The Hanseatic League, also called Hanse, was an organisation founded by north German towns and German merchant communities abroad to protect their mutual trading interests. The league dominated commercial activity in northern Europe from the 13th to the 15th century. Hanse was a medieval German word for guild. The origins of the league are to be found in groupings of traders and groupings of trading towns in two main areas: in the east, where German merchants won a monopoly of the Baltic trade, and in the west, where Rhineland merchants (especially from Cologne) were active in the Low Countries and in England. The league came into being when those various associations joined together with Lübeck, having a central position. Northern German mastery of trade in the Baltic Sea was achieved quickly and was completed in the late 12th and the early 13th centuries. The Swedish island of Gotland, was soon established as a major centre for trade in the Baltic and for the Russian trade. German merchants helped establish important towns on the east coast of the Baltic: Riga in Latvia, Tallinn in Estonia and Danzig (now Gdańsk) in Poland. Thus, by the early 13th century Germans had a near monopoly of long-distance trade in the Baltic. The dominance achieved by German traders came about as towns who had a common interest in foreign trade formed Hanses with each other. These towns were dominated by great merchant families and they passed laws to remove obstacles to trade. In 1241, these towns formed alliances to secure action against robbers and pirates.
In the meantime, merchants from Cologne and other towns in the Rhineland had acquired trading rights in Flanders and in England. In London, by the end of the 10th century, they enjoyed royal protection and with their increasing trade in England during the 12th century their privileges increased and many Cologne merchants lived in London. Privileges were granted by Henry II in 1157 and Richard I in 1194 in return for financial aid.
In the last half of the 13th century, the trade of the Baltic and the North Sea was in the hands of German merchants. Grain, timber and pitch, tar, potash and charcoal, wax and honey, and hemp and flax all were traded from the south and east of the Baltic (modern -day Russia and Poland) and shipped to the industrial west (Flanders and England), which in turn sent cloth and other manufactured goods eastwards.
The major aims of the Hanseatic League were:
• Firstly, they wanted their trade to be secure in northern and eastern Europe with action against pirates and land robbers.
• Secondly, they provided lighthouses, marker buoys, trained pilots, and other aids to safe navigation.
• Thirdly, they formed bases abroad and secured favourable terms. • Fourthly, they established a monopoly in trade.
• Fifthly, it was a political organisation to oppose competitors.
The 14th century was marked by strong resistance from local merchants, who were strong enough to try to oust the foreigners and there was a stagnation of trade. This at times led to warfare, such as against the Danes.
The league had no permanent governing body, no permanent officials, and no permanent navy, no central treasury and no central court. It was governed by irregular meetings that met generally at Lübeck. The membership of the league was essentially a membership of towns. At the league’s peak, about the middle of the 14th century, the total number of participating towns certainly surpassed 100, but generally it was less, and it tended to decline in the 15th and 16th centuries. To qualify for membership a town had generally to be German, independent, represented at meetings, and a prompt payer of all dues imposed. There were exceptions with foreign towns participating in its privileges, such as Stockholm and towns in Poland and groups of merchants, resident as far away as Iceland, Ireland, and Spain. The other essential elements in Hanseatic organisation were the Kontor, Gra foreign trading poste. The Kontors owned a large complex of houses, halls, warehouses, and other buildings, where they lived a severely disciplined life and carried on their trade with the natives. In the 15th to 17th centuries, the league declined. The London Kontor was deprived of its privileges by Elizabeth I in 1598 in retaliation for the Holy Roman Empire placing restrictions on English traders. The Hanseatic League also declined through the increasing power of nations such Denmark, England, Prussia, Russia, Sweden and the Dutch Republics. Also, trade became moved away from the North and Baltic seas to the Atlantic and the wider world. Their last diet or meeting was held in 1669.
There is little or no mention of trading with the Hanseatic League in Great Yarmouth’s extensive archive. However, we learn from Henry Swinden’s book, the History of Great Yarmouth that: the merchants of the Hanse had commerce with Yarmouth for herrings etc. and disputed paying the customs. There appears to be no date attached to this note. However, it is clear that Great Yarmouth once hosted a Hanseatic Kontor.