Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The Steelyard

See also the author's postscript.


Tacitus (A.D. 62) designates London as famous for many merchants and the abundance of its merchandise. “Londinium copia negociatorum et commeatu maxime celeberrimum.” This point of time from whence the authentic annals of London proceed was little more than a century later than the first invasion of Britain by Julius Cæsar, and only nineteen years after the expedition under Aulus Plautius in the reign of Claudius (A.D. 43), when Britain became subject to Roman domination. The Trinobantine metropolis thus becomes associated with the earliest of the cities whose resources have been maintained up to the present time, when, as regards its population and the extent of that commercial status the renown whereof originates with our earliest knowledge of its existence, it is admitted to stand unrivalled among cities of the modern world. The city of the Trinobantes, it is concluded, was situated on the slope which extends from St. Paul’s churchyard to the site of Dowgate, and the contiguous wharf of the Steelyard. The name of Dowgate is derived by Pennant from Dwr, in the Celtic water, as water gate. The line of Watling Street probably still represents the main thoroughfare of the Trinobantine city, as it does the prætorian way of Roman Londinium. This appears to have proceeded from St. Albans, the Roman Verulamium, and entered London by way of Holborn at a gate on the site of the present Newgate, and reaching Dowgate, to have communicated by a trajectus or ferry with the road called Stoney Street in Southwark, which led to Dover and Richborough, the Ritupæ or Ad Portum Ritupis of the Romans, whose vast walls continue in the south, like the Picts’ wall in the more northern part of this island, a noble monument of Roman intercourse. The position of London must originally have been one of considerable natural strength, being fronted on the south by the expansive estuary of the Thames, which is presumed by Sir Christopher Wren to have spread as far as the opposite hill of Camberwell, the embankments whereby it was subsequently curbed being still traceable, and which Wren considered to have been of Roman construction.

It must be noted, with reference to the site of the London of that period in contiguity to such a flood, that it had the disadvantage of lying considerably lower than the present level, and hence it may be supposed that it must have needed some strong embankment, to preserve the lower part of the city from immersion, and evidences of such a work have come under observation in the discovery of the trunks of trees closely rammed and interlaced with branches, so as to form a very effective barrier against the encroachment of the tide. The stream called Langbourne, which sprang from the marshy ground now occupied by Fenchurch Street, and the Wallbrooke, which rose in the marshes of Finsbury, and ran into the Thames to the east, with the river Fleet to the west of the city, and the marshes that bounded its northern side, sufficed to render its position nearly insular. Out of the limited river frontage thus circumscribed, the wharfs in question include a considerable space; and although history does not point to the precise locality of the trade for which London had become celebrated at the commencement of its annals, yet it carries us so far back as to justify the presumption that here was the original centre and focus of British commerce. Here, within the walls of the Steelyard, the Easterlings, or merchants of Almaigne had their port and their warehouses, according to existing documentary evidence, at least as early as the reign of Ethelred; and at this point the wealth of primitive Britain, consisting of wool, hides, tin, lead, and corn, was exchanged for the manufactured goods of the traders of Brabant and Flanders, who, having originally little or no superfluity of natural produce, were under the necessity of obtaining the raw material in return for the produce of their superior skill in handicraft. As until a period much later, we were not a ship-building people, the trade of London was for several centuries engrossed by the German merchants of the Steelyard, and the entire freightage to and from the continent carried on by means of their shipping.

Through Flanders and Brabant lay the high road to the old imperial capital north of the Alps,—Cologne, the Colonia Agrippina of the Romans—and it was evident that the merchants of the Steelyard were the medium by which we dealt largely with that city; but it is not until the reign of Henry the Second, at a time when Cologne was the largest and most prosperous city in Germany, that we find the record of a busy traffic between the two marts.

