The Thames-side property known as the Steelyard – the phrase comes from the Dutch-German word Stahlhof and relates either to a steel beam used for weighing goods or a courtyard where the goods were sold – was the main trading base of the Hanseatic League in London from the 13th century onward.
Located near where Walbrook flows out of the Thames on the north bank (the site is now at least partly covered by Cannon Street Station), the walled compound – which at some point housed as many as 400 people – was in some senses a mini city within a city complete with a hall, warehouses, a weighing house and counting houses as well as residences and a chapel.
While the community – which represented an alliance of towns and cities in northern Europe – was mentioned as far back as the late 1200s, it wasn’t until 1303 that King Edward I formerly confirmed the tax and customs concessions of the merchants (at some point, in return for privileges they were given, the group was charged with keeping up the maintenance of Bishopsgate).
The power of the trading post had grown substantially by the 15th century and the concessions the group had been granted meant there was inevitably considerable friction with English merchants. There was also some official friction and one example of it was when the Steelyard was closed temporarily in the 15th century when the Hanse cities were at war with England.
In 1598 Queen Elizabeth I took away the Steelyard’s trading privileges (after which the compound was apparently looted). It was subsequently allowed to reopen by King James I but never regained the prominence it had previously had.
Much of the compound was destroyed in the Great Fire of London but nonetheless, the Steelyard was rebuilt and continued to provide links between German cities and the English until the mid 1800s when the land was sold off and, in 1866, Cannon Street Station built on the site.
A couple of surviving objects from the Steelyard include a series of at least eight portraits of Hanse merchants painted by Hans Holbein the Younger and a stone model of the Hanseatic Arms which were placed over the gate into the compound can be seen at the Museum of London.
Recently conserved, Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait Hans of Antwerp is one of 27 works by the painter on display in the exhibition, The Northern Renaissance: Durer to Holbein, at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The portrait was first recorded in the Royal Collection in 1639 when it was said to have been hung in King Charles I’s Chair Room at Whitehall (it was painted in the 1530s by Holbein, best known as King’s Painter to King Henry VIII). While it has been previously thought the sitter was a goldsmith (a close friend of Holbein and witness to his will in 1543), Royal Collection Trust conservators have now definitively ruled it to be that of a merchant, possibly a German of the Hanseatic League based at the London Steelyard. You’ll have to be quick to see the exhibition – it winds up on 14th April. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.royalcollection.co.uk.
PICTURE: Royal Collection Trust/ © 2012, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
One of the major thoroughfares of the City of London, Cannon Street’s name has nothing at all to do with artillery or religion. In fact, the street, which runs from St Paul’s Churchyard in the west to Eastcheap in the east, owes its name to the industry that once took place there.
Like many other streets in the City connected with the occupations of past residents, Cannon Street is a corruption of a street formerly known as Candelwichstrete (one of many various spellings of which the modern English version is Candlewick Street) which relates to the candlemakers and wax chandlers who lived and conducted their trade along the street in the Middle Ages (the Tallow Chandlers Company, involved in regulating candle-making, has been located in adjoining Dowgate Hill since 1476, although the current building dates from 1672).
The name was gradually corrupted into Cannon Street (apparently the corruption was at least partly due to its pronunciation in the Cockney dialect), which is what it was known as by the late 17th century when the seemingly ever-present Samuel Pepys was writing his diary.
Cannon Street – which was only extended to its current length in the mid-1800s under the supervision of architect JP Bunning, having formerly been a narrow lane which stopped at Dowgate Hill in the east – apparently later become known for the number of drapers based there and was also home to the Steelyard or Stalhof, the trading base of the German Hanseatic League in London in the 13th and 14th centuries (a plaque commemorating this was erected at Cannon Street Station in 2005).
Now lined with office buildings including some former warehouses from the Victorian era, the street is also home to a recently redeveloped above ground train station and Underground station- both of which were opened in the late 1800s (the station, which built was on the site of the Roman governor’s palace, was originally located behind the Cannon Street Hotel, birthplace of the British Communist Party). Cannon Street is also the location of the mysterious London Stone – formerly located at the now long-gone St Swithin’s Church, it can be found behind a grill at number 111 – for more on it, see our earlier post here).