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1415: Making bottles of their bellies

In the second part of our look at wine in the Agincourt campaign, we turn our attention to medieval viticulture, hypothesise on the taste of wine in the fifteenth century and how people then viewed fine wine.

And if he be not fought withal, my lord,
Let us not live in France; let us quit all
And give our vineyards to a barbarous people.”

Charles d’Albret, Constable of France, Henry V, act 3, scene v.

The army struck out from Harfleur between the 6-9 October – the chronicles are conflicting on the exact date – and stuck to the coastal road.

Shipping the army to France for a siege had been a major undertaking, keeping an army full of sick men together on the march in steadily worsening autumn weather was another altogether. Supply once again was a key issue.

The record of Henry’s march through Normandy is not especially thrilling in itself but is interesting for us in that it shows the sheer extent of viticulture in France in the Middle Ages.

As Henry’s “ordinance”[1] for the campaign forbade the plundering of the countryside in “our lands in France”, each man was ordered to take a week’s worth of supplies with him to last the eight days it was expected they would take to reach Calais.

In some texts Henry supposedly heads off to Calais without a supply train in order to move faster across the French countryside. He might have been daring the French to do battle with him but simultaneously hoping he could out march them and avoid confrontation altogether given the state of his forces.

Then again, even if the whole thing was a daring bluff, a gamble, it seems odd that a commander who had previously been so apparently meticulous in regard to his logistics would cast aside the need for a wagon train entirely. And how else were the royal tent, crown jewels and holy relics to be transported? Not least the royal wine supply? The archers may have been forced to yomp, tab and march burdened down with kit but not so the nobles.

If we refer to the sums from part one, we will remember that each man had a ration of just under a gallon of wine a day. For eight days one man would therefore expect just under eight gallons. An army of some 6,000 would therefore require 47,947 gallons – 190 tuns of wine.

These and the other supplies and equipment would have been loaded onto bullock or oxen-driven carts which would have formed the central body of the army on its march.

Richard Barber in his book on the Crécy campaign of 1346 notes that a medieval army would have had one cart for every 20 combatants[2]. An army of 6,000 therefore would have needed 300 carts and probably taken more if it were able. Each cart was capable of carrying one ton of supplies approximately so 190 tuns would have taken up over half the army’s transportation. This seems too much although how much weight other supplies took up is difficult to quantify. As Henry expected a battle to be fought, his knights and men-at-arms travelled fully armoured rather than keeping their armour stored in barrels on the carts as was more usual and this would have saved a lot of space. The men themselves, particularly the 5,000 or so archers, would have carried a certain amount of equipment, food and drink on their person as soldiers have always done.

Let us not forget that wine and beer was more important to the medieval man than water so transportation of a large amount of wine would have been given some priority. As Barber again points out in reference to the 300 tuns Edward III took on campaign, “this was no luxury, but an essential part of the supplies.”[3]

One hundred and ninety tuns may be too much but if we downgrade that number to 100 (a third of Henry’s transport wagons), then Henry was still taking 25,200 gallons with him, enough to supply an army of 6,000 men with half a gallon a day each on the projected eight day march. Whatever the amount taken we may imagine that this was deducted from the stocks that had already been brought to France.

It was also no doubt hoped that additional supplies either from towns or the surrounding countryside might be obtained along the way – either given freely or leveraged by any means necessary.

“Other means” was largely what it turned out to be. Henry might have viewed Normandy as a simple extension of his domains in England or Ireland, but the Normans themselves were not, it seems, at all convinced.

Upon arriving at each large town on his route – and finding the gates closed against him – Henry therefore resorted to the rather contradictory expedient of threatening to burn down the town and pillage the surroundings unless bread and wine were turned over to him and his army.

This would be the pattern of the campaign. Henry would avoid the better fortified towns such as Dieppe but bully smaller ones such as Arques and Eu into handing over supplies or, more accurately, their “tribute”. In this early stage of the march the point of these demands was not so much to supplement the supplies the English had with them. We shall see later that the presentation of bread and wine to a victorious king had a clear biblical origin, which would have been immediately evident to the people of the fifteenth century, not least Henry who was an extremely religious man.

