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The Hanseatic League

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In the mid-thirteenth century, North German seafaring merchants joined together to form the Hanseatic League in order to pursue their shared economic interests. Throughout the North Sea and Baltic Sea region, up to 200 towns and cities were members of the League, as were several large trading houses. For over 400 years, the Hanseatic League played a major role in shaping economies, trade and politics before losing its significance in the mid-seventeenth century.

In 1159, Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, rebuilt the town of Lübeck. This has sometimes been cited as the beginnings of the Hanseatic League. Certainly, the development of the cog – a wider and deeper merchant ship that required a proper harbour – which was built at Lübeck played a major role in developing trade in the Baltic.

However, despite the increasing importance of German towns during the twelfth century, Gotland remained the main trading centre in the north, its importance having developed during the Viking Period. In 1161, after a series of wars, Henry the Lion made peace between the Germans and the men of Gotland. Part of this peace agreement was the right for German merchants to visit Gotland which resulted in a settlement of German merchants in Visby.

For a few years the German merchants remained a separate community, but they soon merged with the existing settlement and became a single town dominated by Germans. International trade in Visby was augmented by fairs and this wealthy town became the greatest seaport in Northern Europe.

In 1361, Visby was taken by Waldemar Atterdag of Denmark and Gotland became a Danish possession. As a result, Visby’s trading importance became undermined by the continuing hostility between the Danish Kings and the Hanseatic League. Even so, by this time Visby’s role had been lost to the German Hansa towns, especially Lübeck. The advances of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia meant that the coastal route from Russia was more secure, so that there was no need to use the route via Gotland.

 Next page: The Town of Lübeck and its Role in the Hanseatic League