The Steelyard, Hansard Merchants, and a “Misliving” Singlewoman in Late Medieval London

Posted by Sara M. Butler, 22 November 2022.

The Hanseatic League, 1400s

When Herman Ryng petitioned the chancellor of England sometime in the early 1490s, he must have felt that the wall of privilege surrounding him had somehow, inexplicably, been breached. The son of a former mayor of the city of Cologne,[1] the Hanseatic merchant had become accustomed to believing that the laws of England did not apply to him. He lived and worked alongside other Hansards at the Steelyard, a walled community occupying roughly 1.3 acres of land off the north bank of the Thames, immediately south of London Bridge. There, the merchants lived in a separate world from the rest of London, a mini, Germanic world. The walled-in community was composed of roughly ninety buildings with various functions, not only storehouses for their cargo, but houses for the merchants, a guild hall with their own elected aldermen, multiple cloth halls, a wine-house, and kitchens. The community was governed by its own code of law, enforced not by English authorities, but rather by those of the merchants’ home cities. In addition, they enjoyed preferential customs rates and exemptions from subsidies for merchants. Accordingly, as Thomas Holman describes it, the Hansards living at the Steelyard “enjoyed trade privileges and political power far in excess of their English counterpart.” [2] This sense of power and license is best glimpsed through Hans Holbein the Younger’s series of eight portraits of the Steelyard Merchants, painted in the early 1530s prior to his appointment as court painter to King Henry VIII.

Herman Ryng was not only part of this privileged world; of the four dozen Hansards trading out of the Steelyard in the year 1490-91, he was one of the more important. John Fudge has identified Ryng as one of sixteen major Steelyard merchants.[3] And yet, somehow, in the early 1490s, Herman Ryng found himself locked up in a London prison and forced to beg England’s chancellor for a writ of certiorari in the hopes of having his case transferred from the sheriff of London’s jurisdiction to the chancellor’s. Only then did he dare to hope that he might find the requisite sympathy for his unique status and be released from prison.

The story he presents to the chancellor to explain his predicament is a lively one. He claims that he was in the Steelyard packing up merchandise when one Joan White came up to him. He describes White as a “singlewoman,” a term that Judith Bennett and Shannon McSheffrey explain as the “slum lingo of late medieval London” for “a prostitute.”[4] Her behavior, while clearly that of a “misliving woman,” was relatively tame that day: he claims that she “offer[ed] herself” to him, “to be at his commandment.” His petition hints that the encounter could have been much worse. He later learned from her confession, which he claims was made “in writing before credible persons,” that she was accustomed to dancing and “mak[ing] revel in her master’s house, sometimes in men’s clothing and sometimes naked.” Thankfully he was saved from such a display of immorality! Dismayed by her “boldness,” Ryng immediately “mistrusted her,” and told her to go away. White refused to cooperate; and so, Ryng ordered one of his servants to whip her two or three times, at which point she finally departed.

Ryng presents this encounter as part of a well-rehearsed “con.” Clearly awaiting White’s departure, her master, a man named Stephen Reygate, hurried onto the scene. Ryng describes him as a “needy” man [that is, a man who “wants more”] and also a troublemaker, eager to “make [Ryng] lose money.” Refusing to believe that White had come there of her own volition, he commenced an action of trespass before the sheriff of London, alleging that Ryng had abducted his servant, and asking for damages of £20.

Ryng’s plea of “not guilty” propelled them into a trial. As a foreigner, Ryng was entitled to a jury de meditate linguae, that is composed of an equal number of Englishmen and foreigners. Despite the attempts at partiality, through Reygate’s “great means and labor” – a euphemism for bribery and intimidation – the jury voted to convict, “not fearing God nor shame of the world” and “contrary to all truth.” Ryng was found guilty of the trespass and ordered to pay £3 in damages, plus the court costs. But the judge of the court did not immediately pass sentence. Rather, as Ryng tells us, the judge suspected something was amiss: “having information of the truth of the matter and the willful perjury of the said jury,” the judge chose to delay judgement until he had had more time to discover what had actually happened.

While Ryng admired his principles, the judge was clearly taking more time than Ryng was willing to wait. His petition draws to a close with a request for a writ of certiorari directed to the sheriff of London, to bring the matter and Ryng before the court of Chancery for resolution.[5]

As with many cases from the court of Chancery, only Ryng’s side of the story has survived. There is no response from Reygate; nor is there a final sentence. But there are several aspects of Ryng’s story that do not ring true and should be examined.