While the handing over of bread and wine did serve a limited practical purpose, as a demonstration of power and acknowledgement of divine blessing on his enterprise it had a stronger double meaning – one of submission and homage on the part of his new “subjects”. Furthermore, to strengthen this theory remember that Arques and Eu were reached well before the initial rations would have begun running out so demanding food from those towns was almost certainly intended as a symbolic act on their part rather than essential to the replenishing of supplies.

Supplication may have been the inescapable final result but the French did not always go quietly.

As towns were approached or left, the garrisons (defiant or enraged) occasionally ventured forth to skirmish with the English van or rearguards. At Eu, as the English vanguard approached, the garrison rode out to meet them. A “very valiant man-at-arms” named Lancelot Pières couched his lance in a challenge which was answered by an English knight. In a scene straight out of an illuminated manuscript or “the pages of Froissart”[4] the two knights spurred their horses at each other and clashed with such force that witnesses swore they drove their lances through each other’s bodies. Crashing lifeless to the ground Lancelot had secured his place in the annals of chivalry but the identity of the equally bold and tragic Englishman remains sadly unknown.

This needless, even suicidal act to modern eyes nonetheless is exactly what one expects of the period and what knights expected of each other. To court danger and not flinch in the face of death even as you succumbed to a mortal stroke was praiseworthy to knightly eyes. They were a warrior class in an often violent age and death was sweet if well met. Yet it also contrasts neatly with a world increasingly on the cusp of a more modern era, where ostentatious displays of knightly posturing and braggadocio sat alongside an ever more powerful mercantile middle class, and their bureaucratic and legal institutions; where a lord could be charged for even two additional pitchers of wine. The fifteenth century was not quite the last hurrah of the chivalric ideal but it was getting close.

But these displays of gallantry aside many garrisons generally hunkered down behind their walls, complied with Henry’s demands and simply hoped his army would move swiftly on to bother somebody else and if the price of that was some wine and bread then so be it.


Natural wine paradise?

The exquisite illustration showing the harvest at the Château de Saumur in 1416 (or perhaps 1415?) as depicted in the Duke of Berry’s Les Très Riches Heures. Small plots around castles and towns providing wine for the local area would have been the norm.

What is clear from the various sources though is that the wine they were handing over was locally produced which points to an agricultural landscape in medieval Normandy that included vines – something conspicuous by its absence now[5].

It should not surprise us terribly that a province such as Normandy had a wine industry in the fifteenth century – though “industry” is possibly too strong a word for it as mono-agriculture was not practised at this time.

There is a consensus that the early Middle Ages were warmer than our current climate which those interested in such matters have rather prosaically dubbed the “Medieval Warm Period” (MWP). This theory might explain the much greater spread of viticulture in France at the time but it is disputed as it is sometimes used to support the argument that the Earth goes through cyclical warm and cool periods and this is rejected by those convinced it is manmade pollution that is causing global climate change.

In a warmer climate, whites from northern France may not have been as piercingly acidic as certain northern European wines, such as still Champagnes, are today as they would have had more exposure to warmer weather and longer to ripen on the vine.

But were medieval harvests later than they are now? By the 15th century this MWP was at an end and the grape harvest is a common motif used to illustrate September or October in manuscripts from this period and, as we shall see below, if Henry’s army was drinking new wine from the barrels and presses in the town of Boves around 18-19 October, then the harvest must have begun in mid to late September or early October – which is not really so different from today or even the last one to two hundred years.

Whatever the truth of it though, what is not in question is that vines were extensively planted all over France at this time chiefly because wine was such an integral part of life and the medieval diet.

Niceties such as “terroir” were not always (if at all) of prime importance to medieval vintners and consumers. Wine was there to be drunk as part of a healthy diet and was as much of a staple as bread.

