Hansa Towns - Helen Zimmern

C1. Storm Clouds.

The centre of the Hansa's power had ever been the Baltic Ocean. On its shores the idea of the League had first taken shape: here it had grown and flourished, and here also it was to receive its death blow. As we have said, in the course of the fifteenth century the Dutch gradually came forward as serious competitors of the League. Their geographical position made them freer than the Hanseatics; enclosed in a sort of inland basin to which at any moment they might lose the key, their astuteness was not less keen than that of their rivals, and like their rivals they wisely made use of any quarrels or dissensions that might be abroad. They were not slow, therefore, to discern that the Scandinavian people and also the Scandinavian kings groaned under the heavy despotism exercised by these German merchants. They proposed themselves as substitutes for the Hansa, offering money and support to the kings and easier and better conditions of trade to the natives. These proposals were unofficially accepted. Neither rulers nor ruled as yet dared oppose themselves openly to the League, but they were not sorry to see its power reduced.

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


For awhile the Hansa were able to keep their rivals in check, worrying them by piracy on the one hand, and insisting on their ancient claims and trade rights on the other.

But Charles V. had ascended the throne; the greatest emperor that had ever governed in Germany since his namesake Charles the Great. He was ruler not only of Germany, but of Spain and the Netherlands, and to the latter people he was especially well disposed. He looked with no friendly eye upon the League, which made itself a power within his territory, and he was not sorry to see it weakened by competition. When the Sound, their Danish Hellespont, the gold mine of the League, continued to be jealously guarded by them, and its navigation denied to other nations, Charles V. declared quite openly that "he would rather miss three royal crowns, than that his Burgunders should be excluded from the Sound." This was a sort of challenge to the Hansa. Let us hear how other circumstances came about to enforce it from other quarters.

It may be remembered that since the days of Waldemar Atterdag, the League had always had a voice in the election of a ruler to one of the three northern kingdoms, and that it regarded with no friendly eye the attempts made at a union of those kingdoms under one common head.

In 1513 Christian II. had ascended the Danish throne. He was an unscrupulous and cruel ruler, known to posterity as the Nero of the North. Before ascending the throne of Denmark he had been governor of Norway, and in that capacity had conceived a bitter hatred against the overbearing foreigners, "those German cobblers," as he called them, who once even ventured to close against him the gates of his own town of Bergen. He had already favoured by all ways in his power the trade of non-Hanseatics, and tried to obtain some gentler treatment for the oppressed burghers of Bergen. Still so great was yet the fear of the Hansa, that when in 1513 Christian was crowned King of Denmark, he made no difficulties about renewing all Hanseatic treaties and privileges, and only stipulated that the harbours of Norway should also be accessible to the Netherlanders. In return he desired their assistance against Sweden, with which country he was at war.

For a time the League, and above all Lubeck, were rejoiced at this new king and his attitude towards them, but not many years had passed before they found out that they had to do with a more logical and altogether sterner man than any of his predecessors had been. Christian hated the Hansa, and rebelled against the subjection of the Sound, a Danish sea, to foreign control, and the absolute sway of the Hansa in his markets. Among many unwise words and deeds that live bound up with his memory, it was not the most unwise which he repeated after Sigbrit Willem, the mother of his beloved and lovely friend, Digveke (Little Dove), "that good friendship must be maintained with the Netherlands, and that Copenhagen must be made the staple place of the North."