Ryng’s petition describes Stephen Reygate as a conman and a pimp. In fact, Reygate was a well-respected man of the community. He belonged to that small group of elite Londoners who could call themselves “citizens,” having received the freedom of the city at the king’s recommendation on 21 November 1452.[6]  Like many Englishmen, he was doubly employed: he was both a shipwright and a “winedrawer” (that is, he transported wine).[7]  From various other court appearances, all revolving around issues of debt – not at all unusual for a businessman in a such an intensive credit economy – it is clear that Reygate consorted with an influential crowd. In 1462, he appeared in a lawsuit at the Court of Common Pleas alongside John Bekyngham, underclerk of the king’s spicery. The two men claimed that two years previously they had made a bond with Thomas Joynour, gentleman, of the Middle Temple, and late undersheriff of Sussex, for £40. He failed to repay the amount and thus they were claiming £30 in damages.[8] Reygate’s eminent social standing would seem to be at odds with the image of the “hustler” who employs prostitutes presented by Ryng.[9]

And what do we know of Joan White? Was she in fact a prostitute, as Ryng alleges?  Unfortunately, “Joan White” is a very common name. Shannon McSheffrey and Judith Bennett have identified a number of other women with the same name in London records from the 1490s: one involved in a defamation suit, another accused of bearing an illegitimate child, and a testamentary suit concerning the administration of the goods of a Joan White.[10] Our Joan White might have been any of these women, or none of them.  

A Plan of the Steelyard from 1667.

What we do know is that the Steelyard was no easy place to get into. It was “in effect a fortress, surrounded by a high strong wall, which contained few windows.”[11] Like most city walls, guards manned the entrance day and night in order to control who entered. The enclave was also strictly off-limits to women. It was an all-male community: no woman was permitted on the premises.[12] Given the strictures, how did Joan get into the Steelyard in the first place, let alone have the freedom to simply walk up to Ryng and proposition him?

We also know that Ryng was not as morally upstanding as he claimed to be. A complaint to the chancellor by Bartholomew Doys, a London merchant who claims to have been taken captive by Ryng upon the high seas when he was traveling with a ship laden with woolen cloths, makes it clear that Ryng participated in the piracy that plagued Anglo-German relations in the 1470s and 80s.[13] Moreover, multiple appearances before the bishop of London’s Commissary court over the course of 1490-91 for sexual misbehavior with four different women make Ryng’s purported reaction to Joan White’s attentions feel at best constructed, at worst absurd.[14]

What was really going on here? Maybe a little context can help us to unravel this mystery.

We do know that there was growing hostility between the guildsmen of London and the Steelyard Hansards. The alien enclave of merchants leading a privileged existence, with tax exemptions and preferential customs rates, irked Londoners. Other foreign merchants lived side-by-side with Londoners; no other nation was granted its own liberty on English soil. Moreover, for much of the early period, the Dowgate was the only city gate that opened up to the river, giving the Hansards control over foreign traffic into England. [15] Henry VII’s coronation ushered in heightened concerns. In 1486, when the king reconfirmed Hanseatic privileges, he did so over the objections of merchants from Hull, York, Lynn, and London. Margaret the Duchess of Burgundy’s promotion of the Yorkist cause exacerbated matters. When Lambert Simnel invaded England in 1487 with the support of 2,000 German mercenaries financed by the duchess, the Steelyard was forbidden to import any goods and their cloth was put under arrest. Similarly, in September of 1493, Henry VII imposed trade sanctions on the Steelyard, retaliating for financial aid given to Perkin Warbeck. The Steelyard was required to give surety of £20,000 for its future good behavior.[16]

The king was not the only one losing patience with the Germans. Englishmen took it upon themselves to harass these increasingly unwelcome foreigners. In 1490, a Hanseatic messenger was assaulted on the road to Dover, while in the same year, Cologners living in the Steelyard were attacked while leaving church, leaving Peter, the younger brother of Gerhard van Wesel, mortally wounded. [17] Tensions erupted once again 15 October 1493, when a mob assembled at the gates of the Steelyard, damaging warehouses, and starting a fire on the premises. The mayor was forced to intervene, dispersing the dissenters, arresting the main perpetrators, and installing a nightly guard at the Steelyard for the following seven days in order to protect its residents.

If Ryng was correct, and his meeting with Joan White (under whatever conditions it took place) was a set-up, was this “sting” also part of the campaign of harassment of Hansard merchants by London guildsmen? And what did Stephen Reygate hope to get out of it?

Stephen Reygate was not just a shipwright, he also transported wine, and competition for the sale of wine had become quite fierce in the late 1480s and 90s. While the English traditionally drank Gascon wine, the market had taken a hit during the Hundred Years War from which it never fully recovered. Not only was the annual output of Gascon wine “markedly lower” and the prices higher, but the English had begun to turn to other sources for wine. The Hansards were partial to “Rhenish wine,” or “Rhine wine,” highly prized in England, although they were permitted to sell it only at the Steelyard. Nonetheless, they refused to participate in London’s fair sale practices, claiming immunity to the price-fixing policy instituted by the city of London in the 1480s. In retaliation, the mayor closed four Hansard wine cellars in February of 1486, hoping to force them into accepting his price of 10d. per gallon for Rhenish wine, but an appeal to the king’s butler had them opened again in no time.[18] Moreover, despite Henry VII’s legislation requiring that Gascon wine might only be imported on ships belonging to English subjects, by August of 1490 there had been multiple confiscations of German-owned French wine freighted on Hansard ships. [19] 

While it might seem far-fetched to place this dispute in the context of anti-alien sentiment and competition over the sale of wine, Herman Ryng’s petition makes it clear that there is much more to the story than meets the eye. Given the existing hostilities, it is hard to imagine they didn’t figure somehow into this story.

