Zenith and Decline
The Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Order
in the Late 14th and Early 15th Centuries


Essay by
Jennifer Monroe Franson


September 2000

Non-princely powers:
merchants & knights

The Middle Ages are fixed in the popular consciousness as an epoch of kings and kingdoms. But for much of the medieval period, Northern Europe was dominated by two great non-princely powers. One was the Hanseatic League, a confederation of merchant towns more properly called the Hansa Teutonoricum, or German Hansa; the other was the military order of crusading knights known as the Deutsche Orden or Teutonic Order. At first glance, these two northern powers — a community of merchants and a brotherhood of crusader knights — might seem to have little or nothing in common. In fact, however, the two sprang from the same soil, if not from the same roots; they not only occupied overlapping geographic territories, but were deeply interconnected in a myriad of other ways as well. This paper will provide a brief overview of the Hansa and the Order and examine the connections between them at a pivotal period for both powers — the late 14th and early 15th Centuries.

The German Hansa

The community of merchant towns known as the German Hansa controlled trade in and through the Baltic Sea for much of the Middle Ages; to a lesser extent, it dominated North Sea trade as well. Hanseatic trade routes stretched from Novgorod in the east to London in the west. In general, Hanseatic merchants transported raw materials from the eastern Baltic to Western Europe, returning with finished articles and luxury items from the west to sell in the Baltic region.1 Goods traded by Hanseatic merchants included finished cloth from England and the Low Countries; furs and wax from Novgorod and Livonia; salted herrings from Skania, at the southern tip of Sweden; salt from Bourgneuf (used to preserve the Skania herrings); timber and grain from Poland and Prussia; beer, flax and linen from Germany; wines from Spain, France, and the Rhineland; amber from Prussia; and copper and iron from Sweden.2

(The word "hansa" itself simply means "association" or "community,"3 so "Hanseatic League" is to some extent a meaningless phrase.) [ Sources and Notes for this essay are on a separate page.]

In general, the Hansa's objectives (not necessarily in this order) were as follows:

  • To obtain, expand and defend protections and special trade privileges for Hanseatic merchants (preferably without granting reciprocal privileges to its trading partners);
  • To protect Hansa trade routes by suppressing piracy and brigandage;
  • To suppress its competitors (merchants from England, the Low Countries, etc.).

Although it was willing to use military force to achieve these objectives, the Hansa generally preferred to gain its ends by the use of more pacific tactics - diplomacy, boycotts and trade embargoes.

A brief history of the Hansa

Although it was to reach its zenith as a confederation of towns, the German Hansa began as an association of individual traders; most scholars follow Philippe Dollinger's lead in referring to this early phase of Hanseatic history as "the Hansa of merchants."4 During the 13th Century, however, the loose associations of individual German merchants evolved into "the Hansa of Towns," and it was in this incarnation that the German Hansa became "a front-rank political power in Northern Europe."5 The size and membership of "the Hansa of Towns" varied as cities joined (willingly or under pressure), defected or were expelled. At its zenith, the Hansa included nearly 200 towns6 and boasted four foreign trading stations, or Kontore, which were located in the cities of London, Bruges, Bergen, and Novgorod.7 One constant in the history of the Hansa seems to have been the leadership role played by the North German town of Lübeck, which was preeminent among the Hanseatic cities almost from the beginning.8

Although the precise origins of the Hansa are difficult to pinpoint, Dollinger and others list the foundation of Lübeck in 1159 as the beginning point in the association's history.9 By the middle of the 13th Century, the transition from "the Hansa of merchants" to "the Hansa of the Towns" was well on its way. In 1242, the cities of Lübeck and Hamburg concluded a formal treaty wherein they agreed to share the expense of keeping the roads between them free of brigands;10 a 1259 agreement among Lübeck, Rostock and Wismar provided for united resistance to pirates;11 and a further agreement among those same towns in 1264 committed them to providing mutual assistance in time of war.12 In 1356, the first general Hanseatic council, or Hansetag, was held in Lübeck.13

