Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

A4. The Hansa Fights

Whoever looks on the old Schutting at Lubeck, the building whence the herring fishers were wont to start upon their voyages, and notes its armorial bearings, three herrings upon a plain gold shield, should go back mentally a few centuries and call to mind the fact that the badge of this fish is the emblem of a might which many a time set forth from this spot bent upon commerce or needful warfare, and which for generations exercised great power over Northern Europe.

The district of Scania, which forms the southernmost portion of the present land of Sweden, was until 1658 almost exclusively the property of Denmark. The Danes, a turbulent and maritime people, had in the early times of our era been converted to Christianity at the point of the sword by the emperors of Germany, and during the 10th and 11th centuries these emperors exercised a recognized suzerainty over the Danish kings. Hence German traders easily obtained privileges among a people who were by no means inclined to commerce themselves, but who welcomed none the less eagerly the products that the strangers brought, above all, the heady ale brewed by the Easterlings.

But as the might of the empire declined and the Danes had grown strong, thanks to wise rulers, the people grew restive under the restrictions imposed upon them, and tried to secure their independence. Under Waldemar the Great (1157 to 1182), the country had acquired an important position, which his successors strengthened. This increase of might coincided with the German depression and with the change of course at spawning time that the herring suddenly took in the twelfth century.

Strange that a little fish should have had such great power over mankind; yet it is not going beyond the strict truth to state that the mysterious wanderings of the herring determined throughout several centuries the whole course of northern commerce. During the Middle Ages, upon the appearance of the herring now on this coast and now on that, the wealth and prosperity of the whole districts depended. Herring fishing became a branch of industry that decided the fate of nations. To it the Hansa owes a large portion of its riches and its power; in the herring fisheries, when in the year 1425 the fish began to spawn in the German Ocean, the Netherlands found the foundation stone of their wealth and dignity. Indeed, it was said later, with scant exaggeration, that Amsterdam was built upon herrings.

Now, as masters of the Belt and the Sound, the Danes were able, if they chose, greatly to harass the Hanseatic traders and fishermen. For many years they had not put forth their power, or rather the Hanseatic towns, with the diplomatic astuteness that greatly distinguished them, had averted the possibility of such danger by wise concessions of tributes and privileges. Still disputes would arise, things did not always go off peaceably, and in 1227 the Hansa towns won their first military laurels, defeating the Danes in the battle of Bornhoved and permanently weakening the power of their troublesome neighbours in Northern Germany.

A few years later Lubeck, almost unassisted, threatened in its independence by the Danish king, won a great naval victory over its neighbours; and gained yet another in 1249, when Eric II. had ventured to attack some of its ships upon the open seas. On this occasion the merchant townsmen even seized and sacked Copenhagen and planted their flag in Zealand.

It was no very easy position which the Baltic cities (for it was they who were chiefly threatened) had to maintain against the Danish kings as the power of the latter increased. For with their power, their rapacity and cupidity increased also, and this made them look on the rich commercial towns with a longing desire to absorb them into their own possessions. These, though extensive, were poor, and their inhabitants neither industrious nor prosperous. Further, the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes were in constant feud with one another, and each of these states turned an eye of greed towards the flourishing Baltic cities, whose possession they coveted. The two Scandinavian powers, in particular, constantly harassed the German merchants by their scanty comprehension of treaty rights, their breaches of faith, and it was not easy work for the cities to steer clear between the three kingdoms, that were now at deadly feud with one another, now convulsed by civil wars, now united in a policy of rapine.

It would be tedious to enumerate the quarrels, jealousies, and feuds that agitated these kingdoms during the early years of the fourteenth century; to note in detail the trouble they caused to the Hanseatic traders, and the need they awoke among them of holding together in as close an alliance at home as they had hitherto done abroad. It was necessary to be ever wakeful and mistrustful; and to watch jealously for the faintest signs of an infringement of privileges.