TNA C 1/158/47: Ryng v. The Sheriffs of London.

One thing we can say with certainty is that Ryng’s stint in prison had no discernable impact on his career. He left the Steelyard a few years later and went on to work as a diplomat in the courts of both Henry VII and Henry VIII. By 1510, he is referred to in the legal record as a knight. Under Henry VII, he earned an annuity of £30 against the customs due on his imports and exports through London. Under Henry VIII, this was raised to £50. [20] Indeed, he even acted as an agent on behalf of Emperor Maximilian in marriage negotiations between his daughter, Margaret, Duchess of Savoy, and Henry VII.[21]


A reproduced painting of the Steelyard (Souvenir of the British Exhibit in the Hall of Nations IPA Leipzig, 1930). Wikimedia. Public Domain.

Northern Europe in the 1400s, showing the extent of the Hanseatic League. Plate 28 of Professor G. Droysens Allgemeiner Historischer Handatlas, published by R. Andrée, 1886. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

Portrait of Georg Gisze, Steelyard merchant, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger circa 1532. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

A plan of the Steelyard from Johann Gustav Droysen‘s Atlas, claimed to be as it was in 1667. Wikipedia. Public Domain.

TNA C 1/158/47: Ryng v. The Sheriffs of London. The National Archives. AALT.

[1] Judith M. Bennett and Shannon McSheffrey, “Early, Erotic and Alien: Women Dressed as Men in Late Medieval London,” History Workshop Journal 77.1 (2014), 25, fn. 9.

[2] Thomas S. Holman, “Holbein’s Portraits of the Steelyard Merchants: An Investigation,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 14 (1979), 139.

[3] John D. Fudge, Cargoes, Embargoes, and Emissaries: The Commercial and Political Interaction of England and the German Hanse 1450-1510 (University of Toronto Press, 1995), 120.

[4] Bennett and McSheffrey, “Early, Erotic and Alien,” 9.

[5] The National Archives (hereafter, TNA) C 1/158/47, Ryng v. The Sheriffs of London (1486-93). I am not the first to discuss this case. John Fudge includes a transcription of the Chancery petition. Fudge, Cargoes, Embargoes, and Emissaries, 221. Judith Bennett and Shannon McSheffrey mention the case also in “Early, Erotic and Alien,” 9. Please note: Herman Ryng appears with a variety of spellings in the legal record, including: Harmon Ring, Herman Rink, and Hermann Rinck.

[6] Caroline M. Barron, “The Government of London and its Relations with the Crown, 1400-1450,” (PhD Dissertation, University of London, 1970), 205, fn. 4.

[7] Calendar of Patent Rolls (London: HMSO, 1891-1916), Edward IV. Henry VI (1467-77), 325.

[8] TNA CP 40/805, rot. 395. This dispute eventually ended up also in Chancery. TNA C 1/29/478, Joynour v. Reygate (1460-65). See also, TNA C 1/32/431, Reygate v. Stokton (1465-71); TNA C 1/46/481, Reygate v. The Mayor of London (1467-72); TNA C 1/61/352, Carewe v. The Mayor of London (1480-83).

[9] Timothy J. Runyan, “Roundtable: Notes on John D. Fudge, Cargoes, Embargoes, and Emissaries. The Commercial and Political Interaction of England and the German Hanse, 1450-1510, with a Response by John D. Fudge,” International Journal of Maritime History 8.1 (1996), 249.

[10] As noted in Bennett and McSheffrey, “Early, Erotic and Alien,” 25, fn. 7.

[11] Walter Mucklow, “Herrings and the First Great Combine, Part II,” Journal of Accountancy 53.5 (1932), 369.

[12] Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert, The London Encyclopedia (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1983), 824.

[13] TNA C 1/67/157, Doys v. The Mayor of London (1475-80, or 1483-85).

[14] Comm. Act Book 4, f. 38r, 83r, 227v., 239v, 263v; as cited in Bennett and McSheffrey, “Early, Erotic and Alien,” 25, fn. 8.

[15] Mucklow, “Herrings and the First Great Combine,” 368.

[16] T.H. Lloyd, England and the German Hanse, 1157-1611: A Study of their Trade and Commercial Diplomacy (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 240 and 245.

[17] Fudge, Cargoes, Embargoes, and Emissaries, 95.

[18] Lloyd, England and the German Hanse, 238.

[19] Lloyd, England and the German Hanse, 243.

[20] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry VII, vol. ii (1494-1509), 300; J.S. Brewer, ed., Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, vol. 3, 1519-1523 (London: HMSO, 1867), 356-69.

[21] Bennett and McSheffrey, “Early, Erotic, and Alien,” 25 fn. 9.

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