There were extensive vineyards around Paris for example and vineyards producing wine to grace baronial and monastic tables as well those of ruder homesteads often encircled towns, castles and abbeys across the country. The accompanying image (above left) for September from the Duke of Berry’s “book of hours”[6] from 1416, “Les Très Riches Heures de Jean de France, Duc de Berry”, shows a harvest taking place around the Château de Saumur – and it is not impossible to imagine the scene as typical to the set-up around the Norman towns through which Henry and the English army would have passed.

With this in mind the idea that it was the introduction of cork was responsible for “mass consumption” of wine in most of Europe is likely untrue. Vines were planted everywhere and hence wine was produced and consumed everywhere by rich and poor alike. Writing in 1968, Jean Durliat argued that since the 9th century ad, “the cultivation of the vine was not an aristocratic pastime but a normal occupation at every level of the peasant world.”[7]

There was also a busy international wine trade at this time. The best wine, from Bordeaux and Burgundy for example, was shipped abroad, even as far afield as Scandinavia and the Baltic, with London acting then as it is now as an important central hub. We have already seen Master Bordiu asking for a huge amount of wine to be shipped to the English army camped around Harfleur. He must have known that volumes of that sort were, relatively, easy to get hold of or he presumably wouldn’t have suggested that much.

A detail of workers in a vineyard by the famous sixteenth century Flemish illustrator, Simon Bening; this from the February chapter of the Da Costa book of hours from 1515. The scene would have been little different to the previous century and even if set in a fantasy landscape note how the vines are trained up posts as they still are in the Mosel.

Most wines of the time were often white, particularly in the north and it is striking that it was the wines of Burgundy – generically referred to as “Beaune wines” – that were considered among the most powerfully flavoured and coloured in medieval Europe.

The taste of the wine is open to speculation but they were almost certainly what we might now term “biodynamic”, “natural” or “low intervention” wines. There were no pesticides, the arrival of phylloxera was centuries away so the vines were all ungrafted, they may have had very old vines or perhaps like today they replanted after a few decades to maintain crop levels, they only had access to natural yeasts and spontaneous fermentation would have been the norm because medieval vintners had no idea how to induce or control it; in fact they had no idea what caused it they just knew it happened. Finally the wines would have been unfiltered and unfined. All in all it does sound like a bit of a paradise for those in favour of minimal intervention, ‘natural’ wines..

The trouble with winemaking is that under even relatively controlled conditions there are many variables and so trying to pin down wine styles, often using grapes and blends which are no longer used commercially today or even completely lost to us, and then to trying to work out how they might have tasted from what we know of the winemaking that underpinned them is, essentially, pure guess work.

The wines are often said to have had a relatively short shelf life; around six months or so as a lack of stabilising agents would then have turned the wine to vinegar and with spontaneous fermentation if the weather was too cool then other bacteria could ruin the wine before fermentation had even begun.

A lot, it is true, would have been consumed locally and fairly swiftly but as wine was so important to their diet it had to last from one harvest to the next. Not all wine would be drunk ‘new’ and a good proportion must have had enough staying power to last a whole year at least.

There was always a limited trade in ‘reek’ wines from Bordeaux as well, which is to say wines from the previous years harvest that had been kept back for ageing.

On the evidence of the trade in wine alone it stands to reason that not all wine did spoil as a matter of course or that they did have methods of preserving it; distillation at this time was not a widespread enough industry to fortify wines but spoiled or low quality wine often had spices or honey added to it to mask the taste and prolong its drinking life.

But even today, admittedly under cleaner conditions and with a better understanding of what’s going on, when producers are experimenting with no sulphur[8] or spontaneous fermentation or even using these techniques to make their wines as a matter of course they manage to avoid these problems. Perhaps so their medieval forebears?

It is perhaps possible that kept on their lees and exposed to oxygen, perhaps with a flor developing in barrel many wines might have become a little “sherried” in style (as we would see it), giving them a distinctive taste no doubt but also less prone to spoiling.

In a particularly warm year the utter lack of specially cultivated yeasts might have led to sweeter wines or wines that never fully fermented. By contrast, a particularly cold snap or early winter could lead to the yeast becoming dormant, only to reactivate again the following spring and begin to consume the remaining sugar. It is sometimes argued that it was this latter course of action that led to Dom Pérignon’s ‘discovery’ of Champagne.

