Historians generally trace the origins of the Hanseatic League to the rebuilding of the North German town of Lübeck in 1159 by the powerful Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, after Henry had captured the area from Adolf II, Count of Schauenburg and Holstein. Exploratory trading adventures, raids, and piracy had occurred earlier throughout the Baltic region (see Vikings) – the sailors of Gotland sailed up rivers as far away as Novgorod, for example – but the scale of the international trading economy in the Baltic area remained insignificant before the growth of the Hanseatic League.
German cities achieved domination of trade in the Baltic with striking speed during the 13th century, and Lübeck became a central node in the seaborne trade that linked the areas around the North and Baltic Seas. The hegemony of Lübeck peaked during the 15th century.
Lübeck became a base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia trading eastward and northward. Well before the term Hanse appeared in a document in 1267, merchants in different cities began to form guilds, or Hansa, with the intention of trading with towns overseas, especially in the economically less-developed eastern Baltic. This area was a source of timber, wax, amber, resins, and furs, along with rye and wheat brought down on barges from the hinterland to port markets. The towns raised their own armies, with each guild required to provide levies when needed. The Hanseatic cities came to the aid of one another, and commercial ships often had to be used to carry soldiers and their arms.
Visby functioned as the leading centre in the Baltic before the Hansa. Sailing east, Visby merchants established a trading post at Novgorod called Gutagard (also known as Gotenhof) in 1080. Merchants from northern Germany also stayed in the early period of the Gotlander settlement. Later they established their own trading station in Novgorod, known as Peterhof, which was further up river in the first half of the 13th century. In 1229, German merchants at Novgorod were granted certain privileges that made their position more secure.
Hansa societies worked to remove restrictions to trade for their members. Before the "official" foundation of the League in 1356, the word Hanse did not occur in the Baltic language. Gotlanders used the word varjag. The earliest remaining documentary mention, although without a name, of a specific "German commercial federation" is from London 1157. That year, the merchants of the Hansa in Cologne convinced Henry II, King of England, to free them from all tolls in London and allow them to trade at fairs throughout England. The "Queen of the Hansa", Lübeck, where traders were required to trans-ship goods between the North Sea and the Baltic, gained imperial privileges to become a free imperial city in 1227, as its potential trading partner Hamburg had in 1189.
In 1241, Lübeck, which had access to the Baltic and North Sea fishing grounds, formed an alliance—a precursor to the League—with Hamburg, another trading city that controlled access to salt-trade routes from Lüneburg. The allied cities gained control over most of the salt-fish trade, especially the Scania Market; Cologne joined them in the Diet of 1260. In 1266, Henry III of England granted the Lübeck and Hamburg Hansa a charter for operations in England, and the Cologne Hansa joined them in 1282 to form the most powerful Hanseatic colony in London. Much of the drive for this co-operation came from the fragmented nature of existing territorial government, which failed to provide security for trade. Over the next 50 years the Hansa itself emerged with formal agreements for confederation and co-operation covering the west and east trade routes. The principal city and linchpin remained Lübeck; with the first general Diet of the Hansa held there in 1356, the Hanseatic League acquired an official structure.
Lübeck's location on the Baltic provided access for trade with Scandinavia and Kievan Rus', putting it in direct competition with the Scandinavians who had previously controlled most of the Baltic trade routes. A treaty with the Visby Hansa put an end to this competition: through this treaty the Lübeck merchants also gained access to the inland Russian port of Novgorod, where they built a trading post or Kontor (literally: office). Other such alliances formed throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Yet the League never became a closely managed formal organisation. Assemblies of the Hanseatic towns met irregularly in Lübeck for a Hansetag (Hanseatic Diet), from 1356 onwards, but many towns chose not to attend nor to send representatives and decisions were not binding on individual cities. Over the period, a network of alliances grew to include a flexible roster of 70 to 170 cities.
The league succeeded in establishing additional Kontors in Bruges (Flanders), Bergen (Norway), and London (England). These trading posts became significant enclaves. The London Kontor, established in 1320, stood west of London Bridge near Upper Thames Street, the site now occupied by Cannon Street station. It grew into a significant walled community with its own warehouses, weighhouse, church, offices and houses, reflecting the importance and scale of trading activity on the premises. The first reference to it as the Steelyard (der Stahlhof) occurs in 1422.
