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The Steelyard

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The Steelyard

Introduction

The Steelyard was the chief outpost of the Hanseatic League in the city of London. Located on the north side of the River Thames, slightly west of London Bridge, the Steelyard was home to many wealthy German merchants from the thirteenth century to the end of the sixteenth. It was the central Kontor, or community, of the Hanseatic League in England. The League defined itself as a firm confederatio of many [German] cities, towns, and communities [designed] for the purpose of ensuring that business enterprises by land and sea should have a desired and favorable outcome and that there should be effective protection against piracies and highwaymen, so that their ambushes should not rob merchants of the goods and valuables (Lloyd 7).
Plan of the Steelyard circa 1667, as depicted in Gustav Droysen’s Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas (Plate 28). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Plan of the Steelyard circa 1667, as depicted in Gustav Droysen’s Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas (Plate 28). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Map of the Hanseatic League in Europe circa 1400, as depicted in Gustav Droysen’s Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas (Plate 28). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Map of the Hanseatic League in Europe circa 1400, as depicted in Gustav Droysen’s Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas (Plate 28). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Location

The Steelyard was located on the north bank of the Thames, slightly west of London Bridge and Church Lane, and south of Thames Street. Though nominally in Dowgate Ward, the Steelyard merchants elected their own alderman in their own guildhall (Weinreb and Hibert 824). Of the guildhall itself, Stow notes:
These marchants of Haunce had their Guild hall in Thames street in place aforesaid, by the said Cosin lane. Their hall is large, builded of stone, with three arched gates towards the street, the middlemost whereof is farre bigger then the other, and is seldome opened, the other two be mured up, the same is now called the old hall.
(Stow)

Name and Etymology

The name Steelyard may derive from the unit of measure, the stiliard, defined in Salusbury’s 1661 Mathematical Collections and Translations as a weight sometimes of an hundred pounds (Salusbury). These weights could have been used to measure the weights of imported goods brought to the merchants. However, Weinreb and Hibbert assert that the name derives from the big scales used in the weighing of imported goods, rather than the weights themselves (Weinreb and Hibbert 824). Alternate spellings and names include Stele house, Stele yarde, Styllyarde, Steleyarde, Stiliarde, Stilliard, Stillyard, Styleyarde, and the Guildhall of the Merchants of Cologne.

Significance

The London Steelyard, as well as the Hanseatic League as a whole, was important to English trade until the middle of the sixteenth century. As Stow notes, the principal imports of the Steelyard merchants were Wheate, Rie, and other grains [...] Cables, Ropes, Mastes, Pitch, Tar, Flax, Hempe, Wainscotes, Wax, Steele, and other profitable marchandires (Stow). Because the Hanseatic League offered a massive boon to trade in their buying and selling of goods, they were offered exemptions from taxes and tariffs (Lloyd 21). These exemptions aggravated anti-alien sentiment throughout England, leading the Merchant Adventurers Company to enter into legal and economic competition with the Hanseatic League from 1407 until the abandonment of the Steelyard in the early seventeenth century (Lloyd 294-295).
The Steelyard was a powerful economic force in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, but by the reign of Elizabeth, piracy and economic sanctions had rendered the once great Steelyard obsolete (Lloyd 344-345). By the early seventeenth century, the Steelyard was usually referred to in popular representations as a place of cheap Rhenish wine and bumbling Dutchmen. This reputation made it a favorite destination for those looking for a good time, such as Master Linstock and his ladies in Thomas Dekker and John Webster’s Westward Ho!.

