CODEX Entry 3100: Visby – Capital of Gotland


The main town on the island of Gotland, sits sixty kilometres east off the southern Swedish coastline. Visby is the best-preserved medieval city in Scandinavia. Its strategic position in the 9th Century saw it become a natural launching hub for a loose alliance of Viking pirates. Groups of warriors were gather to organise raids across southern Europe, as far as Constantinople. Later this alliance evolved into the pan-Baltic commercial and defensive Hanseatic League. The pirates of Visby were now the Visby Hansa. Earlier pillaging routes were now Hansa trading routes. The brutal raiding parties were sanitized and organised into private armies levied by each town. Ports that had previously agreed annual tribute to avoid ransacking, now gave the Visby Hansa trading monopolies and duty exemptions at their ports and beyond. Key among these was a monopoly of the salted fish and metals trades from the north. These vassal ports, as far north as Novgorod, Russia; Brugge to the south; and the port city of London; each had a Hanseatic Kontor. A Kontor was a self-governing enclave. The enclave in London was on Upper Thames Street at what is now Cannon Street station, with its own walls guarded by Hansa Viking soldiers. The Hanseatic Kontor operated like an early stock and commodity exchange. It had its own treasury, court, seal, and aldermen. Hansa merchants, when overseas, if threatened with legal action, could appeal to the Visby courts. These Laws of Wisbuy gave them virtual legal immunity.

Gotland’s most famous son was Rollo, claimed by the Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes as their own, was the founder of the House of Normandy, and the great great great grandfather of William the Conqueror, who won the throne of England.

By the 13th Century, Visby’s trade was comparable to that of London. The Hansa convinced King Henry II of England to exempt them from all tolls in London and he allowed them to trade throughout the country. The Hanseatic free cities owed allegiance directly to the Holy Roman Emperor, without any intermediate family tie of obligation to the local nobility.

In the mid-14th century, the League moved its headquarters to Lübeck, on the coast of Germany, reducing substantially the trade that flowed through Visby. In 1361, Gotland was conquered by Valdemar IV of Denmark. 1,800 Gotlanders were killed in battle and Valdemar demanded a huge ransom of gold and silver. This forced the Hanseatic League into war with Denmark; however, despite victory, Visby remained a Danish city. During the 1390’s it was repeatedly taken and plundered by the Victual Brothers, pirates for hire throughout the Baltic. An invading army of Teutonic Knights then conquered Gotland, destroyed Visby, and expelled the Victual Brothers. In 1409 the Teutonic Knights guaranteed peace with the Kalmar Union of Scandinavia by selling the island of Gotland to Queen Margaret of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Yet, just two years later, her grandnephew, King Eric of Pomerania, moved to the island, built the castle of Visborg, and allowed the city to lapse back into piracy. All trade halted and by 1470, the Hanseatic League rescinded Visby’s status as a Hanseatic town, the League’s focus now firmly on controlling the Polish grain trade down the River Vistula, and the rich pickings of the New World. Amsterdam’s stock and commodity exchange, and leading shipbuilders, began to dominate in the 15th Century, and in 1597 Queen Elizabeth of England expelled the League from London.