Were the Wars of the Roses caused by a shortage of claret?

This week we have an interview with Toby Clements author of Kingmaker: Winter Pilgrims. This is the first in a series of historical novels set during the Wars of the Roses. It’s very bloody and bloody good. Also the interview is both informative and amusing so please do read it:

What did people drink during the Wars of the Roses?

The richer drank wine – from Gascony mainly, but also ‘Rhennish’ from the Rhine valley. I have no idea what it might have been like. Possibly not very nice, but the English imported tuns of it and got very bad tempered when they lost Gascony and its vineyards – just before the Wars kicked off – and had to deal with French merchants. This loss was a real blow, and led to dissatisfaction with King Henry VI, and hence to the wars. It is stretching it to suggest lack of wine was the cause, but I suppose it must have been a contributing factor, and the use of wine to calm situations is well recorded. In 1464 King Edward IV had a huge barrel of it opened in Northampton market place to soothe the townsmen who wanted to lynch his ally the Duke of Somerset (whose men had burned and looted the city in 1460).

The less well off drank ale – usually either home brewed (if they were reasonably well to do) or brewed locally (often by women – brewsters or alewives). Beer was only slowly becoming popular at the time, and that mainly in Kent where hops still grow. It is a bit of a factoid that no one drank water. In towns they did less so, because it was harder to come by, obviously, but they were well aware it had to be clean, clear, tasteless and odourless, so it obviously existed as something worth seeking out.

What’s your favourite drink to reward yourself after a long day’s writing?

It used to be Palo Cortado, that really nutty sherry, and I’d read aloud the day’s words, but my wife asked me to stop that, so now I just have a couple of small ish glasses of any old white then try to drink as much of a bottle of red over dinner as I can and still leave her two glasses at the very least. It isn’t very healthy.

How long have you been interested in wine?

For about fifteen years I suppose. Since I learned not to pronounce the T in merlot.

Was there a particular epiphany moment with wine?

I had some Chateau Palmer 1983 the evening I passed my driving test and I thought: whoa! There is a sad story about that though: My father in law gave us a couple of cases when we moved in together in 1996 and we knew it was good, so we kept it under the bed in our freezing flat in Columbia Road. We meant to save it for best but usually ran out of the ordinary stuff after dinners etc and so opened the bottles cold and drank them straight down. Then, when I was coming home from miserably poorly paid work, I saw a much younger bottle selling for £50. We instantly stopped drinking our stash, and so it went off, and the one I opened after passing my driving test was the last that was any good. There is a moral there.

What are you drinking a lot of at the moment and why?

I am really enjoying a Portuguese red –  Valle Pradinhos Porta Velha, Trás-Os-Montes 2011. It is insanely savoury.

Do you have any wine prejudices?

Not really. I don’t bother with sweet wines because I can only drink so much wine and I don’t like really jammy stuff, or stuff that is nasty, or tastes of bananas or burned rubber. So I suppose I do.

As a young wine enthusiast, I sometimes found I was treated with a fair amount of suspicion by some wine merchants. Have you ever had a similar experience?

I am still a bit anxious when I go to the local Borough Wines and am greeted with calm disgust by the bearded hipster behind the desk, but I try to remember I worked in Oddbins back in the day, and then at the great Grape Shop in Battersea and latterly Calais and Bolougne, and it was shit.

And the opposite? Where do love to buy wine?

I like tastings, I think, and of course I love the Wine Society. If anywhere is very traditional, my skin crawls.

Which writers have been a big influence on you?

I am too ashamed to admit it, or to be seen as comparing myself to her, but I really love Hilary Mantel. And Dorothy Dunnet. And Alan Furst. And William Boyd. They are examples of the sorts of authors I love and so I aim to end up writing like them.

Which writers do you think write well about drink?

I don’t know. I remember reading Under the Volcano and feeling I was at that really bad stage of drunkenness, so Malcolm Lowry must be one. I wonder if it is not a bit like writing about sex though? I mean we’ve all been drunk and had drink we like, but it is personal, isn’t it? Or is it? I don’t know.

What’s your favourite beer?

I am really enjoying all these craft beers. I refuse to remember their names because they’re all so silly and boutiquey and I’m too old for that, but Meantime IPA sticks in my mind and I think Hackney Brewery do an American Pale Ale that never seems to touch the sides when I order a pint. I did ask why it was American Pale Ale rather than Indian but the answer is lost in the mists of whatever.

And whisky?

I like smoky stuff, rather than floral. Laphroaig and so on. I had a very good one the other day; Glen Macadam. Then I had it again and didn’t like it so much. I like some blends but others taste of not much more than hot feathers.

What are you writing at the moment?

More of the same! For some reason I envisaged my story as a trilogy. I think because there were three big battles in the Wars of the Roses and I wanted each book to end on one of them, so book 2 will end after Tewkesbury. It is not going very well, I should say.

Thanks Toby! The book deserves to sell by the barrel load. 

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About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London. He has worked in the wine trade, publishing and is now a freelance journalist. He specialises in drink and his work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. He was a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013) and his book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in November 2016.
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One Response to Were the Wars of the Roses caused by a shortage of claret?

  1. Emma B says:

    OK, here we have a man who loves sherry & Portuguese wines, and dislikes the traditional. I get the being based in London bit, but as a devoted customer may I mention Brighton’s http://www.butlers-winecellar.co.uk/, recently described by Dirk van der Niepoort as one of the best wine shops in the world?

    Plug over. 🙂 Book sounds interesting. Touch of, if I may be so retro, the Jean Plaidys / Barbara Willards, alongside the more recent authors.

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