London's famous Guildhall, the starting point of our tour.


"The Fornicator". Public punishment in medieval London on the Medieval Wine Tour.
“The Fornicator”. Public punishment in medieval London on the Medieval Wine Tour.

So what’s the first thing you do after flying for seven hours from Toronto to London, on one hour of sleep, after bad airline food and four coffees? You go straight on a medieval wine tour. At least, that’s what I did, because this is normal behaviour for me.

I registered for the Medieval Wine Tour weeks before via London Historians. They hold fantastic events happening in and around London so I jumped at the chance to go because, not only was the tour medieval, but it was being hosted by Dr. Matthew Green, author of  London: A Travel Guide Through Time, and host of Unreal City Audio: London Walking Tours. I attended a paper Dr. Green gave on the plague several months ago at another London Historians event and really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to him heading up this event.

The Tour
Our journey back in time to 1390  began at the famous London Guildhall; a very apropos starting point seeing as it’s been a feature in London since the twelfth century. We then wound our way through Cheapside. Green stopped at several points of interest to offer interesting tidbits about what London was like in the late fourteenth century. Cheapside used to be a hub of activity in the  Middle Ages, for instance, it was home to frequent jousts. The names of many streets in this area harken back to the trades that flourished here: Milk Street, Bread Street, Honey Lane, and Iron Monger Lane. Cheapside also smelled horribly in the fourteenth century – the stench was a pungent mixture of rotting offal, and chamber pot waste that had been unceremoniously tossed into the streets. It was also home to some of the seedier sections of the city, captured eloquently in the street names: Grope Cunt Lane, and Cock Lane, which housed brothels.

Another point of interest along the tour was our stop at the Church of St. Mary Le Bow, a famous London landmark. It was one of four churches whose bells used to peal out evening curfew in the Middle Ages. People came home to cover their fires and turn in after dark because the streets of London were unsafe, not just from violent roving bandits and thieves, but from garbage strewn in the streets that were a walking hazard. The streets were unlit so it was difficult to see after dark. Add to that fact, that if you were caught out of doors once curfew had started you could be jailed. St. Mary Le Bow was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, but rebuilt by famous English architect, Christopher Wren (1632-1723), and reopened in 1680.

Dr. Matthew Green and his fiddler.
Dr. Matthew Green and his fiddler.

Wine in Medieval London
After visiting a few places, we stopped at a pub to have our first glass of wine. There, Green regaled us with stories about the medieval wine trade. What was the biggest issue for London’s medieval wine merchants? The biggest problem by far was how to keep wine fresh. There weren’t any efficient methods for keeping wine corked and fresh, so anything over two years old was essentially vinegar. The wine medieval Londoners drank came from Gascony, Spain, Italy and the Levant, however, London gentry and nobility (lucky them) could afford to have their own vineyards and make their own wine.

How did people drink wine? It might surprise you. If you were wealthy, you might be offered a swig from a gold laced coconut shell. If you were feeling really grim and macabre, you could opt to drink out of the skull of a traitor. Why would anyone do that? It was believed that drinking wine out of a dead man’s skull could cure illnesses such as cancer. For the less dramatically inclined, a pewter tankard was the standard choice.

London had its own wine district know as the Vintry. Green took us through the area where we enjoyed another glass of wine, and a song and story about the plague. The Vintry is also famous because it’s where Chaucer grew up. His father was a wealthy wine merchant who imported wine from the Rhineland and Gascony.

Green touched on many different facets of life in medieval London: anchorites, the history of inns, the Hanseatic League, medieval mores towards sex and public punishment, plague, livery halls and guilds.

Our tour finally wound down at Queenhithe, the dock named after Queen Matilda (1102-1167) where we ended with a final glass of wine and the chance to chat with Green at a nearby bar.

I have to mention that a nice addition to this tour is that it employs historical interpretation; Green’s stories were punctuated with brief bursts of song by a fiddler, and at certain points of the walk, there were actors dressed in period costume to add flavour to the location’s story. They interacted with the audience, sang, or told a story. It was a nice touch.

Plaque near the home of Richard Whittington, four time Lord Mayor of London.
Plaque near the home of Richard Whittington, four time Lord Mayor of London.

The Verdict
The tour is a little over two hours, wear comfortable shoes and dress appropriately since the majority of your time is spent outside. For those looking for an alternative to the usual staid tours, this would definitely be worth checking out while visiting London. It’s a fun twist on a city tour.

As tired as I was, I really enjoyed myself. I went on the inaugural tour, so I was prepared to encounter a few hiccups along the way, but to be honest, there weren’t many. The tour lasted a little longer than expected but this certainly wasn’t a bad thing in my books. Green is an animated and fun storyteller who brought medieval London to life with his humorous facts and curious tales about the people who made the city what it is today.

Click here for more information about the Medieval Wine Tour

Follow Dr. Matthew Green on Twitter: @drmatthewgreen

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