Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

C5. The League in the Netherlands.

The successive losses of factories and Hanseatic liberties in the kingdoms of the North and East, were of themselves a fatal shock to the prosperity of the League. It must be remembered that the great privileges attained by the League in times past in England, the Netherlands, France, and Spain, were all based on the monopoly acquired by them in trading in the products of Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. This monopoly, as we have seen in the last chapters, had been seriously threatened; factories had been forcibly closed, natives and strangers had competed with the Hanseatics; the League's prerogatives and charters had been trodden under foot and disregarded.

All the efforts made by the Hanseatics at the end of the fifteenth century and in the early years of the sixteenth to expel from the Baltic waters their various competitors, had ended in failure. It obviously followed that, with the loss of this monopoly, the privileges extorted on the strength of it would vanish also; and this was speedily the case, for under what pretence of preference could the League now invoke special favours at the hands of the Eastern nations?

These general causes of failure in the West were destined to be complicated in the case of the Netherlands with the adverse fate which befell the town of Bruges at the end of the second period of our story, and of which we have already spoken. The disaster which deprived the town of its commercial importance also contributed to ruin the Hanseatic factory established in that city. Then the Hanseatics themselves were not wholly blameless, seeing how at Bruges they repeatedly revolted against paying the tax enforced for storage of goods, a tax that was a regular condition in the statutes of the League, and which was exacted in all its foreign settlements; and, besides this, there are also other circumstances to be reckoned with, of a more general character. The closing of the factory of Bruges was one of many signs of the course of events. A new spirit was abroad affecting commerce and progress in all directions, a spirit against which, as we have said, the League resolutely set its face, and which it refused to recognize until it was too late.

After the invasion of the territory of Bruges in 1488 and the ten years' blockade of the harbour of Sluys, by the Emperor Frederick III., to avenge the confinement of his son, the city found her trade almost ruined. Two important branches were lost to her, by the Italians who brought their own silk stuffs to the rival market of Antwerp and by the Flemish cloth-workers who had settled in England and likewise sent their goods thither.

Under these circumstances the Hansa could scarcely hope for the continued prosperity of Bruges. The tumultuous activity that had hitherto reigned in the factory gave place to a death-like silence. The profit that was lost to the town fell chiefly to the lot of Amsterdam and Antwerp, but partly to the fairs held annually in various localities of the Netherlands, which benefited by this abandonment and which came gradually to attract to themselves all the business of the East.

It must not be supposed, however, that the Hanseatic Diet did not observe with dismay the visible and rapid decline of the prosperity of this once flourishing factory; but what could they do to hinder the general desertion of its merchants? Could they, reduced as they were in strength and influence, restore to the city of Bruges its character of general depot for the West? Could they remove the obstruction of the Zivin, ordered by the emperor, which, by a canal had connected Bruges with the sea? Were they not themselves so weakened that their own members refused to pay the imposed dues, violated all the factory laws, and traded and made common cause with the natives?

In vain did various diets send ambassadors to Bruges to recall to the minds of the faithless traders the laws under which they were constituted and by which they were bound to abide. In vain did the alderman of the factory itself plead with the men living under his charge. The spirit of individualism and insubordination was abroad, and since the League could no longer ensure its old profits to its foreign members, these no longer found it to their own interests to obey its behests, many of which they rightly felt to be antiquated. Add to this, that the failure to pay the appointed taxes made negotiations often impossible for lack of means, and it will be seen how crippled and handicapped was the League in its relations with Bruges.

The Baltic towns, ever the most public-spirited and perhaps also the most commercially enlightened recognizing this state of affairs, had in 1530 combined on a fixed tariff, which they thought should be paid to the factory at Bruges for its maintenance. But the other cities would not listen to this, and the absence of concord, that of late had made itself felt and heard too often in the councils of the League, was manifest again on this occasion. Town after town stated through its deputies that it would not contribute to this general tax unless some special favour were granted to it, unless some special merchandise were allowed to pass free into the Netherland domains; the merchandise named being usually that in which the bulk of the town's trade consisted. If ever an association gave practical exemplification of the homely saying of "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face," the League was doing it at that moment.