[Illustration] from The Hansa Towns by Helen Zimmern


Unfortunately for Christian, though he could repeat Sigbrit's sayings, and perhaps also in a measure recognize their wisdom, he had not the natural capacity to carry them into execution. This clever woman recognized that the aim of the king should be to reinstate the Scandinavian Union, to break the power of the aristocracy and the clergy, and to free his impoverished people from the fetters in which the Hansa had bound them for nine centuries. This was all right and well, but it needed to be carried into effect with tact and moderation. Christian did not possess these gifts; he made himself personally detested by his cruelty and his overbearing manner, he knew not that generosity which so gracefully becomes a victor. After conquering Sweden, he soiled his victory by causing the most illustrious personages of the kingdom to be executed, and still worse he stained his personal honour by violating the conditions of an armistice in causing Gustavus Ericson, of the house of Vasa, to be carried off captive to Denmark. It did not improve matters when Christian explained that he required him as a hostage. He caused Gustavus to be shut up in the strong fortress of Kalo in Jutland. Here the captive was put on his parole, and it is said suffered none of the rigours of custody. But the food put before him, salt junk, sour ale, black bread, and rancid herrings, cannot have comforted his enforced captivity in the material sense, while he confessed to having been maddened by the talk of the soldiers who guarded him, and who boasted that they would soon hold all Sweden, and jestingly parcelled out among themselves the wealth and beauty of the nation.

This young man so unjustly imprisoned was destined to become the avenger of his fatherland, and those of his fellow-countrymen who had perished upon the scaffold. He resolved to escape, hoping to reach Sweden in time to defend his country, or to take advantage of any favourable juncture that might arise.

It was in September, 1519, that, early one raw autumn morning, Gustavus managed to escape from the Castle of Kalo, disguised as a drover of oxen. He made his way to the city of Lubeck, and threw himself upon the protection of the burgomaster and council. Needless to say the town gave a generous welcome to the man who was foe of their foe—the King of Denmark. But it was not long ere his whereabouts became known, and Christian sent messengers to Lubeck, demanding in high-handed language that Gustavus should be handed over to him. He complained that Vasa had effected his escape contrary to his pledged word as a knight. Gustavus spoke in his own defence.

"I was captured," he said, "contrary to all justice and all plighted faith. It is notorious that I went to the king's fleet as a hostage. Let any one who can, point out the place where I was made prisoner in battle, or declare the crime for which I deserved chains. Call me not then a prisoner, but a man seized upon unjustly, over-reached, betrayed. I am now in a free city, and before a government renowned for justice and for defending the persecuted. Shall I then be altogether deceived in the confidence I have placed in them? or can breach of faith be reasonably objected to me by one who never himself kept faith or promise? or can it be wondered at that I should free myself from prison which I deserved by no fault, except that of trusting to the assurances of a king."

The shrewd burgesses who listened to Gustavus's defence were not misled by his rhetoric, but motives of policy told in his favour. They knew that if Christian were once undisturbed king of the three northern kingdoms, he would possess a power which, as he had already shown, he would not use to the advantage of the League. Here was a young nobleman of fearless character and high talent, a man who hated the king with hereditary hatred and personal animosity. Might he not become a thorn in his side and a clog upon his movements?

This was the view of the matter taken by the burgomaster of Lubeck and put forcibly before his colleagues. It was therefore agreed emphatically to refuse the king's demands, and, instead of giving up Gustavus, to furnish him rather with the means to return to his own country. "For who knows," said the worthy council, "what he may do when he gets there."

To this refusal to deliver up the hostage the King of Denmark replied, through his ambassadors, that he should make a house-to-house search for his prisoner. That was truly more than the proud city could stomach. They answered in the most haughty terms that they should never permit such an interference with their home rights and privileges, and in the presence of the Danish ambassadors reassured the fugitive of their protection and friendship.

When the news of this reply reached Christian, he regarded it as an act of great audacity. From this moment he became a yet more embittered enemy of the Hansa, whose chief city and spokesman he very properly recognized was Lubeck. He harassed them continually in fresh ways; he carried on a yet more envenomed war against the Swedes, of whom he knew the League to be the secret ally and the chief support.

At first success favoured his arms; he broke faith in all directions—plundered, ravaged, sacked. But at last he made the cup of wrath against him overflow by his cruel execution of ninety noble Swedes, in the autumn of 1520; vaunting the deed in insolent heartless words. He had shown them, he said, "how he roasted his Michaelmas goose." Further, in his wanton presumption he did not hesitate to give active expression to his hatred against Lubeck. When congratulated by his councillors that he could now rejoice in the possession of the three northern crowns, he replied: "So long as Lubeck is not in my power, I cannot be happy in my kingdoms."

