During the high and late Middle Ages the vast majority of strangers in London were individual members of a multi-national merchant class. In 1303, Edward I signed the Carta Mercatoria or Charter of the Merchants, an agreement in which rights were granted to foreign merchants in return for dues and levies. Under its terms overseas traders were free to come and go, import and export; they enjoyed freedom from city, bridge and road tolls; and were allowed to enforce contracts and settle disputes.
Freedom of trade was inevitably accompanied by freedom of movement. Although attempts were made to regulate migration, many ‘strangers’ settled in London and were able to pursue their business careers. In 1334, in exchange for financial assistance, Edward III replaced the general grant of rights to foreign merchants with a particular charter granted to the Hanseatic League. London became part of the Hanse. From the late thirteenth until around 1600, merchants in several Northern European cities like Bruges, Lübeck, Hamburg, Danzig, Copenhagen, Bremen, and even Novgorod in Russia formed a trading company known as the Hanseatic League.
The merchants in the League met on a regular basis to make trading agreements and to work out issues of common interest. As a result of these meetings, the member cities became highly influential politically. The Hanse had a lasting influence on our notions of commerce, economic association, the importance of free trade, and the role of the nation state. Some seventy cities were regular League members and around one hundred more were passive associates without decision-making power.
The London branch occupied a walled area on the north bank of the Thames just south of London Bridge. It was in effect a separate community, independent of the City of London, and governed by its own strict code of laws. It was called the Steelyard (‘Stalhof’ in German) either in reference to the great steel beam used for weighing goods, or to the courtyard where goods were bought and sold from stalls. It was not dissolved until Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg sold their common property in 1853.