The proud story of the Hanseatic League starts in nowhere else than Lübeck, Germany. If you look at Lübeck’s own history and geographic position it becomes clear that this city was always destined to be a powerhouse in the trading industry. The Roman Emperor Charles IV named Lübeck one of the “five glories of the Empire” (a title shared only with Venice, Rome, Pisa, and Florence), and upon a closer look, you can easily discover why.
A Brief Historical Overview:
The start of, what we know today to be Lübeck, can be traced as far back as after the end of the last ice age (9700BCE), where the remains of human settlers could still be traced by the several Neolithic dolmens found in the area. Since that time, it has changed hands and ownership several times between the Holy Roman Empire and the Germanic Saxons.
However, Lübeck’s start as the modern city we know today, happened in 1143, when Count Adolf II of Schauenburg and Holstein founded the modern German settlement. It was Emperor Barbosa, of the Holy Roman Empire, that initially saw Lübeck’s potential to become a great trading power, and in that spirit ordained that the city should have a ruling council of no more than twenty members. The membership of this council was exclusive to wealthy merchants and traders. It was in creating this powerful council of like-minded people that would shape Lübeck’s political and economic for centuries to come.
The Start of the Hanseatic League
The history of Lübeck is irrevocably linked to the history of the Hanseatic League. Lübeck’s ruling council, as ordained by the Holy Roman Empire, ensured that they would lay the foundation for a city that led the way in an economy that has been, up until this point, insignificant in the Baltic Sea area.
Before Lübeck gained power as the Queen of the Hanseatic League, Visby in Sweden, was considered to be the trading capital. It was the custom amongst merchants to form their own alliances (or hansa) with other like-minded merchants within their own city as well as in other trading cities, in order to protect each other in the tedious business of trading. Up until this point all German merchants were obliged to sail their goods up the river under the Gotlandic flag to Novgorod.
This, however, was a perilous and lengthy process. German merchants started seeking an easier alternative that would grant them more safety, while at the same time offering a lucrative award. It was in this that Lübeck’s powerful reputation as a trading giant as well its ruling council proved instrumental in establishing the Hanseatic League.
Lübeck’s geographical position was also an attractive one to merchants. It had easy access to all major ports, and was more central than Visby. Thus, in 1266, Henry III granted Lübeck and Hamburg already existing guilds (or Hansa) an operations charter for England. This charter granted allied merchants in the respective cities to travel without and tolls to and from England, as well as the opportunity to trade freely at fairs throughout England.
Expansion and Decline.
This charter given by Henry III soon grew to include other European cities as well. Under this charter, more alliances formed, and several trading posts were constructed throughout the Holy Roman Empire. With Lübeck remaining at the centre of this economic phenomenon. The sheer variety of trade also grew to include: timber, furs, resin, wheat, honey, cloth, copper, iron, herring, rye and much more.
In order to protect their economic interests even more, political and religious alliances also formed amongst members of the Hanseatic League. If you were a trading city part of the Hanseatic League, your city was granted the status of Imperial City, which caused all the more reason for merchants to get involved in the politics of the city to ensure their economic interests.
It was not long before key cities in the Hanseatic league, started forming political alliances, and even going as far as to create a military purely to protect their interests and goods. The Hanseatic League also became involved in wars, like the Dutch-Hanseatic war (1438-1441) where merchants of Amsterdam sought and won free access to the Baltic.
The Hanseatic League were the most powerful merchants of the time and they were envied their position. Merchants of London exerted great pressures on the Crown to dispel Hanseatic League members from England, which Queen Elizabeth I granted in 1597.
After the economic crisis of the 14th Century, the power of the Hanseatic League began to buckle. The economic crisis, including rising rivals such as Prussian merchants, and Dutch ship builders, left the Hanseatic League in a much weakened position both financially, as well as politically. Most rivals were intent on destroying the monopoly held for almost two centuries by the Hanseatic League.
As the Swedish Empire started gaining monopoly in the 16th Century, many other countries started regaining its power as merchants and traders. Slowly, trading posts became shut down and defunct. As the 16th Century was also a time of Protestant reformation, the Hanseatic League quietly disappeared leaving a massive historical legacy that is still celebrated today.
Lübeck still has one of the largest operating ports in Europe. With its unique gothic architecture, the city still has a very medieval feel and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Aldstadt is still remarkably surrounded by parts of the old city wall, despite the fact that 20% of the city was destroyed during the bombings of WWII. Two of the four original city gates are also still intact.
The most famous landmark of Lübeck today is arguably the Holsten Gate, which was also featured on the Fifty Mark banknote. Lübeck still celebrates its status as the Queen of the Hanseatic Legaue. There are still relics from the Hanseatic League in the city itself such as impressive warehouses located at the old harbour, as well as the most extensive exhibition of all things related to the Hanseatic League at the Hansemuseum.
- Lübeck got its nickname: The City of the Seven Spires, due to the seven Catholic churches in the city which boasts of more than 750 years of brickwork.
- The first Hanseatic Day was observed in Lübeck in 1358.
- Marzipan was invented in Lübeck! While the original recipe remains a closely guarded secret, you can indulge at the Niederegger, which was the world’s first marzipan factory established by George Niederegger in the 18th
- Lübeck is home to one of the oldest hospitals in Europe: The Hospital of the Holy Spirit. It was established in 1280 and was still in use up until the 1960s.