In 1326 a lad of some twelve summers, whose memory was destined to be handed down to posterity as that of a hero of romance, ascended the throne of Denmark. In allusion to the famous fable about the election of a king of the frogs, an old writer speaks of this event as a choice by the frogs of the stork as ruler instead of the log. For Waldemar, as he was called, proved indeed no log and no puppet in the hands of his ambitious barons. As a mere youth he gave evidence of his strength and determination, and under his aegis Denmark acquired great wealth and consideration, and would have attained to yet more had not Waldemar, with mistaken judgment, drawn the reins too tight, until from a wise ruler he became a despot. It was his aim and policy to nationalize his country, to drive away the foreigners who utilized it for their warlike and commercial ends. He found it small and distracted with dissensions; after twenty years' rule he could point to marked success and change, for he had made Denmark respected and feared at home and abroad. History knows him as Waldemar III.,[6] story and song as Waldemar Atterdag, a nickname that well expresses the salient points of his character. For the name of Atterdag, which means "there is yet another day," refers to the king's constant habit of using this expression in the sense that if to-day a goal is not reached, it is not therefore unattainable, that a man must wait, never despair, and never lose sight of his aim.

And Waldemar for his part never did. He pursued his purposes with a strenuousness and a patience, which contrasted favourably with the vacillating attitude of his princely northern contemporaries, and which was only matched and finally surpassed by the same strenuous and patient policy on the part of the Baltic towns, and especially on the part of Lubeck, their astute and diplomatic leader.

Nor was it only good aims that the king followed with such persistence. He was an implacable, a relentless enemy, who never forgot an injury, and who waited with cruel calmness the day of vengeance.

In Waldemar's state policy there often appeared mixed motives; considerations of the most personal character were blended with care for the welfare of his state, and when one should alone have been considered, both frequently played a part. It was this that led to his ultimate ruin; like too many clever people he over-reached himself. Therefore, while the early years of his reign were really a blessing to distracted and impoverished Denmark, of the latter part a contemporary chronicler complains that—

"In the times of Waldemar, every tradition of our ancestors, all paternal laws, all the freedom of the Danish Church was abolished. The rest of the soldier, the merchant, the peasant, was so curtailed, that in the whole kingdom no time remained to eat, to repose, to sleep, no time in which the people were not driven to work by the bailiffs and servants of the king, at the risk of losing his royal favour, their lives, and their goods."

In a word, Waldemar worked his subjects hard, and even the most patriotic singers cannot present him as a wholly attractive figure. He is rather a character to be feared than loved.

The Hansa was not slow to recognize this. It saw that it was face to face with a man whom no obstacles could deter, to whom even treaty obligations were not sacred, and who was liable to be swayed by incalculable caprice. That it was right in its estimate and its fears Waldemar was not slow to make known, so soon as his power at home was fully secured.

The first attack upon the Hansa towns was made by the Danish king in the shape of interference with their fishing rights on Scania, breaking the contracts which his predecessors, and even he himself, had made, and demanding extortionate fees for the renewal of the time-honoured privileges. Diplomatic negotiations were entered upon, but Waldemar befooled the deputies from the cities, wasting their time with idle discussion of irrelevant matters, and refusing to come to a real agreement. After long and fruitless debate the ambassadors of the Hansa towns departed home anxious and discouraged. Ten weeks after their return the cities were startled by the terrible news that Waldemar, in a time of perfect peace, without previous warning or declaration of war, had suddenly invaded the island of Gothland, and seized, sacked, and plundered the rich city of Wisby, the northern emporium of the Hansa's wealth.

Such a blow was aimed not only at Wisby, but at all the Hanseatic towns; from that moment diplomatic negotiations with Waldemar were no more to be thought of. This act meant war; war at all costs and at all risks.

"In the year of Christ 1361 King Waldemar of Denmark collected a great army, and said unto them that he would lead them whither there was gold and silver enough, and where the pigs eat out of silver troughs. And he led them to Gothland, and made many knights in that land, and struck down many people, because the peasants were unarmed and unused to warfare. He set his face at once towards Wisby. They came out of the town towards him, and gave themselves up to the mercy of the king, since they well saw that resistance was impossible. In this manner he obtained the land, and took from the burghers of the town great treasures in gold and silver, after which he went his ways."

