History of Lubeck

Mother Earth Travel > Germany > Lubeck > History

It took three attempts to build the city of Lubeck, attempts which have lasted until today. The first settlement was called Liubice which means the beautiful, the lovely. It was situated on a tongue of land near the place where the river Schwartau meets the river Trave. But the sovereigns or king´s headquarters were easy prey for attackers, and so the settlement was destroyed in 1138.

Earl Adolf III. von Schauenburg founded a new Lubeck on the hill which is almost entirely surrounded by the Trave and the river Wakenitz in a part of today´s Old Town. He recognised that it was an ideal location for trading with the north and the east. But arguments with Duke Henry the Lion, the feudal lord, and the fire of 1157 but his plans to an end.

In 1159, Henry the Lion founded Lubeck for a third time, and this time it was meant to last. From now on, the city was built with red fireproof bricks. Seven naves soon showed the flourishing city´s wealth. The bishop´s church - the Cathedral, the Merchants' church St. Mary's, St. Peter´s, St. Aegidien's in the craftsmen´s district and St. Jacob´s, the seafarers' church. The cityscape was characterised by an accurate building plan with side streets and alleys diverting from the main roads towards the rivers - some of which are called Gruben ("pits") and the uniform building material. The old Lubeck townhouse, a gabled house dating from the late 13th century, had a large, spacious hall and an office to serve trading purposes. Many of these houses standing close together lined the roads and alleys.

Due to the access available to the Baltic Sea, trade developed rapidly, just as had been expected. Merchant ships left the harbour with a load of salt, wine or fabrics, or arrived here with furs, ore, fish or other raw materials.
Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa granted the city more privileges in 1188, after Henry the Lion had fallen out of favour. Barbarossa gave the city the right of shipping and fishing, confirmed its landed property and contributed to Lubeck's wealth by bestowing further privileges upon the city, such as the mint and the status as a city to be administered as a district in its own right (in 1226). Lubeck kept this status for 711 years.

The Danish King Waldemar II., who occupied the city since 1201, was the only one to stop Lubeck from rising even faster. But in the battle of Bornhöved in 1227, Lubeck won victory against the Danes, and there was no further obstruction to the trading monopoly.

From 1250, Lubeck protected its people with a wall which had four gates: Holstentor, Burgtor, Mühlentor and Hüxtertor. The Holstentor and the Burgtor can still be seen today.

Lubeck´s trading power was consolidated by the foundation of the Hanseatic League in the middle of the 14th century. The city inevitably became the Queen of the Hanseatic League, as it had secured unimpeded access to the Baltic Sea by purchasing Travemünde in 1329. The first Hanse conference to carry through shared trading interests took place in Lubeck in 1358. The Hanseatic League had no fleet, but they could show up with their impressive ships wherever diplomacy and the persuasive powers of money would not suffice. Offices were set up abroad, like in Bergen, Brussels, London and Nowgorod. Lubeck became the second biggest German city next to Cologne.
After ten years of war with Denmark, the Stralsund peace agreement of 1370 set the seal on the supremacy of the League in the northern seas.

Architecture flourished in Lubeck, and impressive secular buildings like the Town Hall were built. Wealthy merchants helped to set up social establishments like the Heiligen-Geist-Hospital and Stiftshöfe for widows and orphans with large financial donations.

From 1391 to 1389, the people of Lubeck built a canal from the river Trave to the river Elbe. It is called the Stecknitz canal and was supposed to make the shipping and trading of salt easier. But despite these efforts, the city´s political influence and trading power began to decrease, even though its status as a flourishing metropolis of craftwork initially made up for this. Renowned wood-sculpturers and painters exported their works - the famous winged altars, for example - into the entire Baltic region. But too many factors caused Lubeck´s power to vanish - the maritime trade moved westward, after the New World had been discovered, and the reformation had made Lubeck Protestant and proclaimed individuality. A turning away from the Hanseatic League was inevitable. In 1669, the last Hanseatic conference took place in Lubeck, attended by 9 out of an initial 100 members.

The extension of the fortifications and clever diplomacy saved Lubeck from taking part in the Thirty Years War. In 1806, the neutral city was forcibly drawn into the fight between the Prussian army under Blücher´s command and the French. It suffered heavy casualties. Napoleon´s Continental System (1806-12) and contributions harmed the trading city enormously. In 1813, the city was eventually liberated from occupation. Under Bismarck´s reign Lubeck became an independent province within the German Kaiserreich in 1871. It lost its status as a district in its own right through the Groß-Hamburg-Gesetz (greater Hamburg Law), when it was administered to Schleswig-Holstein, which was Prussian at the time.

The hardest time in the history of Lubeck began when an allied bomb raid destroyed one fifth of the historic Old Town during the night of Palm Sunday on March 29th 1942. The area around St. Mary's was particularly badly damaged. Of the seven naves which used to tell of Lubeck´s wealth, St. Aegidien's and St. Jacob's were the only ones left. The Swiss author and diplomat Carl Jacob Burckhardt, among others, saw to it that Lubeck was not entirely destroyed. He was president of the Red Cross at the time and maintained that Lubeck´s harbour was used for shipping goods to allied prisoners of war. Out of gratitude for preventing further attacks, the city admitted him as a freeman.

It took many years and great efforts to reconstruct the city. Houses were renovated, facades were rebuilt according to their original designs and up to 1961 the naves were pulled up again with a lot of help from the citizens of Lubeck.

Some "architectural sins" are undoubtedly to be found in Lubeck, and somewhat controversial decisions are sometimes taken within the renovation of old buildings, but as a whole the city´s Old Town certainly is something to be proud of. It is characterised by a large number of valuable monuments from various eras. UNESCO declared this unique ensemble of Old Town merchant houses of the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classic periods with their churches, monasteries, alleys, warehouses and city gates part of the world´s cultural heritage in 1987.