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October 30, 1600 – Elizabeth Refuses to Renew Essex’s Monopoly on Sweet Wines

Barrels of Port Wine (a kind of sweet wine) - photograph by Alex Wistea
Barrels of Port Wine (a kind of sweet wine) – photograph by Alex Wistea via Wikimedia Commons

This was a move with huge implications: it prompted Essex’s rebellion, and opened the door for sweeping reforms. Before we get there, some context.

Monopolies began in 1331 as a way to encourage foreign artisans to come to England and practice their trade (and train English apprentices and pass on their knowledge) by offering them exclusivity in a particular area. They quickly expanded beyond this, and while many monopolies continued to offer inventors the exclusive right to use their invention (like a patent), many more just simply exclusive rights to import and/or sell certain goods. Monarchs loved the practice because they could charge for the privilege – or even just reward favorites at little cost to themselves.

Essex’s monopoly on sweet wines meant that he received a fee on all sweet wines imported into England. Elizabeth had originally granted the license to Leicester, but when he died she allowed Essex (his step-son) to inherit it. As one of most lucrative licenses in the country, the grant was a real mark of favor…favor that Essex forfeited by making a terrible muddle of the Irish campaign.

More context: Ireland, led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, was rebelling against English rule. In response, England assembled its largest expedition ever (16,000 men, 3,500 horses…) and chose Essex to lead the effort. Unfortunately, instead of following instructions, Essex wandered around the country. He lost more than three quarters of his men on these marches – some were felled by snipers, some succumbed to dysentery, some were even executed for cowardice. Finally, when he had only about 3,000 troops left and no hope of prevailing against the larger Irish forces, Essex entered a parlay with Tyrone so private (neither man brought any attendants) that it implied treason was being planned, and so one-sided that it highlighted the extent of Essex’s defeat.

At this point, Essex knew he was skating on thin ice. Deserting his troops, he ran back to England in the hopes of explaining himself to Elizabeth before she could hear the story from others – and showed up in her bedchamber early in the morning before she was properly wigged or gowned. She was kind to him in the moment (she was smart enough to know she was dangerously unguarded – after all, he had gained access to her bedchamber, and he might have brought troops with him) but after he left, she alerted her guards and the full Council. Essex was interrogated for five hours then placed under house arrest for a few weeks while his fate was decided.

The thing was, Essex was highly popular with the people, so the Council ended up showing more mercy than many people thought he deserved. Rather than a trial, they appointed a commission that found him guilty of malfeasance and deprived him of public office. Essex was upset at the time over the “sentence” …but then horrified shortly after this when Elizabeth decided that would not renew his sweet wines license but rather administer the customs herself.

This decision eliminated Essex’s main source of income…and led to his rebellion (which I’ve already written about here if you want to go down that path – but make sure you come back to this one!). It also led to an inquiry being conducted into the system of monopolies – which Parliament had complained about for years (since they increased prices on all the goods that were protected). Indeed, after gathering all the facts (lists of the products involved, price comparisons…), Cecil and Buckhurst confirmed to Elizabeth that the situation “was very bad indeed.” Now, about a decade earlier she had promised reforms and had started to try to fix things by cancelling fifteen or sixteen patents…but then she ended up granting new ones since, as mentioned, it was a convenient way for her to reward her favorites when she was short of cash herself (of course, the system broke down when those favorites showed themselves unworthy like Essex had….). The issue came to a head in the Parliament of 1601, where the members refused to consider her subsidy until she agreed to reform the monopolies.

Instead of reacting angrily to the insolence, Elizabeth truly earned her “Gloriana” moniker. After all, she had been preparing to take action – or at least was aware it was needed – and so she took the opportunity to respond in a big way. She revoked a long list of monopolies, and sent a copy of the list to each MP. She also invited a delegation to Whitehall – but everyone wanted to join in so they all came to the Council Chamber on November 30, where they experienced what would later be called her “Golden Speech.” A mighty oak rising from the acorn of a single decision about sweet wines…

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