Thus the contemporary chronicler of the Franciscans of St. Catherine at Lubeck. By a skilful coup de main Waldemar had indeed made himself master of Gothland, then under Swedish suzerainty, and of the wealthy city of Wisby. His aim had been booty, and he had it in rich measure in the shape of gold, of fur, and silver vessels.

Legend tells that the year previous to the attack Waldemar had visited Gothland disguised as a merchant, securing the love of a goldsmith's daughter, whose father held an influential position in Wisby, and who, in her loving trustfulness revealed to him the strength and weakness of the island and town, thus helping him to secure the spot that was rightly regarded as the key to the three northern realms.

The inhabitants, unprepared, unarmed, had been unable to offer much resistance. It was a terribly bloody fight this that raged outside the walls of Wisby; the site of it is marked to this day by a cross erected on the spot where 1,800 Gothlanders fell.

"Before the gates of Wisby the Goths fell under the hands of the Danes," runs the inscription.

As was the custom among the conquerors of olden days, Waldemar, it is related, entered the city, not by means of the gates that had been forcibly surrendered to him, but by a breach he specially had made for this purpose in the town walls. The gap too is shown to this hour.

When he had plundered to his heart's content, aided in his finding of the treasure by his lady love, after he had added to his titles of King of the Danes and Slavs, that of the King of Gothland, Waldemar proceeded to return home in his richly laden ships. But it was decreed that he should not bring his booty to port. A great storm arose in mid-ocean. It was with difficulty that the king escaped with his life; his ships were sunk, his coveted hoards buried in the waves.

There are still shown at Wisby the two fine twelve-sectioned rose windows of St. Nicholas' Church, in which, according to tradition, there once burned two mighty carbuncles that served as beacons to light the seamen safely into harbour in the day of the town's prosperity. These stones, it is said, were torn from their place and carried off by Waldemar. The Gothland mariner still avers that on certain clear nights he can see the great carbuncles of St. Nicholas' Church gleaming from out the deep.

As for Waldemar's lady love, whom it is said he abandoned as soon as his purpose was attained, she was seized on by the infuriated townspeople and buried alive in one of the turrets of the city walls, known to this day as the "Virgin Tower."

It is difficult to decide whether Waldemar foresaw the full danger and bearing of his high-handed step; whether he knew what it meant to plunder a city like Wisby, one of the strongest arms of the Hansa. He had certainly thrown the gauntlet down to the towns; he was quickly to learn that the power which some years ago had successfully beaten his predecessors had but grown in strength since that date.

On the first news of Waldemar's treachery, the Baltic cities laid an embargo on all Danish goods, and then called together a hasty council in which it was decreed that until further notice all intercourse with Denmark should be forbidden on pain of death and loss of property. Then they put themselves into communication with Norway and Sweden in order in the event of a war to secure the alliance of these countries, an assistance that was the more readily promised because their sovereigns were at feud with Waldemar. To defray the war costs it was determined to levy a poundage tax on all Hanseatic exported goods.

A fleet was got ready with all possible speed, and when everything was in order, the towns sent a herald to Waldemar with a formal declaration of war.

In May, 1362, their ships appeared in the Sound, and brilliant success at first attended their arms. Copenhagen was plundered, its church bells carried to Lubeck as the victor's booty. At Scania the cities looked to meet their northern allies, in order in conjunction with them to take possession of the Danish strongholds on the mainland. Here, however, disappointment awaited them. Whether lack of money or fear had deterred the northern kings from keeping their word is unknown; at any rate, they did not put in an appearance with their armies.

The Burgomaster of Lubeck, Johann Wittenborg, who commanded the Hanseatic fleet, saw himself forced to use the men he had on board for the land attack. He held himself the more justified in doing this since he deemed he had so thoroughly routed the Danes, that from the side of the sea there was nothing to be feared.

