When the European Union was just a twinkle in history’s eye, the Hanseatic League acted as a powerful pan-European bloc whose reach stretched from England to Russia, from Scandinavia to the German Alps. Such was its power, it issued ultimatums to sovereign states and launched its own fleet when diplomacy failed.
Saxon duke Henry the Lion’s guarantee of mercantile independence from the Church in 1159 established Lübeck as a base for North German trading guilds (Hanse; Hansa in English), and prompted mutual security deals at a time when there was no national government to safeguard trade. The momentum for a league proper began in 1241, when Lübeck, with easy access to Baltic trade routes, struck a deal with Hamburg on the North Sea to tie up exports of Lüneburg salt – a smart move in an era when states waged war over the “white gold”. As their influence grew in a fragmented Europe, towns from Belgium to Poland signed up to benefit from the collective bargaining power, and league colonists established Hansa outposts in cities as far away as Aberdeen and Novgorod, trading league bills-of-exchange to the chagrin of commercial centres such as London. Throughout, Lübeck remained the headquarters for annual meetings and was the arbiter in Hansa law.
The league’s primary directive to maintain trade routes inevitably led to its emergence as a political and military force. The merchant cartel fixed prices of essential commodities such as timber, fur, tar, flax and wheat. And after an international fleet of Hansa members united in 1368, Danish king Valdemar IV was forced to cede Scandinavian trade rights (and fifteen percent of his own profits) to the medieval superpower. The victory proved a high-water mark. Strong-arm tactics inevitably bred resentment, particularly among the great seafaring countries like England and Holland which had been deliberately excluded to favour the league’s chosen markets. Both nations nurtured fleets to defeat the competition. New World trade routes leached away more influence and the chaotic Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s was the final nail in the coffin for a league that was already crumbling from internal tension. Only nine members attended the last annual meeting in 1669, and when the league was formerly wound up in 1862 only Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen remained, which perhaps explains why each still declares itself a Hansestadt.