Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

B7. The Steelyard in London.

Nowhere was the Hanseatic power so great as in England. Of none of its connections do we possess more ample records. As already stated, England was one of the first depots of the "common German merchant," long before these combined under the generic name of Hanseatic. From early days the English kings had protected these rich foreigners, who helped them out of many a pecuniary difficulty. Indeed they accorded them such privileges and monopolies as could not fail to rouse the jealousy of their own people. We therefore find in the history of the Steelyard in London a mingled record of all passions and interests, hate and favours, honour and national prosperity, envy and violence, greed and poverty, pride and fear, in a word, a most motley record of which it is not easy to frame the contradictory elements into one harmonious picture.

During the long reign of Henry II., and under his sons, Richard Coeur de Lion and John, there was an active intercourse between Germany and England, encouraged by the marriage of Matilda, daughter of Henry II. with Duke Henry the Lion.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


The rich merchants of Cologne were the earliest to obtain special favours. These were accorded by Richard Coeur de Lion, who, halting in that city to attend high mass in the cathedral after his release from Austrian imprisonment, received there such ample supplies towards the heavy ransom money required for his person, that, to show his gratitude, he gave to his "beloved burghers of Cologne" a letter of freedom, in which he released them from their annual rent of two shillings for their guildhall in London, and from all other taxes due to the king upon their persons or their merchandise. It was long ere King John, his successor, could make up his mind to renew these privileges, but his own difficulties with his turbulent barons, and the pressure which the merchants could bring to bear by their riches, at last overcame his hesitation. Edward I. and his followers further extended these prerogatives, for the Plantagenets found the Hanseatic Rothschilds even more useful in aiding their war schemes than the skilful alchymists whom they had summoned to their Court, and who knew how to shape the Rose noble (the money of the period) out of artificial gold. Then, too, the Hanseatics were considerate creditors, who did not press unduly, and even overlooked a debt if some favour were extended in default of payment.

Edward the Third's crown and most costly jewels were long retained at Cologne in pawn for a heavy sum of money. The details concerning this transaction are preserved to this day in a correspondence deposited in the State Paper Office of London. It seems that when the time for redemption came the king had not the money. He was in special straits just then, for the celebrated commercial firm of the Bardi, at Florence, which constituted the very focus of the Italian money business, had failed, and the King of England appeared in their books as a debtor for the sum of one million golden gulden. The merchants of the Steelyard were not slow adroitly to turn the royal perplexity to their profit. They undertook to redeem the pawned jewels and offered the king loans of more money, although he already owed them much. Edward was in sore need, for the wars with France strained his resources to the utmost. He drew upon them for thirty thousand pounds, a sum worth fifteen times more then than to-day. Thus it came about that the great victories of the Black Prince at Crecy and Poitiers were gained in no small degree by the help of German capital. Needless to add that the Hanseatic merchants showed no diffidence in accepting for their factory important privileges in return for these services.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


It was to a German merchant prince that the king let the tin mines belonging to the Black Prince in the Duchy of Cornwall. To the same firm he ceded a large number of farms situated in different shires for the space of a thousand years.

The Easterlings are spoken of in records as the allies of the English kings, and there seemed at last no limit to the royal favours.

That the people did not look upon them with the same friendly eye is easy to understand. The English, full of a just sentiment of what they could do by themselves, and of what they were hindered from doing by these foreign monopolists, bore their presence with extreme impatience. Feuds and riots were not infrequent, and no royal favours, no Hanseatic ships of war could save them from occasional brutal attacks at the hands of the mob. Thus during the Wat Tyler rebellion the people pursued the hated foreigners even into the sanctuary of the church, murdering mercilessly all those who could not pronounce the words "bread and cheese" with the pure English accent. But these rebellions were quelled by the royal commands, or extinguished themselves by the fact that the Hanseatics were also useful to the English people, oppressed by the feudal system and engaged in constant wars, whose trade industries were thus unable to develop quickly. Nor did such passing storms shake the power or the resistance of the Hanseatics. Bloody encounters, rude tumults were entirely in keeping with the license and roughness of those earlier ages, and were met by the League, more or less, in all their foreign stations.

