Keywords: York commerce regulations wine trade restrictions prices consumption vintners merchants imports war partnership taverns quality control assizes
Subject: Regulation of the sale of wine
Original source: York City Archives, Memorandum Book A/Y, ff.5, 15
Transcription in: Maud Sellers, ed. York Memorandum Book, part I (1376-1419). Surtees Society, vol.120 (1911), 13-14, 39-40.
Original language: French
Location: York
Date: 1370s


[1. Ordinance made in the time of mayor John de Gysburne, 10 February 1371]

Concerning wine

That same day it was agreed and assented to that if any vintner or other wine-seller who belongs to the franchise is convicted of selling wine to others to take outside the franchise (such as to the abbey of St. Mary's, or the churchyard of St. Peter, or to St. Leonard's, or to the castle, or any of the aforesaid places) to sell by retail contrary to [the terms of] the assize and at a higher price than taverners sell it within this city, thus infringing the privileges of the city and its assize, he shall lose his franchise and forfeit to the use of the community the value of the wine that he has sold by pipe. Every outsider wine-merchant is to pay, for each horseload of Rhenish wine brought to the city and put up for sale, 2s. to the use of the community.

[2. Ordinance made in a later mayoralty of John de Gysburne, 19 March 1380]

As a result of the great outcry by and scandal to the good people and commons, both those of the franchise and outsiders, caused by the retailing of wine in the city privately to individuals instead of in public during the day, it is ordained and determined by the assent of the whole community concerning any wine whatsoever that is henceforth sold in such a manner by retail, or privately to individuals instead of in public, that the tun or pipe of wine – whichever it is – thus sold shall be forfeited to the community. Or the value of the tun or pipe [shall be forfeited], if the wine has all been sold. If it has not all been sold, whatever remains is not to be sold except in public or through a tavern.


Because wine was the common drink, consumed daily, amongst those who could afford it, the wine trade became an increasingly important component of English commerce following the Conquest; it was the most heavily imported item from abroad, and ships were classed according to their tonnage – that is, the number of wine tuns they could carry. As a consumable with a relatively long lifespan, it was in some ways almost like a secondary currency, and fines for certain offences (often trade-related or misdemeanours) might be levied in the form of a pipe or cask of wine or, less commonly, ale. But since almost no wine was produced in England, much of the trade was initially in the hands of outsiders, even after the expansion of the English king's French dominions – especially in Poitou and Anjou at first, and later, after the loss of northern Aquitaine, Gascony – gave better access to wine producers. Initially, the Rhineland was the principal source of wine, but Gascon wines came to account for 90‰ of the trade during the fourteenth century; Rhenish wines, however, continued in that century to find a market in northern England, as illustrated by the purchases of Durham abbey, which bought much of its wine at, or from the merchants of, Newcastle and (to a lesser extent) York and Hull, or from local vendors who probably also dealt mainly in imports through Newcastle; though in the fifteenth century the Durham accounts repeatedly talk of purchases of Gascon wine.

The trend towards consumption of Gascony vintage was countered by the fact that the trade was subject to the vagaries of the Hundred Years War between England and France (with its Scottish ally). Before the war roughly 75,000 to 100,000 tuns of wine were shipped from Gascony's ports, the greater part to England. Afterwards, the wine supply was less reliable. Parts of the wine market of south-west France were closed off, at times when in French hands, to English merchants, though those of other countries were still able to take wine to England. Periods of truce were marked by heavy buying. Destruction of vineyards by the enemy, targeting of mercantile shipping for attack, and increased costs through provision of protection for wine and wool fleets, taken in conjunction with effects of plague, and the disincentive to foreign merchants of customs imposed on their imports of wine, brought about the result that English merchants became dominant in the trade from Bordeaux by the late fourteenth century, but that this trade had shrunk considerably.