Starting with trade in coarse woollen fabrics, the Hanseatic League had the effect of bringing both commerce and industry to northern Germany. As trade increased newer and finer woollen and linen fabrics, and even silks, were manufactured in Northern Germany. The same refinement of products out of cottage industry occurred in other fields, e.g. etching, wood carving, armour production, engraving of metals, and wood-turning. In short, the century-long monopolization of sea navigation and trade by the Hanseatic League ensured that the Renaissance would arrive in Northern Germany long before the rest of Europe.
In addition to the major Kontors, individual Hanseatic ports had a representative merchant and warehouse. In England this happened in Boston, Bristol, Bishop's Lynn (now King's Lynn, which features the sole remaining Hanseatic warehouse in England), Hull, Ipswich, Norwich, Yarmouth (now Great Yarmouth), and York.
The League primarily traded timber, furs, resin (or tar), flax, honey, wheat, and rye from the east to Flanders and England with cloth (and, increasingly, manufactured goods) going in the other direction. Metal ore (principally copper and iron) and herring came southwards from Sweden.
German colonists in the 12th and 13th centuries settled in numerous cities on and near the east Baltic coast, such as Elbing (Elbląg), Thorn (Toruń), Reval (Tallinn), Riga, and Dorpat (Tartu), which became members of the Hanseatic League, and some of which still retain many Hansa buildings and bear the style of their Hanseatic days. Most were granted Lübeck law (Lübisches Recht), after the league's most prominent town. The law provided that they had to appeal in all legal matters to Lübeck's city council. The Livonian Confederation incorporated modern-day Estonia and parts of Latvia and had its own Hanseatic parliament (diet); all of its major towns became members of the Hanseatic League. The dominant language of trade was Middle Low German, a dialect with significant impact for countries involved in the trade, particularly the larger Scandinavian languages, Estonian, and Latvian.
The League had a fluid structure, but its members shared some characteristics. First, most of the Hansa cities either started as independent cities or gained independence through the collective bargaining power of the League, though such independence remained limited. The Hanseatic free cities owed allegiance directly to the Holy Roman Emperor, without any intermediate family tie of obligation to the local nobility.
Another similarity involved the cities' strategic locations along trade routes. At the height of its power in the late 14th century, the merchants of the Hanseatic League succeeded in using their economic clout and sometimes their military might — trade routes required protection and the League's ships sailed well-armed — to influence imperial policy.
The League also wielded power abroad. Between 1361 and 1370, it waged war against Denmark. Initially unsuccessful, Hanseatic towns in 1368 allied in the Confederation of Cologne, sacked Copenhagen and Helsingborg, and forced Valdemar IV, King of Denmark, and his son-in-law Haakon VI, King of Norway, to grant the League 15% of the profits from Danish trade in the subsequent peace treaty of Stralsund in 1370, thus gaining an effective trade and economic monopoly in Scandinavia. This favourable treaty was the high-water mark of Hanseatic power. After the Danish-Hanseatic War (1426–1435) and the Bombardment of Copenhagen (1428), the commercial privileges were renewed in the Treaty of Vordingborg, 1435.
The Hansa also waged a vigorous campaign against pirates. Between 1392 and 1440, maritime trade of the League faced danger from raids of the Victual Brothers and their descendants, privateers hired in 1392 by Albert of Mecklenburg, King of Sweden against Margaret I, Queen of Denmark. In the Dutch–Hanseatic War (1438–41), the merchants of Amsterdam sought and eventually won free access to the Baltic and broke the Hansa monopoly. As an essential part of protecting their investment in the ships and their cargoes, the League trained pilots and erected lighthouses.
Most foreign cities confined the Hansa traders to certain trading areas and to their own trading posts. They seldom interacted with the local inhabitants, except when doing business. Many locals, merchant and noble alike, envied the power of the League and tried to diminish it. For example, in London the local merchants exerted continuing pressure for the revocation of privileges. The refusal of the Hansa to offer reciprocal arrangements to their English counterparts exacerbated the tension. King Edward IV of England reconfirmed the league's privileges in the Treaty of Utrecht (1474) despite the latent hostility, in part thanks to the significant financial contribution the League made to the Yorkist side during The Wars of the Roses. In 1597, Queen Elizabeth I of England expelled the League from London and the Steelyard closed the following year. Ivan III of Russia closed the Hanseatic Kontor at Novgorod in 1494. The very existence of the League and its privileges and monopolies created economic and social tensions that often crept over into rivalry between League members.
