(Or, in a travesty of the old saying, Hansa is as Hansa does)
Over time, King’s Lynn’s trading links with Europe have developed and evolved and continue to do so today. Records held in the King’s Lynn Borough Archives can be used to explore the history of trade between King’s Lynn and Europe through the Hanseatic League.
The Hanseatic League, usually referred to in German as the Hanse, had its origins in the Baltic, and was an association of merchants and trading towns; wealthy, influential men and organisations with vested interests, set up to protect and advance their enterprises. It has to be said that the methods employed were not always of the most legal, and at times were tantamount to piracy.
In August 2009, the Norfolk Record Office mounted an exhibition “King’s Lynn and the Hansa”, revisited in this post.
The history of the Hanse
The Hanse stretched from Reval (now Tallinn), in modern day Estonia, to Kampen on the Zuidersee coast, in modern day Netherlands, and up the Rhine as far as Cologne. It peaked at a membership of more than 2,000 towns, and established trading centres abroad, one being based in King’s Lynn.
The King’s Lynn and the Hanse exhibition booklet includes a historic timeline of King’s Lynn’s European story.
Various documents held in the King’s Lynn Borough Archives refer to Easterlings, or Eastlanders, visiting the town from the 12th century and taking up residence. These are also variously referred to as Estrych, Estreys, l’Estreis or, in the Latin, Estrensis (time here for a visit to the l’Estrange Arms, I would suggest!). Merchants of Lübeck and Cologne are documented as becoming part of the King’s Lynn community. The bede roll of deceased members of the Gild of the Holy Trinity (already familiar from the history of Snettisham Farm) lists among others:
• Folcard, servant of Bernard Estrensis
• Siward de Lubek (Lübeck)
• Richard Parvus Estrensis
• Stephen de Colne (Cologne)
King’s Lynn’s position on the Wash and the Great Ouse gave it vital access inland and to the North Sea, the Channel, the Baltic and Scandinavia, a factor vital in the mid-1700s, as shown by the Durham Memorial and the River Wear Scheme. The Port of Lynn appears on maps dating back to the 13th century, and there is a reference to the establishment of a steelyard (German, Stalhof), a Hanseatic depot, in the town.
Prosperity and expansion
Prosperity led to the expansion of the town towards the Tuesday Market Place, and the development of the port facilities. Various documents illustrate this, including repairs and maintenance of the crane at Trinity Guild Staithe (now Common Staithe) in 1385-86, accounts for receipts for the use of the crane and the quay and a description of the property of the Borough in Common Staithe Yard, a list of goods passing through the King’s Lynn tollbooth. These include squirrel furs, pepper, salmon, herrings, iron and wine.
There are also various undated letters to the towns of Wismar, Rostock and Stralsund in the early 15th century that encourage greater trade and co-operation.
The latter, contained in William Asshebourne’s book (KLBA, KL/C 10/2), states that, “Ye might frely comen to the burgh of Lenne and frely passe with your shippes and merchandises”, and, “that ye may come to us and we to you with shippes and godes as iche trewe merchant shuld”.
Managing negotiations and disputes
However, the path did not always run smooth. There were negotiations and embassies, but also disputes. In 1389 there was a plea from the mayor of King’s Lynn to the Consuls of Danzig for the recovery of money from an arrested ship and reference to a ship arrested at Marienburg in 1409.
An agreement was concluded with the Bishop of Norwich in 1309 concerning regulations for trade with alien merchants.
On June 6th, 1404, Henry IV granted letters patent following disputes among English merchants in Prussia, Denmark, Norway, the Hanse, and Sweden, granting them powers of self-government, self-regulation and the election of governors:
A related document is a letter from King’s Lynn merchants in Danzig, asking for endorsement of ordinances they had drawn up. Other documents record various disputes, one such being an open letter in French concerning a Bremen merchant’s ship seized by the French off Dunwich, carrying among other things cargo owned by King’s Lynn merchants:
In 1434, apprentices from Lynn who were in Prussia and Norway were admitted as Freemen of Lynn and 1435 saw the election of representatives from King’s Lynn for Anglo-Prussian talks in Bruges.
Complaints and incidents
Not all interactions were friendly. There was also a complaint concerning the theft of four anchors in the Norwegian port of Manstround (Marstrand). The letter states that Nicholas Wapull, a Prussian, with his ship’s company had cut the anchor cables and stolen them. It asks for the Master General of the Teutonic Order to help in securing the return of the stolen property.
Other incidents are also recorded, including attacks on ships by privateers sailing under the colours of the Hanse which occurred in 1428-9 around Bergen.
These disputes continued for many years. There is a letter of April 21st, 1462 to Bremen complaining about the unjustified imprisonment of King’s Lynn merchants. The Lynn men had apparently been kept in dreadful conditions. Twenty years later, on September 13th 1481, the Archbishop of Nidrosia (Trondheim) sued for peace following recent attacks on merchant ships round Bergen, and conflicts over the Iceland fisheries.
There is a Hall Book entry for August 4th 1476, when tensions led to the imposition of new rules on the commercial activities of English and Hanseatic merchants and 1422-1450 saw various records connected with the arrest of a Danish ship, including the arrest of the ship at Cley, and a deputation being sent to Denmark to deal with the issue.
Debate continued about the Iceland trade, subsidies collected in Prussia, and merchants’ opposition to that, and there is a letter from the King to the Esterlings. New ordinances were put in place for merchant strangers.
The gradual demise of the Hanse
A building was acquired by the Hanse as a trading post, or Steelyard (from the German Stalhof) in 1475. The building was leased by local merchants from the mid-16th century, perhaps indicating the gradual demise of the Hanse.
One of these merchants, Edward Everard, bought the building in 1751 for £800, renaming it St Margaret’s House, due to its proximity to the Church. In 2009 it was renamed again, becoming Hanse House, a reflection of the thriving link today between the town and its Baltic partners, and the annual Hanse Day. It is still to be seen, the only surviving Hanseatic building in England.
Researched and compiled by Pete Widdows, NRO Research Blogger