Boston and the Hanseatic League
It may seem a little bit unbelievable that Boston was important for trade in Medieval England. Furthermore, many people would be surprised to know just how much of a large part of England’s trade was dependent upon Boston…
In the 12th Century Boston joined the Hanseatic League, also known as the Hansa. This was a league of merchants, who worked together to protect themselves and their livelihoods. It dominated trade in Northern Europe, stretching from the Baltic to the North Sea. By merchants joining together with other merchants they could protect their cargo. Insurances of today did not exist then. Merchants tended to spread their cargo over several ships, this way if one ship was lost or taken by pirates, the cargo on the other ships remained safe. This secured the merchant’s investment.
The League was a strong force, independent of the leaders and rulers of the countries involved. Additionally it had its own form of military to defend it. It was running and prosperous for 300 years. Its demise was a result of the formation of nation states, and rival business on an international scale.
The origins of the League run back to 1159. At this time the city of Luebeck was being re-built by Henry the Lion, the Duke of Saxony, who had captured the city from Adolf II. Many of the buildings from this time are still standing in their gothic prowess today, retaining the city’s Medieval appearance. Luebeck was known as the capital of the Hanseatic League for centuries. As well as its fundamental role in Medieval trade, Luebeck is also well known for its Marzipan industry.
An alliance was formed in 1241between the German cities of Hamburg and Luebeck, when Hamburg’s natural assets were needed. The people of Europe were mainly Christian, and their diet consisted of a lot of fish. Luebeck had access to Herring, but of course it had no means by which to refrigerate the fish to keep it fresh. This is where Hamburg came in, with its easy access to the salt produced in the salt mines of Kiel. By salting and drying the fish it could be kept fresh on its journey.
After this alliance was formed, more Northern German cities joined, for example Cologne in 1201. At its height there were over 60 cities forming the League. To become a merchant, working with the League, and selling to those within the League, a large sum of money had to be paid. Firstly you had to have Guildsman status, and secondly you had to pay a gold noble worth, which is about £700 today. This bought the Guildsman his ticket to trade.
The majority of Boston’s wealth came from its wool trade. At this time wool was more valuable than gold. More wool was exported through Boston’s port than any other place in the country. It may be surprising to discover that Boston’s port was only second to London’s. From the Lake District and Pennines in the north, down through the Cotswold's to the rolling hills of the West Country, across to the southern Downs and manors of East Anglia, huge numbers of sheep were kept for wool. Flemish and Italian merchants were familiar figures in the wool markets of the day ready to buy wool from lord or peasant alike, all for ready cash. The bales of wool were loaded onto pack-animals and taken to the English ports such as Boston, London, Sandwich and Southampton, from where the precious cargo would be shipped to Antwerp and Genoa.
Boston had become very wealthy. This is demonstrated by its buildings, for example The Stump and the Guildhall at Boston, which were built from the wealth acquired by the booming success of Boston’s trade. The Stump, to this date the largest parish church in England, and with one of the highest towers, can be seen in Lincolnshire’s flat landscape for miles - with a noteworthy view from the tower itself. The Guildhall, having been built from red bricks, rather than the typical material of the time, that of stone or timber, led to the employment of Flemish brick makers. This shows how lavish Boston was able to be in its building projects.
To this day a sheep, pictured on a woolsack, remains in the Boston borough crest, harking back to the time when wool was crucial to Boston’s wealth. Between 1280 and 1290 a grand sum of 3 million fleeces sourced from Lincolnshire and Yorkshire were exported from Boston’s port. The wool was of such a high standard, and had such a big demand that merchants were taking payment for fleeces to be supplied for as much as 15 years ahead.
The trade of the Hanseatic League was so successful, that larger ships needed to be designed to cope with the vast amounts of cargo. The Hansa Cog was built. It could carry a great deal more than traditional ships, ranging from 50 to 200 lasts, as opposed to the previous amount of 20 lasts (a last is approximately equal to two metric tons).
The trade in Boston itself grew so much that the court of London was shut down annually for the people of London to travel to Boston to take advantage of its trading opportunities. With the expansion of exports of wool, in turn came exotic imports, such as figs, currants, spices, silks, furs and wine. Interestingly, the timber used for building the Guildhall was sourced from the Baltic countries, as part of these exotic imports.
Unfortunately, Boston’s successful trade was hit massively when the River Witham began to silt up. Queen Elizabeth tried to help pay for it's maintenance,to stop it from silting up. She awarded the borough of the Charter for the Jurisdiction of the Admiralty for The Wash in 1573. This gave permission for the borough to collect revenue from ships that were using the Wash to trade. It is interesting to note that the Mayor of Boston retains the title Admiral of the Wash. However Queen Elizabeth’s attempts did not ease the situation. The silting up of the River Witham brought devastation to Boston’s trade, as the ships could no longer gain access to Boston’s port. The drying up of the river in turn directly caused the drying up of Boston’s trade.