abandon Christian II whose catholic convictions he argues are paper thin and who had proven to be a brutal tyrant. But as a plan B, he looks for direct naval support. There is a Danish navy now, but still vastly inferior to the forces of the Hanse and the Dutch. So, he writes to the various Hanseatic cities asking for help.

The response he gets is broadly positive. Lübeck under its new populist ruler, Jürgen Wullenwever is most supportive. They promise to send a fleet in exchange for restraints on Dutch shipping through the Oresund.

Messengers are going back and forth between Gottorp and Lübeck as both sides try to hammer out a deal.

Act 1 Scene 2,

October 24th,1531 the flagship of Christian II heading out of the port of Amsterdam.

Christian II has indeed indeed mustered an army of 7,000 German mercenaries, the legendary Landsknechte. The city of Amsterdam, pressured by their overlord, the emperor Charles V, have given him a dozen or so ships to bring his troops across to Denmark.

Christian II, for all his faults was no fool. He knew that his uncle had garrisoned all the major towns and fortresses in Jutland and that an attack there, this late in the year would be doomed to failure, even if the peasants would rise up for him.

Once the ships were out of Amsterdam, Christian II revealed his grand plan. Not to Denmark, but to Norway, specifically to the Norwegian capital Oslo was their convoy to go. Instead of a 300 mile sail to Jutland, they were now meant to go nearly twice as far and far out into the North Sea.

The Dutch sailors were anything but best pleased about this change of plan. But they were out at sea with 7,000 armed men, so they went along with it.

But they did not have to go far. The autumn storms that regularly batter the North Sea in October and November hit them on day 2 of the journey. The fleet split up and ships were blown far and wide. Some returned home quickly, others sought refuge in English ports but many sank, including the ship that carried the soldiers wages. As the storm raged the captains had to order the heavy cannons to be thrown overboard, so that the 4 ships and 1,000 men who made it to Oslo at the beginning of November arrived without money and without siege weapons.

But the burghers of Oslo welcomed him warmly. They had little love for Frederick I who had never bothered even to visit his Norwegian kingdom. And Norway was still staunchly catholic growing concerned about the spread of the Lutheran ideas across Denmark and the Baltic. So, on November 29 1531, Christian II was crowned king of Norway.

That was nice, but he did not control much of Norway beyond Oslo. Without cannon and just a sixth of his original force, Christian had no chance to dislodge the garrisons of the main castles in Norway.

But otherwise, he was in good shape. He had a major bridgehead in his lost kingdoms. Winter was coming and that meant any form of retaliation by the Danes would have to wait until the spring. That was enough time for the emperor Charles back in the Low Countries to muster another army and send them across to resume the original plan.

Act 1, Scene 3

March 1532, Copenhagen

Frederick I had been completely surprised and shocked by Christian’s daring move on Norway. He now needed the help of the Hanse cities even more than before. Their navies were the only ones who could prevent a landing of imperial troops in Norway. And he needed them to bring his own forces across to besiege Oslo and capture his obstinate nephew.

So, he invited representatives of the major Hanse cities to Copenhagen to discuss terms for their support. Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock, Stralsund, Danzig and the Livonians all showed up. The leader of Lübeck, Juergen Wullenwever dominated the discussions. He insisted that any major support would be predicated on a Danish commitment to close the Oresund to Dutch shipping.

The Hansards lined up behind the Lübeck position but insisted that they have privileges of free passage for themselves and all their wares. Wullenwever does not support these proposals. In fact, he gets increasingly insistent that traffic through the Oresund should be constrained as far as possible. Wullenwever thought he smelled a rat. If for instance Danzig has free transport rights across the Oresund, what stops their Dutch associates from hoisting the Danzig flag as they approach Helsingborg, pretending they are sailing on behalf of a Hanse merchant.

The other cities too believe there are darker forces at work. As they see it, Lübeck wants as little traffic through the Oresund as possible because that traffic would then have to go via their own harbour and the river route to Hamburg and out from there.

Frederick I gets more and more exasperated with the debates and delays. He needs the Hanse navies now or it would be too late.

By early May the other Hansards leave the negotiations as they cannot see how any of this could come to a fruitful conclusion.

Only Lubeck is left at the negotiation table. Frederick I is forced to concede a full blockade of all Dutch shipping, no ifs no buts in exchange for the city’s help. Wullenwever scored his first great diplomatic victory.

Act 1, scene 4

May 1532, Schloss Gottorp, The secret office of Frederick I

Frederick I is not just exasperated but also a much better tactician than our blustering friend Wullenwever.

All throughout this period Frederick had remained in touch with Charles V and the Dutch, looking for a way to reconcile their differences. And now that had become even more urgent.

Lübeck’s demands had been completely impossible to agree to. The toll on the Oresund and the trade in Copenhagen and Malmo that was associated with it were the main sources of income for the Danish crown. Closing the Oresund, pretty much for everyone would have been economic suicide for the kingdom. No Danish king could ever agree to such conditions. And Frederick I hadn’t, at least not in writing. And he had always made clear that any such commitment would require the consent of the Council of the Realm.

So legally Frederick I was able to do what he did. He made a deal with the Dutch. In exchange for them withdrawing support for Christian II, he would keep the Oresund open for their shipping. That deal meant there were no imperial troops coming across to support Christian II in Norway.

Act 1, Scene 5

Summer 1532, the Kattegat

Wullenwever and his great warrior friend, Marx Meier did not know anything about the deal Frederick I had made with the Dutch – obviously.

So, the navy of Lubeck crosses the Oresund and sets up the blockade of Oslo. And they bring the 6,000 troops in the pay of Frederick I across. There was a bit of fighting back and forth, but on July 1st Christian II accepted defeat. He was offered safe passage and boarded a ship for Denmark. There he was immediately arrested and put in jail in Sonderburg castle. The Danish succession crisis was over.

Act 1, Scene 6

Late summer 1532, Lübeck, the office of Jurgen Wullenwever

Success in war would usually results in celebrations and given Lübeck’s role in the wine and beer trade these could have been quite fun. But I am afraid the finest Sancerre Wullenwever was gulping down at the festivities got stuck in his throat when his captains told him that they saw many a Dutch ship sailing unimpeded past the great fortresses of Helsingborg and Helsingor. 

It became clear that Frederick I had tricked him, it also became clear that there was little he could do about it. Frederick I was firmly back in control of Denmark and Sweden. Christian II was in jail and the emperor had lost interest in the Scandinavian mess.

Wullenwever was nothing if not stubborn. The Dutch were the cause of the decline of Lubeck’s fortunes. Therefore the Dutch had to be thrown out of the Baltic and if nobody was going to help, then it would be Lubeck on its own that would do the deed, cost what it may.

A war intended not just to harass Dutch trade but to bring it to a complete halt meant it wasn’t enough just to send out privateers to capture Dutch ships. Privateers are businessmen who would make rational calculations about the risk and return of attacking a large, well-armed Dutch merchantman.

What Wullenweber wanted was to attack all the Dutch ships, including the large merchantmen, including the convoys and even including their large warships. We are now in a period where we have purpose-built warships carrying cannons. If you want to see an impressive example go to Portsmouth marine dockyards and visit the Mary Rose, launched in 1511 and able to fire a broadside with its 78+ guns. 

If Lübeck wanted to attack those, they needed their own warships and navy commanders who attacked not for profit but for glory. And these were expensive.

Fortunately, the treasury of the city of Lübeck had recently been replenished with all the gold and silver from the church decorations. That popish frippery amounted to 48 tons in total, enough to keep the war going for a while.

Act 1, Scene 7

Stockholm, the Royal Palace

As so often, at the end of the money there was still a lot of war left. 48 tons of gold and silver sound a lot, but even that can run out quickly when waging major naval operations. Wullenwever needed other sources of cash. And guess what, there was one.

You remember Gustav Vasa, king of Sweden. When he was fighting for his crown in 1522, he had called upon the city of Lübeck for help, help they were willing to provide, but at a price. That price had not yet  been paid, largely because Sweden was a mess of smouldering ruins and slaughtered civilians after Christian II’s invasion.

But now, 8 years later, sure Gustav Vasa could pay them back. Wullenwever in his famously diplomatic manner, wrote a harsh letter to Gustav Vasa asking for his cash – now.

The Vasa family are famous for their temper and Gustav was no exception. Getting a condescending letter from a grubby merchant asking for money was just the thing that could send Gustav Vasa into a rage. And rage he did. Instead of sending money to Lübeck he ordered all their privileges in Sweden revoked and opened his harbours to Dutch shipping.

And that is the End of Act 1

Just look at how far we have travelled in these just 36 months. At the start of the play, Lübeck had it all. The king of Denmark and the King of Sweden were friends, owed them their crown and were firm allies. The Hanse was functioning as a coordination mechanism commanding at least some basic loyalty between the cities. Now all these relationships have become fragile, teetering on the verge of open hostility.

Let’s start Act 2 and see what Wullenwever can do to turn it all around.

Act 2, Scene 1

April 10, 1533, Schloss Gottorp

Frederick I, 61 years of age, victorious in the struggle with Christian II lay dying.

BY his bedside are his two sons. The oldest was Christian, duke of Schleswig-Holstein, 30 years old. He had been at the diet of Worms and had heard Martin Luther speak. And he liked what he heard. He introduced the new faith in his lands and made Lutheranism the state religion in Schleswig Holstein in 1528.

The younger was John, just 12 years old and so far, a blank Canvas.

The Danish Council of the Realm did not want Christian the protestant duke of Schleswig Holstein to succeed his father. The members of the council were of the highest nobility in Denmark and wanted to retain the old faith if not for reasons of theology, then because their younger brothers were the bishops and the abbots of the rich monasteries. But if Christian of Schleswig-Holstein was out, who should be king.