Wine was shipped into every English port in the fourteenth century, but many were receiving only what sufficed to serve their own needs and those of their hinterlands. Fewer were the ports where a large percentage of wine imported was for inland redistribution; these lay mostly along the southern coast and in eastern England (the latter stretching from Ipswich and Yarmouth as far north as Kingston-upon-Hull and Newcastle-upon-Tyne), with the notable addition of Bristol. London had a large role in the wine trade, through its own port and through those of, in particular, the Cinque Ports and Southampton, the latter's port being able to accommodate the increasingly large (and more economical) cargo ships that appeared in the fifteenth century and were used particularly by Italians. Nonetheless, there were few English merchants who made their fortune based solely on the wine trade, even if they went by the designation of vintner; most dealt in relatively modest annual quantities of wine – both by personal import, or by wholesale purchases from other importers – and played it safe through commercial diversification and partnership ventures. The provision of England with wine thus relied on a large number of merchants involving themselves to greater or lesser degrees in the wine trade, among other commercial activities; it was a trade involving a large infrastructure of middlemen. Margery James has noted that:

"The process of wholesale distribution to inland markets was a complex and exceedingly varied one, for it attracted every type of merchant and trader and no man was either too great or too small to engage in such a profitable venture. Wine was constantly being bought and then resold or exchanged against other goods... What distinguished the specialist wine dealer was not so much the size of his trade as the regularity with which he engaged in it and the emphasis he placed upon it in relation to his other affairs."
[Studies in the Medieval Wine Trade, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, pp.161, 183]

The vintner needed to have expertise, acquired from experience and/or apprenticeship, in judging the quality of wines. The lack of such discernment among many buyers created risks of fraud through the misrepresentation of the quality or value of what was on offer, through the adulteration of good wine with poor, or through the deterioration of wine with age. Hence borough authorities were anxious that newly-arrived wines be checked by dedicated officials prior to being offered for sale, and held in storage until checked; also that sales be conducted in public places where unconversant buyers could call on others for an assessment of quality. Although some vintners occasionally attempted to deceive buyers, and more were willing – if opportunity arose – to exceed the limits of the strict letter of the law (such as exceeding the assize prices, or in trading with the enemy), this was counterbalanced by the desire to maintain a reputation as a knowledgeable and creditable supplier, and avoid the public humiliations that could come with conviction of selling bad wine. The master vintner, though he might personally travel abroad to sources of supply during the Spring and Autumn sailings of the wine fleet, timed to respond to the wine production seasons, might also rely on partners or factors to do his buying; or he would travel with an assistant who would be left, once the vintner had selected what to buy, to make final arrangements for purchase and shipping. Similarly, vintners would use factors, brokers, and apprentices to help with sales, inland redistribution, and debt collection.

In England, the vintner had to spend part of his time seeking out and acquiring merchandize to take abroad to sell, in order to finance his wine purchases; he thus either had to have the discrimination to buy saleable English products and the knowledge of what would sell at foreign destinations, or he would rely on the local specialty – Yarmouth merchants, for example, would export herring, while those of Bristol purchased hides in Ireland (with which they had strong connections), took those to Gascony and brought back wine, some of which they would take to Ireland to continue the cycle. One of the reasons Londoners eventually came to dominate the wine trade was that they were active throughout England, both in terms of buying goods – such as grain from London's hinterlands, wool from the Cotswolds and Lincolnshire, fish from the Yarmouth fair, tin from Cornish mines – for export to Bordeaux, and in terms of redistribution of imported wine across the country. Although London dealers focused first on the city market and marketplaces in the home counties, by the late fourteenth century they were also supplying some of the taverns in East Anglian towns and communities up the east coast as far as Berwick, since it was cheaper to transport wine containers by water. Bristol and Southampton had a more important role in the distributive trade to western England.