The mercantile alliance between this country and Germany was greatly promoted by the marriage of Maud, the eldest daughter of Henry, to Henry the Lion, the mightiest prince of the empire, and who held the two important duchies of Saxony and Bavaria; but, being ultimately subdued and driven into exile by Frederick Barbarossa, he forfeited all his lands except Brunswick and Lunenburgh, which were settled upon his wife, and found an asylum at Rouen and Westminster. A token of the kindly relation between England and Cologne appears when Richard Cœur-de-Lion obtained his release from the thraldom of Henry the Sixth of Germany, at the exorbitant ransom of 150,000 marks of silver. He passed through Cologne; and Adolphus Berg, the Archbishop, leading him into the Cathedral of St. Peter, in presence of a great multitude of knights and citizens, intoned himself the chaunt of the day, “I know that the Lord hath sent his angel, and hath delivered me out of the hand of Herod, and from all expectation of the people of the Jews.” The king, in acknowledgment of this joyful reception, granted to the citizens of Cologne, in a charter dated Liège, February the 16th, 1194, that they should henceforth be free of a duty of two shillings a year, which they had been bound to pay as a tax to the crown for their Guildhall in London, and that they, without any restriction, should have the liberty to travel throughout his realm, and to sell and buy at all the market-places, wherever and whenever they pleased. It was in grateful remembrance of this boon that the bishop and citizens, a few years after, united to promote the election of Otho the Fourth, Richard’s favourite nephew, as King of the Romans, and on many after occasions stood manfully by him. In the meantime, Cologne had joined the great Hanseatic Bund which, following the example of an earlier union between the great towns of Flanders, had established a confederation of cities within the pale of the empire. The Hanse confederation obtained a settlement in London in the year 1250, their establishment being the premises of the Steelyard in Thames Street, where some remains of masonry of the 13th century are observable, and which have probably appertained to the chapel of the guild, built at the time of their taking possession of the premises. Henry the Third, in 1259, at the request of his brother, Richard of Cornwall, the “Kyng of Alemaigne,” of the scandalous old song, granted them many valuable privileges, which were renewed and confirmed by his son, Edward the First, and additional privileges were conferred by the citizens of London, on condition of their maintaining one of the gates of the city, called Bishopsgate, and their sustaining a third of the charges in money and men to defend it “when need were.” King John had previously, at the especial suit of his nephew, Otho the Fourth, issued the first letters patent to the merchants of the city of Bremen, afterwards one of the principal members of the Hanse union, securing them free import and export to and from England.

Among the royal and autograph letters of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in the archives of the Tower of London, is a curious letter addressed by the advocate, consuls, and commonalty of the City of Hamburgh to Henry the Third, wherein those worthy magistrates, in a somewhat pugnacious vein, claim redress for the injuries sustained by a citizen of theirs—Master Willikin Kranec—from the inhabitants of Dunwich, one of the most flourishing ports in the eastern counties.

The Steelyard (Hine).png

The Steelyard, Thames Street.

The extended monopoly of the English trade by the cities of northern Germany, had, in the beginning, excited considerable jealousy and opposition on the part of the Cologne merchants, who, on account of their ancient factory in Dowgate ward, claimed the exclusive right to English commerce; but, supported by Richard of Cornwall, the Hanse merchants stood upon their privileges, and the rights and properties of the Cologne merchants soon merged in those of their rivals, with whom they became united under the charter of Henry the Third, dated 1260, the united bodies being designated the merchants of Almaigne, who possess the house in London called the Dutch Guildhall—Aula Teutonicorum. In a volume preserved in the City, being a list of the mayors and sheriffs of London, called Liber de Antiquis Legibus, the following is narrated:

Soon after the martyrdom of Thomas-à-Becket, there came to his shrine, at Canterbury, a native of Cologne—Arnold of Grevinge, with his wife Odè, who, since their marriage, had continued childless. This couple fervently invoked the saint to fulfil their earnest and possessing desire, and to bless them with children, and promised if they were favoured with a son that he should de dedicated to the Church of Canterbury. Arnold settled afterwards in London, where Odè bore him a son, Thomas, and a daughter, Juliana. Thomas failed to take the monastic vows, but joined the army of the Crusaders under Count Baldwin the ninth of Flanders, and assisted at the conquest of Constantinople, where, with his leader, he disappears from the stage, but Juliana became the wife of Thedmar, a native of the city of Bremen, and by him the mother of eleven children. One of these, born on the 9th of August, 1201, received in baptism the name of his grandfather—Arnold. He was destined to act for a number of years an important part in the affairs of the city of London, where he appears about the middle of the century as one of the aldermen. This worthy officiated for several years as alderman of the Teutonic Guild, which association, with his aldermanhood of the city, cannot but have been of the greatest advantage to the trade and privileges of the Steelyard. The policy of standing well with the civic authorities, induced the Hanse merchants to be liberal in their gifts, and, accordingly, on every New Year’s Day, they presented the Lord Mayor with fifteen gold nobles (a coin of the value of six shillings and eightpence), wrapped in a pair of new gloves, in conformity with an old custom, as it appears, by the laws of the Saxon king, Ethelred the Second. They likewise presented the new Lord Mayor on his election to office with a keg of the best sturgeon, commutable into forty shillings, and two barrels of herrings, worth two nobles; and a hundred-weight of Polish wax, commutable likewise into forty shillings. Andrew Aubrey, who seems to have been a great favourite with the foreign merchants, received from them a voluntary gift of fifty marks. By means of these voluntary customs they preserved their own jurisdiction as emanating from an alderman whom they themselves had chosen. These politic merchants are found to be not sparing of their wealth in other payments and donations. They paid considerable fees to their own counsel, who were chosen from the serjeants at law; to the usher of the Royal Star Chamber, who with due formality was regularly invited to the annual festival given in the Steelyard, on the day of Saint Barbara (December 4th), a dinner at which a couple of magnificent codfish were considered an indispensable dish, to the Lord Mayor and Sheriff of the city of London, their ushers, and yeomen, and to the servants of the ministers of the crown, the Lord Chancellor, and the First Lord of the Treasury.

In the kindly intercourse maintained by the Steelyard merchants with their neighbours of the city, they make a buxom and gallant figure among the pageantry in which citizens ever delighted.

When Henry the Sixth returned in February, 1431, from Paris, a magnificent reception was given to him on his entrance into London, the Lord Mayor, Sheriffs, and Aldermen riding on horseback, in their purple and scarlet robes, richly lined with fur. John Lydgate, the rhyming monk of Bury, who describes this spectacle does not fail to include the German merchants.

And Esterlings[1] clad in her maneres,
Conveyed with the sergeauntes and other officeres,
Estatly horsed aftyr the maior riding,
Passed the suburbis to mete with the kyng.

But it is with the dis racted reign of this imbecile and ill-fated monarch, and the strife that ensued between the rival houses of York and Lancaster, that the reverses of the thriving community of the Steelyard begin to appear, and in addition to the drawbacks of an unruly and seditious time, the jealousy of native merchants interposed to their disturbance. Added to those adverse influences, great resentment was created by certain cities, members of the Union, by their reprisals upon some English traders who had committed a breach of the peace and disturbance on the high seas. At one time the English captured a fleet of 108 vessels belonging to Lubeck and to Riga houses, which being heavily laden with salt, were bound on their way homewards, just passing the Bay of Biscay.

In revenge, the large Bergen trading vessels of Lubeck infested for a considerable time the whole of the German sea, and seized many English galleys laden with cloth and other merchandise. These reprisals continuing, to the great detriment of commerce in general for some years, several ambassadors passed to and fro, but without much progress towards a settlement of the dispute. It was demanded, on the part of the English, that the merchants of Almaigne should pay the same duty on wine and wool which all other foreigners who frequented the English markets were subjected to. In 1469 they were condemned to pay a fine of 13,520l., many members of the guild were taken into custody, and the privileges and the property of their establishment in London were in jeopardy of being finally seized. The rupture, when at the worst, was taken up by the English parliament, and Henry the Sixth brought about a settlement in a peace concluded at Utrecht, and ratified at Westminster on July 20th, 1474, by which their old privileges were restored intact to the Hanse merchants.

Steelyard 1543.png

The Steelyard, A.D. 1543, from a Drawing by Anthony Van den Wyngrerde, in the Sutherland Collection, Bodleian Library, Oxford.

