This week we will look at one of the great mysteries of German medieval history, how Lübeck could become the second largest City in the Holy Roman empire within just 100 years from its foundation. Lübeck lies on a small river, the Trave that goes into a small Sea, the Baltic. Not only is the Baltic comparatively small, the peoples who live on its shores are no slouches. They have been famed for travelling as far south as Constantinople and as far north as Greenland for centuries. So how did the future capital of the Hanseatic League manage to grow so fast? We will go through the different theories and maybe we can find out…

Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 105 – The Foundation of Lübeck

This week we will look at one of the great mysteries of German medieval history, how Lübeck could become the second largest City in the Holy Roman empire within just 100 years from its foundation. Lübeck lies on a small river, the Trave that goes into a small Sea, the Baltic. Not only is the Baltic comparatively small, the peoples who live on its shores are no slouches. They have been famed for travelling as far south as Constantinople and as far north as Greenland for centuries. So how did the future capital of the Hanseatic League manage to grow so fast? We will go through the different theories and maybe we can find out…

But before we start let me tell you that the History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at or on my website You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Catherine van B., Mr. F, Victor O. and Rudi.

Last week we took a good look at the County of Holstein and the beginnings of the great migration from the western part of the empire into the lands north and east of the Elbe River. 200,000 people packed their bags and left the overcrowded cities and villages of Flanders, Holland and Westphalia to settle in territories that were either empty wasteland or inhabited by hostile Slavic peoples. In many way these treks resembled the Westward Expansion of the United states in the 19th century. The counts bishops and margraves who controlled the lands in the east sent out agents, so-called locators to recruit settlers willing to go east. The Locators organised the transport and when the settlers arrived, allocated each an equally sized strip of land to cultivate. Sometimes the land needed to be first drained dykes being built or forest had to be cleared. In other cases the settlers took over villages where the Slavic population had been expelled or they were given land next to existing settlements.

One of the magnates who was most active in this process of colonisation was the count of Holstein, Adolph of Schauenburg and his successors who had the decency to be all called Adolph, which makes life a lot easier for your podcaster.

This process of settling peoples from the west in their land was however not limited to the establishment of villages and the development of fields. There was also a big drive to establish or expand cities. There were four different types of city foundations (in inverted commas). The first one was simply to establish a city from scratch in a suitable location. That was actually fairly rare occurrence. As one would imagine, after hundreds of years of settling in the area the Slavic peoples had already identified and occupied the most attractive sites for their cities. So there would usually be at least a Slavic fortification already there. The lord of this fortification would invite tradesmen and merchants to establish a separate town nearby. These towns would have separate fortifications and its population was often a mix of Slavs, Germans and Scandinavians. Then we have the situation where an existing town changed from Slavic to Saxon control and its population and infrastructure would be completely altered. For instance Oldenburg in Holstein had been the main town of the Wagrier. Just as an aside, I have called them Wagrarier in the last episode, which I understand is simply wrong. In german they are called Wagrier and in English I will now call them by their Germanified name. Wagrier. In any event, they will soon exit stage left so it is a bit late for that. Apologies.

Anyway, Oldenburg in Holstein had been taken over by the Saxons when the Wagrier had been comprehensively defeated in 1143 and the town was taken over. Churches were built and settlers were invited to move into the city, marginalising the original population.

And last, but not least you have double and triple cities. That means the original settlement remains its own entity. Then say a town of German merchants is established next to it. Shortly afterwards the bishop sets up his compound with cathedral and bishops palace, again not connected to the other two townships. It was like Buda,  Pest  and Obuda in Hungary that had been separate cities until they were joined together as Budapest in 1873.

The story of Lübeck is a mishmash of all these four processes.