Merchants dealing in such bulky goods for the overseas trade naturally came to see advantages in owning one or more ships, or shares in ships, which might be kept almost constantly busy during those months when the seas were not too stormy. As a result, wine that would have had its initial sale, by foreign importers, at English ports, might sometimes pass straight through those ports en route to the English importer's home town. However, from the late fourteenth to late fifteenth centuries the adverse impact of war conditions on English shipping led to much greater reliance on foreigners for the carrying trade. Vintners were also likely to retail wine in their home towns, some from the cellars in which they stored their casks, although many seem to have owned or leased one or more taverns, usually run by an employee taverner or sometimes by family members; alternatively, they had partnerships with tavern owners to be their exclusive suppliers of wine – an arrangement today referred to as a 'tied house'. In the same way it was common, at least in London, for bakeshops to be tied to cornmongers. Running a tavern could also draw the owner into the wholesale wine trade; taverners were common among importers of wine, although it is not easy to tell which aspect of their business was the original.

Hull, rather than York, was the main centre for the distribution of wine across northern England; from Hull it could reach York, and several other destinations, by water. But York's importance as the effective focus of royal administration in the north, the seat of an archbishopric, the home to a number of religious houses, and a central marketplace within the region, meant that the wine trade was a significant element of the local economy. The large and wealthy monastic houses of northern England relied partly on Hull, and to a lesser extent on York, for some of their wine supplies, but tended to shop around rather than consistently patronize particular suppliers. The presence of the king, or the summoning there of a parliament, could place heavy demands on the local wine supply. pushing up prices; in 1300 Edward I, who had set up court at York for an extended period to supervise the war with Scotland, was so annoyed at this that he had a special assize held to regulate prices and the following year imposed a set of regulations on the wine and other trades.

Although their volume of sales were not on the same scale as those of some southern counterparts, York vintners are, relative to other merchants, the earliest large-scale, long-distance traders documented in that medieval city, and they may have been sufficiently numerous in the thirteenth century to have formed a gild. Some of York's leading merchants are known to have been involved in importing wine, but much of that trade was in the hands of outsiders, and York's vintners were perhaps more middlemen, perhaps retailing some of it, and certainly selling it to local retailers such as taverners. For example, Robert Wrench, who entered the franchise at York in 1365 as a spicer and would later serve as a city bailiff, was accused of selling, during the 1370s and '80s, at excessive prices to a variety of customers, 8 tuns of wine through a retail operation in his own house, 12 tuns of wine through a tavern operated by Stephen de Parys, and 22 tuns sold wholesale by himself or his servants.

The above two ordinances produced, at different times, by the "reforming" mayor John Gisburne reflect the same kinds of concerns about the wine trade as authorities tried to address with regard to other provisions considered essential components of the food supply.

The first ordinance seeks to prevent unregulated competition from traders operating within various of the independent franchises in the city – city authorities resenting their impotence to administer the assize of wine in those franchises, and thus control wine prices. The lay residents of the cathedral precinct, or the precincts of the abbey, St. Leonard's hospital, and the castle fee, were not answerable to city courts and could not be forced to respect its commercial regulations. The last part of the ordinance, apparently another form of protectionism, directed against non-local merchants importing wine, was an addition to the original ordinance.

The second ordinance concerns itself with the traditional principle that all goods should be sold in public, to give every member of the community the opportunity to share in the bargain and ensure that goods were not hoarded by profiteering individuals with a view to pushing prices up. Again, the last section of the ordinance is added as an afterthought.

A set of ordinances in 1482 established, or reconfirmed, more stringent requirements for wine-sellers. No resident was to set up a wine shop in York until passing an examination by the searchers of the craft, who were to determine if the candidate had sufficient knowledge of the wine trade, and no merchant vintner who was an outsider was to be permitted to retail wine in the city until he had taken out citizenship, and until his wines had been scrutinized for quality. The authority of the searchers to assure the wholesome quality of any and all wines offered for sale, and report any sellers of bad wine to the mayor, was confirmed, and a fine set for anyone resisting that authority. Vintners were forbidden to use servants, children or women – presumably meaning hucksters – to sell wine of unsatisfactory quality. All containers of wine were to be marked in a way that identified the seller.