After riding out this storm at the imminent peril of foundering, the Hanse merchants contrived to steer their way amid the troubled waters of the Reformation, and enjoyed their civil and religious liberties nearly to the end of the 16th century. The great change, however, which ensued in the maritime character of the English during the reign of Elizabeth was inimical to the stability of the foreigners, and after Drake and Norris had taken sixty Hanseatic vessels, and in reprisal English residents had been expelled from Elbing and Stade, the German merchants were ordered to quit the Steelyard, by a royal writ dated January 13th, 1598. The property was appropriated by the crown as a depository of naval stores, but soon after the death of Elizabeth it was given back by contract to its former owners, on condition of their admitting, on similar terms, the English merchant-adventurers to the ports of Hamburgh, Lubeck, and other towns.

But it appears from some passages that the Steelyard privileges had previously been withdrawn by order of Edward the Sixth, and this circumstance seems to have escaped the precise discrimination of

West Door of the Chapel, Steelyard.

Lappenberg—“urkundliche Geschichte des Hannichen Stalhopes,” who gives a compendious history of their transactions. On the complaint of English merchants, called the “Merchant Adventurers,” sentence was given that they had forfeited their liberties, and were in like case with other strangers (King Edward’s Diary in Burnet, Feb. 23, 1551). Great interest was made to rescind this sentence, and ambassadors from Hamburgh and Lubeck came to the king, “to speak on behalf of the Stiliard merchants” (ibid. Feb. 28th). Their intercession was ineffectual. “The Stiliard men,” says the king, “received their answer, which was to confirm the former judgment of my council” (ibid. May 2nd). This sentence, though it broke up their monopoly, did not injure their Low Country trade in any great degree, and the merchants of the Steelyard still continued to export English woollen cloths, and to find as ample a market for their goods as the English merchants enjoyed. By this it would appear that their monopoly ceased in the reign of Edward the Sixth, and that by the order of Elizabeth they were further deprived of their factory in Thames Street. After this the Germans occupied only a portion of the premises for themselves, letting the remainder. They appointed a resident steelyard master, which office is continued to the present time. The buildings of the Steelyard succumbed to the great fire of 1666, after which calamity the Germans got involved in a string of legal suits, which,

Badge of the Hanse Towns, in the Screen of the All Hallows Church.

however, they contested stoutly, steadily maintaining their own as heretofore, and they were invested with a Royal Charter by King Charles II., with the right of erecting a church of their own close to the Steelyard, on the spot where a church had stood previous to the fire. This became the mother church of all the Lutheran churches and chapels in the metropolis. The name of the Steelyard may be deduced from Stapelhof or Staelhof, the house of the merchants of the Staple. In the Utrecht treaty of 1474 it is styled Staelhof. This seems a more likely definition than that of Stillyard, from the public beam and balance which was maintained there, and by which all goods were weighed on landing, in order to secure the king’s toll. The Aula Teutonicorum of the thirteenth century was situated on the Dowgate side of the premises. In the thirteenth century it was the Hall of the Merchants of Cologne previous to their incorporation with the Hanse Merchants. Some remains of masonry of Caen stone, with a large early English doorway, still exist in a building which seems to correspond in situation with a chapel-like edifice, which is shown in the large and remarkably fine drawing of London from the tower of St. Mary Overy’s, in Southwark, taken in the reign of Henry the Eighth, by Antonio van den Wyngrerde, who accompanied Philip of Spain to this country on the occasion of his marriage to the Princess Mary of England. This valuable memorial of old London is dated 1543, and is preserved in the Sutherland collection of the Bodleian Library, Oxford. In this delineation the Steelyard premises extend considerably beyond their present area westward, and appear bounded by the wharf of the Vintry. Within this circumference, from the thirteenth century downwards, several premises had become included, comprising the house of Sir Thomas Salisbury, that of Sir Richard Lyons, another house given originally by Richard the Second to a follower of his Queen, Anne of Bohemia, and five houses in Windgose Lane, adjoining. In the sixteenth century the whole of the consolidated property was in the possession of the German merchants. The old hall was a huge stone building, with round-headed gates opening into Thames Street, which, with the walls by which the premises were enclosed, afforded the Germans a sufficient defence against the assaults to which in unsettled times they were liable as foreigners—always extremely obnoxious to the rabble of ancient Cockaigne. Over each of the gates was a Latin distich, that in the centre being ascribed to the paternity of no less a man than Sir Thomas More.