The economic crises of the late 15th century did not spare the Hansa. Nevertheless, its eventual rivals emerged in the form of the territorial states, whether new or revived, and not just in the west: Poland triumphed over the Teutonic Knights in 1466; Ivan III, Grand Prince of Moscow, ended the entrepreneurial independence of Hansa's Novgorod Kontor in 1478 – it closed completely and finally in 1494. New vehicles of credit imported from Italy, where double-entry booking was invented in 1492, outpaced the Hansa economy, in which silver coin changed hands rather than bills of exchange.
In the 15th century, tensions between the Prussian region and the "Wendish" cities (Lübeck and its eastern neighbours) increased. Lübeck was dependent on its role as centre of the Hansa, being on the shore of the sea without a major river. It was on the entrance of the land route to Hamburg, but this land route could be bypassed by sea travel around Denmark and through the Kattegat. Prussia's main interest, on the other hand, was primarily the export of bulk products like grain and timber, which were very important for England, the Low Countries, and later on also for Spain and Italy.
In 1454, the year of the marriage of Elisabeth of Austria to the Jagiellonian king, the towns of the Prussian Confederation rose up against the dominance of the Teutonic Order and asked Casimir IV, King of Poland for help. Danzig (Gdańsk), Thorn and Elbing became part of the Kingdom of Poland, (1466–1569 referred to as Royal Prussia, region of Poland) by the Second Peace of Thorn (1466). Poland in turn was heavily supported by the Holy Roman Empire through family connections and by military assistance under the Habsburgs. Kraków, then the capital of Poland, had a loose association with Hansa. The lack of customs borders on the River Vistula after 1466 helped to gradually increase Polish grain exports, transported to the sea down the Vistula, from 10,000 tons per year in the late 15th century to over 200,000 tons in the 17th century. The Hansa-dominated maritime grain trade made Poland one of the main areas of its activity, helping Danzig to become the Hansa's largest city.
The member cities took responsibility for their own protection. In 1567, a Hanseatic League Agreement reconfirmed previous obligations and rights of League members, such as common protection and defense against enemies. The Prussian Quartier cities of Thorn, Elbing, Königsberg and Riga and Dorpat also signed. When pressed by the king of Poland–Lithuania, Danzig remained neutral and would not allow ships running for Poland into its territory. They had to anchor somewhere else, such as at Pautzke (Puck).
A major economic advantage for the Hansa was its control of the shipbuilding market, mainly in Lübeck and in Danzig. The Hansa sold ships everywhere in Europe, including Italy. They drove out the Dutch, because Holland wanted to favour Bruges as a huge staple market at the end of a trade route. When the Dutch started to become competitors of the Hansa in shipbuilding, the Hansa tried to stop the flow of shipbuilding technology from Hansa towns to Holland. Danzig, a trading partner of Amsterdam, attempted to forestall the decision. Dutch ships sailed to Danzig to take grain from the city directly, to the dismay of Lübeck. Hollanders also circumvented the Hansa towns by trading directly with North German princes in non-Hansa towns. Dutch freight costs were much lower than those of the Hansa, and the Hansa were excluded as middlemen.
When Bruges, Antwerp and Holland all became part of the Duchy of Burgundy they actively tried to take over the monopoly of trade from the Hansa, and the staples market from Bruges was transferred to Amsterdam. The Dutch merchants aggressively challenged the Hansa and met with much success. Hanseatic cities in Prussia, Livonia supported the Dutch against the core cities of the Hansa in northern Germany. After several naval wars between Burgundy and the Hanseatic fleets, Amsterdam gained the position of leading port for Polish and Baltic grain from the late 15th century onwards. The Dutch regarded Amsterdam's grain trade as the mother of all trades (Moedernegotie).
Nuremberg in Franconia developed an overland route to sell formerly Hansa-monopolised products from Frankfurt via Nuremberg and Leipzig to Poland and Russia, trading Flemish cloth and French wine in exchange for grain and furs from the east. The Hansa profited from the Nuremberg trade by allowing Nurembergers to settle in Hansa towns, which the Franconians exploited by taking over trade with Sweden as well. The Nuremberger merchant Albrecht Moldenhauer was influential in developing the trade with Sweden and Norway, and his sons Wolf Moldenhauer and Burghard Moldenhauer established themselves in Bergen and Stockholm, becoming leaders of the Hanseatic activities locally.
