Last year news broke that the Royal family were establishing a vineyard in Windsor Great Park, which was for many centuries the private hunting ground of Windsor Castle. More than 16,000 vines were planted and the grapes grown are Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir, in order to make Sparkling Wine. The first vintage should be next year, 2013.
However this is not the first time that Windsor has produced grapes for the Royal family – Richard II (1367 – 1400) had a vineyard at the little park at Windsor and the wine was consumed at the King’s table and even sold. This was still in use in Edward IV’s reign (1537 – 1553). The vineyard was sold off during Oliver Cromwell’s time to a Colonel Whichcote and when King Charles II was restored to the throne he decided to build was what to be known as Burford House over it in 1678.
The Kings and Queens of England had vineyards in the southern counties of England and the Domesday Book recorded 46 vineyards in 1086 lying below a line from Ely (Cambridgeshire) to Gloucestershire. Since the Book covers all of England up to the river Tees (north of Yorkshire), there is therefore reason to think that there weren’t many vineyards north of that line. There was even a vineyard at the medieval Tower of London, planted by King Henry III (1216 – 1272).
The English historian William of Malmesbury (1095 / 96 – 1143) asserts that the Vale of Gloucester produced, in the 12th century, wine as good as many of the provinces of France: “There is no province in England hath so many, or such good vineyards, as this country, either for fertility or sweetness of the grape; the wine whereof carrieth no unpleasant tartness, being not much inferior to French in sweetness”.
By the time King Henry VIII ascended the throne there were 139 sizeable vineyards in England and Wales – 11 of them owned by the Crown, 67 by noble families and 52 by the church. There was a vineyard at Thornbury Castle (South Gloucestershire), built by Edward Stafford, the third Duke of Buckingham in 1510. King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, stayed here, and Princess Mary, later Queen Mary I, also lived there for several years. The vineyard within the castle walls still produces wine! Even the old caste at Gloucester itself, built by William II – and one time residence of Kings Henry I and II – had vineyards. (They were the sons and grandson of William the Conqueror). Gloucester Castle is now long gone and its remains lie under the present day prison.
It’s thought that the cold periods during the ‘Little Ice Age’ heralded the end of grape growing in England. Frost Fairs were common on the River Thames during these cold periods – the last Frost Fair to be held in London was in 1814, lasting for 4 days, and an elephant was actually led across the river below Blackfriars Bridge as part of the festivities. The first recorded Frost Fair was in 1608 although the Thames had frozen over several times before that. In 1536 King Henry VIII is said to have travelled all the way from central London to Greenwich by sleigh along the river and in 1564 Queen Elizabeth I took walks on the ice during the winter.
When the writer James Brome visited Gloucestershire in 1700, he found a changed scene: “The very lanes and hedges being well-lined with apple and pear trees and the vales which in William of Malmesbury’s time were filled with vineyards, are now turned into orchards.”
It’s strange to think that those very orchards are now slowly being returned to vines once more – and that Royalty are once again planting vineyards!