Beverley and its Medieval Hanse Trade

The Hanse and Beverley

Beverley Town Council (East Riding of Yorkshire) has been informed by the virtual International Hanse Day in Brilon/Germany, that its application for membership of the Modern Hanseatic League was successful. The announcement was made at the conference of delegates on 6th June 2020.

Hull represents the English contingent of Hanse Towns – currently King’s Lynn, Boston and Ipswich. Now Beverley joins 194 cities in 16 countries across Northern Europe. It is without doubt, the largest network of its kind in the world.

Despite the mention of a hanse huis in Beverley’s ancient charter from 1120, by which the Archbishop of York granted civic privileges and market rights to the town, Beverley has never been a member of the medieval Hanseatic League. Nevertheless, the town was certainly connected to it through regular trade links and its burgesses did extensive business with Hanse merchants for hundreds of years.

The original meaning of the word ‘hanse’ is shrouded in mystery. The first mention in a written text occurs in a bible translation into the Gothic language by Bishop Wulfila in the 4th cent. A.D. There it was used to describe the unit of Roman soldiers, who came to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. Consequently, it describes a group of men who have come together for a common purpose in order to support and protect each other.

During the Middle Ages its meaning expanded to mean guilds of North European merchants trading across the sea, and became the name for the historic Hanseatic League, which dominated Baltic and North Sea trade for over 400 years.

The League was never a centrally organised institution and although the common language of its members was Low German, not all members were German traders. The 12th   and 13th century were a time of expanding populations and economic development in Europe. In the territory of the Teutonic Order alone, 1000 villages and ca 100 towns were established.  Artisans and traders from overpopulated areas of the upper Rhineland, Flanders and Westphalia moved into these new settlements along the southern edge of the Baltic Sea, and northwards into parts, which are now in Russia and Poland. They mixed with the Christian native Slavic people, who survived the Northern Crusades.

The first Hanse merchants carried out their trade in the most unfavourable conditions imaginable and set up their business practices accordingly. They operated in lawless territories, covering vast distances, and were regarded with suspicion as usurers by the clergy. The absence of banks and regulated maritime waters made trade unsafe, and this was exacerbated by various forms of piracy and privateering.

 Hanse cog – backbone of maritime trade.

  All the same, they had vital and highly desirable bulky raw materials and manufactured goods from Germany to sell, which were exchanged against English wool, cloth and lead.  The trade started with individual merchants buying small shares of shipping space in several ships and equally distributing their goods over several ships. These vessels sailed in convoys, often with armed protection, to trade fairs. Their destinations remained the same for several years. Scarborough, York, Hull and Beverley fairs were among those visited. They didn’t pay agents to sell their goods, but instead used kinship ties and family members to represent them. These provided a reciprocal service for their partners. This business practice is almost unique. Only the north African Maghribi are known to have used a similar form of trading.

Although hazardous and risky, trade expanded and flourished and many merchants and their home towns became very wealthy. Naturally, they began to form an elite and controlled their local councils. They used their sheer economic power to form cartels and monopolies.

There were regular merchant meetings in Lübeck. The first such Hanse Day took place in 1361. Policy issues were dealt with by the towns, but individual merchants acted purely in their economic interest. However, control was maintained. Just as you could exclude your fraudulent business partner, a town could also be excluded from the membership of the League which meant you were excluded from the guild and the business community. Wealthy cities such as Cologne could ignore expulsion, at least for a few years, but normally, the reciprocal arrangement meant merchants didn’t dare ruin a partner’s trust. After all, he possessed the local knowledge, was familiar with the local market and maintained extensive business and personal contacts.

Whereas Cologne and Westphalian cities traded via the Steelyard, (the mighty ‘Hansekontor’ in London), the so called ‘Easterlings’ of the Hanse towns of the Baltic, such as Lübeck, Elblag (Elbing) and Gdansk (Danzig) to name but a few, went every year to Lincolnshire and the ‘Great Port of Hull’.

House of the merchant guild and the adjacent town hall – Gdansk.

    The main export from our coast was of course wool, lead and leather. During the early days of the Hanseatic League it managed to jealously guard its privileges and monopoly of overseas trade, but when Edward III. encouraged Flemish weavers to set up their manufacture of English cloth in towns such as Beverley, things began to change. Up until then, all English wool went to the Continent to the great cloth producing centres via the Hanse. The finest ware was produced in Flanders and was of course expensive.

However, as Baltic populations grew, English cloth became a much sought-after commodity. Soon, instead of exporting raw wool, the finished item was sent. The cloth trade expanded quickly and English merchants building on their long-standing partnerships with Hanse merchants began to develop their maritime trade in the Baltic. We know of an English wool staple in Elblag (Elbing) and of ca 150 English merchants trading in Gdansk (Danzig) asking to bring their families and settle permanently there. Many of them came from York, Beverley and Hull.

The East Company of the Merchant Adventurers was the English response to Hanseatic domination in maritime trade.

There are so many stories to tell of how these enterprising local traders and merchants conducted their daily lives and interacted with the culture of their partners and competitors from abroad.

Published by Eva La Pensée        September 2020

Published by Clive La Pensée

Clive La Pensée, ex-science teacher, recognised writer on history of beer, novelist, expressionist, dreamer, believer in never giving up, empathiser, hopeful for a future without class, gender or racial prejudice. It's tough and at the moment, one has to remember distance travelled, rather than where we are at.

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