You are well aware that there had already been a place cold Liubice, long before the counts of Holstein were even thought of. This settlement was quite old, founded in 819 by the Abodrites who had been invited to settle here by Charlemagne. Liubice was built on a peninsula formed by the Trave and Schwartau rivers, a few kilometres downriver from where Lübeck is today and 9km from the mouth of the river. Liubice was off to a good start. A road was built south to Bardowick, linking Liubice to the emerging trade network inside the empire. Archaeologists have found evidence that Liubice had trade connections all across the Baltic Sea. However, by the 10th century the settlement had shrunk and may have even been abandoned. A recovery set in during the middle of the 11th century when Gottschalk has new fortifications and a church built. His son, Henry would make Liubice his main residence from where he controlled a territory stretching from Rügen to Holstein. Henry built not just large fortifications, he also invited merchants to settle. The trading route south to Bardowick and north onto the Baltic was resurrected.

But after Henry had died and the land of the Abodrites descended into chaos and civil war, Liubice was burnt to the ground by the Wagriens in 1138.

As we heard last week the Wagriens were defeated and moved into reservations in 1143. And that same year, Adolph of Schauenburg realised that if he could rebuild the trade network of Old Liubice, he would make a nice wad of cash in tolls and duties.

Upon closer inspection it became clear that the location of Old Liubice was not ideal, or more precisely, that there was a more promising location a bit further upriver. This new location, at the confluence of the Trave and the Wakenitz was not only large enough to hold a sizeable city, it also had the great advantage of being part of the count’s personal property.

He built a castle in the north of the peninsula and established a merchant city with a marketplace a bit south of there. This settlement was an immediate success. It is quite likely that the merchants who had lived in Liubice before its destruction in 1138 moved into this new location. But who also came were the merchants who used to trade out of Bardowick. Since Lübeck was now a city under the protection of a Saxon count and not a Slavic prince, there was no need for a separate trading post on the Saxon/Slavic border.

But then the success of the new city became its downfall. Bardowick was part of the personal property of the duke of Saxony, Henry the Lion. And as its trade and its people disappeared off to the upstart town of the count of Holstein, the duke found himself short of cash. The once plentiful tolls and market fees of Bardowick had not just disappeared, but are now finding their way into the count’s purse.

And that cannot be. Remember that the Counts of Holstein had been enfeoffed by Lothar when he was duke of Saxony. The new duke of Saxony is his grandson, the self-same Henry the Lion who just lost a neat little income stream.

Henry the Lion now pulls rank. He suggests to Adolph of Schauenburg that they should share the income from this new city. And as he was at it, why doesn’t he hand over the lucrative salt mine in Oldesloe as well. The count refused, assuming quite rightly that if he agreed, he would lose his share of Lubeck soon enough.

Henry the Lion now prohibited the market in Lubeck and forced all merchants to bring their wares to Bardowick. This edict was effective, and Lubeck emptied out almost as quickly as it had grown up. And in 1157 the remaining building caught fire after which the location was abandoned.

The merchants who had stayed in Lubeck went to Henry the Lion and said that given they weren’t allowed to hold a market in Lubeck and there was hence no point in rebuilding the city, would he be happy to designate a place where they could hold a market. Henry the Lion tried one more time to convince the count to hand him the now empty and devastated city of Lubeck, but he still refused. So Henry established the Lionstown, somewhere upriver on the Wagnitz. And that is where the merchants moved.

But they quickly found that this location was not suitable. The larger trading ships could not get up the Wagnitz River and it even prove difficult to set up good defences. So Henry went back to his count and this time, in exchange fore some fine gold, the count handed over the site.

In 1159, the merchants, tradesmen and other inhabitants returned and -for the third time in 20 years- rebuilt their town. The bishopric of Oldenburg was moved to Lubeck and Henry the Lion granted it city’s rights. From then the city grows at an astounding pace and by 1300 it was the second largest city in kingdom. Only the mighty and ancient city of Cologne was bigger.

How was that possible? Lübeck was on the Trave River, a river that connected to the still largely empty set of interconnected lakes of Holstein, Mecklenburg and Brandenburg, but not to the great centres of trade and commerce of the south. Downriver was the Baltic sea, a sea whose trade was dominated by Scandinavians, in particular the inhabitants of Gotland. Lübeck was part of the Holy Roman empire, but in the duchy of Saxony, a part where the new emperor, Frederick Barbarossa had not enough influence to protect the burgers against the overreach of the magnates.

So, what was the secret?