At the start of the 16th century, the League found itself in a weaker position than it had known for many years. The rising Swedish Empire had taken control of much of the Baltic Sea. Denmark had regained control over its own trade, the Kontor in Novgorod had closed, and the Kontor in Bruges had become effectively moribund. The individual cities which made up the League had also started to put self-interest before their common Hanseatic interests. Finally, the political authority of the German princes had started to grow—and so to constrain the independence of action which the merchants and Hanseatic towns had once enjoyed.
The League attempted to deal with some of these issues: it created the post of Syndic in 1556 and elected Heinrich Sudermann as a permanent official with legal training, who worked to protect and extend the diplomatic agreements of the member towns. In 1557 and 1579 revised agreements spelled out the duties of towns and some progress was made. The Bruges Kontor moved to Antwerp and the Hansa attempted to pioneer new routes. However the League proved unable to prevent the growing mercantile competition, and so a long decline commenced. The Antwerp Kontor closed in 1593, followed by the London Kontor in 1598. The Bergen Kontor continued until 1754; of all the Kontore, only its buildings, the Bryggen, survive.
The gigantic Adler von Lübeck warship, which was constructed for military use against Sweden during the Northern Seven Years' War (1563–70), but never put to military use, epitomized the vain attempts of Lübeck to uphold its long-privileged commercial position in a changed economic and political climate.
By the late 16th century, the League had imploded and could no longer deal with its own internal struggles, the social and political changes that accompanied the Protestant Reformation; the rise of Dutch and English merchants, and the incursion of the Ottoman Empire upon its trade routes and upon the Holy Roman Empire itself. Only nine members attended the last formal meeting in 1669 and only three (Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen) remained as members until its final demise in 1862, with the creation of the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm I. Hence, only Lübeck, Hamburg, and Bremen retain the words "Hanseatic City" in the official German titles.
Despite its collapse, several cities still maintained the link to the Hanseatic League. Dutch cities including Groningen, Deventer, Kampen and Zutphen, and a number of German cities including Bremen, Demmin, Greifswald, Hamburg, Lübeck, Lüneburg, Rostock, Stade, Stralsund and Wismar still call themselves Hanse cities (their car license plates are prefixed "H", e.g. "HB-" for "Hansestadt Bremen"). Hamburg and Bremen continue to style themselves officially as "Free Hanseatic Cities.", with Lübeck named "Hanseatic City" (Rostock's football team is named F.C. Hansa Rostock in memory of the city's trading past.) For Lübeck in particular, this anachronistic tie to a glorious past remained especially important in the 20th century. In 1937, the Nazi Party removed this privilege through the Greater Hamburg Act possibly because the Senat of Lübeck did not permit Adolf Hitler to speak in Lübeck during his 1932 election campaign. He held the speech in Bad Schwartau, a small village on the outskirts of Lübeck. Subsequently, he referred to Lübeck as "the small city close to Bad Schwartau."
After the EU enlargement to the East in May 2004 there were some experts who wrote about the resurrection of the Baltic Hansa.
The legacy of the Hansa is remembered today in several names: the German airline Lufthansa (i.e., "Air Hansa"); F.C. Hansa Rostock; the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, Groningen, in the Netherlands; the Hanze oil production platform (also in the Netherlands); the Hansa Brewery in Bergen; the Hansabank in the Baltic states (now known as Swedbank); and the Hanse Sail in Rostock. DDG Hansa was a major German shipping company from 1881 until its bankruptcy in 1980.
There are two museums in Europe dedicated specifically to the history of the Hanseatic League: the European Hansemuseum in Lübeck and the Hanseatic Museum and Schøtstuene in Bergen.
The members of the Hanseatic League were Low German merchants, whose towns were, with the exception of Dinant, where these merchants held citizenship. Not all towns with Low German merchant communities were members of the league (e.g., Emden, Memel (today: Klaipėda), Viborg (today: Vyborg) and Narva never joined). On the other hand, Hanseatic merchants could also come from settlements without German town law—the premise for league membership was birth to German parents, subjection to German law, and a commercial education. The league served to advance and defend the common interests of its heterogeneous members: commercial ambitions such as enhancement of trade, and political ambitions such as ensuring maximum independence from the noble territorial rulers.
