The Merchants of Beverley and the Tudor Age

This sounds a very parochial title, but Renaissance Beverley was anything but parochial. Beverley merchants traded (and thus were influencers) across Europe – as far East as present-day Russia and south to Italy and beyond. Of course, it was two-way traffic and ideas on trade, religion and art found their way back to the north of England. We are unaware of this dialogue, because then as now, London was the hub. If you arrived by boat in London in the 16th century, you were aware of an extensive building complex with a tower, a large crane and steps down to the Thames waterfront – a complex covering 0.6 ha (1.3 acres).

Contemporary drawing of the Steelyard

Called the ‘Steelyard’, it provided living quarters, common rooms, a
garden, and spacious warehouses and was inhabited by around 80 young, unmarried German merchants, who had to abide by almost monastic rules while residing there.
So, this wasn’t about kings and queens or nobility, but about adventurous savvy traders and merchants.
Facing the street was the ‘Rhenish Wine House,’ which was largely a
courtyard and open to visitors. Nowadays this is the site of Cannon Street Tube
Station in Cheapside and next door was the quarter occupied by German traders
and artisans with their families. It included a ropewalk, the usual workshops and
of course breweries. Cheapside comes from Old English – ceapan, to buy, itself
related to the Dutch, German and Scandanavian – kopen, kaufen, köpa.

The popular ‘Rhenish Wine House’ was frequented by the important and
influential residents of Tudor London including Thomas Cromwell and Thomas
More. The wine was very good and the latest news from the continent were
hotly debated. The Hanse merchants residing in the Steelyard were part of an
influential, international and very wealthy elite, who maintained their contacts
across Europe through extensive correspondence.

These letters were a vital part of the business and contained information important to Tudor politicians. They had every reason to keep up-to-date with events across the water.

Another notable visitor to the Wine House was the painter Hans Holbein the Younger. He had returned to London in 1526 from his home in Basle, because there was no work for him in Switzerland. The strict Swiss protestants rather destroyed religious images, so he set up house next door to the Steelyard in Dowgate and began to paint portraits of merchants. He also completed a mural for the main hall of the Steelyard.

Derek Born

This portrait of Derek Born hangs in the King’s Closet in Windsor Castle. A Cologne citizen and only 24 years of age, he supplied the King with weaponry and other military equipment from the Rhineland and exported lead from England in return. Such trade became even more important after the Northern revolt, ‘The Pilgrimage of Grace’. Henry VIII realised that he had to build an armed force, which would be under his royal command. He also feared the threat of a foreign invasion, after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the Holy Roman Emperor’s niece.

Derek Born and Hans Holbein were also frequent guests at Thomas Cromwell’s house in Austin Friars. Holbein’s portrait of his host depicts a profoundly serious, hard-working man, an image that is undoubtedly correct. However, Cromwell was also a generous host and a lover of the arts, who provided sumptuous feasts for his friends and contacts. There were imported spices and marzipan from Lübeck. If you go to Lakeland in Toll Gavel during Christmas time, you can still enjoy fine Lübeck marzipan from Niederegger.

Thomas Cromwell

The Lübeckers also presented him with a live elk and the merchants from Danzig (Gdansk), not to be outdone, gave him four bears, which were kept in his garden. Thomas Cromwell and aristocratic ladies enjoyed hawking. Birds for hunting were raised in Norway and imported, sitting on purpose-built poles in Hanse ships.

Hans Holbein the Younger produced many portraits of merchants at the Steelyard. He lived for a while in the More household on the recommendation of Erasmus, so he was well connected.

Portraits were fashionable in English art and Cromwell saw the painter’s potential. He suggested to the king he should employ him as one of his court painters. Holbein remained a sought after artist in London until his sudden death in 1543.

The wealthy gentlemen of the Steelyard were instrumental in negotiating the trade privileges with the monarchy, but they were by no means the only Hansards trading in England. In fact, the League’s influence extended across Northern Europe and was a major player in the economic and political development of the 13th to the 17th centuries.

Their ships, called ‘Kogges,’ sailed to most ports on the English East coast and when challenged, claimed the same advantageous conditions as their partners in London. They owned warehouses and living quarters in Hull and York and certainly were guests at Beverley Guild Hall.

By the time of Henry VIII, England produced and exported more woollen cloth than raw wool and this trade spread from Lübeck eastwards. It was conducted by Hanse merchants, known as the ‘Easterlings,’ among their English contemporaries.