They would have elevated little John, who with a bit of encouragement could be made a good Catholic. But that wasn’t easy given the boy’s formidable mother and his older brother both of whom could have demanded guardianship over little John.

So, the council decided to go it alone. Denmark was not to have a king at least until John was grown up.

Act 2, Scene 2

Late spring 1533, Lübeck, Offices of Jurgen Wullenwever

The death of king Frederick I, the man who had double-crossed him was the second bit of good news for Wullenwever. The other was that he had finally been formally elevated to Burgomaster.

What made it even better was that the death of the old monarch came with a neat little succession crisis built-in. Clearly the ardent protestant Christian of Schleswig-Holstein would not allow the Danish Royal Council to bypass him and put a catholic pretender on the throne in his stead.

Christian must be a natural ally of the city of Lübeck.  This would frankly not be the first time the city on the Trave had selected a Scandinavian ruler.

But Christian did not respond to Wullenwever’s letters. No, he made it abundantly clear that he would rather forsake the crown of Denmark than owe it to Wullenwever and the city of Lübeck.

Wullenwever could not understand why Christian was so adamant. He offered him his crown and he was a protestant to boot.

What was it that stopped Christian from asking for Lübeck’s support? Did he regard Wullenwever as an untrustworthy oik who behaved like an elephant in the proverbial China shop? Possibly.

But most importantly, what Wullenwever had again not understood was that no Danish ruler could ever accept the price of his support, a closure of the Oresund for most shipping. Any king who did that would be removed after a short period, because without the tolls from the Oresund there was no money in the Danish treasury and so no chance to keep this unruly kingdom together.

Act 2, Scene 3

Summer of 1533, The city of Rye, England

Whilst all this is going down, the war against the Dutch was still raging. The fight had moved beyond the Baltic and disrupted shipping all over the North Sea.

Marx Meier who had made his first appearance as a mercenary in the army that fought king Christian II in Norway had now risen to the command of one of Lübeck’s largest warships in the North Sea.

Fortuna had been smiling on him, and Marx Meier had managed to capture a Spanish and two Dutch ships. But now he had run out of food and drink. So, he decided to go into the harbour of Rye on the South Coast of England.

Swollen with pride over his success he entered the town on horseback with his men all wearing the fanciest clothes he had taken from the captured enemy ships. It took little time for the citizens of Rye to find out that what these privateers were wearing were mainly English rather than Dutch or Spanish goods. Marx Meier was arrested and brought to the Tower in London.

The Hanse merchants in the Steelyard intervened with king Henry VIII on Meier’s behalf and the king asked to see this man. We are in the year 1533 which for you English listeners is the year when Henry VIII officially married and crowned Anne Boleyn which kicked off the Reformation in England.

Marx Meier, representative of a Protestant power in the Baltic that was at war with the subjects of the emperor Charles V, who was his enemy, suddenly seemed more useful at court than in jail. Moreover, Marx Meier is a man who likes to dress up and to party, something that endeared him to that massive codpiece that was Henry VIII.

By the end of the year Meier returns to Lübeck claiming to have made an ally in England and that things should brighten up soon.

Act 2, Scene 4

Early 1534, Schleswig Holstein

Marx Meier wasn’t a man hanging about doing nothing. The whole winter of 1533/34 he was devising plans how to foster Lübeck’s position. And he came up with the possibly worst one imaginable.

As soon as the weather allowed, Meier with a small contingent of soldiers headed out to Schleswig Holstein, the lands of count Christian and engaged in the usual plundering, raping and pillaging.

That was the last nail in the coffin of a potential alliance between Christian and the free and imperial city.

Act 2, Scene 5

Spring 1534, Hamburg

Despite the splendid adventures of Marx Meier in London, the naval campaign against the Dutch was going badly. The whole thing was extraordinarily expensive, and the city had run out of money. Plus the merchants of Lübeck had to watch their fellow Hansards from Danzig and Livonia doing great business in Flanders whilst they were banned from going there. Even Hamburg, usually joined at the hip with Lübeck refused to participate in the Dutch embargo.

Wullenwever was dragged, kicking and screaming to the negotiation table. He as well as many of the other Hanse cities had gathered in Hamburg to discuss possible solutions with representatives of the Dutch cities.

Wullenwever displayed his usual diplomatic finesse. In complete disregard of the actual situation, he demanded an apology and tons of silver in damages from the Dutch. The other council members and burgomeisters of the Hanse cities were flabbergasted by Wullenwever’s behaviour.

His colleague from Stralsund said to him: quote “I have been to many a negotiation in my life, but I have never seen anyone acting like you do. If you keep banging your head against the wall, you will leave here on your posterior” end quote. Well, he did not say posterior, but this is a family show.

As it happened Wullenwever did not leave in the manner just prescribed, but on the fastest horse he could get his hands on, because he had news from back home.

Act 2, Scene 6

Still spring 1534, Lübeck

As news of Wullenwever’s outrageous behaviour reached Lübeck, the remaining patrician voices on the council demanded an end to all this un-hanseatic nonsense. The city was broke and this war was going nowhere.

Crowds were gathering and Wullenwever’s rule would have been over, had he not suddenly appeared on his exhausted steed.

For all his faults, Wullenwever was a great orator and by promising the world and demanding adherence to the teaching of Martin Luther, he managed to turn the tide. The masses who had just hours earlier asked for his head are now demanding that the last members of the Old Council leave their posts. It is from now on the Wullenwever becomes a full-blown dictatorial ruler of the city.

Act 2, Scene 7

Sometime in 1534, the home of count Christopher of Oldenburg

One has to assume that the mercenary general count Christopher of Oldenburg was seriously surprised when emissaries of the free imperial city of Lübeck show up at his doorstep with a truly wild plan. They are asking him whether he wants to recruit a mercenary army and conquer Denmark on behalf of the City of Lübeck and – drumroll – the deposed king Christian II.

Sorry, say this again. The city of Lübeck that had fought against Christian II in three wars was to ally with this man who was locked up in the castle of Sonderburg rendering him largely useless? And just to clarify, this Christian II was a catholic who would be brought back to the throne by a protestant city, a member of the Schmalkaldic League?

How exactly was that supposed to work?

Well, the Lübeckers explain. Here is how this works:

Denmark has no king at the moment. The power sits with the Council of the realm which is stacked  with members of the high nobility. Nobody likes those.

The peasants in Jutland would happily rise up against their aristocratic oppressors to bring back their champion, king Christian II. Christian, they believe is a man of the people and a good catholic, something the peasants appreciate.

Then the emissaries say they have commitments from the cities of Copenhagen and Malmo to help in the fight. They too do not like the Council of the Realm because they are Catholics. The burghers have all been taken in by the teachings of Martin Luther. Christian II is their champion because as everyone knows he isn’t really a catholic but secretly sympathises with the protestant faith.

And let’s not forget that Christian II is the brother-in law of the emperor, which must count for something. And have we mentioned that Henry VIII of England is a mate?

Finally, there is the navy of Lübeck that still has control of the Baltic Sea. Nobody has more ships except maybe if the other Hanse cities combined with the Danes and the Swedes. But that would never happen.

Finally, the commercial terms. Christopher and his cousin, the ex-king Christian II get to rule Denmark and Norway. Lübeck was to be paid 400,000 guilders in compensation, is to be given the Oresund castles in perpetuity, 2/3rd of the tolls and Gotland, Bornholm and Bergen to boot.

Christopher of Oldenburg, at this point a mid-sized mercenary general sees that the plan may be bonkers and may also be the greatest opportunity that had ever crossed his desk. Christopher of Oldenburg is in.

The war is on.

Act 3, Scene 1

August 1534, Jutland

The war had begun. The incursions by Marx Meier into Holstein had expanded into a larger campaign. Christopher of Oldenburg had landed in Seeland and Copenhagen and Malmo had declared for Christian II. Peasants all across Denmark are in revolt.

The Danish council of the Realm now stands with its back against the wall. They did not want Cristian of Schleswig Holstein to be king, but with the realm in such turmoil they could neither elevate the 13-year old John nor continue with the interregnum.

In their distress they offer the crown to Christian who from now on is Christian III of Denmark and Norway. At least technically. Because he holds just parts of Denmark and nothing of Norway.

But he is an experienced general and administrator and so he gradually gets his act together. He convinces both catholic and protestant Danes to fight under his command against the invaders. Slowly but surely his army moves down the Jutland peninsula, recovering one stronghold after another.

Act 3, Scene 2

Stockholm, palace of Gustav Vasa

The king of Sweden is watching things closely. The idea that Denmark would become some sort of vassal of Lübeck is not much to his liking. He may hate the Danes and owe the Hansards for their help in the war of independence. But at the same time, having these ruthless merchants so close and demanding not just their money back but also even more access to the mineral wealth of his kingdom, that cannot be a good idea.

Gustav Vasa joins the fight on the side of king Christian III of Denmark.

Act 3, Scene 3

November 1534, Lübeck

King Christian III’s army has appeared before the walls of the city. Cannonballs are flying into the streets and on to the church roofs. How could that have happened?

The war was going so well just a few moths ago. Copenhagen and Malmo are in the hands of the Lubeck armies. But now their own homes are on fire.

Christian III had done the unexpected. Rather than gathering his troops to retake his capital, he had led them straight to the heart of his enemy, Lübeck.

The citizens of Lübeck had enough. They tell Wullenwever to go out to the Danish camp and agree a ceasefire. Either that or they go themselves and he should find himself a swift horse to get out here quick.

On November 11h, 1534 Wullenwever agrees to hand back all the places held by his own troops on condition that the siege is lifted. Christian III accepts since this gives him a free hand to regain Funen and Seeland.