The Hansa established itself decisively as a major political and military power in the Baltic region in the late 14th Century, when the alliance of merchant towns declared war on — and defeated — the kingdom of Denmark and its ally, Norway. The resulting Treaty of Stralsund, signed in 1370, confirmed Hanseatic trade privileges and protections in Denmark; in a second treaty, the Danes ceded four fortresses on the Sound (with two-thirds of their income) to the Hansa for 15 years and gave the Hansa veto power over the election of the next Danish king.14 Tellingly, the Hansa to chose exercise direct control over the Sound fortresses only for a year, after which they transferred their authority (for a fee) to Henning von Putbus, Captain of the Realm of Denmark.15 The Hansa was unique among political entities of the time in that it had no interest in acquiring or annexing land; instead, "it fought exclusively to further its trading interests."16

The Teutonic Order

Like the better-known Knights of the Temple and Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, the Teutonic Knights were members of a military order born of the crusades. Unlike these older orders, however, the Teutonic Order maintained a distinct national identity which connected it with Germany17 and led it eventually to focus its efforts and its operations in the Baltic region. There the Order conducted crusades against Baltic pagans and founded a feudal state,18 eventually becoming sole ruler of Prussia and Livonia.19

The Order was commanded by a Grand Master or Hochmeister and divided into three provinces (one in southern Germany, one in Prussia, and one in Livonia) each ruled by a provincial commander or Landmeister. Each province was further divided into commanderies, or Komtureis.20

In general, the objectives of the Teutonic Knights (again, not necessarily in this order!) were:

  • To Christianize the indigenous Baltic peoples;
  • To subjugate those same peoples; and
  • To expand the Order's territories.

In fact, while conversion of the non-Christian population was one of the Order's stated objectives, it was not — or at least did not remain — the primary one, as discussed below.

A brief history of the Teutonic Order

The Teutonic Order had its origins in a crusader hospital founded during the siege of Acre in 1190;21 in 1197 it was formally organized as the Order of Saint Mary of the Germans of Jerusalem,22 and it was officially recognized by the pope in 1199.23 Although the Teutonic Order, like the Hospitallers and the Knights Templar, began in the Holy Land and had the defeat of the Saracens as its initial aim, it was poorly positioned to become a major force in that part of the world; "all the important castles and lands had already been granted to the Hospitallers and Templars, and the Teutonic Order there remained small and poor in consequence ..."24

Perhaps fortunately for the Order, the Saracens were not the only non-Christians with lands abutting Christendom. In 1224 a Polish Duke, Conrad of Masovia, asked the Teutonic Order for help in defending his lands against attacks by the pagan Pruzzi, or Prussians.25 The Order — after obtaining guarantees from Emperor Frederick II that it could retain and rule all the lands it conquered26 — agreed, and in 1230 began its decades-long campaign of conquest in the Baltic. The victorious Teutonic Knights founded Kulm in 1232, Marienwerder in 1233, Thorn in 1234, and Elbing in 1237; by 1239 the Knights "... had reached the coast, and had established a network of fortresses from which they could dominate the whole territory."27 In 1237, the Order absorbed a smaller military order, the Brethren of the Sword, which had won lands by crusading in Estonia and Livonia; those territories augmented the Order's holdings.28

Further conquests led to the founding of Konigsburg in 1253. By 1308, the Order had won control of the coastal lands west of the Vistula (including Danzig), cutting Poland off from the sea and thereby guaranteeing that its trade with the west would be conducted through Prussian ports.29 With the conquest of Prussia complete (and the Holy Land irretrievably lost to the crusaders in any case), the Order moved its headquarters from Venice to the Prussian fortress of Marienburg in 1309 and turned its attentions to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the last pagan state in Northern Europe.30

Like the Hansa, the Teutonic Order reached its zenith in the late 14th Century, when kings and noblemen from all over Europe joined the Order in its campaigns against the Lithuanians, and "... for generations, the highest praise that could be given to a Christian nobleman was that he had become a knight in Prussia."31

Connections between the Hansa and the Order

The histories of the Hansa and the Teutonic Order were intertwined almost from their beginnings. As mentioned above, the Teutonic Order had its origins in a crusader hospital founded during the siege of Acre; the founders were German merchants from the towns of Lübeck and Bremen.32 In this sense, the Order and the Hansa sprang from the same roots; merchants from Lübeck and other North German towns provided the source element for both groups. The conquest of the Baltic territories was also to some extent a cooperative venture; the Hansa provided ships and support for the Teutonic Order's conquest of Prussia in the mid-13th Century;33 in turn, the Teutonic Knights provided protection for the merchants of the Hansa.34