This decision was rash, and Wittenborg was to atone for it with his life. Already it seemed as if the stronghold Helsingborgs was in his hands—he had been besieging it sixteen days with great catapults—when Waldemar suddenly appeared with his fleet upon the Scanian coast, surprised the Hansa vessels that had been left with but a feeble crew, and carried off twelve of the best ships, and most of their provisions and weapons. The consequence was that Wittenborg saw himself obliged to return with the remnant of his army to Lubeck.

He found the city embittered against him in the highest degree for his defeat; though it saw that the main guilt of the disastrous end of the war lay with the faithless northern kings. The stern free city deemed it right, not only towards itself, but also to its sister towns, to punish heavily the unsuccessful leader. Wittenborg had hardly landed ere he was arrested, chained, and thrown into a dungeon. Here he dragged out a weary year of imprisonment. In vain some of the cities pleaded his cause, in vain his friends tried to obtain his deliverance. Lubeck was a stern mistress, who knew no mercy, and could brook no ill success. In her dictionary, as in that of youth, according to Richelieu in Bulwer's play, there might be no such word as "fail." Wittenborg had, of course, been at once deprived of his burgomagisterial honours; a year after his defeat his head publicly fell under the executioner's axe in the market-place of Lubeck. Burial in the councillors' church was denied him. He was laid to rest in the cloisters of the Dominicans the spot where all criminals were interred in Lubeck during the Middle Ages; the spot where, down to our own era, all criminals passing that way to execution received from the pious monks a soothing drink as last farewell to life. Further, Wittenborg's name is absent from the record of the burgomasters; an omission in this place, which doubtless has the same meaning as the absence of Marino Falieri's portrait among the long row of Doges in the Venetian Palace.

The election of a burgomaster as leader of the troops is quite in character with the spirit of those times. Such trade warriors are not uncommon in the history of the Hansa. Within the roomy stone hall that served as entry and store-room to those ancient dwelling-houses, it was usual to see helmet, armour, and sword hanging up above stores of codfish, barrels of herrings, casks of beer, bales of cloth, or what not besides.

To this day the stranger is shown in the marketplace at Lubeck the stone on which Wittenborg sat before his execution, and in the collection of antiquities is the chair of torture in which he was borne thither. So sternly did the Hansa punish.

There exists an entirely unauthenticated fable that Wittenborg had betrayed his trust in return for a dance with the Queen of Denmark, promising her as a reward the island of Bornholm. That the fable had some currency is proved by the fact that for a long while there survived in Lubeck the expression, "He is dancing away Bornholm," when some one light-heartedly did an unjustifiable deed. The story has given one of the younger German poets, Geibel, the theme for a famous ballad. Further, it was fabled that twice a year the Burgomaster and council of Lubeck solemnly drank Hippokras out of silver cups made from Wittenborg's confiscated property, repeating the while a Low German distich that reminded them of their stern duty and their predecessor's sad fate. Modern accurate research, pitiless in the destruction of picturesque legends has discovered that these cups were not made till the sixteenth century, and were paid for by a tax levied on Bornholm, then in rebellion.

After the cruel defeat due to Wittenborg, the cities concluded an armistice with Waldemar, an armistice that might easily have been converted into a permanent peace, for the towns were not eager to fight. It was too great an interruption to trade. Moreover, the war expenses had exceeded their calculations, times were bad, harvests scant, food scarce, and, to crown all, the Black Death had reappeared in Europe and was devastating whole districts.

But Waldemar had resolved to break entirely the power of the Hansa. Once more he befooled it in diplomatic negotiations, and in the midst of the truce attacked its herring settlements at Scania, and captured some merchant vessels that passed through the Belt.

The towns held council, Waldemar was offered terms. Yet again he befooled them, and when he soon after married his only child Margaret, celebrated in history as the Semiramis of the North, to Hakon, heir to the thrones of Sweden and Norway, thus preparing the union of the three northern kingdoms under one crown, the towns, alarmed at the mere prospect, felt that now or never they must secure their independence.