Inside the city, Wullenwever isn’t removed as Burgomaster. But the main institutions no longer support him. He is isolated in his office, no longer able to raise funds or send fresh troops.

In his desperation he writes to Henry VIII and offers him the Danish crown if he would send him troops. And since he does not have the time to wait for an answer, he does the same with the duke of Mecklenburg. Neither responds.

Act 3, Scene 4

June 1535, Helsingborg

Despite the ceasefire, the war isn’t over. Christopher of Oldenburg still has Malmo, Copenhagen, most of Seeland and Funen. And he holds Helsingborg, the most important Danish fortress on the Oresund.

That is where he concentrates his troops, his own mercenaries and the Lübecker, which include the troops of our friend, the flamboyant Marx Meier. And it is here where the Swedes under Gustav Vasa are headed.

The two sides set up for battle. Christopher of Oldenburg and Marx Meier have decided to face the challenge head on, rather than hide behind the walls of Helsingborg. The commander of the fortress city was a loyal supporter of Christian II who had set up the large cannons on top of the city walls, aimed at the Swedes.

The smaller cannons of Helsingborg are prepared by the Danes and brought down to the battlefield, all set up and ready to fire.

As the Swedes appear within cannon shot, the German Landsknechts fire their Danish guns. The guns had been loaded with double charges so that they explode when fired killing not just the gun crew but many other men nearby. The extent of the treachery became clear when the aim of the cannons on the city walls is lowered. The Helsingborg garrison fire one devastating barrage after another at the Lubecker and Oldenburger below. Squeezed between the walls of Helsingborg and the advancing Swedes there was only one thing for the Landsknecht to do, run, run as fast as you can. 

Christopher of Oldenburg makes it to Copenhagen where he holds out until the end of the year. Marx Meier is captured and despite a valiant attempt to not only flee but also take the fortress he was imprisoned in, ends up being tortured, beheaded and quartered.

Meanwhile the Lübeck fleet too is defeated, and not just by Danes and Swedes, but by their old Hanseatic allies, the Prussians and oh yes, the navy of Danzig.

Act 3, Scene 5

August 1535, Lübeck, Rathaus

Once the news from Helsingborg reaches the city, Jurgen Wullenwever’s days are numbered. He resigns as Burgomeister and the members of the old council that had left the city in 1531 return and take their old seats.

And as before, they do not execute the man who had created so much chaos. They offer him a role as a clerk within the city’s administration and the opportunity to live out his days in peace.

Act 3, Scene 6

September 24 1537, Wolfenbüttel

Did Jürgen Wullenwever end his days as a clerk shuffling paper in a darkened office inside the splendid Rathaus of Lübeck? You bet.

Just a month after his ousting he is back on the road, seemingly in search of new allies to support his friend Christopher of Oldenburg who still holds out in Copenhagen.

He did not get far. Men of the archbishop of Bremen recognise him and take him prisoner. He is brought to Rotenburg castle where he undergoes a first round of torture. Then he is sent over to the Archbishop’s brother, the duke of Brunswick. Neither the archbishop not the duke had been involved in the conflict but hey, that does not mean they like a populist rabblerouser.

Wullenwever admits to all and everything his torturers accuse him, including being having stolen 20,000 guilders from the church treasury, wanting to unseat the new government of Lübeck and to support the anabaptism faith that was whipping Münster into a religious frenzy. None of that is true and as soon as the screws were off, Wullenwever denied all these allegations.

Still, on September 24, 1537 on the main square in Wolfenbuttel, Jurgen Wullenwever, the most politically ambitious Burgomaster of Lubeck was hung, drawn and quartered.

The End

Well, that is the end of our little play, but not really the end of the story.

The end result of the Wullenwever years was a massive decline in the influence of Lübeck in the Hanse itself. The Dutch can now sail freely into the Baltic Sea. Denmark consolidates into a strong centralised protestant kingdom after the last peasant uprising is suppressed. Sweden is heading to become a major European power whose king Gustavus Adolphus will rampage through the German lands in the 30-years war.

As for Wullenwever he becomes one of the more unusual figures in German historiography in as much that everyone claims him. The nationalists see him as an uncompromising defender of the German rule over the Baltic against the Danes and Swedes. The communist see him as a liberator of the lower classes whose attempt to bring democracy and freedom is thwarted by the conservative establishment. And it seems the German bourgeoisie is also in the Wullenwever fanclub. One of the finest restaurants in Lübeck is named after the man.

Only Thomas Mann and pretty much most historians take a dim view of him. Mann was particularly irritated because the Nazis renamed the house his patrician family had occupied for a couple of hundred years as Wullenwever Haus. In I think 1942 he said: quote:

“The stupid rabble does not even know that a house that bears the stamp of the eighteenth century on its rococo gable can not well have anything to do with the audacious mayor of the sixteenth. Jürgen Wullenweber has done a lot of damage to his city by the war with Denmark, and the people of Lübeck have done with him what the Germans might do one day with those who led them into this war: they have executed him” end quote.

As for my view, I think he was surely an awful diplomat, but his biggest fault was that he put all his efforts behind a political goal that was both unachievable and ineffective. Closing the Oresund against the natural interests of the Danes and their fellow Hansards would never have worked for more than a brief period. Moreover, as we have already seen in the late 14th century the Dutch weren’t the problem. In many ways they were the solution that brought about the economic boom in the second half of the 16th century.

That means the Hanse story isn’t over. There is still at least two more episodes to come. Because even though the political unity is cracked the cities aren’t. The political leaders may clash with each other over ludicrous plans of world domination, the merchants on the ground keep ploughing along, building their network, expanding the reach of their trade and making money. The cities, in particular Danzig, Hamburg and Bremen are flourishing as Lübeck and its protectionist leaders fade into the background.

As usual, I would like to thank my wonderful patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com/support. Your help is really, really appreciated.

As for the bibliography, see the shownotes.

Rainer Postel: Der Niedergang der Hanse in Hanse, Lebenswirklichkeit und Mythos: RI OPAC (regesta-imperii.de)

Jahnke, Carsten: Die Hanse | Reclam Verlag

Philipp Dollinger: Die Hanse

1474-1531 was a time of immense change and upheaval for the Hanseatic League, and not just for them. The Habsburg empire is bedded into being, England’s war of the Roses is over, in the North the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth stretches all the way from Kyiev to Gdansk. The kingdoms and princes are getting stronger. Columbus tries to sail to India and Vasco da Gama actually sails to India. Luther nails his 95 theses on the doors of the churches of Wittenberg. All is in flux, and so is the Hanse and Lübeck, its most important city.

Well, is it still the most important city? What about Danzig/Gdansk and Hamburg who take advantage of shifting trade flows whilst Lübeck finds itself on the sidelines. Who do they blame? The Dutch and the Danes. Cometh the time, cometh the man – his name is Jürgen Wullenwever and he has all the solutions, or does he?..

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 123 – Decline and Fall (Part 1)

1474-1531 was a time of immense change and upheaval for the Hanseatic League, and not just for them. The Habsburg empire is bedded into being, England’s war of the Roses is over, in the North the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth stretches all the way from Kyiev to Gdansk. The kingdoms and princes are getting stronger. Columbus tries to sail to India and Vasco da Gama actually sails to India. Luther nails his 95 theses on the doors of the churches of Wittenberg. All is in flux, and so is the Hanse and Lübeck, its most important city.

Well, is it still the most important city? What about Danzig/Gdansk and Hamburg who take advantage of shifting trade flows whilst Lübeck finds itself on the sidelines. Who do they blame? The Dutch and the Danes. Cometh the time, cometh the man – his name is Jürgen Wullenwever and he has all the solutions, or does he?..

But before we start let me do my ritual prostration before all of you who are supporting the show. To quote Steve Young, Quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers: “In medieval times artists had patrons that supported them and this is a similar thing …We’re basically saying, Wouldn’t you like to be part of this”. And here are four of you listeners who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans because they wanted to be part of it, Walt B., Max B., Devri K. O. and Thomas N. Thanks to you all.

Last week we hurtled through the 15th century a time often seen as the high point of Hanseatic power, wealth and influence. The cities may stand like a victorious prize-fighter over the crumbled bodies of their opponents, but what few can see is that the contest had taken its toll. Many of the inner organs are damaged. The flow of goods and money had shifted from the land route between Lubeck and Hamburg to the sea route around the Jutland peninsula. As a consequence, the interests of the Livonian and Prussian cities had begun to deviate from those of the Wendish ones, in particular from those of Lubeck.

Lubeck still held the upper hand within the Hanse organisation, not because it was some sort of capital or head of the Hanse, but thanks to its role as the general secretary who sets the agenda for the Hanseatic Diets.

During the 15th centuries the frictions could be glossed over with feats of naval warfare and a huge dose of potluck. But we are now entering the 16th century and that is a very different kettle of fish.

The 16th century is the time when Europe changes fundamentally, politically, socially, culturally and spiritually

In 1477 Maximilian of the house of Habsburg married Mary, heiress to the duchy of Burgundy and the County of Flanders. In 1496 their son, Philip the Fair married Johanna of Castile, the sole daughter and heiress of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, Spain to you and me. Within just a few decades a pan-European empire had emerged that combined the wealth of the New World with some of the richest lands in Northern Europe and held the imperial title to boot.

The Kingdom of France too is on a roll. First, they take back the duchy of Burgundy that Maximilian struggled to hold on to. Then the marriage with Anne de Bretagne brings this once independent duchy into the kingdom. Provence and the south of France gets integrated in 1480 when Rene, the last of the Anjous had died.

