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Northern Trade

MTI16dThe Gascon Wine trade    Robert Erik Morris

The story of this trade is heavily linked to the conflict between the English and French crowns over the control of the territories of the Dukedom of Aquitaine. These lands came under the control of the English king with Henry II's assumption of the crown of England in 1154; Henry was already the Duke of Aquitaine, when he became king of England. One of the major questions that should be answered about this wine trade is why was it drunk? Another, is who by? A third, is who held the right to charge duties on this product? Another important question that should be asked is what were the effects of the Hundred year's war on this valuable wine trade and what effect did this have on the wine trade?

Finally it should be asked what were the uses that the revenues were put to, and did these have and political effects.

So why was this wine popular? It was popular because of its high quality. This was due to the local soil and weather conditions, the type of grapes used in the vineyards. These conditions combined to make a good wine, which was to the taste of the upper reaches of society of that time. As just stated the upper levels of society, this being, drank it from the merchants and gentry right up to the kings of Europe. Henry III even had a quay at Southampton rebuilt, this was to deal with the great amount of wine that came though Southampton. Henry III also had a Royal cellar in this port.1 Another major user of Gascon wine was the Church; this was because of the status of the higher clergy. Wine was also used in the mass to represent the blood of Christ. The two factors caused the Church to use a large amount of wine.

In the later Middle Ages England it is said, took the majority of the wine production from Gascony. From England it was again exported to other destination in northern Europe, such as Flanders or Scotland, or eve into the Baltic.

So who held the right to charge export or import duties on this product. Ethelred II (978-1016) charged the first known fixed tolls on wine from Gascony imported into England2 Thoughout the eras of the Saxon and Norman dynasties to demand for Wines from Gascony was high, this was partly due to the poor quality of water in the middle ages. The safest way of drinking water at this time was in the form of an alcoholic beverage; this was because the water in beer or wine had at some point been heated above 70(C; this process sterilised the water thereby making it safe.

With the coming to power of Henry II in 1154 the English crown was place in the position to charge duties on the wine leaving Gascony as the Duke of Gascony and charging duty on the wine that entered English ports. This situation gave it a large degree of influence on the wine trade. This situation remained until the fall of Bordeaux in 1451.3 It has been claimed, by Anne Curry that Gascony was worth 13,000 in 1324 to the English crown4. According to Platt, the crown was not above acting as an importer. Richard II's government in1387 tried to corner the wine market from Gascony; this caused a group of merchants to threaten to do all their trade with the Middleburg staple. In Answer to this Richard threatened them with death and confiscation of lands and property.5 With the final stage of the hundred year's war the English crown lost the Dukedom of Gascony; this caused major problem for the wine merchants of that time. During that war the merchant were having to deal with losing ships though military actions. These being, piracy and the requisition of ships for the transportation of troop and war gear, and raids on key ports. An example of this can be seen during 1415 in preparation of what would become the Agincourt campaign.6 An example of raiding disrupting trade can be seen in the channel during the reign of Henry IV.

The effect of the later part of the war can been seen in the table below

Year Amounts of wine entering England

Tun = 250 Gallons

As it can be seen the war caused the amounts to fall from around 20,000 tuns to around 3000 tuns. It also caused the price of wine to double from it 1350 price of 3 tun wholesale, to around 6 a tun wholesale, in 1399.9 Another factor of war that caused was damage to the wine trade was the damage done to the vineyards caused by the war. This was compounded by the neglect caused by the Plague and by peasant not returning to tend the vines at vital times of the year; in the wake of the Plague and war.

The title to Gascony and therefore control of the taxation on wine, was in some ways a factor in the origins of the Hundred year's war. This was because Edward III of England could not afford to lose the revenue that the Dukedom brought in as he was heavily in debt, to Italian Bankers and to Low counties merchants. The 1340 confiscation of the Gascony had pushed him into a deep fiscal crisis.10 This is an example of how the French crown would use the value of the Gascon wine trade as an economic weapon against the kings of England the 1340 confiscation was not the first time that the French kings had withdrawn this title from their English cousins. Another example of how the wine was used as an economic weapon was in 1455, when Charles VII forbade the use of safe conduct passes to English merchants, in newly French conquered Gascony, this brought trade to its knees.11

So how did the English Crown gain moneys from this trade? It raised money by framing out the gathering of custom duties on the trade. It did this by having a noble man or merchant pay a large sum for the right to gather the custom on the wine trade that went though a port. Normally at a set rates for a set time, such as a year. This gave the king a set sum then and there, while the noble or merchant took the risks that they might not make a profit on the customs trade that went though that port. As already stated the English kings were not above importing the wine for there own reasons. One of these might be to sell it on to the open market, another might be to supply the Royal household or armies with cut price wine; this certainly happen during Henry III's Anglo-Welsh war of 123112. The English crown was also not above diverting wine imported by merchants, to its troops. Partly due to its popularity with the noble houses of Europe, kings were not above using the wines of Gascony as gifts to gain favour in diplomatic situations.

As it can be seen the wine trade was bound up in the political situations of later medieval England and France. Both England and France used the Gascon wine trade as a political and diplomatic tool. It was this political factor caused the trade to be disrupted more often then not. Yet it made a large profit for the merchants who dealt in wine and the English crown that held the lands were the wines was grown, though feudal means.