As usual Cologne was one of the most restive and obstructive of all the towns. It actually proposed to pay a lump sum of a hundred guilders annually, and so be free from all custom duties of whatever kind. By the time the dispute was at last decided, and a sum fixed upon by all the towns together, the dominion of Bruges had hopelessly passed away from the Hansa, and the League was busy with the thought of removing its factory to Antwerp.

For they finally admitted that they must cut loose from the old moorings; that it was necessary to quit the ancient factory, where disunion and grave disorders had crept in. The merchants who had deserted had many of them become naturalized citizens of Amsterdam, or Antwerp, where they quietly continued their commercial relations with the confederated towns, without taking notice either of the confederation or of its factories. Under these changed circumstances what could be done? There were only two courses possible to the League: to afford free trade to the Netherlands, and so renounce its ancient methods, or to maintain the old system, and make an attempt to apply its principles in a new locality. The first course would have been the most rational, and the most in keeping with the spirit of the time. But the Hanseatics, as we have frequently had occasion to see in the course of our story, were not men easily to lose hold of prey, or to break spontaneously with a past that had been glorious and lucrative. They decided in favour of the second course, and at once set about seeking for the spot which would best secure their interests. Various places offered themselves for their choice, such as Bergen-op-Zoom, Middlebourg, Haarlem, all of which promised the Hansa considerable advantages, in order to attract it to themselves. It would, perhaps, have most inclined to Amsterdam, but it could not forget that this town had often fought in the ranks of its enemies, and had put forth in the Baltic a special activity very prejudicial to its monopoly. Antwerp was finally decided upon, for it was manifest already in 1513 that the great commercial movement of the epoch seemed inclined to tend towards that spot.

The story of the rise of the city into importance is most interesting. Formerly its houses had been all thatched with straw. Its inhabitants lived on the results of agricultural labour and fishing. Since the English merchant adventurers had patronized the town, wretched habitations had given place to fine solid houses; ease and wealth had taken up their abode among the burghers. As an instance of this, it may be mentioned that houses which fifty years previously let for forty to sixty dollars of annual rent, now fetched four to eight hundred dollars a year. The Hansa asked themselves, very naturally, were not some of those good things to fall to their share.

It was in 1545 that it was finally settled by the Hanseatic Diet that a depot should be established at Antwerp, but the negotiations regarding it dragged on. It was, however, at once decided, that the factory should become, like the factories of the past, an obligatory intermediary of all the relations between the Hansa and strangers.

In 1561, the League was fortunate enough to obtain from King Philip of Spain the confirmation of the privileges which they had extorted in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries from the Dukes of Brabant, and which permitted them to bring in their goods at a minimum rate, and accorded to them other valuable privileges. And besides this liberality on the part of the ruler of the land, the interested city also showed itself willing to further the weal of the League. The Hanseatics were offered by the town of Antwerp a spacious tract of land, free of rent, situated between two canals, on which they were to be allowed to erect a factory. Besides this, Antwerp offered to defray a third of the costs, laying down for this purpose the large sum of thirty thousand guilders. Annexed to the establishment, which was to be the free possession of the confederation, was an open public square, that formed a sort of exchange—free to all comers—where prices were to be settled, and sales and auctions held. A public balance, adapted to the weights in use among the Hanseatics, was to serve in the residence itself, for weighing the merchandise imported by them, while the public balance of the town was to serve for weighing their purchases. Other very favourable conditions with regard to the exportation of unsold goods, and of goods in storage and in transit were added. In return for all these favours, the Hanseatics had to promise not to abandon Antwerp, unless very real and serious causes, such as a war or a plague, should force them thence; and that Antwerp should enjoy in Hanseatic cities such commercial liberties as were accorded by the League to the most favoured nations.