In 1485, August 22nd to be precise Richard III loses the battle of Bosworth Field, bringing an end to the War of the Roses. From that time until the British Civil war that starts in 1639, the country or now countries are largely at peace. Conflicts are either minor or short-lived allowing the king, parliament and the people to focus on useful things, like building a commercial empire. The Muscovy company was founded in 1555 by royal charter giving some English merchants the monopoly to trade with what was to become Russia. In 1592 we get the Levant company and by the very end of that century the British East India Company.

What few remember today was another great dynastic marriage, the marriage in 1386 between Jadwiga, heiress to the kingdom of Poland to the grand duke of Lithuania, who changed his name from the pagan Jogaila to Wladyslaw Jagiello. This was the beginnings of the personal union between Poland and Lithuania that resulted in the Polish Lithuanian commonwealth in 1559. This political entity would grow and grow until in 1619 it stretched all the way from Ukraine to the Baltic states and from Smolensk to Krakow.

Another future world power too was stirring in that period. Ivan III, ruler of a rather modest principality that used to pay tributes to the Mongol Khans expanded far and wide, laying the foundations of what would after some exceedingly bloody convulsions turn into Russia.

The Margraves of Brandenburg that we had not mentioned for a while, they too got busy. Well first they got busy dying out. In 1320 the last of the Ascanier Margraves, the descendants of Albrecht the Bear had died without offspring. The territory first went to the House of Wittelsbach who made a right old mess of it and in 1374 it came to the then reigning imperial family, the Luxemburgers. They too had a bit of a tough time so that the whole thing was handed over to Frederick of Hohenzollern, the Burgrave of Nurnberg. He came in, initially as some sort of governor but prove to be so successful that by 1415 he became the Margrave. Despite the poverty and chaos of the Mark, this was an important role because the Margraviate was one of the seven electors who chose the emperor. Frederick and his successors prove to be proactive and smart rulers who leveraged their status as electors and the meagre resources they had inherited into an expanding state that gradually reached out for the Baltic Sea.

And then there are the most important neighbours of the Hanse, the kingdoms of Danmark, Sweden and Norway. These three kingdoms had come together thanks to the efforts of Margaret of Denmark in the Kalmar union. The union established that all three kingdoms are ruled in a personal union by one monarch. That monarch was Eric of Pomerania, initially as a tool of Margaret but when she had died in 1412 on his own. As we heard last week, this ended in a bit of a disaster and Eric was expelled in 1439 ending his day in the tiny duchy of Pomerania – Rugenwald. After that the Kalmar Union did not vanish. An imperial prince, Christopher of Bavaria became king of all three kingdoms. But the Swedes had established a much stronger autonomy for themselves. No longer were they obliged to bear Danish soldiers or officers on their territory and their obligations to fund Danish wars was much reduced. Let’s leave this here. We will look at the next steps in this story towards the end of this episode.

Whilst these new or enlarged entities were growing in strength and importance, the long-time ally of the Hanse, the Teutonic Knights went downhill.

The latter, without telling too much of what we will discuss next season had become a shadow of their former selves after the battle of Tannenberg in 1410. Their new neighbour, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth gradually picks them bare until only East-Prussia and Livonia is left. The former ends up as part of the Margraviate of Brandenburg and gives its name, Prussia, to the new state. The Livonian possessions of the knights come under pressure from Russia and Sweden and are ultimately reduced to the tiny duchy of Kurland.

These new powers had little tolerance for city freedoms. One of their main objectives was to consolidate power within their kingdoms or principalities. That meant to end the perennial feuding between their subjects and between the subjects and themselves. To bring those to an end they had to break the power of all intermediaries, be that counts, knights or cities. What they could not tolerate in particular was that anyone in their lands engaged in their own foreign policy. And that meant by extension that they could not tolerate their cities to engage in the Hanse as a political project. They could probably tolerate it when the Hanse was standardising trading and organised a reliable system for judicial redress. But they took a very dim view of Hanseatic wars against other princes, princes they may have friendly relationships with.

Cities therefore came under increasing pressure from the princes to limit their involvement with the League. The Brandenburger Margraves were at the forefront here. They had several Hanse cities in their territory, including the two interconnected cities of Berlin and Coelln. Yes, that is Berlin, as in the capital of Germany. We are in episode 123 and this is the first time the place gets talked about properly. That tells you something about the difference between Germany and say France, England or Italy. No history of these countries could get to the 16th century without talking extensively about Paris, London and obviously Rome. Germany’s capital remained in the shadows for a very long time. It was founded in two steps. In 1251 there was a city called Berlin, located on the right bank of the Spree around the church of St. Nikolai. Its twin city was Coelln, founded probably 10 years later in the Spree Island today called the Museum Island.

This dual city was a member of the Hanseatic League and like other Hanseatic cities enjoyed a lot of autonomy within the margraviate. They elected their own council and had their own city laws. How economically significant the two cities were, is still somewhat in dispute. If you go around the quaint Nikolaiviertel today you may conclude that they weren’t. Historians disagree and place Berlin-Coelln amongst the mid-range of Hanseatic cities.

In 1440 Frederick of Hohenzollern as part of his consolidation drive decided to force the city into submission. He initiated the construction of a castle that dominated the bridge between the two cities. The citizens revolted and in 1448 flooded the construction site. Finally, a compromise was found and Berlin-Coelln agreed to leave the Hanse. The castle was built and later became the Stadtschloss, the primary residence of the Margraves, later the kings in and then of Prussia and finally the German Kaisers. Most of it was destroyed in the Second world war and the East Germans replaced it with the Palast der Republik, which the post reunification government decided to demolish and now in an astounding development has been replaced with a reconstruction of the former residence of Kaiser Bill.

The fall of Berlin-Coelln encouraged more and more princes, in particular those in Westphalia and Saxony to go after the cities’ autonomy in their lands. Gradually only the largest and most powerful cities could retain the freedom to set their own policies and follow through with the decisions of the Hanseatic diets. In the end the Hanse had to establish different tiers of cities, excluding some from participation in confidential discussions at the Hanseatic Diet because they could not be trusted to keep the information from their overlord.

If the Hanse did not have enough problems with strengthening powers on their doorsteps, state-sponsored capitalism in England and Holland and the princes nibbling away at the membership list, there was also the most significant development of the 16th century to consider, the Reformation.

The reformation kicked off in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 theses on the doors of the palace chapel at Wittenberg, as well as several other churches in the town. Luther was excommunicated in 1521 and cited to the diet of Worms in 1522. Events accelerated from there. Johannes Bugenhagen was one of the most important figures in the reformation of Northern Germany and Denmark. Bugenhagen had joined Luther in Wittenberg in 1521 and had become his parish priest and confessor. In 1533 he became one of first Protestant doctors of theology and an important preacher and practitioner of biblical interpretation.

Aside from that he was also a great organiser, setting up Lutheran churches Brunswick in 1528, Hamburg in 1529, in Lübeck in 1531, In Pomerania in 1535 and in Denmark in 1537. Little shows the speed with which the reformation spread across the German speaking world than the conversion of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, Albrecht von Brandenburg to Protestantism in 1525, just 8 years after a minor theologian in a smallish university city in Germany wrote up his thoughts and publicised them to his fellow academics.

That gets us to events in Lübeck itself. There too the news of the reformation and the events at the diet of Worms spread like wildfire. The Patrician Council was opposed to what they called the Lutheran Heresy. They feared repercussions from emperor Charles V who after all ruled the Low Countries and they were simply conservatives who did not want to upset the existing order. An order under which many of their relatives enjoyed ecclesiastical honours and incomes.

The Council banned Luther’s writing, introduced penalties for anyone who possesses these books and expelled two Lutheran preachers.

But by 1531 the council crashed into its perennial problem, they were running out of money. And again, they had to call a committee of this time 64 non-patricians. Those were partially artisans but also upper middle-class merchants, shippers and other professions. The committee of 64 quickly moved beyond matters of taxation and demanded the return of the expelled Protestant vicars  and the right to “preach the gospel” in all the churches in the city. From there it took only a few months before Bugenhagen arrived and the city became Protestant. Church property was confiscated, and the monasteries were dissolved. The committee ordered the churches to be stripped of all its popish frills, yielding a cool 48 tons of gold and silver for the city treasury.

Bugenhagen also created a new constitution for the city which limited the power of the council. From now on any alliances, ordinances or borrowing by the council required the consent of the committee of 64 as well as that of another committee of 100 formed by representatives of the parishes.

By 1531 Lübeck was a fully Protestant city. The city joined the Schmalkaldic League, the military alliance of protestant princes and cities established to protect each other against a backlash from emperor Charles V.

For the Hanse as a whole the Reformation caused some serious problems. Whilst some important member cities like Lübeck, Wismar, Rostock and Brunswick had embraced the Reformation, some like Cologne did not want to and others again were restrained by their catholic overlords, for instance Danzig which was now part of Catholic Poland-Lithiuania.

If the political situation was already precarious with territorial princes encroaching on to the Hanse world and the Reformation undermining solidarity of the cities, their economic position was also threatened.

In 1492 an Italian navigator in the pay of Ferdinand and Isabella of the newly formed kingdom of Spain had discovered what he believed was a sea route to India. The discovery of the Americas was one of the reasons that trade shifted towards the Atlantic ports. The other, arguably commercially more important one was the discovery of an actual route to India via the Cape of Good Hope by Portuguese navigators. These events did create a whole new set of trading routes that partially replaced existing channels and partially brought previously unknown goods onto European tables, leaving aside the avalanche of precious metal that created wave upon wave of inflation.

The Hanse as an organisation did not directly participate in these new trade routes. But they still benefitted from the huge amount of wealth that was created. The growing cities of not just Amsterdam and London, but also smaller ones like Bordeaux, Nantes, Rouen and Bristol demanded grain and beer as well as vast amounts of wood to build their ships. The volume of trade of the Hanseatic cities kept growing strongly all throughout the 16th century.