(The Gotland Company, a merchant organization considered by many scholars to be a forerunner of the Hansa, had had a similar relationship 40 years earlier with the Brethren of the Sword in that Order's crusade against Livonia.35)

Nor were the links between the two powers limited to military matters. Several of the towns that were members of the Hansa (Danzig, Elbing, Thorn, Kulm, Konigsberg and Marienburg) were under the direct authority of the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order, who exercised tight control over them, limiting their freedom of action within the Hansa.36 Moreover, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order was a member of the Hansa in his own right — the only territorial prince to hold such a position.37

A double-edged sword?

Its relationship with the Teutonic Order seems to have been a mixed blessing for the Hansa. On the one hand, the Hansa undoubtedly benefited by the association. Hanseatic domination of Baltic trade was made possible to a great extent by the Order's conquest of previously pagan lands along the Eastern Baltic; the conquering Knights established German settlers in their newly-seized territories, and this expansion led in turn to the expansion of German mercantile influence in the Baltic.38 The participation in the Hansa of the Prussian towns founded by the Order added to the strength of the confederation as a whole, since they controlled western trade with Poland from the early 14th Century onward.39 There is no doubt that the Order's military might was often extremely useful to the Hansa; in addition, its association with a crusading order afforded the Hansa a certain amount of reflected prestige.40

On the other hand, despite their historical and continuing connections, the two groups had different — and sometimes conflicting — goals, as enumerated above. In fact, the Order's pursuit of its own objectives "... often involved the Hansa in enterprises that damaged its commercial interests and embroiled it in quarrels with foreign powers. Although the Order at first contributed to the prosperity of the Hansa, it was later one of the factors in its decline."41

Diverging interests and mounting tensions

The tensions inherent in this uneasy relationship began to manifest themselves in the late 14th Century, when, just as the Hansa and the Order stood at the height of their powers, both began to come under pressure from outside entities. The Hansa entered a period of ever-intensifying trade conflicts with its partners and competitors, England and the Low Countries; the Teutonic Order faced the loss of its raison d'etre in 1380 when Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagiello married Polish Queen-Regnant Jadwiga, and agreed as part of the marriage settlement to Christianize his formerly pagan realm.42

(The Order, undaunted by this loss of a rationale for further crusades, continued to exist and to make war on its neighbors. Lloyd notes that almost three decades after Lithuania's Christianization, "... the Order found it expedient to claim that it was still conducting a crusade against the heathen ...")43

Amplified by these external pressures, existing tensions and conflicts of interest inevitably led to frictions between the two powers. As early as 1378, during a trade dispute with England, the Grand Master of the Order caused the other members of the Hansa great anxiety by threatening to arrest all the English merchants in his territories — a move that, as more moderate Hansa members pointed out, would simply have resulted in reprisals against merchants quartered in the Hansa's London trading station. Nor were the vexations all on the Hansa's side. The future Henry IV, who journeyed to the Baltic three times, so "annoyed the German knights by persistently discussing the rights of English merchants to trade in Prussia" that the Order subsequently discouraged English participation in its crusades!44

These frictions continued into the 15th Century, which would prove to be a pivotal one for both the Hansa and the Order. In 1407, the Hansa, "apprehensive of the Grand Master's intentions in the Baltic and of his selfish policy,"45 was instrumental in forcing the Teutonic Order to return the island of Gotland, captured in 1398, to Denmark, with which the Hansa was temporarily at peace.46 Further east, continuing incursions into the Russian hinterlands by the Order's Livonian branch led to tensions between the Hansa and the Grand Dukes of Moscow. Grand Duke Ivan the Great, who wanted to expand Russian influence into the Baltic, would subsequently conquer Novgorod later in the century and close the important Hanseatic trading station there.47

The Hansa in the early 15th Century:
a drift toward decline

For the Hansa, the 15th Century would see the beginning of a long, slow decline. This was due to a number of factors, both internal and external. One factor, already mentioned above, was increased competition from English and Dutch merchants, whose rulers in the 15th Century took a more protectionist stance than had their predecessors. As monarchial power was consolidated in northern Europe, and particularly in the Low Countries with the rise of Burgundy,48 the Hansa found itself at an increasing disadvantage; economic tactics, such as embargoes and threats to suspend trade, which "had once been effective in dealing with towns and minor principalities... were to prove of little use against large, consolidated states."49 Military action against these powers was even less feasible. As the century progressed, the English and Dutch merchants took larger and larger bites out of the Hansa's monopoly on Baltic trade. Conflict with the English, in particular, would lead in the latter part of the 15th Century to the Anglo-Hanseatic war.50