With their usual astuteness they utilized wisely all periods of calm, and reckoned with the love of gain to help them in less peaceful moments. When the English made things uncomfortable for them at home, they revenged themselves upon them at Bruges or at Bergen, paralysing their commerce, and harassing their vessels, even forbidding them to enter the ports of Norway, Iceland, and Greenland. For verily in those days whosoever tried to outwit the Hansa was likely to prove the victim of his own plots. Circumstances aided the Germans, enabling them to make their power felt just when England had to betray weakness. The feeble and stormy period of Henry VI., often deposed and made prisoner, the Wars of the Roses, the long and continual hostilities waged with France, all favoured the League, and made the English submit to its demands rather than attract to themselves yet more enemies.

In no place, not even in Bergen, did the Hanseatics succeed in enjoying greater independence. Their factory was privileged, and while benefiting by English law, they were quite independent of it. Everything, therefore, was favourable to their commerce, and they were hampered by no such restrictions as weighed, not only upon other foreigners, but upon the English themselves. To give a just idea of the degree of power to which their privileges and trade had raised the League, let us cite one example. It will serve in lieu of many, and it places in full light the almost incredible ascendency which a company of merchant cities, isolated and distant from each other, had gained over a great kingdom and a proud and valiant nation.

The English Government having been unable or unwilling to repress the frequent acts of piracy which its subjects practised against members of the League, these also took to piracy, and mutual recriminations ensued. The Lubeckers in particular revenged themselves fiercely. They also wrote a letter of complaint to the English king, "a letter full of pride and audacity," says Henry IV. It then happened that the Danes, at strife with the English for other causes, joined themselves to the Hanseatics, and united they harassed the English by sea and by land. These, in their turn, took possession of the Hanseatic depot in London, and put in prison or killed all who lodged there. The League hearing this broke off commercial connection with England, closed their ports and the entrances of the Baltic, and seized English vessels on all seas and on all coasts. The Hanseatics even landed in England itself, and pitilessly ravaged many of the maritime provinces, hanging on the masts of their ships all the men they took prisoners. This war at last grew so ruinous for the English that they applied to the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, to mediate between them and their foes. A congress was assembled at Utrecht to put an end to this dire quarrel and to assure peace upon a solid basis. The mediator and his counsellors thought it but just to accord to the English a part of what they had desired so long, namely, liberty to trade in the Baltic and with the Hanseatic ports of Dantzig and Russia. This concession greatly favoured the commerce which their merchants were ambitious to carry on, or already carried on, notwithstanding all obstacles. But for their part the Hanseatics insisted on recovering all the privileges they had lost, and on recovering them with usury. In fact, by this treaty of Utrecht Edward IV. not only reconfirmed all their ancient monopolies, but accorded to them new and important favours, proving to what extent the English were still in the power of these foreigners. Such was the effect of the fear which the League inspired in the English; such, too, was the ignorance of their Government, which, being in possession of a power not less great and, had they desired, even greater than that of their rivals, allowed strangers to deprive them of the most useful of all independent rights, that of utilizing for their own profit the resources of their own labour and their own soil.

In reading this chapter of the annals of England, it is hard to believe that we are dealing with the nation whose ships now scour all the seas, whose tonnage exceeds that of all other countries combined, which is the greatest trader of the earth, and which trades not only freely, but also in that spirit of domination with which its ancestors reproached the Hanseatics, and which they endured with so much impatience.

This treaty of Utrecht served for a long while as basis for all subsequent treaties between the Hanseatics and the English, and well or ill observed, it survived until the reign of Edward VI.

The position held by the Hanseatics in England certainly has no counterpart in the international intercourse of the Middle Ages. The only exception, perhaps, is the position of Genoa, Venice, and Pisa in the Byzantine and Latin empires.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


The chief depot of the Hanseatics in England was in London, and was known first as the Guildhall of the Germans, then as the Easterlings' Hall, and finally, as its dimensions grew, as the Steelyard. It was situated in Thames Street, on the left bank of the river, close to Dowgate, just above London Bridge, in earlier times the only city gate that commanded the water. The whole length of this street leading to the post gate was lined with the wharves, warehouses, and dwelling-houses of the Germans. It is therefore easy to comprehend how they held, by their position alone, the key to the whole commerce of the City of London in days when goods were almost entirely transported by water-ways. As at Bergen, so here, they dominated the whole commercial situation.

