Medieval London

Steelyard Weight

Steelyard weight

The steelyard weight discovered at the Hansa steelyard in London.

Steelyard balance

An example of the type of steelyard balance with which the steelyard weight would have been used. 

Parish of All Hallows the Great

This map depicts the Parish of All Hallows the Great, the location of the London Hansa Steelyard.

Map of London

This is Visschner’s Map of London from 1616 depicting the London Steelyard along the River Thames.

Steelyard Watercolor

A watercolor by George Shepherd from 1811 depicting the Steelyard wharf along the Thames. Note the steelyard balances in the foreground.

The steelyard weight is a balancing weight that is attached to a Steelyard balance. Made of lead, the weight is an elongated circle (66 mm high and 64 mm wide) covered in a copper alloy to give it a bonze coloration.[1] The suspension loop at the top of the weight is used to tie a rope through so that it can be hung from a steelyard balance. An important feature of the steelyard weight is that it bears the coat of arms of Richard, Earl of Cornwall.  While he was the brother of King Henry III of England, Richard also became emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in Germany. To emphasize this connection, the weight bears the German double-headed eagle, symbol of the Holy Roman Empire. [2]

The steelyard weight was used as a counterweight on a steelyard balance while measuring a specific item. The weight would be hung from the yardarm of the steelyard balance while the item being weighed would be hung at the other end.  The weight could be adjusted along the yardarm until the weight and the item being measured reached equilibrium, at which point the weight of the item could then be read from the scale engraved on the beam. [3] 

Steelyards were developed during the Roman period and were first brought to England during the era of Roman occupation. They came in varying sizes, with some ranging from the size of a multi-story buildings to those that could stand on a desk. The small size of the steelyard weight indicates that the steelyard balance used in conjunction with this weight was portable and used to weigh small articles of merchandise.  Typically, steelyard balances were used by traders and merchants to measure products when they were first offloaded from merchant vessels. 

The Steelyard of London was a trading post belonging to the Hanseatic League, an organization of German trading cities in the Holy Roman Empire formed to regulate competition, prices, and trading practices, and to present a united front against their competitors [4]. The Steelyard was located near Upper Thames Street, in a strategic location near the River Thames.  The name of the Steelyard comes from the Middle Low German ‘stalhof’, which literally means ‘steel-yard” [5].  The location of the Steelyard near the Thames was determined by the interest of the Hanse merchants in the wine trade, which in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was focused on the inlet known as Dowgate, where the Walbrook stream flowed south into the Thames.[7]. The Hanseatic merchants were given special privileges by the kings of England, including the protection of the English kings, lower customs duties, and the right to elect their own alderman. Their status was similar to that of a modern diplomat.

At the Hansa Steelyard in London, German traders of the Hansa used the steelyard balances and weights to measure each off-loaded cargo to ensure that everything everything on the vessel’s manifesto was present.[8] The balances came in many different sizes and included the King’s steelyard or beam, which was an official balance for weighting goods imported into London.[9] The image of the steelyard balance became representative of commerce and German prowess in international trade. 

 As indicated by both the German double-headed eagle and the coat of arms of the reigning Holy Roman Emperor engraved on the steelyard weight,[10] this object probably originated in the Holy Roman Empire. The coat of arms of Richard, Earl of Cornwall, the Holy Roman Emperor, dates the steelyard weight to the thirteenth century, when international trade to London was becoming increasingly important. The steelyard weight had a humble beginning as a lump of lead, but the coat of arms and lettering on it raised its prominence while associating it with the key international trade between London and Germany.  

Endnotes

[1] C. Preece and S. Burton, “Church Rocks, 1975–83: a reassessment, International Journal of Nautical Archaeology” (2007); “Steelyard Weight.” Museum of London | Free museum in London. Accessed September 23, 2019. https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/37696.html

[2] “Steelyard Weight.” Museum of London | Free museum in London. Accessed September 23, 2019. https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/37696.html. 

[3]. Preece and  Burton, “Church Rocks, 1975–83.”

[4] L. W. Cowie, “The Steelyard of London.” History Today 25 (1975): 777.

[5] Cowie, “The Steelyard of London,” 777.

[7] Derek Keene,. “New Discoveries at the Hanseatic Steelyard in London.” Hansische Geschichtsblätter 107 (1989): 16-18

[8] Cowie, “The Steelyard of London,” 781.

[9] John Edward Price,  “Reminiscences of the Steelyard formerly in Upper Thames Street, with an Account of Some of the Antiquities Lately Discovered on its Site.” Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society 3 (1870): 69

[10] “Steelyard Weight.” 

-Paul Gargiulo

Bibliography

Cowie, L. W. “The Steelyard of London.” History Today 25 (1975): 776-81.

Preece and S. Burton, “Church Rocks, 1975–83: A Reassessment,” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 22:3 (2007): 257-65.

Keene, Derek. “New Discoveries at the Hanseatic Steelyard in London.” Hansische  Geschichtsblätter 107 (1989): 15-25.

Price, John Edward. “Reminiscences of the Steelyard formerly in Upper Thames Street, with an Account of Some of the Antiquities Lately Discovered on Its site.”   Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society 3 (1870): 67-78.

“Steelyard.” British Museum. Accessed September 24, 2019.  https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx                                                    

“Steelyard Weight.” Museum of London | Free museum in London. Accessed September 23, 2019. https://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/online/object/37696.html.

 

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