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Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story


Alison Fairman

The Hanseatic League was a powerful trading alliance of merchant guilds or trade associations led by the German merchants of Lubeck that dominated trade along the northern coasts of Europe from the 12th to the 17th-century. Their boats, known as ‘cogs’ were well built from Baltic oak and were designed to carry a large cargo. The biggest could be 25 metres long and 8 metres wide. In many towns they used, the League established a kontor, a trading centre with offices and warehouses built around a courtyard. In England these were known as steelyards from the German stâlhof, a place where goods were offered for sale.

Hanse trade routes and ports

Hanse Trade Routes and Ports (Pam Cawthorne).

replica of a hanse cog

Replica of a Hanse Cog (Mike Peberdy).

Boston was an ideal port from which the Hanseatic League could conduct its business. It was on the East coast facing Europe and the Baltic with river access to much of England. Boston soon became an important part of the Hanse network that included places such as London, Lynn and Hull. Boston’s famous international fair was frequented by merchants from all over Europe.

Wool was the dominant export. Fountains Abbey was the largest and richest wool producer in northern England and its monks owned property in Fountains Lane in Boston. There were also links to many other monasteries such as Kirkstead and Louth and even as far away as Furness in Cumbria. The Wool Staple was the place through which all wool exports had to pass. When it was transferred from Lincoln to Boston in 1369 trade increased and by 1377 Boston was second only to London as the busiest port in the country. Between 1379 and 1388 Boston exported 37% of English wool, about three million fleeces per year.

Big Dig on site of Boston Hanse steelyard

Big Dig 2019 on site of Boston's Hanse Steelyard (Ian Moore).

Sketch of hansa ceiling boss st Botolph's

Sketch of Hansa Ceiling Boss St Botolph's by CW Pilcher (Alison Austin).

The Hanseatic Steelyard in Boston was located at South End near the Dock. The Mart Yard, now the Grammar School yard, was near the river quayside and this part of town was the original site for markets. The ‘Esterlings’, as these foreign traders from Germany were sometimes known, had strong links with the Franciscans whose Friary was nearby. One merchant, Wisselus de Smalenburg, was buried in their cemetery in 1340 and his body later interred inside St Botolph’s.

By the 1380s the cloth trade in Boston was dominated by Hanseatic merchants who also traded in wines, wax, dried fish, furs, goat skins and hawks. However, trading began to decline as merchants left the town. By the end of the 15th-century there was open hostility between the Hanseatic League and the English crown leading to the cessation of all Hanse trade. The unrest created in Boston led to one of the Esterlings being killed by Humphrey Littleburye. Although the Treaty of Utrecht in 1474 restored some trade, the Hanse merchants seldom visited the port again, and by 1481, the Hanse house was dilapidated and the Steelyard abandoned.

Although the Hanseatic League was dissolved in 1669, a 'new Hansa' was formed at Zwolle, The Netherlands in 1984. Boston joined in 2015, making visits to several other 'Hanse Tag', promoting the town and giving opportunity for the youth members to meet other young people.