The pH of a wine is also key to its stability. If the climate was little different from today (hence the similar harvest dates) then full ripeness would not have been achieved leading to lower pH levels and a more stable wine – particularly when paired with high yields which would have been the norm. This in turn would lead to wines that were ‘clean’ and ‘light’ in character – and largely white wines too.

Another delightful illustration from Bening from a book of hours showing October, where wine is being unloaded at a dock in Bruges. Note the man-powered winch for lifting the casks in the background, wine being topped up and the merchant in blue offering a taste of the latest vintage to a customer in red as the broker (perhaps?) hovers between them.

As it happens, it seems the people of the Middle Ages often had comparatively modern tastes when it came to drinks, and absolutely preferred light bodied and ‘clean’ tasting wines.

What their perception of ‘clean’ wines were was perhaps different to ours but Philip the Bold once complained of wines becoming, “yellowed and fat”, which sounds a little like white wine that has oxidised to an extent.

And what of the attachment to vintages?

“Almost all medieval wine was drunk in the year of its vintaging [sic]….We attach importance to the quality of age. Medieval man did not. He was little interested in age and he made no real effort to improve his wines by aging them,” William Mole has argued[9].

Medieval vignerons were certainly concerned with quantity rather more than quality. But is this view that they were not as concerned with quality and age fair?

When Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, issued his famous edict of July 1395 banning Gamay from the Côte d’Or, the less talked about aspect is his insistence that vineyard owners cut back on the amount of manure (animal and human) they spread on their fields to lower crop levels and boost quality.

Sixty years later his grandson Philip the Good repeated the edict adding: “The Dukes of Burgundy are known as the lords of the best wines in Christendom. We will maintain our reputation”[10].

This tells us two things. To begin with it backs up the notion that quantity was of greater concern to most vine growers than quality. Gamay then, as now, is easier to cultivate than Pinot Noir and crops higher. This preference for it is not to be sneered at, we know today it is capable of producing exceptionally good wines.

In addition, as wine was so essential to daily life a lot of it was needed. Exactly as it is today, a medieval vigneron would be paid for their wines or grapes and the more they produced the more they got paid and that was all that mattered to them.

Yet the edicts of the two Philips also points to a more refined knowledge of what made better quality wine and the scale of the wine export market, coupled with the high regard with which wines from Portugal, Bordeaux and ‘Beaune’ were held suggests there was a more sophisticated appreciation of wine among medieval consumers and how to make and store it so that it lasted in good condition than is generally supposed.

To begin with it is hard to believe that peasants who were so closely tied to the land and their plants for survival were ignorant of how to get the best out of their vines. Medieval winemakers would also no doubt have been well aware of the quality to be had in the juice from the first pressing and this higher-end stuff would have been siphoned off for commercial use and/or consumption by the vineyard owners, while second and third pressings would be taken and perhaps mixed with water to provide cheap wine for taverns etc.


Out of supplies and with the French army closing in, by mid-October Henry may have been rueing his gamble.

By 15 October the English army was in very serious trouble. The 15th was the date they had expected to reach Calais, but the original ford across the Somme – the biggest natural obstacle between them and safety – at Blanchetaque had been too well defended. Henry had therefore been forced to turn south inland following the course of the river to find a new ford but at each one he found the French were already there in strong numbers.

The original supplies they’d taken from Harfleur were running out if not entirely exhausted and, as we have seen, the bread and wine extorted from the various towns was never enough to replenish the dwindling rations.

Far from home, wet, cold, tired, hungry and outnumbered it should be no surprise, as the historian Richard Holmes noted, that many of the soldiery probably came to view the campaign as more of a, “dangerous pub crawl than a crusade”[11].

But drink is also the enemy of discipline and Henry was swift to stamp out potential drunkenness.

One instance of this in particular stands out. During the advance along the Somme, the English came upon the town of Boves. The garrison commander proved himself somewhat more amenable to the English and their demands than others had been and even arranged for them to be billeted in the town.

