Trade wars: when booze gets banned

‘Where’s young Talbot? Where is valiant John?’

A typical trade: a medieval merchant in rather rakish red hose looks to barrels of wine which may be part of a deal he’s cut for the sacks of grain on the left.

Returning to one of db’s favourite moments in wine history – the fall of English Bordeaux in 1453 – we see a rather more serious example of a trade war in action.

The fact that it came after a long, bloody and destructive war lasting 116 years goes some way to understanding it however,

Readers will be aware that for 300 years between 1152 and 1453, Bordeaux and much of the surrounding countryside were English possessions and, as such, the region’s wines became hugely popular in England and formed the basis of a lucrative trade with salt fish, wool, cloth and other commodities coming out of England which were then traded for wine, tableware and other southern French/northern Spanish goods.

With the fall of Bordeaux in 1453 however and French victory in the long-running conflict, Charles VII took a dim view of the city’s longstanding links to the old enemy.

So dim a view in fact that he built two enormous fortresses to cow the burghers of Bordeaux and remind them who was in charge; the Château Trompette and Château du Hâ, the former castle having its defences and cannon not facing the estuary and the prospect of a fresh English assault but facing instead the newly ‘liberated’ city.

Even when the celebrated military engineer Marshal Vauban upgraded the defences of both fortresses in the 1680s (along with Fort Médoc)*, the ravelins, enceintes and salients he added to Trompette remained jutting, pointedly, at Bordeaux; the city having sided with the ‘Fronde’ against the French crown in the civil wars of 1648-53 – the opposition to direct rule by an absolutist French monarchy having been one of the principal reasons for the city staying so loyal to the (distant) King of England during the Middle Ages.

And if the Gascons were treated this way by their new kings, imagine what French rule now meant for those English merchants still keen to trade in the immediate aftermath of the Hundred Years War.

Although many no doubt thought it likely, trade between England and Bordeaux was not actually banned, save for a brief period in October 1455, but the French certainly made it as difficult as possible for English merchants trying to work in the city.

First and foremost, where previously they had had a free run of the place, after 1453 English merchants were required to purchase very expensive safe conducts and were routinely hassled, obstrcuted and asked for further payments by French officials at every stage.

Sailing down the Gironde, English had to put in at Soulac and wait to be given permission to proceed (which might take several days) and then put in again at Blaye where they had to surrender their weapons.

Once in Bordeaux they were permitted to stay for just a month, use only certain lodgings and observe a curfew.

They had to wear a red cross on their clothing to identify themselves and all travel beyond the city walls was completely banned save with the express permission (and payment) of the French authorities and under guard.

Things improved with the Treaty of Picquigny in 1475 but for the most part English merchants gradually gave up direct trade as too bothersome, leaving the importing to Bretons, Italians and Flemish and focusing their efforts on other wine producing areas such as Spain and Portugal.

Efforts by Henry VII’s government in the late 1480s to insist that Gascon wine imported into England must be on English ships with English crews did little to boost trade.

It should be noted, however, that while France’s old enemy, England, suffered from severe trade restrictions, the ‘auld’ ally, Scotland, did not.

With English merchants increasingly squeezed out, Scottish merchants had a free run in Bordeaux and it marks the rise in popularity of claret in Scotland which endures to this day.

But the Middle Ages wasn’t the only time Britain’s taste for French wine but its antagonism towards the inhabitants hindered the wine trade…


*Fort Médoc is one of 12 fortresses and fortified towns dotted around the French frontier that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Fortifications of Vauban. The Château du Hâ spent several centuries as a prison and Bordeaux’s principal Palais de Justice just two towers exist today. Château Trompette was completely demolished in the mid-19th century and today lies under the city’s Place de Quinconces.

One Response to “Trade wars: when booze gets banned”

  1. Bourbon saw a growth spurt in the Revolutionary War at the cost of rum.
    Cause: The British blockaded the routes to and fro the Caribbean, so molasses
    and rum could not get to Boston etc.
    Before the war, rum was the favorite tipple of the Americans when it came to liquor.

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