In November, 1367, deputies from the Baltic and inland towns met in conclave in the large council chamber of the Town Hall of Cologne, a meeting that became the foundation act of the recognized and open constitution of the Hanseatic League, and on which account the hall still bears the name of Hansa Room. It seems certain that here for the first time was drawn up an Act, modified, renewed, altered in course of time, but yet always the fundamental basis of the League. There is no older Hanseatic document than this of the congress known as the Cologne Confederation, when the deputies of seventy-seven towns met to declare most solemnly that "because of the wrongs and injuries done by the King of Denmark to the common German merchant, the cities would be his enemies and help one another faithfully." It was decided that such cities as were too weak or too distant to help actively in the war, should do so by the contribution of subsidies. It was further enacted that such cities as would not join in the war should be held as outside the League, with whom its burghers and merchants should have nothing more in common, neither buying from, nor selling to, them, nor allowing them to enter their ports, or unlade goods in their domains.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Waldemar was warned of what the cities had resolved against him. He replied with an untranslatable pun, in which he likened the Hansa to a flock of geese, who deafened him with their cackle. Warned once more, Waldemar threatened the cities that he would complain of them to their spiritual and temporal lords; among them the Pope and the emperor. The cities had forestalled him. They had sent copies of a letter, stating their grievances against a king whom they denounced as "a tyrant and a pirate," to some thirty spiritual and temporal lords. In the letter to the emperor, Lubeck, whence all the letters were dated, excused itself in particular for not responding to Charles's recent invitation to join his Roman expedition on the plea of its home difficulties, while humbly giving thanks for the honour done it by the offer. It also justified itself for not paying during the past year to Waldemar a tax decreed by Charles, since this king, it wrote, "seeks to withdraw your town of Lubeck from the emperor and the empire." It grieved to state that the emperor lived too far off to shield by his arms his weak and neglected flock in the northern region of the empire. Therefore the emperor's most gracious majesty must not take it amiss if the cities, with God's help, did something towards their own protection.

Worded with all the servile language of the period, Lubeck yet in this letter made it pretty evident to its supreme ruler that it meant to stand on its own feet, as it knew too well how unsteady were its sovereign's.

Yet, again, Waldemar was warned of the growing strength, the earnest purpose of the League, and this time he seems to have been alarmed, for he tried to detach from it many of its members, and to win them over to his own cause. He received from the towns with whom he opened negotiations, the following reply, which proves how perfected and tightly secured were already the reciprocal engagements of the League.

"The Hanseatic League," they said, "having resolved on war, they must submit themselves to that general resolution which bound them all."

The cackling geese whom Waldemar had despised seemed to have grown into formidable eagles overnight. Lordlings and princes too, many of whom had private injuries to avenge, had joined the League or promised their support. The Hansa had set up a rival and successful king in Sweden, and it now proposed nothing less than to dismember Denmark, and to distribute its provinces to its own friends and allies. It did not desire to retain possession of it. It was ever its policy to restrict actual possessions, but to seek that these should be as far as possible in the hands of friends who would grant it the concessions and privileges needful for commerce. Thus could be applied to it what a Roman said of the peoples he subjugated, "I do not ask for gold; I only desire to rule over those who have gold." With this difference, however, that the Hansa, without wishing to conquer provinces, wished to draw to itself whatever profits could be found therein.

It was on the Sunday of Quasimodo, April 16, 1368, that all the Hansa ships were to meet in the Sound for a combined attack on Zealand. The Easter days approached. All Northern Germany awaited anxiously the moment for the decisive combat to commence; when suddenly the cities learnt that on Maundy Thursday Waldemar had secretly fled from his dominions, alarmed by the decision and strength shown by his enemies. In a ship laden with much treasure he had landed on the Pomeranian coasts to go further east and avoid the impending squall, leaving a viceroy in his stead, whom he authorized to conclude peace or carry on war.