So, whilst the shift in global trade did not negatively affect the Hanse overall, it did impact the relative importance of the Hanse members. Danzig became the main export harbour for grain and wood to the Low Countries, France, England and at times Spain and Portugal. Hamburg and Bremen, located on the North Sea were closer to where the action and became larger, richer and more important.

Lübeck on the other hand declined not in absolute, but in relative terms. They were in the wrong place and had the wrong products.

Since the very end of 15th century the copper that was brought into Lübeck from Sweden faced competition from the copper king of Europe, Jakob Fugger. Jakob Fugger was a merchant and banker from Augsburg who made his fortune by lending to the perennially skint emperor Maximilian a relationship he levered into a pan-European commercial empire nobody had seen before. Some people claim that Jakob Fugger was the richest man who ever lived, though he had some serious competitors like Mansa Musa, Marcus Licinius Crassus or John D. Rockefeller. But a place in the top 10 is probably a fair assumption. He was definitely the richest man the Holy Roman empire ever produced.

Jakob Fugger spread his tentacles deep into the Hanseatic world, showing up in Lübeck in 1494 and a few years later in Livonia, trading not just in copper, but in all and everything the Hanse had believed to have had a monopoly in.  The appearance of the Fuggers was a bit like the arrival of Amazon in the world of general retail. His business model was that of a modern corporation with branches, double bookkeeping, huge financial firepower and close links to government. And facing him were mid-sized Hansards with shoddy accounting and reliant on a network of friends and relatives.

The Hanse retaliated with good old-fashioned piracy. They seized several Fugger ships and refused to hand them back. Jakob Fugger was a formidable opponent who could mobilise not just vast amounts of money but also the emperor himself if that was in his interest.

The copper issue and the antagonism with Jakob Fugger was a challenge, but not the only one. Salted herring and Stockfish, two of Lübeck’s mainstays were already less in demand in the Protestant world that scrapped all these 140 fast days where one could only eat fish, alligator and beaver. The same could be said of beeswax, which again was not as much in demand in protestant rites as it is in Catholic ones. And that comes on top of the dwindling stock of herring in the Baltic and the attempts of the other Hansards and Dutch to bypass the Lubeck-dominated Kontor of Bergen.

And then there is the other important leg of its economy, the link between the Baltic and the North Sea via Hamburg. As we heard last week, the trade in grain and wood was moving more and more onto the route via the Oresund and Kattegat into the North. As shipbuilding and navigation skills advanced, this once dangerous trajectory had become manageable and much cheaper than the land and river route that had allowed Lübeck to flourish.

This route via the Oresund was used not just by the Hanseatic traders from Livonia or Prussia, but also by the Merchant adventurers from England, Soctland and Holland. Their trade had grown for a while now.

The English were still hampered by the imbalance in trade privileges. In 1474 the then king of England, Edward IV had agreed that the Hanse could retain its vast privileges in the Steelyard in London but did not have to grant similar privileges to Englishmen who wished to sail into the Baltic.

The Dutch on the other hand had much less impediments to deal with. Some had initially been members of the Hanse, including Amsterdam, but by now they were outside the association. What they had instead was an enormous market for Hanse products. This market was not just the low countries themselves but all of Western Europe that traded first through Antwerp and later through Amsterdam. Many a merchant was tempted to give up solidarity to his fellow Hansards in exchange for a good relationship with such important customers.

I think it is fair to say that neither the English nor the Dutch constituted a mortal danger for the cities in the Hanseatic League. As we will see, cities like Hamburg and Danzig/Gdansk benefitted enormously from the co-operation with the foreigners. But that is not how the population of Lubeck, in particular the lower classes saw it.

They were convinced that all the relative decline was down to the pesky Dutchmen who kept supplying the Danes in the regular conflicts the city had with its neighbour to the north.

It was just simpler to blame it all on the Dutch and the Danes, because the problems with the Fuggers, the herring, the Bergen Kontor, the Reformation, the princely oppression, all that is complex. The Dutch and the Danes, that is pretty simple. Everybody understands that.

“Cometh the Hour, cometh the Man” as your run of the mill cricket pundit would say. And that man was Jürgen Wollenwever, and his sidekick, Marx Meier.

Wollenwever managed to weave all these strains together into one near unbreakable pike he pointed at Denmark, only to find himself and all the ambitions of his adopted hometown kebabbed on it.

Jurgen Wollenwever came from a successful family of merchants who had settled in Hamburg. He was probably born in 1488. We know little about his career, apart from the fact that he settled in Lubeck in 1526 and became a citizen there in 1531. We do not hear much about his commercial successes which suggests there weren’t many even though his family was growing in prominence in Hamburg. This lack of success may well have fuelled his disapproval of the patricians on the council.

As we mentioned before, the years 1526-31 is when Lübeck converts to Protestantism. Wullenwever and his family have wholeheartedly embraced the reforms Martin Luther proposed. Because of his sincere conviction and a substantial dose of demagoguery, Wullenwever became a key figure in this transition.

He joined the committee of 64 that represented the artisans and lesser merchants who were all staunchly protestant, forcing the city to change course. His moment came when the new constitution that Bugenhagen had drafted is announced. Immediately afterwards two patrician Burgomasters leave the city, and they are followed within a week by the majority of the old city council.

As it happened in 1408, the council is then replenished with members of the committee of 64. This time the difference is that all these new members are in one way or another beholden to Jurgen Wullenwever. This trader of modest success had managed to become the undisputed dictator of the Empire’s second city within just 5 years of arriving at the city gates. 2 years later his position was confirmed when he was elected as Burgermeister.

Pope Leo X, the one who excommunicated Martin Luther had famously writtento his brother Giuliano on the day he was elected: “God gave us the Papacy, let us enjoy it”. Not sure how much he did enjoy it in the end. In any event, by 1531, 18 years later, such a sentiment was no longer appropriate. Wullenwever did not see himself as a dictator who could now enjoy the fruits of his scheming. He believed that he had to enact “the will of the people”. And the will of the people was to get rid of the Dutch and hit out at the Danes, because the Danes and the Dutch were responsible for everything that has gone wrong.

Specifically, his main policy objective was to compel the king of Denmark to close the Oresund for all Dutch shipping.

And he believed he was in a good position to get this done. Because for the umpteenth time, Denmark and with it the Kalmar Union were in a succession crisis. Two competing Danish kings were slugging it out, Frederick I and Christian II. Wullenwever’s plan was to offer the support of the city of Lübeck to Frederick I in exchange for a complete closure of the Oresund.

That sounds sensible but to understand what it really meant we have to go back to 1448. In 1448 King Christopher of Bavaria died. Christopher was that imperial prince from the Platinate who was plucked out of a hat by the Danish Royal Council to become king instead of the hapless Eric of Pomerania.

The intended successor of Christopher was another German prince, Christian of Oldenburg. That is Oldenburg in Oldenburg, not Oldenburg in Holstein. Christian was one of those guys who won the inheritance lottery. From his father he had inherited the county of Oldenburg somewhat of a backwater in Frisia, surrounded by floodplains and tribal chieftains. Don’t get me wrong, I love Oldenburg and even lived there for a period. But I would not have wanted to live there in the 15th century. Nor did our friend Christian. He grew up at the court of his uncle, Adolphus count of Holstein and duke of Schleswig. That uncle was childless which may have been a good reason for little Christian to be extra special nice. Christian was extra special nice, and his uncle made him the heir to Holstein and Schleswig.

When King Christopher of Denmark, Sweden and Norway died in 1448, the Danish royal council looked round for any suitable prince to become the new king. Denmark was as you know an elective monarchy and in the absence of a natural heir the royal council was free to choose whoever they liked.

They offered the crown to Adolphus of Holstein, him being the most important noble in the region and bringing Schleswig Holstein to the Danish crown. Adolphus declined citing old age, but put forward his nephew and heir, Christian of Oldenburg. Only condition, he had to marry the previous king’s wife, Dorthea of Brandenburg.

With that Christian, son of an obscure count from the foggy North Sea shore became king of Denmark. That was great, but he also wanted to be king of Sweden and king of Norway like his predecessor.

But the Swedes are now fed up with Danish kings who are in fact German princes picked out of a hat by the Danish Royal council. The Swedes elect one of their own, Karl Knudsson as king Charles VIII. Because anything the Danes can do, the Swedes can do too. Karl was an important noble and during his term as head of the Swedish Royal council had become a very wealthy landowner. In this role he had ruled Sweden as an independent kingdom, even at a time when king Christopher had still been alive. Crowning him in 1448 was just a natural progression in Sweden’s exit from the Kalmar union. 

Christian and Charles would fight it out, first over who would get the third kingdom, Norway. Charles won this one. But in 1457 Charles loses support in Sweden and get deposed. Christian takes over but in 1464 Charles is back. In 1470 Charles dies and the kingdom of Sweden is then ruled by Charles nephew Sten Sture. Sture defeats the Danes in 1471.

After that the Kingdom of Sweden is ruled by various protectors of the realm, occasionally interspersed with brief periods where the Danes force their way into Stockholm.

Meanwhile in Denmark itself the family of Christian of Oldenburg rules. Christian’s son John takes over in 1481. Apart from his fight over Norway and Sweden, John’s main focus was to strengthen Denmark commercially and militarily. He supported Danish merchants in their competition with the Hansards and built a navy, partially to use against the Swedes, but also to counterbalance the power of the Hanse.

John died in 1513 after a long and ultimately fruitful reign. He might not have been able to suppress the Swedes and even suffered a defeat by the peasant republic of Dithmarschen. But his rule materially improved the economic position of Denmark and strengthened the royal position by suppressing the power of the rebellious nobles.