Hanse trade was organised in small networks, based on family and personal relationships. Over time, this enabled their English business partners to infiltrate the Hanseatic network. Increasingly, English merchants claimed their share of this lucrative and expanding business. The Northern ports had cornered the Baltic market and since the middle of 14th century Beverley merchants travelled extensively and lived in the state of the Teutonic Order. They were initially very welcome, because many English knights fought alongside the Order during the Northern Crusades.

These burgesses were away from home for many months during the summer and some decided to live permanently abroad with their families. Like their Hanse partners, they had to stay in touch through correspondence. Their letters contained business and private news. In a medieval household, there was no separation between work and family life. A merchant’s wife was very much involved in the business, especially when the master of the house was abroad and might never come back!

Beverlonians were familiar with life in the Baltic and stayed in thriving and wealthy cities like Stralsund, Elbing (Elblag) and Danzig (Gdansk). They knew about the beautiful large houses built of stone and the splendid guild and town halls. They also must have stopped over in the large and forbidding fortresses of the Teutonic Order.

Castillo de Malbork

These Beverley traders received news from home and so knew that in 1520 the tower of St. Mary’s collapsed. Doubtless, the letters they sent back contained news of Martin Luther’s pamphlet titled ‘The Freedom of a Christian Man’. It was short, easy to print and to smuggle. The distribution became a lucrative business for the Hansards, many of whom had converted to Lutheranism.

Tyndale’s bible translation had already arrived from Antwerp in the same way and nobody could stop this tide of new readable material rolling off the printing presses. Inspired by their German drinking companions in the Steelyard, Luther’s words convinced several young London lawyers to convert. Amongst them was a man named William Roper, who was also a member of parliament.

William Roper

He married Margaret More, Thomas More’s favourite daughter. She was one of the most learned women of her age and assisted her eminent father in his work. She was the only family member to visit him in prison after his arrest by Henry VIII.

Holbein depicts her reading a book, and in that moment, looking up at her father. If you study the painting of the Mores, it is as if she says: “I haven’t got time to sit here for hours. I have work to do!”

After their wedding, the couple lived in the More household, which meant William had to convert back to the Catholicism.

More news of upheaval came in 1525 from the Baltic. The Teutonic Order’s 37th Grand Master, Albert of Prussia, had left the Order and converted to Protestantism. It was on Luther’s advice that he secularised the former Monastic State, which emerged as the Duchy of Prussia. So, when the reconstruction of St. Mary’s began, the wealthy burgesses of Beverley had to cope with more news of tumultuous events overseas.

One place of worship for merchants was St Nicolai church in Stralsund. Nicolai is the patron saint of sailors and merchants. This building served as a church, town council chamber, as well as a reception hall for trade delegations. In its heyday, Stralsund was second only to Lübeck in the Baltic, in terms of wealth and importance. The columns in St. Nicolai still have the original paintings beneath the heads of merchants and knights. Merchant marks on the side identified the individual portrayed.

St Nicolai columns in Stralsund

We know that during a dispute, the English merchant colony moved for a time from Gdansk to Stralsund. It is tempting to wonder if the heads of the merchants, who helped to finance the restoration after the collapse of the central tower in St. Mary’s, were inspired by what they had seen on pillars in Stralsund. Despite some original remnants of polychromy, we don’t know how the columns in St Mary’s were painted. What is clear, is that Tudor merchants proudly had their full names chiselled in stone underneath the head, not just merchant marks such as the much earlier medieval examples in Stralsund. The 600 unique wooden ceiling bosses in the church are another sign of a new age. It seems as if the carvers’ images have come out of hiding from under the medieval misericord seats and are now visible for us all to enjoy. Tudor Renaissance! A Tudor bust of Mr and Mrs Crossley (a Beverley merchant family) look down at the Holbein portraits. We might wonder if we, too, are not living through times of great change. This year the town of Beverley has joined the modern Hanseatic League!

See website:

This article was published in the Christmas edition of the parish newsletter ‘White Rabbit’. Inspired by the exhibition(1st Oct. to 31st Dec. 2020) of Tudor paintings from the National Portrait Gallery, London, it marked the 500th anniversary of the collapse of the central tower. (Reform, Rebellion, Restoration – St. Mary’s, Beverley & the Tudors).

Eva La Pensée.

Beverley and District Civic Society Beverley, January 2021

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.

2 thoughts on “The Merchants of Beverley and the Tudor Age

  1. One of the things I liked in the TV dramatisation of ‘Wolf Hall’ was Tom and family receiving dangerous, smuggled-in Protestant books from Germany – and thinking there was a good chance they’d entered via Hull…

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