Shortly after this, Christian set out for the Netherlands to visit his imperial brother-in-law at Ghent. The objects of his journey were various. He wanted to obtain the payment of his consort's marriage portion; to solicit the emperor's aid against his uncle, Frederick of Schleswig Holstein; and yet more to obtain his tacit, if not active assistance, against the Hansa towns on the Baltic, and especially against Lubeck.

It was on the occasion of this visit that Charles V., accompanied by Christian and Margaret of Austria, laid the foundation-stone of Antwerp Cathedral. After this ceremony they returned to Brussels, where Christian entertained his friends at a banquet. Among the guests was the great German painter, Albert Durer, then visiting the Low Countries. He was then and there commissioned to paint the Danish king's portrait—a portrait that all contemporaries greatly admired as a faithful reproduction of Christian's manly beauty. The artist received thirty florins—a sum that seemed to him munificent, and called forth expressions of real gratitude.

Soon after, Christian presented a petition to the young and inexperienced Charles, in which he begged, as a gift from him, "a little town on the German side of his dominions, called Lubeck, so that when sometimes he passed over to Germany he might possess a place of his own in which to rest." Charles, enlightened by the burgomaster of Cologne to the effect that Lubeck was no "little town," but one of the four imperial cities, and a chief centre of the Hanseatic League, refused his brother-in-law's petition in decisive terms. Nor did Christian fare better with his other demands; Charles had been warned against him, and had been taught to see in him a possible heretic. It is even related that in his anger Christian tore from his neck the Order of the Golden Fleece, given to him by the emperor, and trod it under foot in disdain.

Christian returned home to find fresh difficulties awaiting him, for in his absence Gustavus Vasa had not been idle. This restless patriot had lingered but eight months in the hospitable German city. Young, full of enthusiasm and fire, he longed to be actively at work to aid his oppressed compatriots; and one morning, in the spring of 1520, after confessing his obligations and his gratitude to the Lubeckers, he stole over to the Swedish coast in a little fishing-smack, and landed in territory that was groaning under Christian's oppressions.

At first, Gustavus, who at once assumed the role of leader of revolt, could not make himself heard among the peasants. They replied to his instigations in their apathy of oppression with, "Salt and herrings will not fail us as long as we obey the king, but if we rise we are sure of ruin." But Gustavus was undaunted, though he knew a price was put upon his head. For months he scoured the country, travelling by by-paths, sleeping one night in the woods, another in the open fields; assuming now this, now that disguise. Gradually he gathered a following around him, which grew in importance day by day. His influence increased above all after the tidings of the "Bloodbath," for so the terrible massacre came to be called, perpetrated by Christian upon the nobles of Stockholm, on the occasion when he offered them a banquet, apparently of peace, but which proved to them a feast of death.

Chief among Gustavus's allies were the people of Dalecarlia, among whom he went on his mission of revolt dressed in their native dress. This land of valleys is inhabited by a people who have many points of resemblance with the Scotch Highlanders; thinking themselves, as these do, of a superior caste and adhering even to this day to an exaggerated and antiquated mode of dress. Like the Highlanders, too, they are frugal; they are accustomed to drink only water, and often in case of necessity eat bread made of the inner rind of the birch tree, which grows so freely in their woods. It is said that one of the Danish commanders, learning this, exclaimed "A people who can live upon wood and drink water the devil himself could not conquer, much less any other. Let us go hence."

When the Danes heard of the army of peasants that was rising against them, they at first treated the news with great contempt. "If the skies rained peasants," they said, "we would fight them all." But they were soon to see that these peasants were not to be lightly despised. It was before Upsala that Gustavus's army, aided by troops sent to him from Lubeck made its first attack on the Danes. There was a heavy snowfall during the battle, in consequence of which the Danish cavalry and artillery proved of no avail, while the peasants with their irregular mode of warfare were less impeded by the elements. The victory was theirs, and the Danes had to confess that their boast was foolish, "For when God withdraws his hand from a warrior a poor peasant is as good as he."

