A Hansa Ship from a 19th Century Engraving



Throughout the Late Medieval and Tudor periods, much of England’s trade with Northern Europe and Scandinavia was controlled by the confederation of German and Baltic ports known as the Hanseatic League.

The league’s members included Cologne, Bremen, Hamburg, Lubeck and Danzig (now Gdansk) and these fiercely independent cities became so powerful that their trading stations (kontor) were given wide ranging privileges by several English monarchs. Needless to say, their privileged status made these German merchants deeply unpopular with their English counterparts.

The old German word ‘hansa’ means ‘convey’, and today it appears in the name of the German airline Lufthansa, but the earliest recorded reference to a Hansa trading station in London dates from 1282. Edward I formalised Hanseatic rights with a Royal Charter in 1303 and by 1400 this German enclave on the banks of Thames, not far from London Bridge, had become the largest trading complex in England.

The high walls surrounding the Hanseatic League’s warehouses, chapel, counting houses and residential buildings soon earned it the name of ‘The Steelyard’ and by the middle of the 15th Century, Hansa dominance over the lucrative trade in English goods, especially woollen cloth, led to frequent street battles with London’s merchants.

In 1447 Henry VI bowed to pressure from his mercantile subjects and revoked the trading rights of the Hansa cities. As a result several Hanseatic ships were gleefully seized by English privateers but, with the Hundred Years War still raging in France, England was in no position to fight a prolonged naval campaign. Henry VI was forced to negotiate an eight year truce but English and Hansa merchants continued to attack each other’s ships throughout the Wars of the Roses. Matters escalated in 1469 when, after several English ships had been seized by privateers from the Hansa city of Danzig, the new king Edward IV stormed The Steelyard and burned it to the ground.

Unfortunately this attack led to a full scale war with the Hanseatic League that lasted for five years. In 1472 a Hansa fleet, led by ships from Lubeck and Hamburg, attacked English ships in The Channel as far west as Brittany and in 1473 the 18 gun, Hansa man-o’-war Peter von Danzig raided the English coast. With his realm exhausted by decades of civil war, Edward IV had little choice but to accept the humiliating Peace of Utrecht [1474] and this treaty closed European markets to English ship owners for almost a century.

Even after the Tudor victories at Bosworth and Stoke Field ended the Wars of the Roses, both Henry VII and Henry VIII were too concerned with domestic rebellions to challenge the Hanseatic League’s near monopoly on trade with Europe but there was an unforeseen consequence of this. The closure of German and Baltic ports to English shipping forced Drake, Raleigh and the other ‘Sea Dogs’ of the Elizabethan Age to search for new opportunities, in the Americas and the Orient, and these expeditions laid the foundations of the later British Empire.

It wasn’t until 1598 that Elizabeth I, under renewed pressure from the City of London’s merchants, finally rescinded the German traders’ privileges and, though James I later restored Hansa rights, the chaos of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) devastated the Hanseatic League’s profitable trade with the Baltic whilst the Great Fire of London (1666) destroyed The Steelyard’s medieval and Tudor buildings.

Despite the collapse of Hansa power in the 17th Century, The Steelyard was rebuilt and remained the property of the German cities, who let the new warehouses to London merchants, until 1852 when the site was finally sold to the South Eastern Railway Company. Today most of what was once The Steelyard lies under Cannon Street Railway Station but the modern street name of Steelyard Passage commemorates the time when only German was spoken in this corner of London!

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