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The Worshipful Company Of Vintners

Wine gladdens the heart

The Vintners' Company, with its first Charter in 1363, is one of the Twelve Great Livery Companies of the City of London and in 2013 the Company celebrated its 650th anniversary! The Company's membership consists of over 500 Freemen and Liverymen

With its origins steeped in the history of the City of London and the import, regulation and sale of wine, the Company continues to maintain strong links with the UK Wine Trade.  Vintners' Hall is known as the Trade's "spiritual home". 

Maintaining its trade, social, charitable and educational interests, the Company continues to play an important role in the 21st century. 

Charity and education have been principal elements in the role of Livery Companies from their earliest days and the Vintners' Company maintains this key objective through the work of the Vintners' Foundation. 

The Vintners' Company's ownership of swans, shared with the Crown and the Dyer's Company, is well known and the historic ceremony of 'Swan Upping', the annual census of the swan population, takes place in July on certain stretches of the river Thames.

The history of the Vintners' Company is a fascinating story of trade, charity, politics and companionship. Although the medieval, possibly even Saxon, origins of the London guilds remains somewhat unknown, there is absolutely no doubt that in medieval London the livery companies, including the Vintners, exercised immense power in economic, social, political and religious spheres.

The origins of the Vintners' Company, like most Livery Companies, are rather obscure. Before the Norman Conquest, neighbourhood groups would meet in their local church in the case of the Vintners, St. Martin in the Vintry. In medieval London, persons of similar trade lived in the same area and so these local groups soon took on an economic element - the word 'guild' comes from the Anglo-Saxongildanmeaning 'to pay'. There are twelfth century references to 'lawful merchants of London' fixing the price of wine - one of the earliest indications of an official group governing trade.

The Vintners' first charter (15th July, 1363) was in fact a grant of monopoly for trade with Gascony. It gave far-reaching powers, including duties of search throughout England and the right to buy herrings and cloths to sell to the Gascons.

The wine trade was of immense importance to the medieval economy - between 1446 and 1448, wine made up nearly one-third of England's entire import trade. Since their first charter in 1363, it was the Vintners who presided over this trade. The Vintners' Company was placed eleventh out of the Twelve Great Livery Companies in the order of precedence of 1515.

By the sixteenth century, the Company's importance was in decline. It had lost its religious duties and Edward VI (1553) severely curtailed the Vintners' countrywide right to sell wine. Under the early Stuarts, the Company attempted to regain its importance, but having been involved with Charles I, it suffered in prestige from political attacks and financially from penal taxation when Parliament came to power in the 1640s. The further curtailment of privileges by Charles II and James II badly damaged the Company's influence and the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed not only the Hall but also many of its other properties and great financial loss resulted. Although William III and Mary II restored the privileges removed by James II, the Company did not recover its former dominance. In 1725 the duty of search was finally abandoned and fewer members of the Trade were becoming members of the Company.

The Vintners' Company was associated with the other City Companies in James I's scheme for the plantation of Ireland. It owned estates there known as "Vintners' Manor" or "Bellaghy" until 1737 when it sold them subject to a rent charge of £200 p.a. and "a brace of good bucks."

The Livery Companies came under violent political attack during the nineteenth century. Fortunately, the Company was able to show to the Charity Commission and the City of London Livery Companies' Commission that it was caring for its estates and was spending more on its charities than was legally required. It managed even to keep the remnants of its once enormous power, the privilege of selling wine without licence in London, within three miles of its walls and in certain specified ports and thoroughfare towns between London and Dover and London and Berwick. The twentieth century was marked by a steady progress towards the Company's renewed interest in and support for its trade, culminating in the granting of a new Charter on the 20th August, 1973.

Ceremonies and Feasts

The Vintners practise many varied and fascinating ceremonies, most with interesting indicators of the medieval origins of the Company.

Ceremony

The Company attends a service in St James Garlickhythe after the election of the Master in July of each year. The Court walks in procession to and from the church. The Master and Wardens wear furred gowns, Tudor caps and carry posies. The procession's path is swept clean by a Wine Porter using a birch broom. The posies and the brooms are inherited from the medieval practice of this ceremony. The posies sweetened the foul smelling air of medieval London and the brooms were necessary to clear the filth that covered the medieval streets.

Kenton Day

Every year in the summer, the Company attends a service dedicated to the remembrance of Benjamin Kenton, the Master in 1776. Children from schools he endowed also attend, four of them wearing the clothes of Kenton's period.

Feasting

One of the earliest and most famous accounts of the Vintners' Company is in the Liber Niger of Westminster Abbey. The report describes the feasting of Five Kings at a banquet held by the wine trader Henry Picard, Citizen and Vintner, in 1363. The identity of the five Kings is disputed, but the tradition has persisted in the toast of the Company: "The Vintners' Company, may it flourish root and branch for ever with Five and the Master".

The Company has entertained many other great persons, among them the four sons of King Henry IV, General Monck, Queen Anne, the four sons of Queen Victoria, and the four sons of King George V. In 1964 when Air Chief Marshal Sir Christopher Courtney was Master, the Company held a Swan Feast to celebrate the six hundredth anniversary of the granting of the first charter, thought to have been dated at 1364, at which The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, the Princess Royal and Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, were present.

Swan Feast

The Swan Feast takes place every year. Cooked like a turkey or a chicken, swans were a medieval delicacy -'stuffed with herbs and pork fat, sealed in a paste of flour and water and roasted for 2-3 hours until tender'. The annual Swan Feast held on the last Thursday of November maintains this tradition. However, swan as a culinary delight has not lived up to its medieval reputation - the muscly legs and wings are very tough meat and the birds are no longer eaten.

The different elements of the Vintners' Company Coat of Arms are described below.

Shield

Depicted here are three tuns, or large barrels, that were used for transporting wine.

Swans

The crest is supported on either side by swans. The Vintners, the Crown and the Dyers are the only legal owners of swans on the Thames. There are sometimes two nicks in the swans’ beaks – the Vintners’ mark of ownership. Around the necks hang bunches of grapes.

Ship

A medieval ship called a caravel symbolising the Vintners’ connection with the wine producing area in France Gascony.

Gold Cart-wheel on sail

The gold cart-wheel on the main sail is a fifteenth century emblem for St Martin.

Motto

"Wine gladdens the heart”. The motto was registered in 1822.

 

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