Monarchs closer to home also proved to be a growing threat. Local German princes viewed the Hansa as "a serious obstacle to the consolidation of their local sovereignty";51 during the 15th Century they brought increasing pressure to bear on the Hanseatic towns within their territories; in some cases, the princes succeeded in subjugating the towns and forcing them out of the Hansa.52

Internal factors, in the form of conflicts both within and between towns, also helped to weaken the Hansa. Civic strife racked Lübeck and other Hanseatic towns during the early 15th Century.53 The increase in trade pressures from the English and Dutch led to a growing divergence of interests between the various groups of towns;54 this in turn resulted in the erosion of Hanseatic solidarity. Because an inability or unwillingness to present a united front rendered economic weapons such as boycotts and embargoes much less effective, this dissension between cities would prove a serious threat to the Hansa's power.

The Teutonic Order in the early 15th Century:
defeat and downfall

If the 15th Century marked the beginning of a slow decline for the Hansa, it would witness a much more dramatic — not to say disastrous — downturn in the fortunes of the Teutonic Order. Although Grand Duke Jagiello's marriage to Queen Jadwiga had united the two realms of Poland and Lithuania into a Christian state,55 the Teutonic Knights distrusted this former enemy; relations between the Order and Poland / Lithuania deteriorated after Jadwiga died in 1399, leaving Jagiello as sole ruler of the combined kingdom.56 A series of skirmishes with Jagiello and his allies led to war in 1410; Jagiello mobilized an army of about 10,000 and invaded Prussia in July of that year. When the Grand Master chose to attack Jagiello's troops at Tannenberg without waiting for support from the Livonian branch of the Order (the former Brethren of the Sword), he was killed and his forces were crushed. Although the Order itself survived, it never recovered its former military strength;57 this in turn affected its position within the Hansa.

Dissension and dissolution

Perhaps inevitably, under the circumstances, the increasing pressures faced by both groups - and the widening disparity in their interests and objectives — led to deepening rifts between the Hansa and the Order as the century continued. These rifts culminated in the mid-15th Century in the Thirteen Years' War; in 1454, the Prussian towns, tired of the Grand Master's iron rule, rebelled and declared war on the Order, offering their allegiance to King Casimir IV of Poland in return for his military support.58 (Since both the Order and the rebel towns were members, the Hansa nominally remained neutral in the conflict.) In 1466, the Order was forced to conclude the Treaty of Thorn, in which sovereignty over most of the Prussian towns, including Elbing, Thorn, Danzig, and Marienberg, was transferred to Poland, and the Grand Master henceforward held East Prussia as a vassal of the Polish king.59 The rebellion of the towns had effectively brought about the ruin of the Teutonic state in Prussia.60 The centuries-old connection between the Hansa and the Teutonic Order had finally been severed.


Both the Teutonic Order and the Hansa survived, in some form, until the 17th Century. The last Grand Master of the much-reduced Prussian branch of the Order converted to Protestantism in 1525 and declared the Order's remaining East Prussian possessions to be a hereditary duchy, to be held henceforth by himself and his heirs.61 The Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order lasted until 1561, when its territories fell to Ivan the Terrible; the south German branch survived until the late 17th Century, when members of the Order fought against the Turks at Vienna in 1683 and Zenta in 1697.62 The Hansa retained its power and prosperity for a century or more before its final demise; it survived the Anglo-Hanseatic war in the late 15th Century and, with the Peace of Utrecht in 1474, regained its international status and strengthened its position vis a vis the English for the next hundred years.63 Despite this victory, however, the gradual decline continued. The Thirty Years' War effectively brought an end to the Hansa, and the last Hansetag was held in 1669.64



© 2000 Jennifer Monroe Franson

Sources and Notes for
Zenith and Decline:
The Hanseatic League and the Teutonic Order
in the Late 14th and Early 15th Centuries

More by Jennifer M. Franson


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