On May 5, 1564, the foundation-stone of the splendid House of the Easterlings, at Antwerp, was laid, with great pomp and ceremony, in presence of the local burgomasters and the representatives of the League. In four years the stately edifice was finished, and formerly handed over to the aldermen of the Hansa, and such Hanseatics as were in Antwerp, who were regarded by the city as the representatives of the confederated towns.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


The first Hanseatic Syndic General, Dr. Heinrich Sudermann, of Cologne, then put the finishing touch to the great work by sketching out for the factory a projected code of statutes for its internal management. It was laid before the Hansa Diet for revision, approved, and at once promulgated. This code enumerated the qualities requisite for admission to the enjoyment of Hanseatic privileges, determined the methods of nomination, as well as the duties of the various functionaries attached to the factory, and other details. The accounts were to be placed under the supreme supervision of Lubeck. Further, the merchants were to maintain the traditional monastic discipline, were to live under the same roof, and partake of their repasts in common in the great hall of the factory. A few of the rules recall the old hostile attitude always maintained by the League towards strangers. All disputes of Hanseatics among themselves were to be submitted to the jurisdiction of the factory.

In a word, in the outer magnificence of the factory building, as well as in the elaboration and rigour of the statutes, all the ancient traditional Hanseatic forms had been revived. Indeed, as regards the statutes, these attained at this epoch their greatest scientific perfection.

But perfect, correct, traditional, though the forms might be, they were no longer in accordance with the times; no longer the expression of the epoch that gave them birth. It was easy to foresee that the first adverse breath would dissipate them.

And so truly it proved. Indeed, certain complications showed themselves before the building was finished, and foreshadowed the nature of the troubles to be expected in the future. Money, as usual, was the touchstone of discord. Various cities refused to pay in the stipulated sums, others protested against the regulations proposed. Danzig even went so far as entirely to object to the new settlement as too distant from the centre of business, and contended that the pact of the League with the town of Antwerp had been concluded too hurriedly, and without due consultation.

In consequence of these difficulties, the factory, when completed, found itself crippled, and hampered by debts, from which it was never able to free itself. This was an unfortunate start, and was entirely due to the apathy and bad faith of the cities, among whom it became more and more evident that the old spirit of union was rapidly dying out.

Another difficulty was, that the traders began to object to living in common under one roof. The reasons in ancient times for this regulation, such as the defective conditions of public security, no longer existed in these more civilized times. Merchants did not care to submit to the often tiresome and petty restrictions on personal liberty involved by the monastic rules that existed in the factory.

In vain the Syndic of the League put forward for the consideration of these unruly members, that the concentration of all the Hanseatics in one factory building made the defence of their privileges more easy, while their dispersion in the various towns and villages facilitated exactions by the natives and the raising of taxes. In vain he pointed to the example of England, where the Hanseatics, thanks to their unity of action and of existence, had kept their prerogatives intact during three centuries, while, on the contrary, in the Netherlands the spirit of isolation had produced in course of time an augmentation of at least treble their original dues. In vain he demonstrated that partnerships made with foreigners were onerous for the Hanseatics themselves, and drew down upon them the too great probability of conflicts with the rulers of the Netherlands, who thus would find their interests betrayed.

Expostulations, appeals to the statutes, and menaces, proved powerless to change the state of things, or the direction in which affairs were tending. There was no longer a strong support to be obtained from the League as a body, in return for obedience; its threats were no longer followed up by deeds, it had grown too feeble to quell resistance, especially such resistance as was made by towns strong in themselves—as, for example, Danzig and Cologne.

The jurisdiction of the factory was no longer respected as supreme by its own members. It frequently happened, even in the early days of the settlement, that Hanseatics residing at Antwerp brought their differences before the local tribunals instead of before their own court. It is related, that one day one of the Hanseatic aldermen, anxious to repress this mode of violating rules, reprimanded a citizen of Cologne, one Mathern Schoff, on this account. The accused fell upon the official dignitary and belaboured him with his fists. The matter created a scandal and was brought before the High Court of Brabant. This court took part with the rebellious Hanseatic, with the result that the authorities of the factory were forbidden, under the most heavy penalties, to take any action against him. They were even threatened with the loss of all their privileges.

