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 he had captured the area from
Count of Schauenburg and
Holstein. Exploratory trading adventures,
raids, and piracy had occurred earlier throughout the Baltic region—the sailors of
Gotland sailed up rivers as far away as
Novgorod, for example—but the scale of
international trade 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
Baltic seas. The
hegemony of Lübeck peaked during the 15th century.
Foundation and formation
Foundation of the alliance between Lübeck and Hamburg
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 positions 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 in 1157. That year, the merchants of the Hansa in
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 seas' 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
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 governments, 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.
Main trading routes of the Hanseatic League
Lübeck's location on the Baltic provided access for trade with
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"). Although such alliances formed throughout the
Holy Roman Empire, 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
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.
Imports and exports, 18 Mar 1368 – 10 Mar 1369
(in thousands of Port Lübeck marks)
||Wendish & Pomeranian
||Small Baltic ports
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. The century-long monopolization of sea navigation and trade by the Hanseatic League ensured that the
Renaissance arrived 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),
Norwich, Yarmouth (now
Great Yarmouth), and
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 (
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
The league had a fluid structure, but its members shared some characteristics; 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
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 marked the height 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 in 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 Hanseatic 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 Hanseatic 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 rivalries between league members.
Rise of rival powers
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.
vehicles of credit were imported from Italy, where double-entry booking was invented in 1492, and outpaced the Hansa economy, in which
silver coins 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 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.
Gdańsk (Danzig), Thorn and Elbing became part of the
Kingdom of Poland, (from 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
Kraków, then the capital of Poland, had a loose association with the 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 short tons (9,100 t) per year, in the late 15th century, to over 200,000 short tons (180,000 t) 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
The old and rich port city of Danzig. View of the Krantor
Hanseatic museum in
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 Hanseatic 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 Hanseatic towns by trading directly with north German princes in non-Hanseatic 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).
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 Hanseatic 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 local Hanseatic activities.
End of the Hansa
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 making 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, constraining the independence of the merchants and Hanseatic towns.
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
Modern, faithful painting of the
Adler von Lübeck
– the world's largest ship in its time
Adler von Lübeck warship was constructed for military use against Sweden during the
Northern Seven Years' War (1563–70) but was never put to military use, epitomizing the vain attempts of Lübeck to uphold its long-privileged commercial position in a changing 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 included the rise of Dutch and English merchants and the incursion of the
Ottoman Empire upon the Holy Roman Empire and its trade routes. Only nine members attended the last formal meeting in 1669 and only three (Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen) remained as members until its 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 their official German titles.