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An Episode in Anglo-Hanseatic Relations

J.L. Kirby describes how, early in the fifteenth century, King Henry IV of England ordered three trusted servants to conduct delicate negotiations with the rich cities of the Hanseatic League, whence England imported such precious commodities as dried fish, furs, tar and timber.

The constant journeyings from manor to castle and abbey to manor, that made up the life of a medieval King and his court, brought Henry IV to St. Albans towards the end of March 1405. From there, on April 2nd, he wrote to three men of standing, summoning them to his presence “for certain reasons which will be set before you on your coming.” The three were Sir William Sturmy, Speaker of the Parliament held at Coventry in the preceding autumn, Master John Kington, Chancery clerk and Canon of Lincoln, and William Brampton, fishmonger and Alderman of London.

The “certain reasons” were probably well known to these three worthy men, who were not therefore surprised to be told on arrival at St. Albans to prepare themselves for the arduous task of going together on an embassy to Prussia and the Baltic towns of the Hanse. The journey itself was bound to be long, hard and perilous, as the King well knew; for as Earl of Derby he had himself crossed the same seas and lands only twelve years before.

And, besides travelling, his envoys had also to conduct delicate negotiations with various states and cities, angered by repeated acts of piracy or near piracy, whose own authority was not always well defined, but whose friendship was of no small importance to the English kingdom.

The importance of the Baltic states to England lay in the commodities they were willing to exchange for English wool, wool that reached them either in its natural state, or, more often and more usefully, made up into cloth, at first by Flemish, and later by English weavers. The most important of the commodities sent in return was perhaps fish, principally herring and dried cod, of which the English consumed a great deal; but large quantities of furs, timber for shipbuilding and bowstaves, pitch, tar, and even grain were imported. A mid-fifteenth-century writer describes the exports of Prussia in this way:

Now bere and bacone bene fro Pruse ibroughte...

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