Such incidents, and a number of others like them, presaged a catastrophe at a time not too far distant. But circumstances unconnected with the factory rendered its position still more difficult and precarious and hastened its fate.

Chief among these external causes was the war between England and Spain; the war whose chief incident was the destruction of the great Spanish Armada by the force of the elements, which ranged themselves on the side of the English Queen. This war, which made the navigation of the seas unsafe, was of course a most serious interruption to trade. Nor did the destruction of the Armada bring peace to the Hansa. Besides this there had broken forth in the Netherlands the great revolt in the cause of freedom against the ecclesiastical and civil despotism of Philip II., which was permanently to change the whole state of that corner of Europe, and which for the time being absolutely extinguished all trade by sea or land. Glorious as these events proved for the cause of liberty and of freedom of thought, they were disastrous to the League. Each of the militant nations interdicted it from all relation with the other, and security for commerce was of course quite at an end.

Now it must be borne in mind that the revolt of the Netherlands began while the Hanseatics were still building their new residence at Antwerp. The League was no longer, as in old days, strong enough to make its neutrality respected, and the consequence was, it had to yield to the demands of whichever party was at the moment the strongest. Thus the Prince of Orange manifested from 1571 onwards a desire that they should interrupt their communications with Spain. As a result, when Antwerp was taken, and pillaged by the Spaniards, November 4, 1576, the Hanseatics were forced to see themselves treated not as neutrals, but as friends of the rebels. Their papers were seized and their goods confiscated; even their charter was seized and the price of ransom fixed at the high rate of twenty thousand guilders. Further, if we may deduce inferences from the minutes of the Hanseatic Diet of the same year, 1576, it would seem as though King Philip II., and the Prince of Orange each in their turn placed a tax of 10, 20, and even 40 per cent. upon the merchandise imported by the Hanseatics into the Low Countries.

The League, in this desperate situation pleaded for help now from one leader, now from another, but could obtain no efficient relief or support from any side. At last in April, 1577, the Spanish governor of the Netherlands offered conditions to a Hanseatic embassy which under the circumstances seemed sufficiently advantageous. It was proposed that to indemnify them for the losses suffered during the pillage of Antwerp, the Hanseatics should for twenty years be completely exempt from all taxes imposed in Holland or Brabant, and from half the taxes established for Zealand. Besides this the heads of the factory were once more to be recognized as alone competent to pronounce judgment in civil suits between Hanseatics residing in the Low Countries. On their part, however, the Hanseatics would have to submit to the necessities of warfare. Further, full latitude was conceded to them in the matter of re-exportation of their goods, unless imperious need opposed this, in which case they should receive current prices for their merchandise.

That these promises were ill kept, and that the factory, scarcely born, was rapidly nearing its end, is proved by the complaints addressed in 1581 and 1582, to the city of Lubeck by its representatives residing at the factory of Antwerp. They pointed out how money was absolutely wanting in the establishment; that the Hanseatics, resident and non-resident, did not pay the contributions promised; that the Spaniards harassed them, and rendered their indebted position yet more difficult; that they had no means of enforcing payment, and that if any one city, or private person did pay, it was out of pity. Then followed complaints of certain cities, especially of Cologne, which sent merchandise to foreign agents. The document further states that the rooms, cellars, and storehouses of the factory were quite empty; that the imposition or rather the faithful payment of some of the various taxes had to be taken into serious consideration; and that as the canal duties in Zealand were always rising in price, contrary to treaty, it seemed to the petitioners advisable that reprisals should be made on the natives of that territory, residing in or treating with Germany. Finally, they announced to the city that they were about to charge an able secretary with the permanent duties of looking after the affairs of the factory, if such a plan were pleasing to the town of Lubeck, and if the factory was to continue its existence. This last phrase is significant.