"afford it"
Those who were wealthy and ran large households bought supplies in bulk, might employ a butler, steward, or cellarer to manage and replenish their stock – the king, who spent much of his time moving around England, from manor to manor) having a staff of deputy butlers in place at various key ports; they sometimes engaged purchasing agents to acquire large quantities of wine overseas and ship it to England, although they also bought heavily at English ports from other importers and to a much lesser extent in inland towns from English vintners. Those poorer occasionally drank wine in taverns as a treat and were more likely to have a small stock of ale in their homes. Well-to-do townsmen might keep modest reserves in their houses, but also buy from retailers when necessary. Before the consequences of war with France pushed prices up, wine was not vastly more expensive than ale; the price ratio was much as it is today. Wholesale prices of wine fluctuated, but the assizes tried to keep retail prices stable. York regulations of 1301 set the price of a gallon of wine at 4d. for old vintage and 5d. for new vintage, yet in 1306 York's mayor was fining taverners for selling at 4d. a gallon, because 3d. was the established price. A generation later 4d. a gallon was a common price. In the second half of the century prices fluctuated more – typically between 6d. and 10d. – as the effects of war pushed merchants' costs up. With a return to relatively peaceful conditions, but Gascon wine no longer as abundant, the fifteenth century price tended to be around 6d. a gallon in the first half, and in the second half rose to 8d. Rising standards of living in that period and importation of beer may have offset the rise in prices, but we do not know whether drinking habits altered significantly among the middle class. However, the nobility began to drink more expensive sweet wines, such as malmsey and rumney; this may have been partly a change in tastes, but also a way to differentiate themselves from their social inferiors.

"certain offences"
Examples from London's Letter-Books include: in 1284, to bring to an end hostility between two members of the patriciate, Philip le Taylur and Laurence Gisors, because the latter had killed a dog of the former, Laurence agreed to give Philip a cask of wine on a date to be set for a formal reconciliation; and in 1311 a cordwainer put up a cask as a pledge to the mayor that he would not in future use abusive language in the city court.

"merchants of Newcastle"
For example, Roger Thornton is identified in several abbey accounts as a regular supplier of wine (and, less often, of wax, iron, and lumber) during the reign of Henry IV, a monarch whose favour he had won by supporting him during the rebellion of the Earl of Northumberland – Roger received a variety of rewards for his loyalty. In the same period Roger was also leasing from the bishopric mines that produced lead and silver. However, relations between Roger and Bishop Langley were disrupted: first by a dispute between the bishop and the community of Newcastle (of which Roger was frequently mayor) over the latter's construction of a tower at one end of the Tyne bridge; and later, during the reign of Henry V, by a legal dispute over ownership of a manor, which had to be adjudicated in the bishop's court. Bishop Langley then seems to have distanced himself from Roger, only one subsequent purchase of wine from him being recorded in the abbey accounts (1422/23); while, for his part, Roger in his will (1429), which is largely taken up with religious bequests and those showing gratitude, ignores the abbey. But on several later occasions in the 1420s the abbey bought wine from a Henry Thornton of Newcastle, who would later receive a bequest of one hundred shillings from Roger and was likely some relative, though not a son since Roger's will mentions only one (the other six sons depicted on his monumental brass presumably having predeceased him). Perhaps Roger had turned over his mercantile business to Henry, expecting his own son to proceed towards gentrification as inheritor of numerous rural estates and urban properties. By the 1440s Thomas Hedlam (sheriff of the town in 1444) seems to have become the abbey's favoured Newcastle supplier of wine.