For Fritz Rörig (1882-1952) the conclusion was evident. The German merchants in Lübeck were simply smarter than their competitors. They designed a new type of ship, the Cog, that could take larger loads, was made from sawn rather than split timber, hence cheaper to build and were easier to steer than the Knarr, the preferred vessels of the Danish traders. And then, according to Rörig, they were better organised. Rörig established the thesis that this third rebuilding of Lübeck was organised by a consortium of Rhinish and Westphalian merchants. They had been given free rein by Henry the Lion to create the city layout and set the laws for the new settlement.

Though you still find this and other of his hypotheses even in relatively recent books, most of it is now debunked. Cogs have been around since the 10th century and were known to all peoples along the Baltic and North Sea coast. In any event, these designs were relatively easy to copy, so if there would have been some material advantage in the Cog, competitors could and did copy them.

As for the planning consortium, there is simply no evidence for it anywhere. Rörig based his theory on the names of the families living on the main square by the Marienkirche in the 14th century.

And finally, Rörig has become the subject of intense debate over his affiliation with Nazi ideology. Clearly the idea of the German clever Cogs fit very neatly into the fascist world view.

So, if it wasn’t clever Cogs, was it the involvement of the great duke Henry the Lion.

For a long time German historians believed that Henry the Lion had pursued a deliberate policy to sponsor and strengthen the development of cities in Germany. After all he is the founder of Munich and arguably of Lübeck. But more recent biographies like the one by Joachim Ehlers suggest that there was no great master plan. And why would there be. Medieval rulers rarely sat down to strategize with their chancellors or major vassals and certainly did not leave behind strategy papers. Decisions were often driven by who was in the room at any given time, sometimes with long lasting effects. Think of the citizens of Lodi bringing their grievance before Barbarossa in 1153 that kicks off the involvement in Lombardy and determined the imperial position against Milan.

But not having a grand plan does not mean that actions cannot have great impact. We hear that Henry the Lion sent messages to Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Russia personally guaranteeing their merchants protection should they sail to Lübeck. He established a mint and a customs post in Lübeck and granted the city the freedoms that many other great trading places like Cologne, Dortmund and Soest enjoyed. The set of rights and privileges for Lübeck, the Stadtrechte were modelled on those of the city of Soest, at this time one of the most important trading hubs on the route from the Rhineland and Flanders to the North and East.

How important the support of Henry the Lion was became apparent as early as 1161 . In that year the merchants of Gotland and Lübeck had a major falling out. What about is unclear but it was henry the Lion who resolve the issue by guaranteeing the Gotlanders safety and freedom to come to Lübeck whilst at the same time demanding protection for his merchants when they are in Gotland. There had been German merchants present in Gotland before 1161, but after that, we hear of a veritable German trading city springing up in Visby. 

In the middle of the 12th century, the island of Gotland, today a part of Sweden and located halfway up the Baltic Sea had been the centre of Northern European trade for hundreds of years. It had its origins in a great shift in European trading routes during the 8th century. As the Mediterranean came under Muslim control, goods from Byzantium destined for Northern Europe had to be shipped via the great Eastern European river systems from the Black Sea to Baltic Coast. Nowgorod became the great Baltic Port from where the goods were shipped along the Swedish coast to Gotland and then to either the Danish port in Haithabu, near modern day Schleswig where they crossed the Jutland peninsula by land or further up to the Limsfjord which allowed the ships to get into the North sea without having to round the Skagarag. Gotland not only provided a safe harbour en route, but also provided the ships on which the goods travelled. Archaeologists have found literally thousands of Byzantine coins on Gotland.

By the middle of the 12th century the trade with Byzantium via Russia and Ukraine had slowed down dramatically. The eastern luxury wares are now travelling via Egypt and Venice to France, England and Germany. But there are still goods from Russia in high demand. Fur was of particular interest as well as honey and beeswax. Enterprising merchants from Lübeck appear in Nowgorod in the 1170s, apparently in large enough numbers that Henry the Lion signs trading agreements with the prince of Nowgorord. That way the Gotlander were cut out of the trade and Lübeck gained direct access to the lucrative Russia trade.

