My attention tends to wander when I spend too many days in a row reading the Close Rolls. Try it. I’m sure you’ll feel the same. Hence, I was pleased to be shaken from my reverie when I came upon several entries relating to wine in the Roll for 1274; after all, this is a subject dear to my heart, as a regular visitor of several fine wineries in the greater Melbourne area, and proud owner/drinker of a cellar that’s not too bad, thank you very much, even if I do say so myself. I have a vague notion of writing the book on wine in the thirteenth century one day.[1] For now, here are some tastings.

Obviously I’m not the only one who likes to mix my -OH groups with medieval amusement…

The king had a special right to prise, in other words, a tax, on imports of wine, and it seems to me from the implications of several notes on the Rolls that this was sometimes taken in kind. There is mention, for example, of a tun of wine “of the right prise” being given “of the king’s gift” to the archbishop of Rages.[2] As the wording of this writ suggests, gifts of wine potentially represented patronage of both symbolic and functional significance.[3] Gifts of wine from the royal prise frequently seem to have been directed at religious houses, sometimes for the express purpose of celebrating the divine office. On January 27, 1275, the monks of King’s Beaulieu, where the king was staying, took the opportunity to press their rights to an annual tun for this purpose which they claimed to have been granted by a charter of Henry III. Edward ordered three tuns – one for the present year and two in arrears – to be granted to them “until he shall cause it to be ordained otherwise”, presumably involving a search of the chancery records for the aforementioned charter.[4] As a chivalrous and gracious monarch, one imagines he could hardly fail to meet the monks’ demands while he was their guest, even if he should later discover the claim to be groundless.[5] 

Although the income of the prise was probably more convenient in cash if the king was absent from the realm, or particularly hard up for funds (for example to pay for his various wars in Wales, Scotland, Gascony, or the Holy Land), when Edward was in residence, it probably represented a sensible mechanism for supplying the household. Its demands were large. On August 12, 1274, for instance, with the king having arrived in the country only eight days earlier after an extended absence, orders were already being issued for the restocking of royal manors in preparation for his arrival. The “takers of the king’s wines” were instructed to have five tuns of wine removed from storage in Southampton to the royal hunting lodge at Brill, Bucks.[6] That’s five times 954 litres of wine. That makes four thousand seven hundred and seventy litres. Count them. Even this large quantity pales into insignificance before the twelve tuns (11,448 litres) the takers were ordered to deliver to the king at Windsor on September 20 in the same year.[7] Edward (together with his doubtless large retinue) was clearly a thirsty man.

Edward’s concern for and awareness of wine apparently went beyond volume. We can assume he was also a connoisseur of some degree. This is implied, for example, by a letter of 2 October ordering the mayor and bailiffs of Bristol to buy “20 tuns [19,080 litres] of the best wines on sale in that city or port” (my emphasis). The constable of Bristol castle had been ordered to satisfy them for the price of all this good cheer and “cause it to be carried to Shrewsbury against the king’s arrival there.”[8] Like any savvy wine drinker, the king didn’t want just any old hooch on his table. Only the best would do. He also revealed an understanding of the significance of terroir (as well as simple economics) when he instructed the mayor and sheriffs of London to permit publicans in the city “to sell their wines for 4d. a gallon”, an astronomical price, “as wines are dear at Bordeaux and elsewhere in Gascony and are sold dearly in those parts, as the king understands for certain.”[9] To illustrate just how high this was, the wine granted to the monks of King’s Beaulieu in 1275 cost 60s. at 20s. a tun. There were something like 256 gallons[10] in a tun (and 12 d. in an s. … is everyone still with me?), meaning that the wine for Beaulieu cost:

(20 x 12)/256 = 0.9375d. per gallon.

That’s less than a quarter of the price the king was authorizing the taverners of London to charge for Gascon wine on the basis of his personal and “certain” knowledge of its value and, presumably, quality. Perhaps during Edward’s long stay in Gascony on his way home from Acre to assume his throne he had acquired both experience of and a taste for the products of Bordeaux’s viticulture. I like to think so anyway.

* With apologies to Shakespeare.

[1] Assuming that this one isn’t definitive…
[2] Calendar of the Close Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office: 1272–1279 (London: HMSO, 1900), p. 30.
[3] The most recent treatment of the significance of food and drink as gifts can be found in the special edition of the Journal of Medieval History edited by Lars Kjær and A.J. Watson: volume 37, issue 1 (2011).
[4] CCR 1272–1279, p. 145.
[5] On 9 February 1275, the abbot was further compensated for a tun of wine taken from the abbey stores for the use of the king’s household during the royal visit. Wine was clearly a major line item of the local budget! The grant was still being made in 1276. See: CCR 1272–1279, pp. 149, 265, 365.
[6] CCR 1272–1279, p. 93.
[7] CCR 1272–1279, p. 99.
[8] CCR 1272–1279, p. 100.
[9] CCR 1272–1279, p. 137.
[10] The authorities of the interwebs are divided on this point, but all put it somewhere between 250 and 256 gallons per tun. It probably depended on the cooper is all I can say, as there were always disputes going on about whether the measure was the same in different parts of the realm…