There have been many disputes as to the origin of the name Steelyard. It has been now pretty well established that it took its rise from the fact that on this spot stood the great balance of the City of London, known as the Steelyard, on which all exported or imported merchandise had to be officially weighed. It was after the treaty of Utrecht in 1474 that the German factory first took this name, from the circumstance that its domain was then greatly enlarged. The whole place was defended by a high strong wall, fortress fashion, and there were few windows towards the front. This was as a protection from the frequent attacks of the London mob, and also as a defence against the robbers anxious to penetrate into a storehouse of riches. The chief building, still called their Guildhall, was a massive stone structure, of which, until 1851, some of the main walls still remained. The northern front, which looked towards Thames Street was especially imposing with its many stories, its high gabled roof, surmounted by the double eagle of the empire with its outspread wings. Three round portals, well protected and clamped with iron, were seen on its northern frontage. The centre one, far larger than the others, was rarely opened, and the two others were walled up. Above these three portals were to be read, in later days, the following characteristic inscriptions:







The second of these couplets is attributed to Sir Thomas More, Chancellor of England, author of the "Utopia," and a good friend to the Hanseatics. This great hall was used for the meetings of the merchants and for their common dining-room. At one end was a low tower that served as depository for the documents and valuables belonging to the merchants or the factory. Close upon the river stood another strong building, the dwelling of the house master. Here was the capacious stone kitchen, in which ample preparations were made for the dinners of week-days and festivals. Between these two buildings ran the garden, in which the Germans had planted fruit trees and vines. On summer evenings they were wont to rest here after the business of the day, while the young people among them amused themselves with playing at ball or other recreations. It was a pleasant green spot with cool shady arbours, tables, and seats, and was frequented, not only by the Hanseatics themselves, but by the London citizens; for the League had the permission to sell their Rhenish wines in this spot. Threepence a bottle was the average price.

In "Pierce Penilesse, his application to the devil," we read, "Let us go to the Stilliard and drink rhenish wine;" and in one of Webster's plays a character says: "I come to entreat you to meet him this afternoon at the Rhenish warehouse in the Stillyard. Will you steal forth and taste of a Dutch brew and a keg of sturgeon?" This garden restaurant was also famous for its neat's tongues, salmon, and caviar. It would seem that the place was a favourite resort from the days of Prince Hal and Sir John Falstaff to those of Lord Herbert of Cherbury, the former the embodiment of boisterous enjoyment, the latter of chivalric and pedantic learning. A multifarious and varied company indeed that little garden harboured in its day, who met in "the Rhenish wine house" to close their bargains over their wine cups, for festive carouse or serious talk. There could be seen England's most honoured men; bishops, mayors, ministers, chancellors, naval and military heroes. Even Shakespeare's company of actors, London's merriest gourmets, are known to have turned in here. The spot did not lie far off the famous "Boar's Head" tavern, and Prince Hal's town residence in Cold Harbour Lane abutted upon the Steelyard. There, too, assembled the grave ambassadors of the Hanseatics, their delegates and merchants, their apprentices and agents; a motley crew indeed, who, until the days when the garden in Cosins Lane perished in the Great Fire of London (1666), constantly frequented the locality, and helped to enhance its wealth and importance. The memory of the place was kept up, till quite lately, by a large tavern, bearing the sign of the Steelyard, which still stood on the same spot, surmounted by a bunch of golden grapes, similar to those which we so frequently meet with in the narrow streets of old German towns.

