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Hanseatic League

Decline after 1500

Mark Peterson

The beginning of the sixteenth century brought the weakening of the foreign Kontor system for the Hanseatic towns. In 1514, Ivan III allowed the Hansa to reopen the Peterhof in Novgorod but trade to Russia had already been captured by other towns and the Hansa's office was quickly abandonned. A steady decline in trade to Bruges also forced the League to reluctantly move to Antwerp in 1520. Hanseatic merchants settled there traded in partnership with foreigners and owned houses in Antwerp. Many of them had local wives. These merchants resisted paying taxes to the Kontor and obeying its aldermen. Some were even willing to give up Hanseatic privileges rather than abandon their local connections. In an effort to increase authority and merchant participation in the Antwerp Kontor, the Hanseatic League built enormous headquarters there in 1568, but the events of the civil war soon forced them to give up on the city. In Bergen, Lübeck's tight control of the Norwegian market frustrated other Hanseatic towns so several of them avoided the Bergen Kontor by sailing directly to Iceland for cod. At the same time, foreign merchants fought to gain access to Norway, often with the support of the king. Norwegian merchants resented the German control of trade, frequently calling for their own rights to sell goods to foreign traders. Eventually, the Hanseatic Bryggen would shrink noticably as the king allowed Danish and Dutch ships to carry Norwegian goods. Only in London did the League retain strong connections, trading in many goods of the continent and enjoying special relations with the king. Here the picture is one of successful consolidation in the growing capital. Many of the minor Kontors around England declined as shipping to Bergen declined and London became the focus of the cloth trade.

The Hanseatic League faced many difficulties in the first half of the sixteenth century. The international firms of southern Germany became very active in the new routes through central Europe. These wealthy companies gave special attention to the new mines in Hungary and Slovakia that competed with Swedish mining. The Dutch and the English, who copied Hanseatic ship styles and later improved them, became the maritime powers of the North. Both sought to enter the Baltic trade. At the same time, territorial states, including those of northern Germany, became stronger and better organized. Foreign kings no longer needed the German merchants as middlemen when their own subjects were anxious to enter European trade. German princes tried to increase their control of the wealthy Hanseatic towns. When the Reformation came to the region, political tensions in the Hanseatic cities exploded in conflict and disruption leaving them weak in the eyes of greedy princes. The most troubling problem of the sixteenth century, however, was a growing tendency for towns to see their interests separate from the common concerns of the League.

Near the middle of the century, the leading towns of the Hansa attempted to solidify the structure and authority of the Hanseatic League. Frequent diets were held where towns recognized their official membership and their responsibility to pay dues. For the first time, the members drew up an official constitution and a list of member towns. The League elected a syndic, a permanent official with legal training, who worked to protect and extend the diplomatic agreements of the member towns. The first syndic spent thirty-five years working diligently during a time when the Hansa saw a rejuvenation of trade. It would be incorrect however to attribute this growth to the Hanseatic League's own organizational efforts. Frequent meetings never ensured a regular payment of dues by members and few rulers gave the Hanseatic merchants any sort of exclusive privileges. After the syndic's death, the position was left empty for many years.

Instead, Hanseatic cities benefitted from a general growth in trade during the period. They also benefitted from the political conflict between England and Spain which disrupted Dutch shipping in the 1570s. Hanseatic ships began to take part in the long-distance trade of the period, carrying Baltic goods to Portugal and Italy. For the most part, these expeditions never developed into regular trade for merchants of the Hanseatic League. Many of the changes in trade routes of the sixteenth century ended up by-passing the towns of northern Germany, so that Europe no longer needed the Hanseatic merchants as middlemen to the eastern trade. The most important exception to this would be the shipment of grain from Prussia and Lithuania, but even here the League began to falter in the face of aggressive expansion by the Dutch and English. In the hope of special access to English cloth, individual German cities made agreements with the Merchant Adventurers, which gave the English bases in the Baltic. Trade became the concern of the each town separately because of different interests in the new market. At the the same time, German cities began to form new military associations in a desperate effort to maintain their independence. In the end, this period of regrowth would highlight the weaknesses of the League as many towns began to limit their involvement in an organization that offered decreasing benefits. By the time of the Thirty Years War, only a core group of Wendish towns remained. Several of these would be captured by Sweden in the course of the conflict and by 1648 the Hanseatic League lost all economic meaning. C

Copyright (C) 1998, Mark Peterson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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