John’s son, Christian II takes over in 1513. Christian II continued his father’s domestic policies, supporting the commoners against the nobility. What he became famous for though was his brutality. Even before he succeeded his father, he had become viceroy in Norway and was considered tyrannical in his attempts to reduce the power of the local nobility.

Once king, he made a large-scale attempt on Sweden. He was supported in this effort by his brother-in-law, the emperor Charles V, pope Leo X and Jakob Fugger. Christian II had remained Catholic, whilst the Swedish protector of the realm, Sten Sture the Younger and his privy council were leaning towards Protestantism. That explains the support from the pope and the emperor. Jakob Fugger who had funded the dowry and a big chunk of the war was after the great copper mine at Falun Grove. That in turn explains the involvement of the Hanse in this war. The Hanse, and Lubeck in particular did not want to let the copper mines fall into the hands of the Fugger. And if that meant war with Denmark, well than it is war with Denmark.

In 1520 Christian II and his army of mercenaries from France, Germany and Scotland, paid for by the Fuggers, takes Stockholm.  On November 4th 1520 Christian II is crowned king of Sweden. Three days later he organises a party at the palace and by the stroke of midnight soldiers enter the great hall and arrest several nobles. A prescription list is produced by the archbishop of Uppsala that includes all the opponents of Danish rule in Sweden and even some who were supportive of the Kalmar union, just enemies of the archbishop. The day after, November 8th, a court headed up by said archbishop convicts all 82 accused, including fellow 2 bishops, of heresy. On November 9th they are led out to the grand square before the palace and beheaded or hanged.

One of the executed was Erik Johannsson Vasa. His son, Gustav Vasa swears revenge and within days Sweden is ablaze with war. Vasa inflicts a first major defeat on the Danes in April of the following year. The Hanse, namely Lübeck join Gustav Vasa’s efforts in 1522 and by June 1523 Christian II had to withdraw completely. Sweden was free and its king owed the city on the Trave for their support.

When Christian II returned to Denmark, defeated and broke, the Royal Danish council was not best pleased. Also, the Reformation was gradually taking hold in Denmark making Christian II even more unpopular.

What needed to happen happened fast. Christian II was deposed and his uncle, Frederick I became king instead. Christian wasn’t killed, he was just sent into exile in Holland, where his brother-in-law, Charles V was the ruler.

Frederick I was now king of Denmark. He was a more measured man than his nephew. Though he remained Roman Catholic, he allowed Lutherans to preach in his kingdom and encouraged the publication of the first Danish translation of the bible. And he continued his predecessor’s policies of supporting economic growth and the build-out of a navy.

In 1531, the old king Christian II tried to come back. Again, with help from his brother-in-law the emperor Charles V and the pesky Dutch merchants he mustered an army and landed in Norway.

Now the stage is set:

This is the same year, Juergen Wullenwever becomes the de facto ruler of Lübeck. He believes that Christian II’s landing in Norway is the opportunity for Lübeck to regain its control of the Baltic Sea, to push out the Dutch and to advance the Reformation.

His idea is that the Hanse, led by the city of Lübeck, should support Frederick I and in exchange Frederick would close the Oresund to Dutch shipping for good. Gustav Vasa, who still owed them for the support in the Swedish war of independence would do the same. The Hanse monopoly on Baltic trade would be recovered. Protestantism would flourish. Everything will be great!

But will it? That we will find out next week. I hope you will join us again.

As usual, I would like to thank my wonderful patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com/support. Your help is really, really appreciated.

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.

Before I go just one more big thank you to our patrons who have signed up on patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website, historyofthegermans/support. Your generosity is really, really appreciated.  

In 982 the unlucky emperor Otto II loses a battle in Southern Italy, which triggers an uprising of the pagan Slavs east of the Elbe River giving Poland enough wiggle room to plough its own furrow.

When Otto II takes over from his father in 973 the Ottonian dynasty is at its peak. Otto I had defeated his domestic enemies, the Magyars and expanded aggressively east of the Elbe River.  He was crowned emperor in 962 and Byzantium had sent a “princess” for his son to marry.

Like many sons of successful fathers, Otto II tried to best his old man. Otto I had attempted to take Bari, the main base of Byzantine power in Italy. His son wanted to complete the task. And then go after the ultimate prize, the rich, Muslim held island of Sicily.

Otto II assembled the largest army Europe in this period had seen and marched south. He conquered the Byzantine duchy of Puglia and stayed in Taranto until June 982. As Otto expected, the Emir of Sicily brought his army across the straights of Messina to fight the northerners.

As the emir approached the Ottonian encampment near Rossano Calabro in the deep south he realised that the emperor’s army was a lot larger than he had bargained for. He turned his army around and marched at speed towards Messina to take ships home. He never made it.

As the emir’s troops ran home along the coast, they were spotted by Byzantine merchant ships coming up the coast. They told Otto and Otto’s heavy cavalry began the pursuit.  Somewhere near Capo Colonna (or Stilo) the Emir halted the flight and set up in full battle order.

Otto’s heavily armoured knights crashed into the emir’s troops and pushed all the way to the centre. The emir’s bodyguard crumbled, and the emir was killed. Job done.

No, not done at all. Whilst the German cavalry were busy slaughtering the emir, unbeknownst to them a reserve detachment of about 5,000 Muslim cavalrymen joined the fray. They encircled the fighting Germans and having restricted their room to manoeuvre, massacred them.

Many senior nobles died including the duke of Benevento, the bishop Henry of Augsburg, the Margrave of Merseburg, the abbot of Fulda and a further 19 counts. Otto II fled by hailing a Byzantine ship – oh irony of ironies.

He convinced the captain that he had enough and was just picking up the imperial treasury to retire on. The greedy captain pushed his rowing slaves go double time only to find that when they arrived back at Rossano, the emperor simply jumped into the sea and swam ashore.

The impact was felt al throughout Europe. Though the defeat was not catastrophic, the failure of Ottonian arms gave heart to the Slavs east of the Elbe who had been brutally subjugated and forcibly converted.

The ensuing Slav revolt pushed the borders of the empire back to the Elbe River. As a consequence, the empire needed the help of the dukes of Poland to contain the fallout, allowing this polity to ultimately become an independent state, unlike Bohemia/Czech Republic. 

In Southern Italy the Byzantines, Lombard dukes and Muslim Emirs kept squabbling until the Normans unified the territory. The Southern Normans were crucial support for the papacy in the Investiture Conflict which weakened the empire. More on this really almost completely forgotten battle is available on episode 10 of the History of the Germans Podcast available on all major podcasting platforms. 


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In 955 king Otto I annihilated the largest army the Magyars ever fielded, ending their raids into his territory.  His soldiers hailed him emperor, kicking off the (Holy Roman) Empire.

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In the 9th and 10th century pagan raiders threatened Europe. Most famously the Vikings but in Germany, Western France and Itay the Magyars, horse archers with composite bows from the steppes were feared even more. In 954 they raided all the way to Spain.

The following year, 955 they put together the largest army they ever fielded ~ 10,000 fighters plus slaves and labourers to build and operate siege engines. This time it wasn’t just a raid, this time they came to stay.

Their target was the city of Augsburg at the intersection of two ancient Roman roads. The siege started August 8th, 955. The dilapidated walls of the city and its small band of valiant defenders can hold out at best for a few days.

Time is of the essence. Otto I pulls together whatever troops he can get hold of at short notice, in total about 7,000 men. Augsburg is about to fall when Otto I arrives in the area. Luckily, the Hungarians decide to abandon the siege and tackle the arriving army first.

In the afternoon the Hungarian army moved onto the Lechfeld, a gravel floodplain near Augsburg to offer battle. The terrain suited them and their fighting style plus they had won a battle there before. Their horses could move rapidly over the full range of the plain.

Next morning, the 10th of August 955, the feast day of Saint Lawrence, Otto took his troops down to the Lechfeld. He had lined up his eight detachments and marched under the cover of a wooden area to avoid being pelted by arrows.

Whilst Otto’s soldiers snuck through the bushes to avoid being shot at, the Hungarians went behind him and attacked his rear guard.  They captured the baggage train, and wounded and captured the defenders, 3 out of the 8 detachments are now down.

But once the Magyars had captured the baggage, their discipline broke down. That allowed Otto’s generals to bring down a detachment of Franconians, fall on the plundering Hungarians, beat them back and free their prisoners. Otto’s forces regroup and he holds a rousing speech:

“As we all know they fight almost without any armour and, what is our greatest relief, without the help of the lord.” and We rather want to die in glory than being beaten by our enemies, taken away in servitude or even be strung up like feral animals.”

That worked. Item 1 on the list was the most important. The fighting style of the Magyars was horse-based archery. The riders would attack and then feign retreat. With their fast horses they would create a gap over the pursuers until they are at perfect shooting distance.

The maximum impact was achieved by shooting volleys of arrows into the sky that would come down on the attackers like hail. The ideal distance to achieve that was somewhere between 200 and 500 metres.

Had the enemy come closer the Hungarians had to shift to individual point-blank shots, which were less efficient and if the enemy got even closer it was down to hand to hand combat.

Henry the Fowler had proven that an army of heavy armoured knights could break a Hungarian force. They have to get through the death zone of 200 to 500m from the enemy line and crash into the lightly armoured horsemen at full tilt.

And that is likely what happened at the Lechfeld. The Hungarians feigned retreat, but Otto’s highly trained personal troops and the battle-hardened Bavarians pushed through the death zone at speed, crashing into the Hungarian lines.