No less busy, no less varied was the inner life of that small state within a state. A strange little world with its severe monastic discipline, its semi-religious character. In many rooms and halls, in warehouses and passages, were crowded a number of masters and men, assembled here from some sixty Hanseatic cities, busy superintending the stapled wares which arrived by river and were drawn up by means of the mighty crane that formed a notable feature in the water frontage of the factory. Some wares, too, arrived by way of the crooked streets. These entered the building through the small carefully guarded doorways. As time went on and there was not room enough for all the guests in the main building, adjoining houses were rented for the Hanseatics, but all were subject to the same rigid discipline, and were members of the same large household. In early days the London merchants had insisted that an Englishman should be head inspector of the Hanseatic warehouses, but from this they soon freed themselves, alleging that it was giving the sheepfold over into the keeping of the wolf. As elsewhere, the presidency was assigned to an alderman and twelve councillors. These were chosen from the different towns in rotation. As elsewhere, all residents had to remain unmarried during the period of this sojourn in the Steelyard. Not even the house-master was allowed to have a wife. In later years, a Cologne merchant who had decorated, improved, and enlarged the garden inn, and turned it into one of the most beautiful taverns in London, being a resident for life, was anxious to marry. But so sternly did the League hold by their decree of celibacy for their absent members, that they only agreed to make an exception in his case after fourteen members of the English Parliament had signed a round robin petition to the Hanseatic Diet to this effect. Those who trespassed against the by-laws of the house as to habits or morals were heavily fined. If refractory they were often imprisoned, and at times even the aid of the English constables would be called in. But this was not frequent. The Hanseatics preferred to manage their own affairs, and keep themselves distinct from the natives among whom they dwelt. In criminal cases the jury, as is still the custom in England under similar conditions, was composed half of Englishmen, half of Germans. At nine every evening the portals of the various dwelling-houses were closed, and the key given to one of the masters, who took turns to fill this office. Whoever played at dice in his room at the tavern, whoever entertained non-Hanseatics, whoever let a woman cross the precincts of the Steelyard paid a heavy sum, of which half went to the informant. Cleanliness was severely imposed both in person and in the use of the common sleeping and packing rooms. The fine for contravention in this respect was paid in wax, not in money. It was employed for the candles which the Hanseatics kept burning on their behalf in the church of All Hallows the More. Opprobrious language towards one another, blows or drawing of knives was fined by a hundred shillings paid into the common fund; a high sum truly if we consider that five pounds sterling was worth, in the fourteenth century, about four times its present value. They were even forbidden to fence or to play tennis with their English neighbours under out paying a penalty of twenty shillings.

Every merchant was bound to have in readiness in his room a full suit of armour, and all the needful weapons in case of an attack on the Steelyard, or on the Bishopsgate. For the City of London had ceded to the Hanseatics this gate, which they had to guard and keep in repair, relieving them instead of the annual tax towards the preservation of the town walls known as wall-money, of bridge money, and paving money. They also managed to obtain special privileges with regard to shipwrecked goods; the English being obliged to pay them damages provided that something living, if only a dog, or cat, or cock reached the shore alive from the shipwrecked vessel. This secured them greatly from the perils of wanton wreckage.

In London none of those gross manners and customs prevailed that we find at Bergen or Novgorod. The Hanseatics knew that in England they found themselves among a people fully their equals, and were careful not to offend them in any respect. Indeed they did all they could to conciliate them, and were liberal in presents. Thus the Lord Mayor of London received from them yearly a cask of the finest sturgeon, or two barrels of herring, or a hundredweight of Polish wax. An English alderman, annually chosen to adjust disputes between the natives and the foreigners, was presented each New Year's Day with fifteen golden nobles, wrapped up in a pair of gloves, by way of tender consideration for the feelings of the recipient. The Chief Inspector of Customs received about twenty pounds sterling, intended probably to make him indulgent in the exercise of his duties. And so forth, making as a whole a most goodly sum thus wisely spent in fees and in conciliating those in power and office. Every point relating to this as well as to the inner statutes of the factory was most carefully recorded in writing, and has, in large part, been preserved to us. It is a record of most quaint regulations, every one of which no doubt had its wise purpose and scope.

