The Hanseatic League was a conglomerate of cities and merchant communities that was articulated in the form of a commercial and defensive federation. It was created in 1358 and is considered to have lasted until 1630.
However, some cities that were part of this federation continued to maintain ties for some decades later. It consisted of cities in northern Germany, as well as settlements and commercial enclaves located in the Baltic Sea, the Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, Russia and other Baltic territories. Its headquarters was in Lübeck.
The origins of the Hanseatic League
The Hanseatic League has its roots in the middle years of the 12th century. At that time, in various cities in northern Germany, the commercial bourgeoisie managed to seize power. With this, these sectors were able to control the trade of the Baltic area. Furthermore, the political incapacity of the Germanic Empire, in a context of flourishing commerce and greater political and economic freedoms, favored the cities to organize themselves autonomously. With the city of Lübeck as a landmark, the guilds (Hansa, in German of the time) promoted the trade of various products, such as wood, wax, amber or cereals, with other areas of the Baltic that had less social and economic development. In this context, various cities began to create alliances, leagues, to defend their common interests and protect themselves from attacks by other states and pirate incursions.
In the mid-thirteenth century, Lübeck, allied with Hamburg. Later, other cities, such as Bruges (thanks to a commercial agreement with Flanders), Rostock or Wismar, which joined this alliance. Along with the cities, colonies of German merchants who operated in other cities in Europe, such as London, joined the Hansa of Cologne. This was possible after the permission given by Henry III of England to the merchants of Hamburg and Lübeck to operate in his kingdom.
The cooperation between cities and merchant colonies was growing and consolidating, until reaching the form of confederation. Thus, in Lübeck, in 1356 the first Diet met, that is, the assembly of the League, when its official structure began to be created.
The expansion of the Hanseatic League: between cooperation and confederation
With the launch of the official structure of the Hanseatic League, the door to a new stage was opened for the cities that made it up. Once the ties between the allied cities had been consolidated, expansion was a matter of time. This expansion was based on the city that held the capital, Lübeck, thanks to its good geographical location. Its location, next to the Baltic Sea, allowed access to trade routes that led to Scandinavia and Russia. Thanks to various agreements, such as the one signed with the city of Visby, it was possible to access the inner port of Novgorod.
Despite the existence of an official structure, the League was not able to articulate a true political unity. In fact, although the adhered cities reached 170, in practice the assemblies were convened irregularly and, even, many cities declined the possibility of sending representatives. Therefore, during this period, the League oscillated between the will to become a united political entity and a simple tool for cooperation between different autonomous or independent cities.
The long decline of the League until its disappearance
The autonomous character of the cities that made up the Hanseatic League was one of the main reasons for its decline. The lack of a political unit, which would allow a sufficiently coordinated action, beyond certain episodes, especially warlike ones (such as the war against Denmark, between 1368 and 1370), eroded the strength that it had managed to achieve.
In addition, while it is true that being part of the Hansa allowed new trade routes to be reached, on the other hand, many cities restricted Hanseatic merchants to certain areas of the city. This limited the possibility of contact with the indigenous populations and, therefore, the commercial opportunities.
A third element that had a negative influence was the appearance of modern states, which replaced the political structures of feudalism, from the end of the 15th century. Cities, which acted more or less autonomously, became integrated into the framework of sovereign states on which, ultimately, they depended, which limited the autonomy of their movements.
Finally, the discovery of the New World, together with the consolidation of the mercantile and maritime power of the Netherlands and England, was the fourth element that negatively affected the League. With new maritime routes, far removed from the commercial routes to which the Hanseatics had access, and the consolidation of commercial empires, the League was not able to compete at the same level.
In 1630, only three cities were part of the Hanseatic League: Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg. With these three members, their survival, formally, was maintained for 300 more years.
The Hanseatic League: a reflection of a time
The existence, development and disappearance of the Hanseatic League reflect the future of Europe during the centuries that it existed. The power achieved by autonomous cities, governed by merchants, was the result of a change in the social and economic structure, in which the feudal nobility was losing ground. It also shows how, during the late Middle Ages, economic power went from being based on land ownership to being based on commercial control. His agony also coincides with the consolidation of the modern state, which increasingly managed to influence all areas, within the territorial framework over which it extended its power.
An increasingly fierce central power will reduce to a minimum the networks and alliances made outside the State, which in turn tried to homogenize the markets within its borders.
At the same time, the displacement of the commercial axis, towards the New World, left these cities in a secondary position. Trade, and therefore the power to which it was linked, ended up drastically diminishing.