The Great Wine Scam

There is a strange string of entries in the Close Rolls all dated May 5th 1327 which may bring to light yet another example of rather bad behaviour by Hugh Despenser the younger and his friends. In these three entries are lists of names of men – all from Winchester – complaining of being ‘compelled’ to go to the castle of Porchester against their will. There they were held prisoner until they agreed to buy a certain quantity of wine, which, it later turned out, had gone off – or was ‘corrupt and putrid’ to use the language of the complaint.

In the first entry, Hugh, Robert Baldock and Robert de Holden were accused by eleven named men of being forced into a recognizance of 129 pounds for 43 tuns* of the stuff. In the second entry, twelve different named men claim they had to buy 25tuns for 75 pounds. The third entry has one named man – Henry le Canevacer who seems to have drawn the short straw, for he had buy another 25 tuns for 75 pounds all on his own!

However, what is really odd is that the men did not seem as bothered about the fact of the coercion as they were about the quality of the wine. What they seemed to be most miffed about was having to pay over the odds for wine, which, in their estimation was only worth a few pounds or marks (in total). You would have thought they’d have protested about paying anything at all! Still, they made their point and Edward III acquitted them of paying for the rest of it.

But what was the truth behind this fiasco? Did Hugh really organise such a large scale criminal scam? He was certainly capable – after all, why throw away bad wine and lose cash when he could just as easily use his considerable power to force people into paying good money to get rid of it for him? Also, this is such a strange tale that it seems odd for it to have been fabricated.

On the other hand, 1327 saw an avalanche of claims and petitions against Hugh and his cronies flood into the court from all quarters. Some were, undoubtedly, genuine grievances caused by Hugh’s insatiable greed for land and money. Others were probably just trying their luck – jumping on the claims bandwagon with stories of woe and mistreatment. Unfortunately, there is no date of the alleged ‘crime’ so it is hard to tally the event with Edward’s itinerary (although, it must be said, it is possible – but unlikely – it was done in Edward’s absence).

That the townsmen had agreed to the payments does appear to be true. For Edward III to have acquitted them of most of the amount points to the recognizances being recorded (although I don’t know where). But were they forced into it? And was the wine really bad or were the citizens trying to pull a fast one and get away with some cheap booze?

Personally, I can’t see why Hugh would have wanted to sell the wine in the first place if there wasn’t something wrong with it. Maybe the cellarer had bought a bad batch and Hugh, rather than losing money, decided to sell it on. After all, who was going to sue him?

That leaves the question of the men being forced to go to the castle. How did Hugh know these men and what, if anything, did he have against them? How did he ‘compel’ them to go to Porchester? And why was it just men from Winchester – Southampton and Portsmouth were closer?

One possible scenario is that these men were somehow lured to Porchester, maybe on the premise that the king was selling off some of his fine wine. Upon arriving at the castle they willingly bought the stuff, signing recognizances for the amounts owed and then toddled off back home with their bounty. Then of course they discovered it to be less than royal quality and realised they’d been had. However, instead of admitting that they’d not taken any notice of the ‘buyer beware’ caveat, they preferred to cash in on Hugh’s reputation and claimed they’d been forced to part with their money instead.

It’s hard to know exactly what happened but the more I read it, the more I can’t help the feeling that this did occur exactly as the men said it did: Hugh, Baldock and de Holden played a vicious trick on the good men of Winchester, thereby making themselves a profit, and, I dare say, having a good laugh at their expense as well.

• A tun was equivalent to 252 gallons (954 litres). In other words, about 1260 bottles of wine – a rather staggering (in more ways than one) amount! The price charged worked out to three pounds per tun – I’ll leave you to work out what that would be a bottle!!!

Calendar of the Close Rolls, Edward III, Vol X (1327 – 1330), p.119


About Jules Frusher

With an MA in Creative and Critical Writing, I am passionate about the written word. The other great loves of my life are all things Medieval (especially Hugh le Despenser the Younger) and animal behaviour (especially canids and corvids). Give me a castle in the wilderness (with Broadband!) and I'll be happy!
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