Thursday, 3 March 2016

The Wards of Old London: Dowgate - Hanseatic Trade and Roman Governance

A visitor walking westward along the Thames, from the Tower of London towards Blackfriars, passes from Bridge Ward into Dowgate Ward, the river-frontage of which is today dominated by the flanking towers of Cannon Street Station.

Cannon Street Station today. Photo: Will Fox (Wjfox2005 - Image is in the Public Domain).

The railway station, connecting the city with destinations in Kent, opened in 1866, but only after the South-Eastern Railway negotiated the purchase of the land from the authorities of the German cities of Lubeck, Bremen and Hamburg. Even today, whenever construction work is carried out in or around the station, archaeologists uncover the remains of the buildings that preceded it.

Cannon Street Station in 1910 (Image is in the Public Domain).
Cannon Street Station in 1910 (Image is in the Public Domain).

The existence of a Hansa Almaniae, a German trading post, in London, is attested as early as 1282, and its status was confirmed, in 1303, in a merchant charter of King Edward I. For more than three centuries, the Stahlhof, or steelyard, of the Hanseatic League stood on the site now occupied by Cannon Street Station, a walled compound with its own warehouses, residential quarters and chapel, within which the merchants of Bremen and Hamburg, Lubeck and Cologne, managed their own affairs.

The arms of the Hanseatic League, c 1670, Museum of London. Photo: Kim Traynor (licensed under CCA).

The term "steelyard" is potentially misleading, referring not to steel as a traded commodity, but rather to a weighing beam, which most trading establishments would have possessed. The main commodity attracting the interest of the German merchants was English wool, and the cloth woven from it, for which there was a high level of demand across Europe. From the cities on Northern Europe and the Baltic Sea, these same merchants brought furs, amber, honey and Rhenish wine; copper and iron ore from Sweden; and barrels of pickled herrings for sale in nearby Billingsgate Ward.

Trading routes of the Hanseatic League. Image: Flo Beck (Image is in the Public Domain).
"Lisa von Lubeck," a reconstructed caravel of the Hanseatic League from the 15th Century. Photo: Doris Schutz (licensed under CCA).

Britain's trade with the cities of the Hanseatic League were not always conducted on friendly terms, for the German merchants were in direct competition with their English counterparts when it came to the export of woollen cloth to the continent. The Anglo-Hanseatic War was fought from 1469 to 1474, the Hanseatic navy taking advantage of an England weakened by civil war to impose unfavourable trade terms: the merchants of the Stalhof agreed to maintain Bishopsgate at their own expense, but through it would pass, to the profit of these merchants, the woollen cloth of England, on its way to the Hanseatic warehouses of East Anglia.

Hanseatic warehouse of c 1475, Kings Lynn. Photo: Alienturnedhuman (Image is in the Public Domain).

Georg Giese, a merchant of Danzig at the London Stalhof, painted by Hans Holbein in 1532, Gemaldegalerie Berlin (Image is in the Public Domain).

The activities of the Stalhof never really recovered following the Great Fire of 1666, the focus of international trade having, by this point in time, shifted to more distant shores, but the merchants of the Hanseatic cities continued to receive rent from it until they sold up to the South-Eastern Railway Company in 1852.

The London Stalhof in 1667, from a publication by Prof. G. Droysens, 1886 (licensed under CCA).

When the building of the railway station and bridge began, it soon became apparent that the Medieval and Early Modern Stalhof had itself been built over the ruins of a much earlier construction, an elaborate complex of Roman buildings dating back to the late First or early Second Century AD, Londinium's period of reconstruction following the destruction of Boudicca's revolt.

Roman remains beneath Cannon Street Station. Image: Udimu (licensed under GNU).

Still imperfectly understood, because of the complexities of archaeological excavation in an urban environment, it is clear that this complex, with mosaic floors, painted walls and central heating, extended over three terraces, included an ornamental pool, 55 metres in length and 10 metres wide, containing 200,000 gallons of water. It may have included the palace of the Roman Governor, and the headquarters of the provincial administration.

Reconstruction of Roman London, with the Cannon Street complex circled (image - Encyclopaedia Britannica).

The City of London through which we walk today, sits directly on top of the cities through which Samuel Pepys, William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer walked, and those cities, in turn, sat directly on top of the city from which Gnaeus Julius Agricola once governed the Province of Britannia, perhaps planning his invasion of Scotland with his commanders, seated beside an ornamental pool on the site now occupied by Cannon Street Station.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. It's the remnants of those cities, piled on top of one another, that make London so fascinating.

  2. I've never really come to grips with the Hanseatic League and here's something else about it to ponder.