There has long been a trading connection between Aquitaine and the south of England. It dates back at least to the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II in 1152. Eleanor was duchess of Aquitaine in her own right and the duchy was inherited by her descendants, the Plantagenet kings of England. The boundaries of the duchy ebbed and flowed over four centuries, with King John losing a great deal of land in the thirteenth century and Edward III regaining it in the fourteenth. It was very briefly a principality (1362-1372) ruled by Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, as a sovereign state.
By the fourteenth century the people of Aquitaine preferred English rule to French rule. They spoke the langue d’oc, the language of the south west, rather than the langue d’oil spoken in Paris and the north east. It wasn’t just in the matter of language that they had little in common with the French. The English king, as duke of Aquitaine, was their natural lord, not the French king. In the Hundred Years’ War Bordeaux was the last town to surrender to the French in 1453. It was this event that brought the war to an end.
Wine has always been important to the region. Gascony (the area to the east and south of Bordeaux) and England had been trading partners for centuries and England was the main market for wine from Gascony and wine was the base of the Gascon economy. An annual wine fleet carried wine from Bordeaux to Bristol and Southampton. Even during times of peace, the ships had pirates to contend with, often from Castile, home to the best sailors in Europe, and Brittany, around which every ship from Bordeaux to England had to pass. When the region came under the French crown it suffered a great deal economically as access to the English market was cut off.
England had produced its own wine from Roman times, but climate change meant that production declined and England had to rely more heavily on imports from the twelfth century on. It was very convenient that this was about the same time that the English crown gained Aquitaine.
One of the towns in England to which Bordeaux exported wine was Southampton. The picture at the top of the post is the Medieval Merchant’s House in French Street. As you can see from the barrel, this was the home of a wine merchant. There are vaults below the house where the wine was stored and the shop opened out onto the street where customers could be served. The vaults are stone, which was necessary to keep the wine cool. The house was built by Jean Fortin, a great importer of wine. It was near the quay, which was just the other side of the wall at the back of the house. This is the house that I used as the model for the home of Edward, the wine merchant, in The Winter Love, who imported wine from Gascony.
Much of the wine that came into the town was for the royal household, which explains Edward III’s anger and disgust when the town was raided by the French in 1338 and his wine was destroyed. The wine merchants gave wine to the king as a tax and this wine was stored in the town. Edward III was so angry that he accused the burgesses of conspiring with the French and letting them into the town.
In 1368 a statute was created in England banning English merchants from Bordeaux and Gascony in an attempt to reorganise the wine trade. The Black Prince, who was at that time Prince of Aquitaine, had it repealed as soon as possible, as it was damaging the principality’s wine trade.
Today the Bordeaux region is the largest wine-growing area of France and the English are still great imbibers of the wines of the region. In England we even have a special name for red Bordeaux wine: claret. This was originally a dark rosé and was the most commonly imported wine up until the 1700s.