Waldemar's cowardly attitude could not of course alter that of the cities. In that same month of April the war began and raged all the summer, the Hansa meeting with but little resistance. With the winter came a truce, after the fashion of those times, but in the summer war was renewed and for two years the Hansa ships harassed the Danish coasts and waters, sacked their cities and plundered their treasures. The treacherous attack on Wisby was avenged with interest, and the war proved so profitable to the League that it settled in congress that it should continue until the Danes sued abjectly for peace. Its leader was once more a Lubecker, Brun Warendorf, the son of the Burgomaster. He died in battle, but the memory of his gallant deeds remains in the stately monument the town erected to him in the choir of St. Mary's Church. Thus Lubeck honoured those who contributed to her honour.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


By the close of 1369, Denmark was exhausted and the people weary of war. They pleaded for peace. On this the seventy-seven cities, whom Waldemar had derided as geese, dictated their terms. It was indeed a peace such as few kings have signed in the deepest degradation of their empire. For the term of fifteen years they claimed two-thirds of the revenues of Scania, the possession of its strongholds, the free passage of the Sound, and the right for the same fifteen years to veto the choice of a Danish ruler, besides a number of other valuable concessions and privileges; terms, in short, as humiliating for Denmark as they were glorious for the League. The last paragraph of this remarkable Treaty of Stralsund, which put the Hansa in the position of a first-class power, ran thus:

"Our king, Waldemar, shall seal to the cities the above terms of peace with his great seal, if he would remain with his kingdom and not give it over to another ruler. If it should be that our lord and king; Waldemar, desires to abdicate his land of Denmark during his lifetime, we will and shall not suffer it, unless it be that the cities have given their consent, and that he has sealed to them their privileges with his great seal. Thus, too, it shall be if our lord and king, Waldemar, be carried off by death, which God forfend. Then, too, we will accept no ruler but in council with the cities."

It is evident from this paragraph that the Hansa still mistrusted Waldemar, and feared he would by some subterfuge evade the treaty obligations made in his name by his appointed viceroy.

And they had probably not gauged him falsely.

It was further settled that Waldemar must sign this document within sixteen months: if he did not do so within this period, the Danish council and kingdom would nevertheless be bound to keep its terms "even if the king did not seal."

But abject though these stipulations were, complete as was the submission of Denmark to the League which they implied, Waldemar signed them within the appointed time. He saw that he was defeated, friendless, and alone. In vain had he scoured the mainland, and recounted his woes to all who would listen, in vain had he begged or bribed for help against his enemies. He had made himself too much hated, and even those who promised aid failed at the last to keep their word.

With the signature of peace Waldemar also signed away his position, nay, perhaps his life. Broken in hope and spirits, his health gave way. Four years later (1375) he died, after he had just appealed in vain to the towns to restore to him his castles in Scania.

With the peace of Stralsund the German merchants had established the supremacy of the Hansa over Scandinavia, and laid the foundation for that power over the northern kingdom, which, in the words of King Gustavus Vasa, places "the three good crowns at the mercy of the Hansa."

Thus ended the Hansa's great war against the King of Denmark—a war that marks an important era in its history and development.

The League henceforth took a changed position, not only in its own fatherland, but in the face of all Europe, for nothing succeeds like success. Flanders, France, and England, had all to recognize that a new power had arisen in the north of Germany. For the war had proved, not only how valiantly the League could fight if need arose, but also how well organized it was; how it held together for the common weal; how it would be not only unwise, but dangerous to resist its demands for trade privileges and concessions.

A curious juxtaposition of events was afforded by this chapter of history; a German emperor was busy in the interests of Rome, striving to bring back the Pope from his long exile at Avignon, and obtaining dubious victories over the great Italian family of the Visconti; while meantime a league of cities in his own empire was carrying on a successful war against the kings of the north, dethroning and defeating them. And so far from raising a hand to aid them, the emperor, on paper, at least, and by word and protestation, was taking part with Waldemar against his own subjects. A curious, a unique condition of things truly.

And herewith we have brought the history of our League to the close of what is known as its first period, dating from its origin to the peace concluded with Denmark.