History

Arms of the Hanseatic League. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Arms of the Hanseatic League. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
While Hanseatic Kontors had been established in England as early as 1157, the exact date of the Steelyard’s creation is uncertain (Lloyd 17). Some historians claim that it was chartered as early as 1237, whilst others claim that its inception can be traced to Henry III’s 1260 proclamation of the Hanse’s right to establish a guildhall in London (Lloyd 19). What is certain is that by 1300 the Steelyard was recognized as the chief executive authority of the Hanse (Lloyd 37).
Towards the end of the fourteenth century, there were approximately 28 Hanseatic merchants living in the Steelyard (Lloyd 75). The next century brought great difficulties to the Hanseatic League as a whole, as the merchants frequently found themselves embroiled in legal difficulties with the English government over piracy claims and expiring tax exemptions (Fudge 18-19). As Hanseatic historian T.H. Lloyd notes, the chief grievances of the merchants were:
(1) The levy and tunnage and poundage; (2) the collection of a poll tax from travellers entering and leaving English territory at Dover and Calais; (3) prolonged delays in obtaining justice; (4) denial of the right to mixed juries, especially in courts of admiralty; (5) denial of immunity from distraint for debts and trespasses of third parties; (6) delay in payment of goods purveyed for the crown; (7) exaction of local tolls at Southampton and Newcastle; (8) denial of the right to sell wine by retail in London.
(Lloyd 143)
Such grievances were favorably addressed in the aftermath of the 1475 Treaty of Utrecht (Lloyd 228-229). In spite of these successes, the English government remained largely unfriendly to the Steelyard, as well as towards the Hanseatic League as a whole, particularly in the sixteenth century: in 1519 Cardinal Wolsey, under the authority of Henry VIII, accused Steelyard merchants of selling unfinished cloth, compelling the merchants to find sureties totaling 18,800 pounds (Lloyd 253-254). Wolsey also threatened to levy alien rates of duty and taxation on all Hanseatic merchants, setting aside the traditional exemptions given to the League (Lloyd 254). Furthermore, the Steelyard was unable to compensate for the adverse balance of trade in provincial Kontors as it had done in the fifteenth century, leading to massive trade deficits throughout the 1500s (Lloyd 275).
Towards the middle of the century, the political situation in London had become increasingly threatening to the continuation of the Steelyard. In 1554, the Steelyard merchants complained that English traders were given preferential treatment by the crown, and that the Hanseatic League was in danger of collapsing (Lloyd 297). The situation did not improve once Elizabeth succeeded Mary. By 1598, Elizabeth had formally closed the Steelyard, revoked all the medieval privileges given to the Hanseatic merchants in London, and ordered the remaining merchants in London to leave the country (Beerbühl 29-30). This last demand was later rescinded in favor of allowing the merchants to remain in London whilst subjecting them to restrictive alien laws that favoured domestic merchants (Beerbühl 30).
The Hanseatic property in London was seized by the crown, but later returned to the merchants in 1606 by King James. However, after this devastating blow, the merchants of the Steelyard, as well as the Hanseatic league as a whole, would never regain their former glory. Even though Elizabeth rescinded her decision to exile London’s Hanseatic merchants, only eight chose to remain. In 1623 it was reported that only five still occupied the Steelyard (Beerbühl 30-31).
By 1632, the situation was even grimmer—no remaining Hanseatic merchants lived in the Steelyard. In 1666, the vast majority of the medieval buildings in the area were completely destroyed (Lloyd 345). Despite all of this, the Steelyard properties remained in the hands of the towns of Lubeck, Hamburg, and Bremen until 1853, when they were sold to build the Cannon Street railway station (Lloyd 345, Weinreb and Hibbert 824).