Decisions and actions of the Hanseatic League were the consequence of a consensus-based procedure. If an issue arose, the league's members were invited to participate in a central meeting, the Tagfahrt (lit. "meeting ride," sometimes also referred to as Hansetag, since 1358). The member communities then chose envoys (Ratssendeboten) to represent their local consensus on the issue at the Tagfahrt. Not every community sent an own envoy, delegates were often entitled to represent a set of communities. Consensus-building on local and Tagfahrt levels followed the Low Saxon tradition of Einung, where consensus was defined as absence of protest: after a discussion, the proposals which gained sufficient support were dictated aloud to the scribe and passed as binding Rezess if the attendees did not object; those favouring alternative proposals unlikely to get sufficient support were obliged to remain silent during this procedure. If consensus could not be established on a certain issue, it was found instead in the appointment of a number of league members who were then empowered to work out a compromise.
The Hanseatic kontors each had their own treasury, court and seal. Like the guilds, the kontors were led by Ältermänner (sing. Ältermann, lit. "elderman," cf. English aldermen). The Stalhof kontor, as a special case, had a Hanseatic and an English Ältermann. In 1347, the kontor of Brussels modified its statute to ensure an equal representation of the league's members. To that end, member communities from different regions were pooled into three circles (Drittel, lit. "third [part]"): the Wendish and Saxon Drittel, the Westphalian and Prussian Drittel as well as the Gothlandian, Livonian and Swedish Drittel. The merchants from the respective Drittel would then each choose two Ältermänner and six members of the Eighteen Men's Council (Achtzehnmännerrat) to administer the kontor for a set period of time. In 1356, during a Hanseatic meeting in preparation of the first Tagfahrt, the league confirmed this statute. The division into Drittel was gradually adopted and institutionalized by the league in general (see table).
The Tagfahrt or Hansetag were the only central institutions of the Hanseatic league. However, with the division in Drittel, the members of the respective subdivisions frequently held Dritteltage (lit. "Drittel meeting") to work out common positions which could then be presented at a Tagfahrt. On a more local level, league members also met, and while such regional meetings were never formalized into a Hanseatic institution, they gradually gained importance in the process of preparing and implementing Tagfahrt decisions.
From 1554, the division into Drittel was modified to reduce the circles' heterogeneity, enhance the collaboration of the members on a local level and thus make the league's decision-making process more efficient. The number of circles rose to four, so they were called Quartiere (quarters):
This division was however not adopted by the depots (Kontore), who for their purposes (like Ältermänner elections) grouped the league members in different ways (e.g., the division adopted by the Stahlhof in London in 1554 grouped the league members into Dritteln, whereby Lübeck merchants represented the Wendish, Pomeranian Saxon and several Westphalian towns, Cologne merchants represented the Cleves, Mark, Berg and Dutch towns, while Danzig merchants represented the Prussian and Livonian towns).
The names of the Quarters have been abbreviated in the following table:Wendish: Wendish and Pomeranian (or just Wendish) Quarter
Saxon: Saxon, Thuringian and Brandenburg (or just Saxon) Quarter
Baltic: Prussian, Livonian and Swedish (or East Baltic) Quarter
Westphalian: Rhine-Westphalian and Netherlands (including Flanders) (or Rhineland) Quarter
Kontor: The Kontore were foreign trading posts of the League, not cities that were Hanseatic members, and are set apart in a separate table below.
The remaining column headings are as follows:"City" is the name, with any variants.
"Territory" indicates the jurisdiction to which the city was subject at the time of the League.
"Now" indicates the modern nation-state in which the city is located.
"From" and "Until" record the dates at which the city joined and/or left the league.
In 1980, former Hanseatic League members established a "new Hanse" in Zwolle, the "City League The Hanse". This league is open to all former Hanseatic League members and cities that once hosted a Hanseatic kontor. The latter include twelve Russian cities, most notably Novgorod, which was a major Russian trade partner of the Hansa in the Middle Ages. The "new Hanse" fosters and develops business links, tourism and cultural exchange.
The headquarters of the New Hansa is in Lübeck, Germany. The current President of the Hanseatic League of New Time is Bernd Saxe, Mayor of Lübeck.
Each year one of the member cities of the New Hansa hosts the Hanseatic Days of New Time international festival.
In 2006 King's Lynn became the first English member of the newly formed modern Hanseatic League. Hull also joined and Boston, Lincolnshire was considering an application in early 2013.