The Hanseatics purchased from the English the produce of their flocks and tillage, that is to say, wool, strong hides, corn, beer, and cheese. Wool was from the earliest date one of the chief and most important articles of their exportation from England. This was sent to Flanders and the Netherlands to be worked up. It was only later, as the English learnt to manufacture skilfully this costly produce, that the Hanseatics exported the finished goods in lieu of the raw material. The details concerning this wool trade show how many places in England were engaged in it, and how appropriately the Chancellor of England is seated upon a wool-sack as symbol of one of the main sources of England's ancient wealth. So valuable, indeed, was this wool trade that a special tax was placed upon the wool, a tax which Edward III. repeatedly farmed out to Cologne merchants for the space of several years in advance in return for ready cash.

Among the articles imported by the League we find pepper, potash, various kinds of wood adapted for building ships and making crossbows, iron and iron utensils, flax, linen, hemp, grease, fish, corn, and Rhenish wines. We even find that they imported French wines after the English had lost all their possessions in France with the exception of Calais. By their means, too, there came to England Italian and Oriental produce, such as choice spices, perfumes, medicines, metals, figs, almonds, dates, even gold dust, and jewels, with which they provided themselves at Bruges.

A very important branch of trade was that in salted cod-fish, or stock-fish as it was called, an article largely used on the Continent and in England too in the Middle Ages. With this the English were then accustomed to feed their troops when on service. Nor were even living creatures lacking among their cargoes, such as choice falcons from Norway or Livonia, for which the English nobility, who were then, as now, passionately addicted to sport, paid high prices.

Indeed, the Steelyard was one of the staple places for the export and import of all the principal necessaries of life before men had thought of the products of America.

Nor was London by any means their only depot. It was the chief, but they also had factories in York, Hull, Bristol, Norwich, Ipswich, Yarmouth, Boston, and Lynn Regis. Some mention of them is found in Leland's "Itinerary." Under an invitation to the Hanseatics to trade with Scotland we find the name honoured in legend and song of William Wallace. In John Lydgate's poems we also meet with our Hanseatics. In relating the festivities that took place in London city on the occasion of the triumphal entry of Henry VI., who had been crowned king at Paris some months previously, the poet narrates how there rode in procession the Mayor of London clad in red velvet, accompanied by his aldermen and sheriffs dressed in scarlet and fur, followed by the burghers and guilds with their trade ensigns, and finally succeeded by a number of foreigners.

"And for to remember of other alyens,

Fyrst Jenenyes (Genoese) though they were strangers,

Florentynes and Venycyens,

And Easterlings, glad in her maneres,

Conveyed with sergeantes and other officeres,

Estatly horsed, after the maier riding,

Passed the subburbis to mete withe the kyng."

A love of pomp and outward show was indeed a characteristic of the Hanseatics in England who thus perchance wished to impress upon the natives a sense of their wealth. As times grew less turbulent and the German Guildhall less of a fortress, it was handsomely decorated with costly paintings and fine carving. Most notable were two large works by Holbein, who visited England at the invitation of King Henry VIII., desirous of emulating his rival Francis I. in protecting the fine arts. When the painter first came over he lived in one of the quaint houses that, before the Great Fire, stood on London Bridge, and some of his earliest works seem to have been two commissions for his countrymen, whose Steelyard was close by. They were destined to decorate the Great Hall, and were tempera pictures representing respectively the Triumph of Poverty and of Riches. When in the days of James I. the Steelyard ceased to exist as the collective home of the Hanseatics, the towns decided to present these pictures to the Prince of Wales, Henry, who was a lover of the arts like his younger brother, Charles I., into whose collection they passed on Henry's death. Unfortunately, they perished in the great fire that destroyed Whitehall. Federigo Zuccari, who saw them during his sojourn in London and appraised them as exceeding in beauty the works of Raphael, made careful drawings of them, and thanks to these and the engravings made after them we are in possession of at least an outline representation of Holbein's work. The pictures are conceived in the spirit of the age that loved such so-called triumphs in art and poetry. The figures, chiefly allegorical, were life size and in the richness of fantasy and learning that they display it is permissible to recognize the help and advice of Holbein's friend, the Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. In many cases the names of the personages represented are written beside the figures, after the quaint method of that time.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


The Triumph of Riches shows a car of Plutus drawn by four white horses, driven by Fortune and followed by a motley crowd which includes Justice, Usury, Bona Fides, Sichaeus, the rich husband of Queen Dido, Pythias (of whom Plutarch tells that he so loved gold that once when he returned hungry from abroad his wife placed gold before him instead of meats), and many figures, for the most part culled from the pages of Herodotus, Juvenal, and other classic authors. In the heads of Croesus and Cleopatra it is said that Holbein painted likenesses of Henry VIII. and Anne Boleyn. In a corner of the picture is written the distich ascribed to Sir Thomas More which we have already met with above the central portal of the German Guildhall.

