The wine cellars of a 17th century St Albans vintner

A late 17th century glass wine bottle.
Museum of London, Kate Sumnall, 2007

In the process of transcribing the probate documents of people who lived in St Albans in the early part of the 17th century, certain inventories stand out. One is for William Hinxman, a vintner, dated 1627.

Licensed vintners

Vintners were the wine merchants of the day. In St Albans, two vintners could be licensed by the borough corporation under the terms of the 1570 wine charter. A third licence had been granted by the King in 1606 directly to the Wolley family on a three-life lease. All three licences had been confirmed in a 1610 charter in which the reversion of the third licence (on the death of the last of the three Wolley family members) was to go to the corporation.

The St Albans Wine Charter In 1553 the borough charter established what is now St Albans District Council. It also reconstituted St Albans Grammar School and set out how the school could be funded. However, in the absence of any significant gifts or endowments, something had to be done. That something was the 1570 wine charter. It created a novel wine licensing system giving power to the corporation to licence two resident vintners to sell wine in the town in return for an annual payment. The money raised from the two licences was then to be paid, to the tune of £20 a year, to the schoolmaster for his “relief and support.” The value lay in the monopoly the charter created as no other vintners could trade in the town on pain of punitive fines.                                                                                      The prime mover for the charter was Gorhambury resident Sir Nicholas Bacon, then Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, one of the key offices of State. (His personal involvement in the school is well known.) He would have been familiar with the precedent for the scheme: Cambridge and Oxford universities maintained similar systems albeit the origins of their privileges had been lost. Interestingly, the St Albans model was not repeated elsewhere. Perhaps Bacon had recognised its flaws. When the system worked, it worked well but this was not often. The failings were plentiful and some of the blame can be laid with members of the corporation who pursued control of the system for their personal advantage. The wine charter was abolished in 1922, to general contentment. For more about the history of the wine charter, Frank Kilvington’s A Short History of St Albans School remains the best text on the subject. Jon Mein

We know that in 1626 the three licences were held by Anthony Selioke of the Lyon (on the corner of High Street and Market Cross), Henry Barnes (location not currently known) and Hinxman. He sub-let the third licence from the Wolley family, most probably operating from premises on the corner of Holywell Hill and High Street. (This is part of Côte Restaurant’s premises.) At the time this was called the Corner Tavern, a building located in what was coincidentally known as the Vintry in the monastic period.

Wine taverns

Stocks of drink listed in his inventory indicate he traded exclusively in wine. This is not surprising as taverns were more typically places of business where people met to drink wine and be served food as opposed to inns which provided overnight accommodation and victuals for travellers. What makes Hinxman’s inventory so interesting is the detailed list of the contents of three cellars: the upper and the lower cellars and, rather strangely, ‘wynes in the Lyon’ cellar. Had he lent stock to Selioke at the Lyon across the road?

In the lower cellar the largest value items were:

  • 4 hogsheads of ‘Galliacke’ wine valued at £18 10s
  • 3 hogsheads of ‘Graves’ wine valued at £16
  • 54 gallons of ‘Muskedyne’ at £6 10s
  • 50 gallons of ‘Mallingoe’ at £7 5s

Other wines stored in smaller quantities were ‘Cumicke’, ‘Rhennishe’ and ‘Canary’. In the Lyon cellar were more ‘Graves’ and ‘Muskedyne’ as well as ‘High Country Clarett’ and Sack. As those with a nose for such things will recognise, his wine came from France, Germany and Spain.

Sack – the precursor of sherry

Students of Shakespeare will also have the advantage of identifying these types of wine as references to most of them can be found in his plays. Falstaff famously praises sack in a speech ending “If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them, should be, – to forswear thin potations, and addict themselves to sack.” [2 Henry IV, (4, 3, 100)]. In Elizabethan times sack was a very popular dry amber wine from Spain, which the English drank sweetened with sugar. Later it became ‘sherrie sack’ and today sherry.

The inventory tells us of the risks and rewards of selling wine. We can compare for example the prices of his wine stocks with a list of retail prices set by the mayor in 1629. (Claret and white wine were to be sold at no more than 8d a quart, ‘sherrie wine’ at 1s.) From our rough estimates, we can see that Hinxman probably made a considerable profit from his stock. Set against this is the reference to ‘broken wine’ to value of 10s., a reminder of the difficulties of keeping 17th century wine.

Remembering that taverns were places to eat and relax, Hinxman’s cellar contained a keg of sturgeon, seven barrels of pickled oysters and half a barrel of anchovies. Although these items were stored in the lower cellar, keeping food edible without refrigeration was a problem as shown later in the century by Samuel Pepys. He was given some pickled sturgeon in May 1662, which he kept until an honoured guest arrived in June when:

my stomach was turned when my sturgeon came to table upon which I saw very many little worms creeping, which I suppose was through the staleness of the pickle.

There is much more of interest in Hinxman’s inventory – the first reference to tobacco in a St Albans inventory for example. However, it is the wine stock that needs further research in particular and I’d welcome the chance to discuss this with members who have an interest in the early modern wine trade. Please contact me via A fully referenced version of this note is available from the Society’s Library.