And Henry helped the city of Lübeck in another way. As you may remember from last episode, the Wendish crusade ended in a resounding mehh. The Abodrites had remained pagan despite some pro forma conversions and a peace agreement between Niclot, the prince of the Abodrites and the Saxon nobles.

As far as Henry the Lion was concerned, this was an unsatisfactory outcome. As duke of Saxony he was also in charge of the Mark of the Billungs, that territory we now know as Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. But as long as Niclot ruled, he had little influence in these lands. In fact the counts of Holstein had closer relationships with Niclot than Henry the Lion. So in 1160 he finally found time to resolve what he regarded as a problem. He called all his vassals, Saxons and Slavs to an assembly in July 1060. As Niclot did not regard himself as a vassal, he did not show. That was the justification Henry needed He announced Niclot to be an unfaithful follower and called for a campaign in the autumn. Niclot tried again to pre-empt the attack and made an attempt to destroy Lübeck which ahd only been rebuilt the year before. That attempt however failed.

The campaign was well organised and Henry arrived with such overwhelming force that Niclot vacated all forward defences and sealed himself into his largest fortress at Werle. There he was besieged by Henry the Lion. Niklpot led a desperate attempt at breaking the siege during which he was captured. His severed head was paraded to Henry’s tent. Upon the news the sons of Niklot, Pribislav and Werislav burned the castle in Werle and disappeared into the woods.

Henry immediately reorganised the land of the Abodrites. Other than in previous campaigns, this was not a raid. Henry intended to fully incorporate the land of the Abodrites into his duchy. He placed his Ministeriales and minor vassals into key positions as counts of Quetzin, Malchow, Ilhow and Schwerin. I guess only the latter name means something to you. Schwerin is today the capital of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and site of one of the most photographed castle in Germany. I am sure you have seen it a hundred times in tourist guidebooks or on Facebook posts. What you may not know is that the enormous statue that towers over the main gate of the castle depicts none other than our friend, the now headless Niclot.

Why is there a statue of Niclot in Schwerin? Didn’t I just say that Schwerin was given to one of Henry the Lion’s vassals an enemy of Niclot. Welll, that has to do with the second part of this story.

The sons of Niclot had escaped and as part of the post-war settlement were given their destroyed castle of Werle back. But that was clearly not enough for them. They came back in 1163 to regain their ancestral land, supported by the duke of Pomerania. We will talk about Pomerania in more detail soon, so just leave it here that the duke of Pomerania was a Slavic ruler based east of the land of the Abodrites.

They waged a brutal campaign, directed in particular at the German settlers Henry’s men had called to live in this new territory. Pribislav burned down Mecklenburg killing everybody there and moved on to the castle of Ilow. There he hoped the Slavic population inside the castle would help him. However the German commander had all the women and children brought before him and threatened to burn them as a last act should Pribislav overcome the walls. Pribislav was unable to take the castle. He was more successful in Quetzin and Malchow where he promised the garrison free retreat if they surrender immediately.

Only Schwerin was still held by Henry the Lion when he appeared in Malchow in 1164. He had mustered a fresh army and also secured the help of king Waldemar I of Denmark. To show how serious he took this, he had the brother of Pribislav hanged for all the defenders to see.

In  the early morning of the 6th of July 1164 the army of the Saxons and Danes is woken by squires running into the camp announcing the arrival of the Slavs. Rising from their beds without time to put on armour or mount their horses the Saxons face up to Pribislav and his allies. Count Adolph of Holstein and count Reinhold of Dithmarschen try to hold the gat of the camp but are overthrown and trampled into the dust. Their sacrifice did allow two other counts to muster 300 armoured knights who rode at full tilt into the camp breaking the Slavs’ attack. When Henry the Lion finally appeared on the battlefield the fighting was almost over. The Saxons had won, but at a horrendous price. Henry and his much diminished forces followed the enemy to Pomerania, but did not force them beyond Stolpe. Henry claimed that he had to go back as a delegation from the emperor in Constantinople had arrived in Brunswick – yeah, absolutely. That is the reason to leave. Henry and Waldemar signed peace agreements with Pribislav, the Poemranian duke and other Slavic lords. As a result of this peace the Danish king gained several vassals in Pomerania whilst Henry was put back to the status quo ante. Pribislav was even allowed back into Werle.

