Wine and the Tudors

The Tudor dynasty ruled England and Wales from 1485 to 1603. This period saw significant changes in English culture and society, including developments in cuisine and drinking habits. Wine became an increasingly important drink during the Tudor era, enjoyed by the upper classes and even some of the emerging middle classes. The Tudor monarchs, especially Henry VIII, were known as lavish entertainers who put on elaborate feasts featuring all manner of food and drink. As England’s trade networks expanded, new varieties of wines were imported and gained popularity. This article will explore the role of wine during the Tudor period, examining how it was consumed, which wines were most common, and the connections between the royal family and the wine trade.

Wine Consumption in Tudor England

Wine was still considered a luxury drink in 16th-century England, affordable only to the nobility, gentry, wealthy merchants, and high-ranking clergy. The majority of common people continued to drink ale or beer as their daily beverage. But wine was the drink of choice for the upper classes and special occasions. As England became more tied into international trade networks, the variety and availability of wines increased significantly from earlier periods.

Spain and France were the main sources of imported wine. Claret from Gascony was a favored wine among the Tudors. Rhenish wine from modern-day Germany was also popular. Sweet malmsey wine from Madeira came into fashion later in the 1500s. Shakespeare mentions malmsey wine in several of his plays associated with the nobility. Sack, a dry white wine imported from Spain that was similar to Sherry, was drunk widely by Elizabethan times. Greek and Portuguese wines also gained exposure in Tudor England.

The Spanish influence increased the popularity of fortified wines with the addition of brandy spirits. Sherry and sack both fit into this category of wines that could better survive long sea journeys to England. Their higher alcohol levels allowed them to avoid spoilage.

Wine was normally watered down and drunk from silver or pewter goblets. Even children drank weaker wines mixed with water. Less affluent people might drink wine only on special occasions, while the wealthiest hosts served multiple wines in the French fashion à la Française – offering German, Spanish, Greek, and French wines throughout the meal.

Wine was drunk at breakfast, dinner and supper in wealthy Tudor homes. It provided a flavorful and nutritious drink that could be safely consumed when the purity of water was uncertain. Hygiene and sanitation improvements would only come much later to England.

Tudor Dynasty - Crowned Kings & Queens of Tudor England - Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I

Tudor Dynasty – Crowned Kings & Queens of Tudor England – Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I

Wine’s Connection to Royalty

The Tudor monarchs, especially Henry VIII, were renowned for their lavish feasts and enjoyment of wines. Henry VIII is said to have started elaborate celebrations with a toast of malmsey wine before feasting on elaborate courses of roasted meats, pies, and exotic delicacies. The royal family’s patronage significantly shaped England’s growing wine trade and access to new varieties from the continent.

Henry VIII’s extravagant lifestyle and taste for fine wines is well documented. Some records indicate his court purchased nearly 250 tons of Gascon wine each year along with 100 tons of beer. His banquets featured ornate decoration and entertainment along with a flowing supply of wines. Henry himself is reported to have had a capacity for consuming ale and wine beyond that of most men.

Later Tudors like Elizabeth I hosted less raucous gatherings but still prized imported wines as a sign of luxury. Rhenish stoneware bottles featuring coats of arms were designed to transport wines like those from the German Rhineland along the trade routes to England. These elegant containers and their contents were a marker of courtly sophistication.

The need to import wine from France and other Catholic countries led to unique trade allowances even during times of war. Safe passage for wine trade ships was negotiated because the Tudor monarchs considered wine too essential to go without, even when they were banning other imported goods.

Evolution of the Wine Trade

England’s wine imports greatly expanded under the Tudors as merchants like the Vinters Company established new connections with trading partners in Spain, Portugal, Germany and France. Merchants thrived by securing exclusive royal licenses to import wine, which let them charge hefty markups.

But domestic wine production also began to take root. Wine grapes were grown in England since Roman times, but mostly for limited local use. French and Flemish immigrants brought improved viticulture techniques to England in the late medieval period. Vineyards were established in southern England to try making their own versions of popular wines like claret.

Thomas Legge wrote an early manual on English viticulture called the Art of Planting and Graffing in 1523. He observed that England’s soil and climate could produce good wines with proper cultivation. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, some vineyards were sequestered from the Catholic abbeys and came under private commercial operation.

Domestic wines never displaced imported wines that dominated the English market. But the small-scale beginnings of English wine production hinted at its future potential that would ultimately be realized centuries later.

Wine’s Lasting Cultural Legacy

Beyond its importance for dining and hospitality, wine also left a cultural legacy in Tudor England. Trees like the Prunus avium that could produce cherries for making cherry wine were planted at London’s Kew Gardens under Henry VIII’s orders. Cherry trees became an iconic feature of English gardens.

Popular folk ballads featured wine or meeting at the tavern for drinks. Theater performances were often sponsored by vintners and included ample drinking. Wine inspired humorous medieval poetry like John Skelton’s “Tunning of Elynour Rummying” which describes a drunken woman’s exploits. Even the plays of Shakespeare contain numerous references to sack, malmsey, and other wines as part of the revelry, betrayal, and drama of his works.

While excessive drinking was sometimes subject to criticism on moral or economic grounds, wine remained an integral part of upper class culture and social rituals under the Tudors. From elaborately spiced hypocras to sweet malmsey wine, itprovided flavor, nourishment, and a touch of luxury for those who could afford it. The allure of wine only grew as new varieties were introduced from abroad. For Tudor society, wine was the perfect complement to ceremony, entertainment, and hospitality.

Conclusion

In closing, wine assumed an increasingly important role for the nobility and emerging middle classes of Tudor England. As international trade expanded, new wines like malmsey and sack became fashionable drinks for those who could afford them. The Tudor monarchs, especially Henry VIII, were renowned (and sometimes infamous) for their lavish banquets flowing with imported wines. Domestic English wine production also got its modest start during this period. Wine’s popularity left a cultural legacy in gardens, ballads, plays, and poetry of the age. While still a luxury for most, wine became more accessible to different levels of Tudor society. Its appeal only continued to expand in the centuries that followed as England developed into a major wine drinking nation.

Did you know? When Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, visited England in 1522, Henry VIII went to great lengths to impress him. He hosted a lavish banquet at Westminster Palace, where he served an enormous quantity of wine, including claret, malmsey, and hippocras. The banquet was so impressive that Charles V reportedly declared it to be the finest feast he had ever attended.

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: September 6, 2023Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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