The Triumph of Poverty was purely allegorical, and appears to have been considered less attractive than the former work, whether on account of its treatment, or on account of its less pleasing theme does not appear. In this case the car is drawn by two oxen and two asses, designated as Negligence and Idleness, Greed and Sloth. This canvas, too, bore some Latin verses from More's pen, which, curiously enough, have not been incorporated in his collected works.

In all public ceremonies and processions the Hanseatics seem also to have taken a notable part; as we mentioned above on the occasion of Henry the Sixth's entry. We come across another detailed account when Queen Mary went in triumph through London the day before her coronation. At Fenchurch the Genoese had dressed up a lovely boy as a girl, who was carried before the Queen and greeted her. The Hanseatics had built up a hillock in the corner of Gracechurch, whence a fountain poured forth wine. On this hillock stood four children who likewise greeted the Queen. In front of the Steelyard they had placed two casks of wine, from which they poured drink to all who passed. This liberality cost them a thousand pounds, and heavy payments to cover such expenses are not infrequent in their account books.

In England, contrary to the usual custom, the Hanseatic League never had its own church. Perhaps this need was less felt in a land that professed the same creed than in Russia. The Germans frequented the parish church of All Hallows, contenting themselves with endowing a chapel, altars, special masses, and alms. They also presented the church with costly stained glass windows, in the decoration of which the German imperial eagle figured conspicuously, and with cunningly-carved stalls reserved for the use of the Steelyard authorities. As late as the year 1747 these seats were still in the possession of the master of the Steelyard and the other representatives of the guild. In front of these stalls there always burned five of the biggest tapers the church could boast. Indeed the Hanseatics were famous for their outward observances of piety, both while they were Catholics and after they, as well as the English, became Protestants. Of course the Catholic religion made more show. Saint Barbara was a saint whom they specially affected, and on her day (December 4th) they caused a most elaborate mass to be sung and afterwards treated the priest, their English alderman, and the royal doorkeeper of the Star Chamber to fruit and wine in the Cosin's Lane Garden. At Corpus Christi they joined the great procession of all the guilds and notabilities; and on midsummer night, and the eve of St. Peter and St. Paul, they illumined their Great Hall after the ancient Saxon fashion with Yule fires and torches. After the Great Fire of London the League presented All Hallows with a carved oak screen that ran the length of the whole church. It was the work of a Hamburg carver, and excites admiration to this day. In the centre it shows the large imperial eagle, as also the arms of Queen Anne; the main work consists of twisted columns and arches.

The Germans in England seem to have adopted the purer Protestant doctrines with great caution, if not tardily. At least we have it on record, that when in 1526 a commission, headed by Sir Thomas More in person, proceeded to make a domiciliary search of the Steelyard for writings of Luther, nothing was found but Old and New Testaments and German prayer books, while the whole body, both young and old, swore at St. Paul's Cross that there was not a heretic among them. Soon afterwards the Reformation was firmly established in England, as it already was in most of the cities belonging to the League, and from that time forward the Steelyard associates attended the English Protestant service in All Hallows Church.

Such were the life, the habits, and the nature, of the German community that made its English centre in the Steelyard, and which, so long as it was in harmony with the times, conferred many advantages not only upon themselves, but upon the people among whom they dwelt. For in thrifty activity the English in those days could not be compared with the Hanseatics, while in point of wealth no one could compete with these Germans, excepting only the Italian money-changers of Lombard Street, then, as still, a favourite locality of banking houses. But the Italians were exclusively occupied with financial transactions, while the Germans devoted themselves exclusively to mercantile affairs.