One of the major thoroughfares of the City of London, Cannon Street runs parallel to the Thames from St Paul’s Churchyard in the west to Eastcheap in the east. The street owes its name to one particular local industry. Cannon Street is a corruption of Candlewick Street which relates to the candle makers and wax chandlers who conducted their trade there in the Middle Ages. The name was gradually corrupted into Cannon Street. Pepys already uses the name in his diary. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Cannon Street was home to the Steelyard or ‘Stalhof’, the trading base of the Hanseatic League in London.
During the high and late Middle Ages the majority of strangers in London were individual members of a multi-national merchant class. In 1303, Edward I had signed the Carta Mercatoria (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 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 without too many obstacles. In 1334, in exchange for financial assistance, Edward III replaced the general grant of rights to foreign merchants with a particular charter granted specifically to the influential Hanseatic League. This trading company was formed by merchants from several Northern European cities including Bruges, Lübeck, Hamburg, Groningen, Danzig, Copenhagen, Bremen, and Novgorod. The merchants in the League met on a regular basis to make trading agreements and to work out issues of common (often political) interest.
The Hanse formulated many of our notions of commerce, economic association, the importance of free trade, and the role of the nation state. In its heyday, some seventy cities were regular League members and around one hundred more acted as passive associates without decision-making power. Its 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 code of laws. It was called the Steelyard, either in reference to the great steel beam used for weighing goods, or to the extensive courtyard where products were traded from stalls. The yard was not dissolved until the German cities of Lübeck, Bremen and Hamburg sold their common property in 1853.
Hans Holbein the younger was born in 1497/8 in Augsburg. His father had settled in that city in 1494 and presumably both his sons Ambrosius and Hans took their places in his workshop where he produced large altarpieces. By 1515 Hans and his brother appear to have migrated to Basel. This date is established by the survival of a copy of Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, in which the margins are illustrated in pen and ink by Holbein and his brother. He was active in the city not only as a painter of portraits, religious pictures, and wall paintings, but also as a designer of woodcuts, engravings, and stained glass. Holbein’s earliest surviving dated paintings are the portraits of Jacob Meyer, ‘burgomeister’ of Basel, and that of his wife, both painted in 1516. He was appointed town painter in 1518/19. He may have painted relatively few portraits at the time, but the images he produced of his friend Erasmus in 1523 were prove of his prodigious talent.
The lure of a lucrative Royal post tempted Holbein to travel to England in 1526. Erasmus had many close contacts there and they helped him to find immediate patronage. His arrival effectively brought the stylistic Renaissance in painting from the Continent to England. He was commissioned to paint a series of portraits, including those of clergyman William Warham (patron of Erasmus), astronomer Nikolaus Kratzer, and of course that of his own patron Thomas More. Holbein’s first visit to England lasted only two years. He left London in 1528 for Basel, but the violent upheavals of the Reformation encouraged a swift return to in 1531/2. He stayed in London until his death in 1543. These were turbulent years in English history too, both politically and socially. During Holbein’s second spell in England, Thomas More resigned from office. Unable to depend on More’s influence to obtain commissions, he found employment amongst fellow countrymen, the German business community in London. Holbein created eight portraits of Steelyard merchants.
The first of those was a portrait commissioned by Georg Giese, titled ‘Der Kaufmann Georg Gisze’ (1532). This detailed composition may have been intended as a show piece to elicit further Steelyard commissions. A plaque depicted over the sitter’s head identifies him as a person and states his age. He is holding a letter he had received from his brother, written in Middle Low German. The portrait generally thought to have followed that of Georg Giese is that of Hans of Antwerp, which is dated 26 July 1532. This sitter resided in London from 1515 to as late as 1547 and was married to an English woman. He was employed as a jeweller by Thomas Cromwell and associated with the London Steelyard, combining the activities of goldsmith and merchant. Since Hans of Antwerp spent most of his life in London, it seems unlikely that this portrait was sent abroad, which may account for its early entry into the Royal Collection (first recorded in 1639).
In 1536, Holbein was appointed as painter to the court of Henry VIII. Thereafter, he devoted most of his time to Royal commissions. He is known to have been living in the parish of St Andrew Undershaft in Aldgate in 1541 and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever worked at Whitehall Palace. In addition to his role as painter to Henry VIII, Holbein created the portraits of many of the king’s courtiers, as well as those of other prominent figures living in London. A number of painted portraits survive, mostly unsigned, but there are a far greater number of preparatory drawings for them, the vast majority of which (more than eighty) are today in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. Holbein’s surviving portraits and drawings provide an unparalleled depiction of the men and women of the Tudor court, including a striking image of Henry VIII.
During Holbein’s stay in London the nature of immigration was changing. The Steelyard community had been a class of powerful merchants, influential but aloof, rich but reclusive. Members were welcomed in the highest circles, but did not mix with Londoners in their day to day business. In the course of the century however immigration moved on from a transient presence of merchants to a permanent settlement of an artisan class whose members mainly came from the Low Countries. This change in itself brought about substantial economic benefits to London and the Southeast, but the presence of a large number of strangers also created tension and occasional outbreaks of anti-alien violence. As far as immigration is concerned, Holbein’s portraits represents an earlier, more static state of affairs in the capital.