Pubs, Publicans and Parliament in the later Middle Ages

Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, is one of many people celebrating parliament’s decision to allow the re-opening of pubs, bars and watering holes in England from today. But in our latest blog he looks back to the later middle ages, when parliament’s influence on pubs and publicans was a common aspect of the industry…

For many of us, one of the most traumatic aspects of the recent social restrictions has been the closure of pubs, bars and other watering holes. This intervention in the nation’s social life is unprecedented, and there is every reason to suppose that Englishmen and -women of every century would have felt it as keenly as we do now.

Cellarer and barrels. Image taken from Treatise on the Vices, late 14th century. British Library

The tavern, alehouse or inn is a central feature of the history of every age, and the later middle ages were no exception to this rule. The quality of beer and ale, which formed a staple of the diet of men, women and children of all classes, was an important concern of local and central authorities alike. Mayors and bailiffs of towns conducted assizes of ale and imposed fines on those brewers whose products were not found to meet the required standards. Much of the ale offered for sale was provided by housewives who marketed the surplus of what they had produced for their own household’s consumption, and the numerous fines recorded where documentation survives suggest that the office of ale-taster was not an unqualified sinecure, but had its down-side. One such small-scale entrepreneur who drove her local quality controllers to distraction (or worse) was Bathilde, the wife of the Dunwich MP Thomas James, and we may speculate whether it was the quality of what he was served at home that caused him to take up brewing beer (unlike the ale of the period, containing hops) on a commercial scale.

In 1441, Henry VI’s government even took the unprecedented step of appointing a general surveyor of brewers and two years later it laid down precise rules for the quantities of ingredients to be used in brewing.

At the same time, there were always official concerns about the disturbances that an alehouse might cause, as well as over the illicit business that might be transacted within. At Exeter there were regular complaints about the noise made by the younger inhabitants of the cathedral close in Beaufitz’s tavern which deprived its affluent neighbours of their night-rest; while a tavern in Colchester owned by Simon Fordham was said to have provided the setting for prohibited games of dice.

In London, by contrast, anyone seeking to kill the King or one of his ministers by black magic (as Henry VI’s government – not entirely without justification – believed many did), could readily find a rent-a-wizard with the requisite skills in any number of taverns or ale houses, at least if the depositions heard by the courts of the period are any guideline.

Closer to reality, the membership of the Commons did include a share, albeit a small one, of brewers and publicans. The eloquence of a man like the fictitious Harry Bailly, the landlord of the ‘Tabard’ in Southwark in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, would have made him a useful man to have in Parliament, and recent research into the neighbourhoods of medieval London by Dr Justin Colson has demonstrated that real-life Harry Baillys could play a part in brokering the transactions of their neighbours. Many of the taverners and innkeepers who found their way into the medieval Commons were businessmen on a somewhat grander scale, men like John Bothall of Nottingham, who himself imported the wine that he sold in his tavern, but there were also more run of the mill inn-keepers, like Richard Ward, a publican from Bridgwater notorious for selling bread in short measure and wine of dubious quality and provenance. While it is perhaps not surprising that such men should have risen to prominence in places where large numbers of short-term visitors made the keeping of hostelries profitable, like the pilgrim destination of Canterbury or Southwark, the gateway to the markets of the city London, it is more interesting to see similar men also returned elsewhere in the land. Modern MPs are more often found practising at, rather than keeping a bar, but to the present day the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group champions the interests of the brewing and hospitality industries in both Houses.

The Happy Man pub in Englefield Green, local haunt of Dr Kleineke!

Finally, it is worth noting that alcoholic beverages of course played their part in electoral politics across the centuries. By the 17th century the practice was so prevalent in some parts of England as to have engendered a distinct term, that of ‘quilling’, but even earlier elections provided occasions for communal merry making. Thus, in 1470 at Launceston in Cornwall the common purse provided for several gallons of wine and a penny-worth of bread by way of nibbles, all consumed during the meeting convened to choose the borough’s MPs. It is tempting to wonder whether some over-indulgence in the refreshment on offer had induced the county clerk of Wiltshire to adorn his election return with some fictitious sureties, who surnames spelled out a little verse:

‘God Save Alle

This Faire Compayne,

Ande Gyffe Theym Grace,

Weel Forto Spede,

For Fayn Wold They,

Been Ryght Mery.

Certainly we, publicans and punters alike, shall be right merry, once the pubs re-open!


More blogs from our Commons 1461-1504 project can be found here.

And for a blog on a different sort of tipple, read about Parliament’s relationship with coffee here, in a post from our Georgian Lords section.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s