By 1167 as Henry the Lion is getting under pressure from the other Saxon magnates, he enters into an alliance with Pribislav. Pribislav formally converts and becomes a vassal of Henry the Lion. In exchange he becomes the prince of Mecklenburg, Kessin and Rostock. His descendants became the dukes of Mecklenburg who regained Schwerin in 1358. They rebuild the castle in a weird and wonderful mixture of styles between 1822 and 1851. The great statue of Niklot was added in 1855, still waving his sword in the general direction of Lübeck.

because the great beneficiary of all this malarky was Lübeck. Finally the city was no longer surrounded by hostile Slavic peoples who had attempted and sometimes succeeded in burning down the city at least four times in the last 40 years. Instead their neighbours are now followers of their great benefactor, the duke Henry the Lion.

To go back to our initial question, why did Lübeck grow to become the second largest city in the kingdom, arguably, Henry the Lion clearly had something to do with it.

But making sure you can travel safely across the Baltic and being safe from attack by immediate neighbours were necessary, but not sufficient conditions for the astounding expansion of the city on the Trave River.

That next big leg up came not from a German, but from a Dane.

In 1180 Henry the Lion had lost the duchy of Saxony, not necessarily because of his refusal to support the emperor Barbarossa, but more because of strong opposition from the other Saxon magnates, namely the Ascanier, descendants of Albrecht the Bear and the archbishop of Cologne who split the old duchy amongst themselves. As we know, Barbarossa did not gain much in that final dismemberment of the mightiest of German duchies. Well except for one thing, the city of Lübeck. Lübeck had initially supported henry the Lion, but when the emperor appeared with his army before the walls of the city, they had second thoughts. They surrendered and Barbarossa made Lübeck an imperial fief. That gave Lübeck an elevated status as a free imperial city. Plus, because Barbarossa and his successors were spending most of their time down south, they could pretty much do what they wanted. In 1201 they even went so far as to falsify the charter Barbarossa had given them, adding a few more rights and privileges they fancied. That they later presented to Frederick II who reissued the charter confirming all sorts of entitlements they never actually had.

But before that happens, something else is going on. And that has to do with the golden age of the Waldemars. Denmark had faded into the background in our narrative, largely because the country had spent almost fifty years in a constant succession crisis. They went through 8 kings in succession, who spent most of their time fighting cousins and half-brothers for the throne and usually died a violent death. All this ended with king Waldemar I, the great (1154-1182) who brought peace to the kingdom thanks at least partially to the good offices of his best friend, Absalon, the bishop of Roskilde. Waldemar was the son of Knut Lavard who we have met in passing when he was prince of the Abodrites. This is not the place to go through all of his achievements. Go to the Scandinavian History Podcast if you want to know more. What matters for us here is that Waldemar gained a foothold in the land of the Abodrites during Henry the Lion’s campaign of 1160. Other than Henry, Waldemar remains engaged in the Wendish lands. In the 1170s he invades and occupies Ruegen. Then he extends his power to Pomerania. His son, Waldemar II, the Victorious builds on his father’s success. He is massively helped by the succession crisis in the empire when Philipp of Swabia and Otto IV fight over the crown. Waldemar sides with Otto IV and attacks Holstein whose Count, we are now at Adolph III, had sided with Philipp. At the battle of Stellau in 1201 Adolph is defeated and captured. In captivity he renounced the county of Holstein and is released. He goes home to Schauenburg, never to return.   

Holstein was now Danish, as was Hamburg which Waldemar had occupied after one of his cousins and a claimant to the Danish throne had become archbishop. In 1216 he became duke of Pomerania, courtesy of emperor Frederick II. And Lübeck, Lübeck recognised Waldemar in 1201, as soon as the Count of Holstein had lost his battle.

Waldemar then became a great supporter of the city. He confirmed the city’s rights and privileges, the ones they had all made up themselves. We hear that the city now has a council that determines its affairs, passes its laws and passes judgement.