Cultural Activity and References

The Steelyard operated as an all-male, German enclave within London. Women were not allowed within its walls. The merchants and their fellow-countrymen were forbidden from playing games with Englishmen for fear of quarrels (Weinreb and Hibert 824).
Steelyard merchants patronized German artists in London. Between 1533 and 1536, Hans Holbein the Younger was commissioned to produce eight portraits of prominent Steelyard merchants. These included Georg Gisze, Hans of Antwerp, Hermann Wedigh III, an anonymous member of the Wedigh family, Dirk Tybis, Cyriacus Kale, Derich Born, and Derick Berck (Holman 139). Holbein had also been commissioned in the middle of the sixteenth century to paint two large allegorical pieces for the dining room of the Steelyard guildhall, The Triumph of Riches and The Triumph of Poverty, both of which are now lost (Weinreb and Hibbert 824). Based on Holbein’s extant pen sketches for the paintings, and subsequent work by artists who sought to replicate the piece (such as Lucas Vosterman the Elder’s own The Triumph of Riches and Triumph of Poverty), art historian Susan Foister suggests that the moral of the allegory of the work is that money is the source of sorrow, whether too much or too little (Foister 69).
Portrait of Georg Gisze, Steelyard merchant, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1532. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Georg Gisze, Steelyard merchant, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1532. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Triumph of Poverty, painted by Lucas Vosterman the Elder in the first half of the sixteenth century. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Triumph of Poverty, painted by Lucas Vosterman the Elder in the first half of the sixteenth century. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
It is also possible that the Steelyard merchants may have commissioned the famous Copperplate Map of London, because the map-maker has labelled the Hanseatic guildhall in the Steelyard, but none of the other company halls (Ward 1159).
During the reigns of Elizabeth and James, the economic power of the Steelyard was largely in the past. Thus, most references to the area from 1550 onwards tend to be satirical allusions to the League’s former glory, or jokes about the area as a place to get drunk on duty-free Rhenish wine.
A scene in the first act of Dekker and Webster’s Westward Ho! takes place in a Rhenish wine house in the Steelyard. It features one of the characters, Master Linstock, getting drunk with his ladies and making fun of Hans, their Dutch server.
Thomas Nashe frequently refers to the Steelyard as a place of debauchery. As his narrator notes in Pierce Penniless, Men[,] when they are idle and know not what to do, saith let us goe to the Stilliard and drinke Rhenish wine (Nashe). Gabriel Harvey later responded to Nashe in a poem titled The Asses Figg in his work Pierce’s Supererogation:
So long the Rhennish furie of thy braine
Incenst with hot fume of a Stilliard clime
Lowd-lying Nashe, in liquid terms did raine
Full of absurdities, and slaundrous ryme
(Harvey)
In Isabella Whitney’s Wyll and Testament, the Steelyard is also referred to as a place of drinking and debauchery. She notes that
At Stiliarde store of wines there bee
your dulled minds to glad
And handsome men, that must not wed
except they leave their trade
(Whitney)
In Thomas Middleton’s 1627 drama Michaelmas Terme, Short, the crony of a wealthy London cloth merchant, makes a brief joke about the misfortunes of the Steelyard. When asked where to send a worthless cloth, Short remarks that they could send it to Maister Beggar-land [...] or his Brother Maister Stilliard-downe, there’s little difference (Middleton).

Notes

  1. See MoEML’s digital edition of The Wyll and Testament of Isabella Whitney. (TLG)

References

Cite this page

MLA citation

Smith, Joul L. The Steelyard. The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Web. 09 April, 2018. <http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/STEE2.htm>.

Chicago citation

Smith, Joul L. The Steelyard. The Map of Early Modern London. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed April 09, 2018. http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/STEE2.htm.

APA citation

Smith, J. L. 2018. The Steelyard. In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London. Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/STEE2.htm

RIS file (for RefMan, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

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A1  - Smith, Joul
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T1  - The Steelyard
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
PY  - 2018
DA  - 2018/04/09
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  - http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/STEE2.htm
UR  - http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/xml/standalone/STEE2.xml
ER  - 

RefWorks

RT Web Page
SR Electronic(1)
A1 Smith, Joul
A6 Jenstad, Janelle
T1 The Steelyard
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WP 2018
FD 2018/04/09
RD 2018/04/09
PP Victoria
PB University of Victoria
LA English
OL English
LK http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/STEE2.htm

TEI citation

<bibl type="mla"><author><name ref="#SMIT17"><surname>Smith</surname>, <forename>Joul</forename> <forename>L.</forename></name></author> <title level="a">The Steelyard</title>. <title level="m">The Map of Early Modern London</title>. Ed. <editor><name ref="#JENS1"><forename>Janelle</forename> <surname>Jenstad</surname></name></editor>. <pubPlace>Victoria</pubPlace>: <publisher>University of Victoria</publisher>. Web. <date when="2018-04-09">09 April, 2018</date>. <ref target="http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/STEE2.htm">http://mapoflondon.uvic.ca/STEE2.htm</ref>.</bibl>

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