Lubeck, in its reply, offered to the factory of Antwerp mere empty phrases of consolation, promising in a lukewarm manner to see that the outstanding Hanseatic dues were paid, in order that a beginning might at least be made. But it opposed the advice given by its representatives at Antwerp, to practise reprisals towards the Netherlanders, because in that case they would seek for themselves other routes and the Hanseatic port would remain abandoned and neglected.

One of the Hansa's earliest and most able historians, commenting on this reply from the city of Lubeck makes the following very just remarks: "Nothing betokens more clearly the end of the Hanseatics' commercial dominion than this last passage in Lubeck's reply to its petitioners. Formerly the League would have interrupted all intercourse with the country that so misbehaved, and would thus have punished it, would have avenged the very smallest infraction of its privileges. Now it did not even dare have recourse to this measure for fear of completely sacrificing a commerce the pursuit of which had become possible independent of the Hanseatics."

A little later than the documents referred to above, an Antwerp Hanseatic alderman wrote that he saw no hope for their body, and that the debts were of such a nature, so numerous, so onerous, that within twenty-four hours the representatives of the factory might be arrested, and the factory itself put up for sale. This piece of news did arouse the apathy of the cities. Indeed it created such alarm that even Cologne showed itself disposed to pay the stipulated taxes faithfully and regularly, within the course of the ensuing years. Unfortunately however at the point to which the Hansa had come, this tax which was levied on goods proved fatal to the Hanseatic commerce, already crippled by other custom dues, while it assured an ever-increasing advantage to their two commercial rivals, the English and Dutch. It was in consequence of these heavy duties, too, that many a Hansa citizen renounced of his own free will the liberties that had come to cost so dear.

The Hansa Diet could see no remedy save in their old traditional measures. These import duties they insisted must be paid by the towns, and to insure this they established payment stations in divers localities of the Low Countries, such as Dortrecht and Amsterdam. But all these efforts failed to bring about the needful result, and the chief alderman at Antwerp was menaced with imprisonment. Indeed, it is said he was actually confined for some while.

In sore straits, the Hansa resolved to confide the administration of its Antwerp factory to a manager and a secretary chosen from the town of Cologne, who in critical moments should seek advice of the towns of Lubeck and Bremen.

Unfortunately the best administration in the world—and that of Cologne was perhaps not the best—could not restore life to an establishment irrevocably doomed. The few promises made, the few guarantees given, whether by the United Provinces or by the Spanish Netherlands, were not kept. Two Hansa embassies which passed through Antwerp early in the seventeenth century—the one bound for England, the other for Spain—halted at the factory to inspect it. Their official report sent to the Diet was, that this factory was completely fallen into disrepute and decay, and that in the general ruin every one thought only of himself, and the general interest was not considered. They added, that places formerly bustling with commercial life had been converted into barns for the threshing of corn.

A faint new hope was excited by the armistice which in 1609 was concluded between Spain and the Low Countries; and Bremen was charged with the administration of the factory in the place of Cologne. But this was a mere passing delusion which was to vanish before the reality; for in 1624 the Spanish soldiers took up their headquarters in the factory, and never quitted it until after the lapse of nearly thirty years, by that time having made its hundred and seventy rooms entirely uninhabitable.

A very pardonable, and indeed in this case very laudable, amour propre made the town of Lubeck too late desirous to restore this factory, which recalled the greatness, as well as the decadence, of the Hanseatic League. But the Queen of the Hansa, the most patriotic, the most energetic of all the cities, was not supported by her confederates in this costly enterprise. She therefore saw herself forced to abandon the establishment to its fate.

Still, before that date, indeed immediately after the pillage of Antwerp, the trade of the Hanseatic League with the Low Countries had ceased to be a commerce placed upon a regulated footing and ruled by prescribed laws, laws emanating from the factory and punctually and faithfully obeyed by the members. A faint activity and revival occurred in the seventeenth century when the Dutch and Hanseatics made a mutual trade pact. But this proved of little profit to the latter, as far at least as their traffic in the Low Countries was concerned; for, like impatient heirs, the citizens of the United Provinces endeavoured to enfeeble their rivals, to whose succession they looked forward.