But not only that. Waldemar helps the Lübeck citizens to set up another trading post within the city of Riga that he had just conquered during one of the earliest Baltic crusades. That boosts the city’s trade with Russia.

Then there is the herring trade. Given that lay piety had been on the rise for a century or more, the population of europe took to eating fish of Fridays. But where do you get enough fish to feed say a city like Cologne or Regensburg that are a long way from the sea. The answer was salted or dried fish. And one of the richest fishing grounds was Scania in Southern Sweden. The herring who can be caught there had to be salted to be preserved, and that is where the traders from Lübeck come in. They are bringing the salt from the rich salt mines in Luneburg, Salzwedel and Oldesloe to Scania and take away the salted fish to sell down south.

Which gets you to the billion dollar question. Why did Waldemar, who at that point controlled Scania and Lübeck allowed that trade to happen. Denmark already had a great trading city, Haithabu, which by now had migrated to Schleswig. Why not use this harbour, unload the herring, transport it across the Jutland peninsula and put it back on a ship that takes the fish down the Rhine and Main to the landlocked masses craving their Friday fish.

It is one of those questions for which we have no real answer. All that we know is that during the reign of Waldemar more and more trade is diverted from Schleswig to Lübeck.

One reason that could explain the relative decline of Schleswig could be the closing of the Limfjord. If you look on the map you can see that just at the top of the Jutland peninsula is a system of lakes and rivers that allows boats to pass from the north sea to the Baltic without having to go through the Skagerak, the dangerous narrows at the entrance of the Baltic sea. This connection is open today and was open until the 12th century. Just around the time we find Lübeck ascending the Limfjord closes. Though I understand most of Schleswig’s trade was by land across the peninsula, some of it may have been seaborn, destined to go via the Limfjord. That may have been what made Schleswig more attractive and its loss made it more of a straight fight.

The other advantage the Danish merchants had was privileged access to the English market. When Canute had been king of England, Danish traders were granted the same rights as local merchants, paying the same fees and duties. Foreigners paid more. When Lübeck became part of Denmark, these privileges extended to them and hey presto, another relative advantage of Schleswig gone.

So by the middle of the 13th century Lübeck has grown to occupy the whole of the river island.  

Beautiful furs are coming in from Russia, beeswax and Honey from Nowgorod, Amber from Prussia, Fish from Scania and by now rye and wheat from the Baltic shores. All these are bought by Luebeck merchants and sold on to their end customers. The goods are taken off the cogs they came on and transported by road to the Elbe River, either to Lueneburg or to Hamburg. Then they are again put on ships and either go north along the North Sea coast to the mouth of Rhine River, to Flanders or to England. Or they go south on the Elbe to Magdeburg where they are loaded on carts and go on to the Hellweg, which connects across Westphalia from Paderborn via Soest and Dortmund to Duisburg where one can find shipping to Cologne or further south. But the trade isn’t just one way. Cloth from Flanders, wool from England, wine from the Rhine and Mosel, weapons and metal goods from all over Germany come up on the way back. Lübeck ends up in the middle of all of this and becomes richer and richer.

In 1227 Lübeck again ditches its master who had lost a crucial battle against the Saxons. From then on the city remains free and independent, able to join others in what we call the Hanseatic League.

But before we get into the meat of the story of the Hanseatic league we still have to finish off the story of the duchy of Saxony. So next week we will spend a bit of time on the Margraviate of Brandenburg, how it came about and why this time the Slavic ruler does not found the dynasty that rules it. And, if I am well organised, we will get at least the first half of the story of Henry the Lion in.

I hope you will come along for the ride.

Before I go, let me thank all of you who are supporting the show, in particular the Patrons who have kindly signed up on It is thanks to you this show does not have to do advertising for products you do not want to hear about. If Patreon isn’t for you, another way to help the show is sharing the podcast directly or boosting its recognition on social media. If you share, comment or retweet a post from the History of the Germans it is more likely to be seen by others, hence bringing in more listeners. My most active places are Twitter @germanshistory and my Facebook page History of the Germans Podcast. As always, all the links are in the show notes.