He turned over eight large baskets of bread although this was unlikely to have been enough for six thousand men and there are reports of Englishmen searching for berries, roots, acorns and even leaves in a bid to assuage their hunger.

But if there was a shortage of food there was no lack of wine. Boves clearly had a great many vineyards and Barker notes that the town had enjoyed a “plentiful harvest of grapes” – and it is pleasing to think that Jancis Robinson MW’s “rule of ‘5’” was as true in 1415 as it still is six hundred years later.

Needless to say the English fell upon the presses and fermenting wine in barrel and began making merry[12]. Their officers, aware of the hardships they were enduring, were liable to be indulgent in such circumstances but not Henry.

Intervening personally he ordered a stop to the drinking. When one of the captains, with surprising temerity, proffered that the men were merely filling their bottles the king supposedly snapped back: “Their bottles! They are making great bottles of their bellies and getting drunk. It must stop at once.”

Reflecting again on his devoutness it is tempting to think he – or maybe a later chronicler with more time on his hands – was immediately reminded of Philippians 3:19 – “Whose end is destruction; whose God is their belly; and whose glory is in their shame; who mind earthly things.”[13]

His men were perhaps not taking his cause as seriously as he would like but this momentary slackening of discipline aside, all in all the conduct of the English army was remarkably good and Henry’s ability to keep it together despite the sickness ravaging it amid the atrocious weather is a testament to both his charisma and his abilities as a general. Only one man was hanged for breaking the ordinance when he stole a pyx[14] from a church and Shakespeare would later make Bardolph, the rogue and sometime companion of Sir John Falstaff, the wretch to suffer this ignominious end, dangling from a lone tree in a rain and windswept plain.

Eventually after a miserable march that had added six days to their journey and with French forces shadowing them every step of the way and cutting off the fords, Henry marched across country to miss a bend in the river, wrong footing the French and allowing for a more or less unopposed crossing at Béthencourt and Voyennes.

But, now over the river, the danger was even greater than before. A few days later Henry received a French herald who informed him that Charles, Duke of Orléans and Jean, Duke of Bourbon offered battle at a place and day of his choosing. Henry replied that he was not hiding and there was no need to arrange a place or time. If the French princes wanted battle, they need only seek him out on the plains of Picardy.

Sure enough on the morning of 24 October, the English vanguard crested a small rise and were confronted with the French army decamping from a valley to their right, “like a countless swarm of locusts”.

The road to Calais was blocked and Henry would have his battle.

For part I click here and for the third and final part, click here.

Footnotes to the text can be found on the following page.

[1] Orders of the day or the “rules of engagement” as we might now term them.

[2] Barber, Richard (2013) Op. cit. p230

[3] Ibid, p185.

[4] Barker, Juliet, Op cit, p234.

[5] There is one commercial winery in Normandy today, Arpents du Soleil

[6] A devotional book including a calendar of Church feast days, excerpts from the gospels, psalms and a litany of the saints etc. Often richly decorated they are among the most common illuminated manuscripts still in existence.

[7] Unwin, Tim (1991) Op cit. pp172-174 ref. Durliat, J (1968) “La vigne et le vin dans la region parisienne au début du IXe siècle d’après le Polyptique d’Irminon”, in “Le Moyen Age

[8] The author recently tasted a Mosel Riesling made with natural yeast and no sulphur, which the producer was making as an “orange wine”. It had been in barrel for a year and remained stable. Despite a very slight hint of oxidation the prevailing taste and aroma was of fresh stem ginger.

[9] Mole, William (1966), “Gods, Men and Wine”.

[10] Johnson, Hugh (1989) Vintage: The Story of Wine Simon and Schuster p.134.

[11] Holmes, Richard (1996), “War Walks”, BBC

[12] Some may say this is evidence of a lack of discernment regarding vintages among medieval wine drinkers but this instance more likely typifies cold, tired, hungry soldiers making the most of what they could get.

[13] Douay-Rheims Bible

[14] A small container used to carry a consecrated host. This one was bronze and the army’s chaplain suggested he had mistaken it for gold. It cost him his life.

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