The League had a fluid structure, but its members shared some characteristics. First, most of the Hansa cities either started as independent cities or gained independence through the collective bargaining power of the League, though such independence remained limited. The Hanseatic free imperial cities owed allegiance directly to the Holy Roman Emperor, without any intermediate tie to the local nobility.
Another similarity involved the cities' strategic locations along trade routes. At the height of its power in the late 14th century, the merchants of the Hanseatic League succeeded in using their economic clout and sometimes their military might—trade routes needed protecting and the League's ships sailed well-armed—to influence imperial policy.
The League also wielded power abroad. Between 1361 and 1370, the League waged war against Denmark. Initially unsuccessful, Hanseatic towns in 1368 allied in the Confederation of Cologne, sacked Copenhagen and Helsingborg, and forced King Valdemar IV of Denmark and his son-in-law Hakon VI of Norway to grant the League 15% of the profits from Danish trade in the subsequent peace-treaty of Stralsund in 1370, thus gaining an effective trade and political monopoly in Scandinavia. This favourable treaty was the high-water mark of Hanseatic power. The commercial privileges were renewed in the Treaty of Vordingborg, 1435.
The Hansa also waged a vigorous campaign against pirates. Between 1392 and 1440, maritime trade of the League faced danger from raids of the Victual Brothers and their descendants, privateers hired in 1392 by Albert of Mecklenburg against the Queen Margaret I of Denmark. In the Dutch-Hanseatic War (1438—41), the merchants of Amsterdam sought and eventually won free access to the Baltic and broke the Hansa monopoly. As an essential part of protecting their investment in trade and ships, the League trained pilots and erected lighthouses.
Exclusive trade routes often came at a high price. Most foreign cities confined the Hansa traders to certain trading areas and to their own trading posts. They could seldom, if ever, interact with the local inhabitants, except in the matter of actual negotiation. Moreover, many people, merchant and noble alike, envied the power of the League. For example, in London the local merchants exerted continuing pressure for the revocation of the privileges of the League. The refusal of the Hansa to offer reciprocal arrangements to their English counterparts exacerbated the tension. King Edward IV of England reconfirmed the league's privileges in the Treaty of Utrecht (1474) despite this hostility, in part thanks to the significant financial contribution the League made to the Yorkist side during The Wars of the Roses. A century later, in 1597, Queen Elizabeth I of England expelled the League from London and the Steelyard closed the following year. The very existence of the League and its privileges and monopolies created economic and social tensions that often crept over into rivalry between League members.
Rise of rival powers
The economic crises of the late 14th century did not spare the Hansa. Nevertheless, its eventual rivals emerged in the form of the territorial states, whether new or revived, and not just in the west: Poland triumphed over the Teutonic Knights in 1466; Ivan III of Russia ended the entrepreneurial independence of Hansa's Novgorod kantor in 1478. New vehicles of credit imported from Italy outpaced the Hansa economy, in which silver coin changed hands rather than bills of exchange.
In the 14th century, tensions between Prussian region and the "Wendish" cities (Lübeck and eastern neighbours) increased. Lübeck was dependent on its role as centre of the Hansa, being on the shore of the sea without a major river. It was on the entrance of the land route to Hamburg, but this land route could be bypassed by sea travel around Denmark and through the Sound. Prussia's main interest, on the other hand, was primarily the export of bulk products like grain and timber, which were very important for England, the Low Countries, and later on also for Spain and Italy.
In 1454, the year of the marriage of Elisabeth of Austria to the Jagiellonian king, the towns of the Prussian Confederation rose against the dominance of the Teutonic Order and asked king Casimir IV of Poland for help. Danzig, Thorn, and Elbing became part of the Kingdom of Poland, (1466–1569 referred to as Royal Prussia) by the Second Peace of Thorn (1466). Polish-Lithuania in turn was heavily supported by the Holy Roman Empire through family connections and by military assistance under theHabsburgs. Kraków, then the capital of Poland, was also a Hansa city with German burghers around 1500. The lack of customs borders on the River Vistula after 1466 helped to gradually increase Polish grain export, transported to the sea down the Vistula, from 10,000 tonnes per year in the late 15th century to over 200,000 tonnes in the 17th century. The Hansa-dominated maritime grain trade made Poland one of the main areas of its activity, helping Danzig to become the Hansa's largest city.
The member cities took responsibility for their own protection. In 1567 a Hanseatic League Agreement reconfirmed previous obligations and rights of League members, such as common protection and defense against enemies. The Prussian Quartier cities of Thorn, Elbing, Königsberg and Riga and Dorpat also signed. When pressed by the king of Poland-Lithuania, Danzig remained neutral and would not allow ships running for Poland into its territory. They had to anchor somewhere else, such as atPautzke (now Puck, Poland).
A major benefit for the Hansa was its control of the shipbuilding market, mainly in Lübeck and in Danzig. The Hansa sold ships everywhere in Europe, including Italy. They drove out the Dutch, because Holland wanted to favour Bruges as a huge staple market at the end of a trade route. When the Dutch started to become competitors of the Hansa in shipbuilding, the Hansa tried to stop the flow of shipbuilding technology from Hansa towns to Holland. Danzig, a trading partner of Amsterdam, tried to stall the decision. Dutch ships sailed to Danzig to take grain from the city directly, to the dismay of Lübeck. Hollanders also circumvented the Hansa towns by trading directly with North German princes in non-Hansa towns. Dutch freight costs were much lower than those of the Hansa, and the Hansa were excluded as middlemen.
When Bruges, Antwerp and Holland all became part of the same country, the Duchy of Burgundy, they actively tried to take over the monopoly of trade from the Hansa, and the staple market from Bruges was moved to Amsterdam. The Dutch merchants aggressively challenged the Hansa and met with much success. Hanseatic cities in Prussia, Livonia supported the Dutch against the core cities of the Hansa in northern Germany. After several naval wars between Burgundy and the Hanseatic fleets, Amsterdam gained the position of leading port for Polish and Baltic grain from the late 15th century onwards. The Dutch regarded Amsterdam's grain trade as the mother of all trades (Moedernegotie). Denmark and England tried to destroy the Netherlands in the First Navigation War (1652–1654). The war ended in a truce, but the Anglo-Dutch rivalry continued. A Second Dutch Navigation War (1665–1667) broke out which also ended inconclusively. Later, there was a Third Navigation War (1672–1674), which also resulted in another failed attempt to destroy Holland.
Nuremberg in Franconia developed an overland route to sell formerly Hansa-monopolized products from Frankfurt via Nuremberg and Leipzig to Poland and Russia, trading Flemish cloth and French wine in exchange for grain and furs from the east. The Hansa profited from the Nuremberg trade by allowing Nurembergers to settle in Hansa towns, which the Franconians exploited by taking over trade with Sweden as well. The Nuremberger merchant Albrecht Moldenhauer was influential in developing the trade with Sweden and Norway, and his sons Wolf and Burghard established themselves in Bergen and Stockholm, becoming leaders of the Hanseatic activities locally. (... ...)