Opinion Articles


Where there is wine there is a way: lessons from ‘Brexit-like’ events in the medieval and early modern period


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The decision in 2016 by the UK to leave the EU sent shockwaves throughout Europe, raising questions about Britain’s future trading relationship and the potential impact on the domestic economy. The debate is polarised, with ‘remainers’ claiming that Brexit will have a continuing negative impact on the UK’s long-term future while ‘leavers’ argue that the UK will quickly develop new trading, economic, and financial opportunities that will more than compensate for any short-term disruption. Although this question will not be answered for many years, we may be able to learn some lessons from history by examining the impact of earlier Brexit-like events on England’s economic and social history. The medieval and early modern English economy was closely integrated into wider European networks of trade and finance. Therefore, breaks with this network (for example during the Hundred Years War or Reformation) were ‘Brexit-like’ as they interrupted pre-existing overseas financial and trading networks, which then had to be either re-forged or replaced once that crisis had passed. The following case study will explore the some of the economic impacts of the Anglo-French war of 1512-1514 on the port of Plymouth.

The Anglo-French war of 1512-1514 was part of the broader War of the League of Cambrai (1508-1516), which started as a regional conflict in Italy but ended up involving most of the major European powers. The diplomatic manoeuvrings were byzantine but perhaps not completely unrecognisable to observers of modern European politics – the war started with an alliance between France and the Papacy against Venice, then continued as a Papal-Venetian alliance against France, and ended up with France and Venice allied against the Papacy. Henry VIII of England supported the papacy (at least then) and declared war on France in April 1512.

Prior to the outbreak of hostilities French ships from Breton and Norman ports were frequent visitors to Plymouth and ships from Plymouth regularly sailed to France for wine and salt, while Iberian ships were much less frequent visitors. From 1512-14, however, Henry VIII was at war with France and allied with Spain. Looking at the home ports of the foreign ships entering Plymouth in 1513 and 1514, there was only one French ship from Le Conquet in Brittany. Some French goods may still have made it into Plymouth, but only in small quantities and, apart from the Breton canvas carried by the Kateyn of London, usually carried by ships from the Channel Islands. However, trade did not stop entirely. Instead French shipping was replaced by vessels from Spain (principally Bilbao and San Sebastian), Portugual, or the Low Counties (Zierikzee and Antwerp). For example, on 13 October 1513 the Marye of Pasaia (near San Sebastian in Northern Spain) docked at Plymouth with white soap and over 100 tuns of wine, no doubt sourced from Spanish vineyards. English merchants also switched their attentions to Spain; on 26 January 1514 the George of Falmouth entered Fowey carrying 72 tuns of wine, and as the cargo included white soap (probably from Castile) it is likely that the wine was also sourced in Spain.

The above suggests that this sixteenth-century ‘Brexit’ event did have an impact on trade but that the gap left by the withdrawal of French vessels was filled by Spanish shipping. For a short period, the English drank Spanish and not French wine, indicating the adaptability of the domestic market. However, this does not mean that there were no economic costs involved. Most immediately, it seems that there was a spike in wine prices in England. According to figures compiled by Gregory Clark, the average price of wine in England during the ten years before the start of the war was 8.8 pence per gallon. Between 1512 and 1514, this increased by nearly 20% to 10.3 pence per gallon. After the end of the war, prices remained high but dropped back to an average of 9.6 pence per gallon. For a completely speculative comparison, this would mean a £10 bottle of wine today, would cost £12 after 31 October.

There were other indirect costs. Those English merchants who had spent years cultivating relationships and connections with French wine producers now had to pivot to Spain. Not only would this have incurred additional costs but it might also have allowed other merchants to enter the market at their expense. Likewise, ship captains who had specialised in French routes might have lost out to those more familiar with Spanish routes. In the event, the war only lasted two years and former relationships could be resumed, provided that the merchants had survived the period of disruption. Since medieval and early modern trade depended on a complex web of credit, this was not guaranteed. Moreover, this return to the status quo ante itself would have had implications for those merchants or captains who had devoted resources to finding new opportunities in Spain. Ultimately, it is very difficult for merchants then or business now to make plans for the future and invest under conditions of tremendous uncertainty.

More intriguingly, it does not seem that the impact was only felt in England. We do not have reliable prices for Spain during this period, but wine prices at Strasbourg also jumped during the war from an average of 0.37 grams of silver per litre before 1512 to 0.63 grams per litre between 1512 and 1514 – a 70% increase – (so following our earlier example a 10 euro bottle of wine at the local Carrefour today, would cost 17 euros after 31 October 2019). Again, wine prices fell after the peace but only down to 0.51 grams per litre. This suggests that both the UK and the Europe could be affected by the disruptions caused by ‘Brexit’-like events.

We remember Boris Johnson making his statement on the future of prosecco if the British stopped importing it from Italy, and we have been reminded by other commentators that we have lots of places to source wine (for instance Australia, California, Chile, South Africa) if our EU favourites are not available. It seems our early modern predecessors were ahead of us – demonstrating the enduring importance of alcohol to the British consumer and the ingenuity of merchants wherever there was money to be made. However, we can safely say, based on this illustrative study, that whilst we can have our wine and drink it post-Brexit, it is not so certain that we will be able to afford it.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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