From this moment success followed success and the prospects of the cause of Gustavus grew steadily brighter. His instructions to his followers were that "they must teach the tyrant that Swedes must be ruled by love, not ground down by cruelty."

In August, 1521, Gustavus was elected administrator of Sweden, and was virtually ruler of the land, though the whole was not yet in his possession. The time of shifts, disguises, and humiliations was now over. The scenes of these, however, the barns where Gustavus threshed, the different spots where he was in the greatest peril—are still pointed out with veneration by the descendants of those peasants who succoured him in his adversity, and boasted that they were the first to help him to a crown.

In this juncture Christian saw himself obliged to send out yet more ships and men against Gustavus. To meet the re-enforced enemy, Vasa turned to Lubeck in 1522 and begged of "his fathers, brothers, friends, and dear neighbours of that town," under promise of eternal gratitude, to help him against "the tyrant," saying he would in his turn and time "accord to them milder privileges and everything that could be to their profit." The burghers decided to accede to this request; ten strong ships were armed to aid Gustavus Vasa and sent out to meet the Danish fleet.

Meanwhile they did not neglect to use the weapons of diplomacy; weapons so often successfully employed by them during their career. They remembered that Duke Frederick of Schleswig Holstein was uncle to Christian II., and that the two had ever been at feud. It occurred to them that it would be well to gain the duke as their ally, promising him the Danish throne in event of their victory; of course in return for important privileges; the Hansa would have been untrue to themselves and their traditional policy had they for one moment left out of sight their own advantages.

This proposal met with assent, and the consequence was that a powerful enemy was thus raised up in the centre of the king's dominions. Christian, following the counsel of Sigbrit, planned another wholesale massacre of the nobles whom he believed favourable to Frederick's cause. The matter got known, and in consequence a council was held by them in which they drew up a deed, renouncing their allegiance to Christian and choosing Frederick in his place to fill the Danish throne.

A question arose as to who should convey the perilous document to the king. A certain monk of Jutland offered to bear the ill tidings. He met the king as he was proceeding to one of his castles. Assuming an open and cheerful countenance he managed to get himself asked to dinner by the king, and continued to amuse him and divert all suspicions till the king retired to rest. Then, placing the despatch in one of his gloves, he left it on the table, went quietly out and escaped by a boat which he had ordered to be in readiness. A page who found the despatch next morning carried it to the king.

Christian, who till then had blustered and disbelieved in real danger, grew alarmed when he read this unexpected paper. He wrote to those who subscribed it saying "that he submitted himself to the emperor and other disinterested princes as his judges. As to the massacre at Stockholm, he would atone for it; he would fill the country with churches and monasteries, and undergo any penance which the Pope might impose. The Council and States should have from him fresh securities, if only they would retract their step and turn from him this dishonour they had meditated." The nobles replied that they acknowledged no tribunal superior to their own; that the king had perjured himself so often that they could not trust him; that he had confessed himself guilty, that the deeds by which he had freed them from their allegiance were known to all the world, and that they had chosen the Duke of Holstein as his successor.

And indeed Frederick, Duke of Holstein, was proclaimed king of Denmark in January, 1523. The Hansa fleet by sea, the support of the clergy and nobles by land—that clergy and those nobles whom Christian had oppressed—conduced to this result.

A manifesto put forth by Lubeck made known to the Emperor of Germany and the Empire how "the city after long patience and repeated prayers, in consideration of her oaths and duties towards the Holy Roman Empire and remembering the inevitable damage done to body, honour, and goods, had taken up arms to prosecute the wanton insurer and aggressor of the Holy Roman Empire."

This manifesto was one of the little farces the Hanseatic League loved to play with their supposed liege lord and sovereign, the Emperor of Germany, each time they took independent action and showed by deeds how little they heeded his authority or wishes.