Hans Holbein painted in this country four famous pictures, besides many others of minor dimensions—one of them in the Hall of the Barber-Surgeons, the other in the College of Physicians; the third and fourth were two large pictures painted in distemper in the Hall of the Easterling merchants in the Steelyard.

These pictures exhibited the triumphs of Riches and Poverty. The former was represented by Plutus riding in a golden car; before him sat Fortune, scattering money, the chariot being loaded with coin, and drawn by four white horses, but blind and led by women, whose names were written beneath; round the car were crowds with extended hands, catching at the favours of the god. Fame and Fortune attended him, and the procession was closed by Crœsus and Midas and other avaricious persons of note. . . . Poverty was an old woman, sitting in a vehicle as shattered as the other was superb, her garments squalid, and every emblem of wretchedness around her. She was drawn by asses and oxen, which were guided by Hope and Diligence, and other emblematic figures, and attended by mechanics and labourers. It was on the sight of these pictures that Zucchero expressed such esteem of the master. . . . The large pictures themselves, Felibien and Depiles say, were carried into France from Flanders, whither they were transported, I suppose, after the destruction of the company.—Walpole’s Anecdotes, ed. Dallaway, i. 152.

Copies of them made by Verrio were in the collection at Strawberry Hill, and engravings of them by Vosterman exist.

A stately mansion on the river bank, now represented by a modern edifice, was the residence of the Steelyard master. Between the river and Thames Street was a garden planted with fruit-trees and vines, where the young Teutons might gambol, but dry-mouthed, for the act of plucking an apple or plum involved the heavy penalty of five shillings. An old tap, still in favour with the Thames Street carters and porters, flanks the premises on the Thames Street side, next Allhallows the Great. This represents the ancient Rhenish Winehouse, where, perhaps, Rhine wine continued to be drunk from the time when Henry the Second first sanctioned the free importation of Hock to the citizens of Cologne. Thomas Nash in his “Pierce Pennilesse, his Supplication to the Devil,” makes a sluggard say: “Let us go to the Stiliard, and drink Rhenish wine.” And in one of Webster’s plays, we have, “I come to entreat you to meet him this afternoon at the Rhenish Winehouse in the Stilyard. Will you steal forth and taste of a Dutch bun and a keg of sturgeon?” Smoked ox tongues were likewise among the whets for which this house was renowned, which explains the allusion in “Nobbe’s Bride,” “Who would let a cit (whose teeth are rotten out with sweetmeat his mother brings him from goshipings), breath upon her vernish for the promise of a dry neat’s tongue and a pottle of Rhenish at the Stilliards?” Blount even after the great fire attests the old-established reputation of the Steelyard tap. In his Glossography he says “the Steelyard was lately famous for Rhenish wines, neats’ tongues, &c.” A pleasing memorial of the German merchants is still preserved in the neighbouring church of All Hallows, where they attended divine service in the days of stout Queen Bess, being an oaken screen, among the carvings whereof their badge, the German eagle, is conspicuous. This was carved at Hamburgh, and presented to the parish by the Germans on being expelled their premises by the manful queen, in memory of old kindness and better days.

The Steelyard is about to become a thing of the past. The railroad surveyor, with his levels and rods, has cast the eye of destruction upon it. The premises have been sold by the senates of Lubeck and Bremen, in whose right it continued, and a railway, in continuation of the South-eastern line, will drive through its area to a projected terminus in Cannon Street. It is highly probable that when the excavations requisite to this project shall be effected, remains of great and curious antiquity may be revealed to rejoice the eye of the watchful antiquary.

J. W. Archer.

  1. This designation of Easterling, by which the German merchants were popularly distinguished, originated the word sterling as applied to coin. The Easterling money was at the time much superior to the common English currency. It was likewise called silver of Guthrum’s Lane—a neighbouring thoroughfare chiefly occupied by the gold-beaters, for whose purpose the German metals were in request.