Malmsey Wine

'Come sing low, come sing high;
Come change thy name to mine
And you shall eat my Capon pie
And drink my Malmsey wine.’

I have used this film and its contents as a springboard to finding out many things associated with the Robin Hood legend. So I have often wondered what was the “Malmsey Wine” that Friar Tuck merrily sings about?

The Greek author Didorus Siculus, living during the 4th century BC., described it (Malvasia delle Lipari ) as ‘the nectar of the gods!’ And it is the high yielding ‘Malvasia’ grape, cultivated in those days of Ancient Greece that makes the popular fabulously rich, sweet, wine, that is seeped in history. It was produced by twisting the bunches of the late– ripening grapes, by their stalks and leaving them to shrivel on the well drained soil, before pressing.

Monemvasia or Malvasia, as it was called by the Franks, was a small rocky island fortress and important Greek commercial port. From here the popularity of the wine rapidly spread all around the Mediterranean and was soon produced in almost every vine growing district; Candia, Chios, Lesbos, Tendos, Tyre, Italy, Spain and the Canary Islands, an important destination on the European trade route. The name ‘Malvasia’ was corrupted in Medieval Latin into Malmasia, by the traders, whence the anglicised ‘Malmsey’ originated. The names Malvasia, Malvazia and Malmsey became interchangeably linked.

Vines had been grown in England since the Roman times, but gradually the climate was cooling and by the 14th Century the practice had died out. So expensive wine (costing twelve times more than ale) was imported from France, Germany and the Mediterranean. The best in the world were considered to be produced by the vineyards in the Canary Islands, where the white, robust, fortified ‘Malmsey’ wine was said to travel well. In 1519 trade relations were established between Bristol and the Canaries and soon after, ‘Malmsey wine,’ was found in the cellars of rich households and royal courts across Britain and Europe.

In England, Malmsey or ‘Canary’ wine, as it was often called, became particularly popular, where it was said to ‘cheer the senses and perfume the blood.’ A ‘barrel of Malmsey wine’ was part of William Shakespeare's annual salary and the great poet and playwright makes numerous references to ‘Canary’ through his various characters.

In ‘Twelfth Knight’ Sir Tobias asks Sir Andrew Aguecheek , “ Oh! Knight, thou lackest a cup of Canary.”

The Bard has Mistress Quickly say to Doll Tearsheet at the Boars Head Tavern in Henry IV Part II Act 2:

“I’faith, sweetheart, methinks now you are in an excellent temperality: your pulsidge beats as extraordinarily as heart would desire; and your colour, I warrant you, is as red as any rose, in good truth, la! But , i’faith, you have drunk too much cannaries and that’s a marvellous searching wine, and it perfumes the blood ere one can say ‘What’s this?’ How do you know?’

It was also William Shakespeare who dramatised the legend of the bizarre execution, in a barrel of Malmsey wine, of George Plantagenet, the Duke of Clarence, at the Tower of London in his ‘Tragedy of Richard III’ Act I Scene IV.

First Murderer:
Take him over the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then we will chop him in the Malmsey butt.

Second Murderer:
O excellent devise! Make a sop of him.

First Murderer: Hark! He stirs: shall I strike?

Second Murderer:
No, first lets reason with him.

Where art thou, keeper? Give me a cup of wine.

Second Murderer:
You shall have wine enough, my lord, anon.

The word ‘butt’ is derived from two sources, the Anglo-Saxon ‘bytt’ a wine skin made form ox’s hide and the Danish ‘butt’, a wooden tub or container. Both of these would have held approximately 115 imperial gallons.

The expense books of the great households, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, detail the outlay for huge varieties of different wines. In the sixteenth century fifty-six sorts of ‘small wines’ were recorded, besides thirty kinds of Italian, Grecian, Spanish and Canary. Lady Anne of Cleves did not live extravagantly, yet in 1556 her accounts show that her household had:
'Gascon wine at 18s. the tun, to the value of £6. In the cellar, three hogsheads of Gascon wine at £3 the tun; of malmsey, ten gallons at twenty pence the gallon; and of muscadel eleven gallons at 2s. 2d. the gallon.'

At the feast for the enthronement of William Warham as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1504, the records show that wine, ale and beer were provided in incredibly vast quantities:

‘Six pipes of red wine, four of claret, one of choice wine, one of white wine for the kitchen, one butt of Malmsey, one pipe of wine of Osey, two tierces of Rhenish wine, four tuns of London ale, six of Kentish ale, and twenty of English beer.’

I’m sure a merry time was had by all!

© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007


Clement of the Glen said...

Friar Tuck.
Malmsey Wine.

Anonymous said...

I consider, what is it — a lie.

WoodsyLadyM said...

I always wondered about Malmsey wine as mentioned by Friar Tuck in the Richard Greene series. I was in Monemvasia several years ago and bought one of the local wines for a mere 7 euros. It tasted like a very good pinot noir. So I guess I've had my Malmsey wine after all. :-D

Anonymous said...

Had my first taste of Malmsey, a Broadbent aged 10 years. It is delicious! And I love the history.