About the Company

Origins & Development

From medieval beginnings

The history of the Vintners' Company is a fascinating story of trade, charity, politics and companionship. Although the medieval, possibly even Saxon origins of the London guilds remain somewhat unknown, there is absolutely no doubt that in medieval London the Livery Companies, including the Vintners, exercised immense power in economic, social, political and religious spheres.

The origins of the Vintners’ Company, like most Livery Companies, are rather obscure.  Before the Norman Conquest, neighbourhood groups would meet in their local church, in the case of the Vintners, St. Martin in the Vintry.  Persons of similar trade lived in the same area and so these local groups soon took on an economic element – the word ‘guild’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon ‘gildan’ meaning ‘to pay’.  There are twelfth century references to ‘lawful merchants of London’ fixing the price of wine – one of the earliest indications of an official group governing the trade.

The Vintners’ first charter (15th July 1363) was in fact a grant of monopoly for trade with Gascony.  It gave far-reaching powers, including duties of search throughout England and the right to buy herrings and cloths to sell to the Gascons.

The wine trade was of immense importance to the medieval economy – between 1446 and 1448, wine made up nearly one-third of England’s entire import trade.  Through their first charter in 1363, the Vintners presided over this trade. The Vintners’ Company was placed eleventh out of the Twelve Great Livery Companies in the order of precedence of 1515.

From the ‘Agas’ Map of the late 1550s.  Queenhithe is in the top centre, and Vintners’ Hall (not marked) is a little to the east, behind the watergate and Three Cranes Wharf.  (Queen Street does not yet exist.)  St Martin Vintry is shown on the west side of College Hill, here named  ‘Whytyngton Colledge’.  The church building is indicated by ‘S.Martin’.
London Metropolitan Archives

By the sixteenth century, the Company’s importance was in decline.  It had lost its religious duties and Edward VI (1553) severely curtailed the Vintners’ countrywide right to sell wine.  Under the early Stuarts, the Company attempted to regain its importance, but having been involved with Charles I, it suffered in prestige from political attacks and financially from penal taxation when Parliament came to power in the 1640s.  The further curtailment of privileges by Charles II and James II badly damaged the Company’s influence; and the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed not only the Hall but also many of its other properties, and great financial loss resulted.  Although William III and Mary II restored the privileges removed by James II, the Company did not recover its former dominance.  In 1725 the duty of search was finally abandoned, and fewer members of the Trade were becoming members of the Company.

The Vintners’ Company was associated with the other City Companies in James I’s scheme for the plantation of Ireland.  It owned estates there known as “Vintners’ Manor” or “Bellaghy” until 1737, when it sold them subject to a rent charge of £200 p.a. and “a brace of good bucks.”

The Vintners’ Company Court room circa 1842

The Livery Companies came under severe political attack during the nineteenth century.  Fortunately, the Company was able to show to the Charity Commission and the City of London Livery Companies’ Commission that it was caring for its estates and was spending more on its charities than was legally required.  It even managed to keep the remnants of its once enormous power, the privilege of selling wine without licence in London, within three miles of its walls and in certain specified ports and thoroughfare towns between London and Dover and London and Berwick.  The twentieth century was marked by a steady progress towards the Company’s renewed interest in and support for its trade, culminating in the granting of a new Charter on the 20th August, 1973.