Boston and the Hanseatic League

Words by:
Jane Keightley
Featured in:
May 2016

I had always heard stories about Boston’s links with the Hanseatic League but did not know a lot about it, so when I heard that Boston had joined the New Hanse I thought it was a perfect opportunity to find out more.
Boston’s connections to northern Europe are often overlooked but in the 13th and 14th centuries they were very important. Boston’s strategic position on the North Sea and on the River Witham helped its early development as a port and its famous St Botolph’s Fair attracted merchants from all over Europe, especially the merchants of the German Hanse.

The Hanseatic League was an association of traders from a number of German towns led by Lübeck. Their aim was to encourage trade, maintain monopolies and help each other out in cases of piracy. The towns also raised their own armies and came to each other’s aid when needed. It grew to include the Baltic countries, with Riga and Tallinn being important centres, and also Novgorod and Bergen. With the east coast ports in England such as Boston and King’s Lynn becoming involved, it meant that there were always safe havens for travelling merchants to trade with. The League consisted of major and minor ‘Kontor’. London, Bruges, Bergen and Novgorod were major ones whilst Boston, King’s Lynn, Hull, Yarmouth and Ipswich were all classed as minor Kontor. In England, the Hanseatic traders were sometimes called Esterlings.

During this time, Boston was a very wealthy town with many merchant’s houses, which had links to abbeys in the area including Kirkstead and Revesby. Fountains Abbey also had links to the town, hence the name Fountains Lane. The wool trade was what made Boston rich and between 1279-1288 37% of all wool exported from England went out through the port. The Wool Staple moved from Lincoln to Boston in 1369 and by 1377 Boston was the tenth largest town in the country. By the 1380s the cloth trade in the town was dominated by the Hanseatic merchants, who accounted for 89% of cloth exports through Boston and King’s Lynn. The figure from 1377-1427 was 98%. Boston also traded in wax, dried fish and fish oil, furs and goatskins. The place where they traded from in Boston was called the Steelyard, which has nothing to do with steel but is an anglicised version of ‘Stalhof’. The meaning of the word is ‘a place of sale’ or courtyard where goods were bought or sold from stalls or booths. This was probably situated on the site of the old Boston General Hospital near South Terrace. As well as the Steelyard, the Hanseatic merchants had links with the four different friaries in town – the Augustinian, Franciscan, Dominican and Carmelite orders. A Hanseatic merchant called Wisselus Smalenburg was buried in the Franciscan friary until the 1312 tombstone was moved to Saint Botolph’s church.

In the mid 1400s trade dwindled both in Boston and King’s Lynn and by 1481 the Boston Steelyard was said to be in a state of dilapidation. The decline of Hanseatic trade with Boston did not reflect the national picture at the beginning of the 16th century. The Hanseatic merchants were now concentrating on trading with London. Also at the same time the Bergen Kontor which had been the base for Hanseatic trade with Boston was also in decline. Gradually the power of the league declined and in 1669 the last Hanseatic meeting took place in Lübeck.

Unfortunately, most of Boston’s medieval architecture has been lost except for the magnificent church of St Botolph, known as Boston Stump and St Mary’s Guildhall, which are great reminders of Boston’s more powerful and wealthy past. Boston’s impressive market place, with its surrounding network of lanes, are much as they were in the medieval period and there is Blackfriars Theatre, built from the remains of the old Dominican Friary. Nearby Packhouse Quay (or Town Quay) on the east side of the river was the main medieval unloading site before the docks were built. Its stands close to the existing Customs House, which was built much later. On the west side of the river lies Doughty Quay, beside the High Street. The only known artefact connected to a Hanseatic merchant is a double ended merchant’s seal, discovered in 2002, which belonged to Heinrich Knieval and which is now on display in Boston Guildhall.

In 2009 and 2012 respectively King’s Lynn and Hull became the first two English towns to join the new Hanseatic League, which had been set up in Zwolle in 1980. In both cases, their early medieval histories are closely bound up with their trade connections in northeast Europe. On 7th July 2015 an inaugural conference took place at Boston Guildhall to announce that Boston had joined Die Hanse too.

This all came about through Pamela Cawthorne and Alison Fairman getting together. Pamela is a Bostonian who is now a professor of political economy at the University of Sydney. On a trip back to Boston she noticed the great influx of Eastern Europeans and likened it to when Boston had belonged to the Hanseatic League and suggested that Boston should join Die Hanse. Support for the idea soon grew and Boston was accepted as a member of the Hanseatic League at the 35th International Hanseatic Days held in Viljandi, Estonia in June 2015.

At the inaugural conference at the Guildhall there were presentations on the impact that membership of the Hanse will have on Boston in terms of a greater international profile, enhanced business opportunities, youth exchange visits, development of new tourist attractions, improved community cohesion and new avenues for academic and archaeological research into Boston’s little known Hanseatic past. Speakers there included Dr Cawthorne, who talked about the background to Boston’s application to join the Hanse Group and the historical heritage that underpins it. Councillor Nick Daubney from West Norfolk and King’s Lynn Council gave a presentation on the many advantages King’s Lynn had gained from its membership of the Hanse. Another councillor, Jon Pywell from Hull outlined their objectives in joining. Dr Paul Richards, an historian who is working with King’s Lynn Hanse Group shared his knowledge of the history of the Hanseatic League. Finally, Alison Fairman from Boston Hanse Group talked about the next steps forward as Boston enters fully into Hanse membership. It is also hoped that with the recent migrations to Boston of mainly Eastern Europeans, membership of the Hanse might show the fruitful way that Boston and Eastern Europe have been connected in the past. Plans for the future include a trip to Bergen to the next Hanse Tag in June. Bergen was the sister town to Boston in the 13th century. The well established Hanse Business Forum helps to develop export markets, offers support and financial assistance and a database of the Hansa Economic Forum and the businesses within it. Boston’s businesses now have access to this. The Hanse group has also had a £3,000 grant from Boston Big Local which they are very grateful for. They intend to use this money to help publish The Merchants Trail, a walks leaflet, and a book for Boston schoolchildren about the Hanse.

This is a great opportunity for Boston to benefit from its history and look to the future.

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