In vain Christian, after his deposition, tried to rally his subjects around him. Fearing probably that revenge would be taken upon his person for his cruel massacres in Sweden, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Choosing twenty of his best and fastest ships, he placed on board of them all the State papers, all the gold and silver that had been hoarded in the public buildings, and the State jewels. On April 13, 1523, he, his wife and three children together with Sigbrit, "the last packed away in a chest with the treasures," quaintly writes a contemporary chronicler, went on board the largest of the vessels, whereupon they all set sail for the Netherlands. It was nothing more or less than flight, and an acknowledgment that Gustavus Vasa and his ally the Hansa, through its representative Lubeck had conquered; that the League, though declining in might, was still able, as in the most glorious times of its history, to play with kings like dice, deposing and installing them.

Two years later the same city of Lubeck was called upon to arbitrate in a conflict between the two kings, which it thus had made, Frederick of Denmark and Gustavus of Sweden. As the price of its intervention and of the sacrifices it had made on their behalf, the city, in the name of the League, of course, asked great favours, favours which were accorded by treaty, and which were to be the last smiles of Fortune, about to become fickle to the union she had favoured so long.

Meanwhile, in June, 1523, Gustavus Vasa had been, by unanimous consent, elected King of Sweden. It is amusing to read that Stockholm, the last city to surrender to its new ruler, the last faithful to Christian, refused, even after it had capitulated, to deliver up the keys of the gates to Gustavus. The governor handed them over to two Lubeck councillors, present on the occasion, with the words, "We present to the imperial city of Lubeck the kingdom and the city, and not to that rogue, Gustavus Erikson, who stands there."

It must not be supposed, however, that Christian so quietly and easily abandoned his Danish crown to his uncle and rival. He made many attempts to enlist the various courts in his favour. Especially did he try to gain the help of his brother-in-law, the emperor, but the League was too clever and too strong for him. He did get together an army of mercenaries, but his means of paying them soon ran out, though to attain that end he pawned or sold all his treasures and the queen's jewels. At last, he had to fly in terror from his own soldiers who were enraged at his inability either to pay them their wages, or at least lead them to some town they could plunder.

Nevertheless, Christian was not daunted. He was a man not easily dismayed. He intrigued on every hand to regain his kingdom, and at last, fancying that the Lutheran doctrines he had embraced prejudiced the emperor against him, he formally renounced Protestantism and returned into the bosom of the Romish Church.

Christian had not erred in his calculations. This step induced Charles to be more favourable to him, and for a while he lent him his countenance, soon, however, to withdraw it. Still the brief favour sufficed to enable him to get together a strong army to attack Denmark. Frederick, alarmed, turned to Lubeck for aid, and did not turn in vain. Indeed, his ambassadors admitted that "Lubeckers had shown themselves in this time of need, not like mere neighbours, but like fathers to Denmark."

After many vicissitudes of fortune, Christian at last abandoned the idea of regaining his old rights by force of arms. He craved an interview with his uncle and a free passage to Copenhagen. This safe passage was accorded to him and its terms were couched in the most sacred and solemn words. The Hanseatic representatives enforced the promise on their own account. Not suspecting treachery, unwarned, Christian stepped on board the vessel that was to convey him to the Danish capital, and arrived in Copenhagen with the fond hope that Frederick would receive him like the prodigal son. Instead of allowing him to land at once, however, he was detained in the harbour for five days, under the pretext that Frederick was absent, and at last when permitted to set foot on dry land, he was invited to meet the king at Flensburg, and was told that the fleet had orders to carry him thither.

Then, and only then, the unfortunate man suspected that he had been betrayed. And so it was. Frederick and his councillors pronounced the safe conduct null and void; Christian was taken prisoner, and amid fierce ejaculations of rage and despair, was locked up in the "Blue Tower" of the Castle of Sonderburg. Here for fifteen years in company with his favourite dwarf, Christian had to suffer painful confinement that only ended with his death. His confinement was unjust, no doubt, but it was richly merited.

Unmourned by his relations, or the aristocracy he had oppressed, Christian's memory lived among the peasants and lower classes, of whom he had been the supposed friend, a friendship that no doubt had no higher aim than his own ends, but which never had occasion to show its true character. His name, consequently, became a watchword among the people, and inspired those who soon after were to be the leaders in great convulsions in the Scandinavian provinces. But this is outside the course of my history.