There might have also been a flank attack by the armoured knights from Augsburg who tried to join up with Otto but had not found him in the dark. When they saw the enemy dead ahead, they joined the melee from the sides causing more chaos in the Hungarian lines.

There are other theories about the battle. In later Hungarian chronicles the defeat s blamed in a sudden rainfall that made the composite bows unusable. German chroniclers mention excessive heat so that there may have been a summer thunderstorm later in the day.

Whichever way it happened, the Hungarians were annihilated, their leaders captured and killed. The raids stopped for good and by 1000 King/Saint Stephen formally converted to Christianity.

This was Otto’s greatest military and political success. The chronicler Widukind of Corvey reports that the assembled troops declared Otto emperor on the field of battle, just like the ancient roman legions had done.

It will take until 962 before Otto I is crowned emperor, but after the battle on the Lechfeld he was the undisputed leader of Western Europe. From this point the political entity that will later be called the Holy Roman Empire comes into existence. If you want to hear the whole story, check out Episode 6 of the History of the Germans available on all podcasting platforms: https://pod.fo/e/162dc9

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Part of a series about 20 crucial moments in German Medieval History. In 950 King Lothar of Italy dies, leaving behind his 19-year-old widow, Adelheid/Adelaide. With her begins the entanglement of the medieval emperors in Northern Italy.

Adelaide was born the daughter of the King of Upper Burgundy (~Fench speaking switzerland + soutwest France) Her father acquired the crown of the Kingdom of the Lombards (= Norther Italy) in the 920s but had to cede it to Hugh of Provence already in 925

Hugh of Provence invaded Upper Burgundy in 937 and abducted Adelaide and her mother. Adelaide was only 6 years old at that time. Once she was 15, Hugh married her to his son Lothar who he had elecated and crowned as King of Italy.

Now it is time for Hugh to lose his power. In 945 the margrave of Ivrea, Berengar ousts Hugh who retires back to Provence. Berengar however leaves Lothar and Adelheid as King and Queen of Italy.

That was a neat arrangement as it combined the three contenders for the crown of Italy. Adelheid for Upper Burgundy, Lothar representing Provence and Berengar representing Italy. It might look neat, but in reality, Berengar held total control of the reins of power.

This neat arrangement fell apart when Lothar unexpectedly died in 950. Berengar had to take the plunge and declare himself King of Italy without really having much legitimacy apart from having the bigger guns.

That was not his only problem. He also had to figure out what to do with the young queen Adelheid. You see, Adelheid was not only blood-related to almost everyone who was anyone in 10th century Europe, she was also enormously rich in her own right.

o top it up, it was customary for usurpers to derive their right to rule from marriage to the wife or daughter of a recently deceased ruler, just ask king Louis of France, duke Henry of Bavaria and duke Liudolf of Swabia.

You see why Adelheid was now the hottest potato in all of Italy, if not all of Europe. Though they did not have potatoes then. Maybe the hottest parsnip? Berengar proposed for her to marry his son Adalbert, but Adelheid refused.

At that point Adelheid becomes a risk. Leaving the key to the kingdom run around free in Italy to be picked up by some random chancer was not an option. So Berengar had her thrown in a prison in a fortress on lake Garda.

Whilst Adelheid, richest heiress in Europe and 19year old beauty lay in her cell contemplating what to do, world politics are set in motion. Hang on, Adelheid, Europe’s richest and most beautiful heiress and is held in a jail by some jumped-up Margrave – any takers, anyone?

Well, plenty. anyone who could dislodge Berengar and marry the 19-year-old and allegedly very attractive Adelheid would become king of Italy. That is the kind of offer that brings out the best in men.

First suitor was Henry, Duke of Bavaria and brother of King Otto I of East Francia. Though he is closest and has a significant followership his efforts stalled at Aquileia, 250km off target on Lake Garda.

Next up was the son of King Otto I, Liudolf. Luidolf was the oldest son and heir of the kingdom. Otto had him acknowledged by his magnates as his successor. All was good for him. So he wanted to crown his achievements by rescuing a damsel in distress.

That backfires badly. Not only does his uncle Henry stiffen the resistance of the Italian barons, little Liudolf has also failed to ask for permission from Dad. Otto I is not happy about his son’s move south and orders him back home

And now Otto I makes his own move. He takes a large army down to Italy to finally release the chained princess. Berengar sees him coming and hides in one of his castles. Otto I takes Pavia, capital of the kingdom of the Lombards, without much resistance.

Adelheid, it turns out did not need the help. She had escaped from the Rocca di Garda all by herself and found shelter with the bishop of Reggio on the castle of Canossa, a place that will become of even greater significance in German history

Castello de Carpienti, part of the set of defences that protect Canossa

Otto I, recently widowed now asks for Adelheid’s hand in marriage. Otto was a very eligible widower – with his white hair, red face, bushy beard, moderate sized belly and a chest covered in hair like the mane of a lion.

But his good looks alone did not seem to have done the trick. He had to strengthen the queen’s love for him with gold. Having received enough gifts as well as probably concessions about her future role, Adelheid accepted Otto’s advances.

And with that Otto I could pick up the iron crown of the Lombards. From this time onwards the Italian crown was (with one interruption), part of the Empire and whoever was elected King of the Romans had automatically authority over Lombardy.

This will be one part of the “Italian Entanglement” that makes medieval emperors cross the Alps again and again, seeking fame and fortune. Heinrich v. Sybel (1817-95) blamed this for the delayed nation building in Germany.

Modern historians have a more differentiated perspective. However, the rule over Italy did take up a lot of the resources and headspace of medieval emperors, in particular Henry IV, Barbarossa, Henry VI and Frederick II.

More on this story and many more, check out the History of the Germans Podcast available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all major platforms.

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I recently went to Rome – mostly as a romantic getaway – but also to get a better idea what Rome would have looked like to the medieval emperors who came down to be crowned by reluctant popes. A lot of the main historic sites have been fundamentally remodelled (St. Peter, St. John Lateran, Santa Maria Maggiore), but more survives than one thinks.

The first thing to remember is that by the time say Henry IV or Frederick Barbarossa come to Rome, many of these churches are already unfathomably old. The first great period of church building in Rome was during the fourth and fifth century. Emperor Constantine funded the construction of the two great basilicas of Old St. Peter and the Basilica of the Lateran. But as the share of Christians in the population grew from 15-18% under Constantine to being the vast majority by late fifth/early 6th century, new churches needed to be built all across Rome.

These early churches were mostly new built over virgin land or land previously used for residential or industrial purposes, not over existing pagan temples. The building was usually in the form of an ancient Roman basilica. These basilicas were originally secular buildings used amongst other things to hold court cases with the judge/governor/emperor sitting in the apsis dispensing justice.

There is one still extant imperial basilica, in Trier that dates from the time of Constantine.

Basilica Trier

In early Christian churches, the judge’s seat was replaced with the altar but otherwise the architecture remained the same. And this apsis was than lavishly decorated with mosaics, depicting Christ in the place where the emperor would usually have sat. This mosaic here is the oldest and most beautiful in Rome dating back to around 390 AD.

Santa Prudentia (Rome)

Imagine you come from say a great Carolingian monastery like Corvey with beautiful early medieval interior decorations, and then you look at this. Nobody during this period was able to create such natural expressions or depiction of movement. It must have been a complete shock to see…

The Basilica of Santa Sabina

The best way to get an impression what these early churches looked like is to visit Santa Sabina on the Aventine hill. The church was built between 422 and 432 and is largely unchanged in its structure today.

If you stand inside you can experience what a space like old St. Peter would have felt like. Not at all dark and “medieval”, but bright, symetric with clean lines. Windows were in clear glass, letting the bright Roman sun into the building. All eyes look down towards the Apsis where all teh important things, like teh coronation is happening.

Santa Sabina, Interior

Though Santa Sabina does no longer have the brilliant Mosaics that once covered its apsis, it has another, truly astounding piece of decoration, its doors, which are original from the 5th century.

Santa Sabina doors (~430 AD)

Let me repoeat this. This is a set of cedar doors made in ~430 AD. The image cannot really convey what they look like. The wood is still shiny, the carving beautiful and detailed, as if no time had passed.

I know the doors in the Pantheon are older and larger, but still, these must be the second oldest doors still in operation anywhere in the world. And if you go to Santa Sabina, you share the space with some Dominican friars, the kids from the primary school opposite and a small number of full-on history geeks (Birkenstocks and all) – well worth it (also got a great view over the city from the park).

The Mystery of the Destruction of Old San Clemente

The next church to look at is San Clemente, which is interesting for two reasons. The first one is its marvellous mosaic that covers the whole of the apsis.

San Clemente Apsis Mosaic (c. 1200)

This work of most likely Byzantine artists is a little younger than the others we will be looking at here but it contains such marvellous little details that again display the incredible craftsmanship of these unknown artists.

The church of San Clemente is full of other fascinating things,  such as the grave of Saint Cyril and a beautiful renaissance chapel to Santa Catarina.

But the most interesting stuff is underground. San Clemente was built over what was initially a private house, then became an industrial complex, some argue the mint where the empire would strike its coins. It at least in part became an apartment block with a sanctuary for the cult of Mithridates in its centre. By 392 all these buildings had been filled in and a church built on top.

This church was redecorated in the 9th and then in 11th century. And then something strange happens. The whole church is getting destroyed, filled in and a new church is built on top of it around 1099 to 1120.

All these underground structures have been excavated and can be visited., something well worth doing. If you go, buy the ticket online before you enter the church, it is 2€ cheaper and connection is better outside.

During the excavations they found part of the fresco decoration of the church that was destroyed, depicting the story of Saint Clement. And that is where the mystery starts.