"English merchants"
Examples of Londoners who were much involved in the wine trade, even though not technically vintners, include John de Gisors, Henry le Waleys and Gregory de Rokesle, all of whom bought not only as part of their own mercantile businesses, but also on behalf of the king. An example of one who was categorized as a vintner, William Barache (or Barage, Varache, probably taken from Varages, a location north-east of Marseilles), is pointed out by George Unwin [Finance and Trade under Edward III, Manchester: University Press, 1918, 21-22]. William, himself of some Gascon background, bought large quantities of wine from Gascon importers and supplied it to a a number of lesser vintners and to taverns, at least some of which he controlled. His first appearance in London's Letter-Books was in 1277 when he and Alan de Suffolk, a cordwainer, acted as sureties for a Billingsgate resident in whose house a homicide had been committed. However, it is very likely he who makes an earlier appearance in 1268 as William de Warasche, merchant of Cahors (a centre for wine production north of Toulouse), and again in 1271 as an agent for a London wool exporter Poncius de Mora. By the time of his next appearance in London records, in August 1281, his own vintner's business appears in full swing: one Cristian, a taverner, acknowledged receiving from William 6 casks of wine (worth £13) to sell, and four silver cups for which Cristian intended to pay William from his share of the profits from the wine; on the same date an armourer acknowledged owing William 8 marks for wine, and William himself and partner Alan de Suffolk acknowledged a debt of £45 to a Toulouse merchant for wine. This was a different Alan from the cordwainer (though they were probably related, as they appear together in several contexts) and he was a taverner who, like William, lived in Vintry Ward; conceivably the two families were neighbours. In 1283 the pair again became jointly indebted to a Bordeaux merchant for £39 worth of wine. While this could be a straight partnership in wine purchases, it may also be that William was essentially bankrolling the acquisition of wine that Alan, whose tax assessment shows him to be less well off than William) would retail through his tavern. In the same year we hear of one of William's young assistants being robbed of 13 marks at Lichfield, the proceeds of business transactions conducted for his master in northern England. In the following years, up to 1286, William Barache appears fairly frequently in the Letter-Books and Close Rolls acknowledging debts (or having acknowledgements made to him), almost always to merchants of Bordeaux, La Réole, or other locations in south-western France, and often specified as for wine purchases – on one occasion 70 tuns was purchased and William recognized another debt a few days later for trans-shipping it from Portsmouth. Several of these merchants are creditors on more than one occasion and the transactions may be related to William's role as an agent for one or more Gascon firms. Other transactions suggest he was lending his credit to other London merchants, or bankrolling them in the same way as he did Alan de Suffolk, while we also know his agents took a cargo of goods to Norway to trade. In 1287 and 1288 William was called on to go to Gascony on the king's business, perhaps to buy wine for him. In 1286 he arranged a marriage between his daughter Philippa and Henry, the son of Wybert de Arraz; despite his French background and his apparent youth, Henry's father had been a London citizen and had left him a manor in Buckingham, and other real estate in the city, so Henry was a promising son-in-law, even though William had to pay off Henry's debts (to Bordeaux and other foreign merchants with whom William had had past dealings). In return, the marriage agreement entailed Henry turning over his properties to William to manage for eight years, and William guaranteeing to find Henry's brothers employment in the city and a husband for Henry's sister. A William Barache is listed in the 1292 subsidy roll for Vintry ward, but it is not certain if this was the vintner or perhaps a son; elsewhere in the list we find Henry de Arraz, followed by Arnold Barache (who was one of the agents William Barache had sent to Norway in 1286) then by Alan de Suffolk the cordwainer, with Alan de Suffolk taverner two places further down the list). Ca. 1297 Gregory, the son of William Barache, petitioned the king that when men of Norberg, Norway, came to the fairs of Lynn and Boston their goods be arrested in retaliation for William having been, while in the king's service, assaulted and robbed of mercantile goods worth £200 after his ship had docked at Norberg.

"public humiliations"
Containers of bad wine might be smashed in the street and allowed to pour away, or such wine might be poured over the head of the offending seller. When the news spread, loss or reputation could result in a vintner having difficulty selling locally, or having to lower his prices in order to sell.

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Created: October 28, 2014. © Stephen Alsford, 2014