Port’s indelible mark on British history

We’re sure that, just like the History of Parliament’s staff who are all working from home, the reality of the government imposed lock down due to the Covid-19 outbreak is starting to set in for you. In an effort to provide some light relief to brighten your day at home, today’s blog offering from Dr Paul Hunneyball, Assistant Editor of our Lords 1558-1603 project, is the winning entry from the History’s 2019 Christmas staff blog competition. We’d be very interested to hear your thoughts and comments…

Historians working on coastal constituencies in the early modern period will be familiar with the National Archives document class E190, the so-called ‘port books’. These manuscripts record the flow of cargoes in and out of English and Welsh harbours, and this mercantile function was presumed to explain their name. However, conservators at Kew recently discovered that the yellow, brown and pink stains commonly found on these documents were caused not by mould, as previously thought – but by fortified wine. It’s now considered likely that port books were routinely doused in port, in the belief that the alcohol content helped preserve them in damp environments, and that this is how they really acquired their name.

The revelation that port was abundant enough to warrant such mundane uses has in turn stimulated fresh avenues of research. One place-names historian argues that the Cornish suffix ‘porth’ may well indicate a market-place for specific labels – Perranporth, for example, being the main outlet for ‘St Pirran’s Port’. Indeed, curators at Historic Royal Palaces are currently pondering whether the famous ‘Black Prince’s Ruby’ was originally an up-market brand name, rather than the semi-precious crown jewel which now bears that inaccurate designation.

The Imperial State Crown, showing the so-called Black Prince’s Ruby

Perhaps inevitably, this era of profusion ended in the mid-17th century, as the great Professor Tawny observed in his sobering study, Religion and the Rise of Teetotalism. In 1634 Charles I outraged puritan opinion with his notorious ‘Book of Ports’, which endorsed particular retail brands for consumption on the sabbath. The ensuing boycott ruined the trade.


You can find some of our more serious blogs from Dr Paul Hunneyball and the 17th century blog team on the James I to Restoration page.

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