San Clemente Lower Basilica – the Rescue of a Child

Initially people thought the church was destroyed during the sack of Rome by Robert Guiscard in 1084, which I talk about in Episode 36: (https://historyofthegermans.com/captivate-podcast/cominghome/).

But they could not find any signs of burning so the suggestion was the lower church had been deliberately destroyed. But why? Some argue it was because the street level had risen and so the old church was constantly flooded.

Image of Saint Clement Lower Basilica

But there could be another reason. The images in the old chapel depicted the Saint Clement, which in the 1080s was a dangerous name. As you know Henry IV had elevated Wibert of Ravenna to be antipope Clement III. Painting a church with the deeds of the antipope’s namesake was an affront. And moreover, who was the titular deacon of San Clemente in the 1080s? Hugh Candidus, or Hugh the White. You remember him? He is the cardinal who fell out with Gregory VII and alleged the pope was living in sin with Matilda of Tuscany and was up to all sorts of shenanigans (check out Episode 35).

Hence pope Gregory and his successor, Pope Paschalis II who was deacon of San Clemente after Hugh the White  had motive and means to literally bury the antipope Wibert and his enabler Hugh the White. If that is true, it would be a rare case of church destruction on ideological grounds.

San Cosmas and Damian vs. Castor and Pollux

The foundation of this church was in 527, when Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths , and his daughter Amalasuntha arranged the donation of two buildings on the Forum to the Church under Pope Felix IV. These building were the Temple of Peace and the “temple of Romulus”

Three interesting observations can be made about this. Firstly, the king was consciously not acting in his own name, but as the agent of Emperor Justinian I in Constantinople. Modern historians may have pretended that the Roman Empire came to an end in the West in 476, but the inhabitants of Rome were not aware of this fifty years later. Secondly, the area of the Roman and Imperial fora was still functioning as part of the city and had not yet fallen into complete ruin. Thirdly, this was the first Christian church to be founded in the area. Again, despite modern popular historical imagination, much of the nobility of Rome was still hostile to Christianity in the 5th century and this may have prevented the provision of churches in the cultic centre of the city before this one.

The new church was not a titulus or a monastic church, but was a diaconia. This meant that it was a centre for the Church’s charitable activities such as helping poor people. When the pope united the two buildings to create a basilica devoted to the two holy Greek brothers and doctors, Cosmas and Damian, he may have been wishing to continue the free public medical services formerly based in the Temple of Peace. There may also have been a deliberate contrast with the ancient pagan cult of the divine twin brothers Castor and Pollux, who had been worshipped on the other side of the Forum in the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

The whole structure was changed many times and today the entrance is no longer on the Forum but from the Via dei Fori Imperiali which has its advantages, i.e., no entrance fee. Go there, even if all you need is shelter from the August heat. It has a lovely shaded little cloister.

But that is not the only reason you may want to get there. The apse of the new church was decorated with a mosaic, representing the parousia (coming at the end of time) of Christ. This work was immensely influential, and art historians have been able to trace its inspiration in mosaics in later Roman churches. It stands nowadays as one of the foremost examples of the old Classical style of depiction starting to mutate into the (then novel) Byzantine style.

San Cosmas & Damian

The mosaics are masterpieces of 6th century ecclesiastical art. The apse mosaic is especially fine, but you need to remember that you should be standing seven metres lower than you actually are, in order to see it as the creators intended. There is a coin-operated light for it at the head of the center aisle in front of the alter.

In the middle is Christ at his parousia, or Second Coming as triumphal judge at the end of time. He is standing on the red clouds of dawn, and is dressed in golden robes with a single monogram I which stands for either Iesus or Imperator. In his left hand he holds the rolled-up scroll of the Torah, which only he is able to interpret. To the left is St Paul, and to the right is St Peter. They are introducing SS Cosmas and Damian to Christ, and it is not possible to tell which is which because the mosaicists followed the tradition that they were identical twins. They are carrying martyrs’ crowns. To the far left is Pope Felix IV, who as founder holds a model of the church; this figure was restored in the 17th century. The reason for this is that Pope Gregory XIII saw fit to alter the figure to show Pope Gregory the Great in the previous century, and a very bad job was done. The Baroque restorers put it right. To the far right is the martyr St Theodore. The figures stand in front of a river labelled Iordanes (Jordan) and are flanked by palm trees.

Note the phoenix on the left-hand palm, a symbol of the resurrection.

San Cosmas & Damian Phoenix

Below Christ is another representation of him, this time as the Lamb of God accompanied by twelve sheep representing the Apostles. The Lamb stands on a hill with Jerusalem on the left and Bethlehem on the right, and from the hill flow the twelve Rivers of Paradise labelled Gion, Pison, Tigris and Eufrata (Euphrates).

Santa Prassede and the running pope

After the destruction of Rome during the Gothic wears (535-554) the city’s population collapsed. The low-lying areas were gradually abandoned and became hotbeds of malaria and other diseases.

There was no longer the money to build splendid rectangular basilicas on brownfield sites. The church began to invade the now abandoned pagan temples, using fallen masonry to create new structures. These are often oddly shaped and Roman columns protrude from the walls.

When pope Paschal I (817-24) began the construction of Santa Prassede, he did intend to create a classic basilica, but it did not really work. the surveying during the construction was seriously badly done and the edifice is “wonky”. The nave walls and colonnades are not parallel, neither are they straight. The transept is not at right angles to the nave’s major axis, and neither are the façade and the atrium.

But it is still standing and it houses one of the greatest early medieval interiors in Rome. Two 9th century mosaics stand out, those on the triumphal arch in the centre of the nave.

The overall theme is the Second Coming of Christ and the End of Time, based on the description given in the “Apocalypse of St John” (Book of Revelation).

On the triumphal arch, the one closest to the nave,The Heavenly Jerusalem is depicted as a walled and gated enclosure with its golden walls set with jewels. In it, Christ accompanied by two angels is venerated by two queues of apostles and saints; to the left, the first two are Our Lady and St John the Baptist, and to the right the first is St Praxedis. At the ends of the queues are Moses and Elijah. The city gates are guarded by another pair of angels, and a further two escort more saints through flowery meadows, with the right hand group led by SS Peter and Paul.

Below this composition, on either side of the arch, are two crowds of people holding crowns and palm branches. These are the multitude of the martyrs. 

And then there is the Apse Mosaic – just look at it

And if you look for some historic context, here is a tale from 1118

The papacy had recovered from the depth of its depravity in the 10th century thanks to a string of powerful popes, namely Leo IX, Gregory VII and Urban II. By 1111 the tide was however turning. Pope Paschalis II made a most unexpected offer to emperor Henry V to return all the lands and privileges the church had received over the centuries in exchange for the emperor no longer interfering with church affairs. That backfired terribly as literally everybody hated the idea, except for the pope and the emperor. Paschalis lost all authority in Rome. The two great Roman families of the Frangipani and the Pierleoni began fighting over control of the seat of Saint Peter.

When Paschalis died in 1118 the Frangipani made their move. The cardinals had elected the former pope’s chancellor as pope Gelasius II. On the day of his election, the Frangipani captured him, put him into a windowless cell and tortured him mercilessly. Censius Frangipani allegedly hissed at him like a giant snake, grabbed the pope by the throat, struck him with his fists, kicked him, drew blood with his spurs and dragged him away by his hair. Had he not been rescued by a mob paid for by the Pierleoni, Pope Gelasius would hold the record for the shortest Pontificate. This way he lasted a year and a bit. In his last months he could not hold the Vatican and hence celebrated mass at the church of St. Prassede, an amazing and truly ancient but size wise very modest building. If you are in Rome, go there it is a wonderful refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Anyway, whilst saying mass he was attacked by Censius Frangipani again and only escaped on a swift horse. His attendants found him hours later sitting in a field, muttering incoherently – still wearing his papal vestments. Gelasius had enough. He left Rome to travel to France and died in the safety of the abbey of Cluny.

His successor Calixtus II was able to regain some semblance of control, but the next election, Honorius II ended with even more bloodshed.

If you want to follow the whole story, including detail about the divisions in the church and the city of Rome around 1130, listen to Episode 45 of The History of the Germans or read the transcript, both available here: https://historyofthegermans.com/…/episode-45-triple…/

Santa Prudenziana

My greatest find on the whole trip was however Santa Prudenziana. Santa Prudenziana, if she existed, was the sister of Santa Prassede but her church is even more undeservedly overlooked.

And overlooking it is easy. The church sits in a non-descript street below Santa maria Maggiore and is itself a couple of metres below street level. The façade is less than impressive and I would have instinctively walked past had I not looked for it.

But this is a true treasure trove. This basilica is recognised as the oldest place of Christian worship in Rome, dating back potentially to the time of the Apostles but more convincingly to the time of pope Pius I (140-155). The popes would reside in this complex until Constantine offered them the palace of the Lateran in 313.

In around 390, the church received its mosaic, which is of prime importance, not just because of its beaty, but also because of its subject.

The magisterial figure of Christ, seated on a gilded throne embossed with jewels and cushioned with purple fabric, recalls ancient representations of Jupiter. The apostles are dressed in togas, like Roman senators. Such images reflect the fundamental change in the role of the church. No longer a persecuted minority that has to hide from authority, Jesus (or god) is now in charge, determines the order man has to live by. You can see visually how the church goes from providing spiritual guidance to being an unquestionable authority, a process we have heard so much about in the podcast.

Image of mosaic in Santa Prudenziana

Today this tiny church is serving the global community of Catholic Filipinos, the largest Christian community in Asia.

I could go on for hours from here. And maybe I will write another post looking at secular medieval buildings in Rome. But if you ever go, sure, do all the classic Roman and renaissance things, but if you have a bit of time on your hand, check out these treasures. They are so worth it. (and also listen to the History of the Germns Podcast – also worth it)