The Italian Winemakers Who Once Controlled England’s Money

This was a bit of a rabbithole I fell into while researching for my latest ‘What Happened 700 Years Ago‘ column. It’s a fascinating story, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

It’s the 1270s. London is starting to grow: it will soon become the financial hub of northern Europe, but at this time, it’s still in its infancy. There is potential, but it is untapped.

Enter the Frescobaldi.

A Frescobaldi in 1328. (source: frescobaldi.com)

The Frescobaldi emerged onto the financial stage in 1200s Tuscany, making their living as cloth merchants. They opened an office in Florence and, having made more money in business involving the city’s cloth guilds, decided to start lending money, as many wealthy Italian families did at the time.

In the 1270s, their interests expanded abroad, and they opened an office in London. More willing to issue loans than other bankers in the city, they quickly became a favourite of the English crown – especially Edward I, who funded his almost-conquest of Scotland through his liberal use of Frescobaldi funds.

By the time Edward I died in 1307, the crown owed the Italian family £30,000 in contemporary money – about the same as 3 million days of wages for the average skilled labourer. This was an astronomical sum – so big, in fact, that it left the country almost at the mercy of the Frescobaldi, which upset Edward’s barons, with whom he already had a frosty relationship. Believing the king was being ‘badly advised’ (the only way a medieval person could criticise the decisions of a monarch), the barons opened a commission, preparing to issue a series of regulations called the Ordinances.

In an attempt to placate the Frescobaldis and pay off the huge debt, they’d been made the officers in charge of all of England’s customs fees in 1307, giving them a great deal of power over the country’s trade. In 1309, this was extended to all the wool customs due from trade with Ireland and Scotland. By the end of 1310, the Frescobaldis were allowed to use the Tower of London, the royal residence, as their own residence ‘at their pleasure,’ and as a place to store trade goods, and had to be consulted before any new clerks in the capital were chosen. Their debt was allowing them to extend their financial – and even political – grasp over the kingdom. As you can probably imagine, this was not popular, with either the barons or the common people – it would be like the US outsourcing its VAT collection to a foreign company today.

In early 1311, the barons published the Ordinances: one of the orders meant that the Frescobaldi possessions in England were seized. The head of the family was arrested, but he was later able to flee, first to Avignon and then to his native Florence. The English crown defaulted on their debt – leading to the family’s bankruptcy.

But that wasn’t the end of their story.

Just a couple years earlier, in 1308, they’d begun planting vines in their estates in Tuscany. Their wine became very popular in the ensuing centuries, bringing them back to wealth and influence – by the time the Renaissance rolled around, two centuries later, they were trading wine for Michelangelo paintings and supplying Henry VIII with wine.

They still make wine today, on those same estates. This is their website.

I love these little things that link the past to the present. It reminds us that, really, it wasn’t long ago at all.

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