In the history of brewing in Britain, the Graveney Boat is an archaeological anomaly almost as great as finding the skeleton of an Anglo-Saxon warrior with a hole in his skull that could only have been made by a 17th-century musket ball.
The boat – actually a clinker-built cross-channel cargo vessel, reconstructed as some 44 feet (13.6 metres) long, 11 feet (3.4 metres) wide and just three feet (one metre) in draught – was abandoned more than a thousand years ago. It was discovered in 1970 under six feet of soil, during the widening of the Hammond Drain, a silted-up ancient natural water course linking Graveney village, a small settlement near the coast between Faversham and Whitstable in Kent, with the Thames estuary.
Dendrochronology suggests the Graveney Boat was about 55 years old when it was abandoned, since it was built from oak timbers cut in the mid-890s, and it had apparently been left to settle into the mud some time close to 950AD. When archaeologists analysed the boat and its immediate area, searching in particular for plant remains, they found evidence that pointed strongly towards it having carried a cargo of hops.
Yet at the time the boat was stuck up a Kentish creek, (at a period when there was still a separate Viking King of Northumbria, contending with the King of England), English brewers were not using hops to flavour their ale – or at least, there is no good evidence at all that they were doing so. Hops stay unmentioned in the history of English brewing (apart from one brief and almost equally mysterious pop-up in the 12th century, to which we will return) until the 1500s, almost 400 years later, when immigrant brewers from the Low Countries started making the upstart Continental hopped drink bere, a rival to unhopped traditional English ale. So why were there hops on board the Graveney cargo boat?
Some have insisted that the Graveney Boat’s cargo is clear evidence that Anglo-Saxon brewers did, in fact, hops their ales. One vigorous supporter of this position is Francis Pryor, the archaeologist and Iron and Bronze Age historian (and Time Team TV star), who declared in his book Britain in the Middle Ages, published in 2007, that the Graveney Boat
“was carrying a cargo that included (presumably Kentish) hops – comprehensively destroying the myth that all medieval ale was unhopped.”
But this is totally wrong: the hops found in association with the Graveney Boat do no such thing. They prove nothing, except what they are – hops associated with a cargo ship abandoned in Kent about 950AD. There is no hard evidence whatsoever to link them with brewing (and nothing, either, that could let us presume the hops were from Kent. Indeed, since the remains found with the Graveney Boat also included fragments of quern-stones made from Mayen lava, in the Rhineland, then Germany seems a reasonable bet for the origin of the Graveney Boat hops, as it was the origin for the Graveney Boat quern-stones).
Pryor’s mistake, and the same goes for other writers who insist the Graveney Boat proves Anglo-Saxon ales were hopped, or were hopped at least sometimes, is to assume that hops were only ever associated with brewing, and that therefore the presence of hops on the ship MUST mean the presence of hopped beer nearby in space and time. But hops have had a wide range of uses in the past. In “Hopped Beer: The Case for Cultivation” (Economic Botany 48(2): 166-70, 1994), two American academics, DY DeLyser of Syracuse University and WJ Kasper of Pennsylvania State University, list almost a dozen uses for hops in the past, including as a salad vegetable; to make a fabric resembling linen; to make a hair rinse for brunettes; for dye-making (the hops themselves and the leaves yield a yellow dye, the hop sap a reddish-brown one); as bedding (for humans and animals) and insulation, and also as packing; to make twine; for fodder; and as a basis for manure. Hops can also be used to make sacking and paper, to fill hop pillows for those who have difficulty sleeping, and as a substitute for oak bark in tanning, and hop ash was used in the manufacture of Bohemian glass.
The fullest article on the subject is “Plant Remains from the Graveney Boat and the Early History of Humulus lupulus L. in W. Europe”, by D Gay Wilson of the Botany School at the University of Cambridge, from New Phytologist (1975) 75, pp 627-648. (This is also, still, after 37 years, one of the best accounts of early mentions of hops anywhere, and the source of one of my favourite quotes: “Beer is a popular subject, and the literature abounds in unsupported statements, misleading or inaccurate quotations and inaccurate references.” Indeed.)
Wilson discusses the large number of hop “inflorescences” (cones) found on the brushwood next to the Boat, and the absence of hop pollen found in and around the Boat, although the hop “nuts” (seeds) that were found were fertilised, meaning they had to come from somewhere that hop pollen could be found. It is, she says,
“difficult to avoid the conclusion that hops were deliberately brought to the boat from a distance, or were actually unloaded from it when it was finally abandoned. The use and cultivation of hop in Britain are, however, of relatively recent and disputed date. Such an abundance of tenth-century hops in Britain, especially in salt-marsh deposits, requires special explanation.”
Now, across the Channel, in Picardy, hops were specifically mentioned in connection with brewing in 822AD, around 130 years before the Graveney Boat and its mystery cargo, when Abbot Adalhard of the Benedictine monastery of Corbie, in the Somme valley near Amiens, wrote a series of statutes on how the monastery should be run, which included a mention of gathering hops. Adalhard went on to say that a tithe (or tenth) of all the malt that came in to the monastery should be given to the porter of the monastery, and the same with the hops. If this did not supply enough hops, he should take steps to get more from elsewhere to make sufficient beer for himself: “De humlone … decima ei portio … detur. Si hoc ei non sufficit, ipse … sibi adquirat unde ad cervisas suas faciendas sufficienter habeat.”
There was another Benedictine monastery 110 miles to the north-east of Corbie, at Canterbury, and Canterbury is less than seven miles from Graveney. It seems more than probable that monks from Corbie would have visited their fellows at Canterbury. Did the Corbie monks pass on a taste for hops to their Kentish brethren? Could it be that the Graveney Boat represents a cargo of hops on its way to be used by the monks of Canterbury to flavour their brews? Well, it might: but the massive problem is that there is no evidence to support that. At all.
The word Adalhard uses for “hops”, “humlone, looks to be the same as the Old English word hymele, itself the same as the modern Flemish dialect word for hop, hommel, and a word in Old Norwegian, humli, which also meant hop. All these seem to come from a Germanic root meaning “to grope about”, referring to the way the plant’s stems twist as they grow, to try to find something to grasp and support themselves on.
That twisting about to try to find something to grasp and support themselves on might make a useful metaphor for people who go looking for proof that the Anglo-Saxons used hops to brew with. The hop does seem to have grown in England long before the 10th century: pollen remains dating back to the Neolithic and earlier from what were probably wild hops have been found at Thatcham in Berkshire and Urswick in Cumbria. Hymele has given us at least two placenames in England, Himbleton in Worcestershire and Himley in Staffordshire. However, the problem is that hymele may refer to the hop plant, or it may be a reference “to some similar [climbing] plant”, the Oxford Dictionary of Place Names says. A 10th or 11th-century Anglo-Saxon vocabulary glosses the Latin “uoluula”, that is, convolvulus, bindweed, as “hymele”, and the word hymele was also used for bryony (Bryonia alba), another climbing plant with hop-like lobed leaves. Even the plant name hemlock seems to mean “hymele-like”, perhaps because both it and bryony are extremely poisonous. So references to hymele are not necessarily references to the hop.
Wilson pulls up a number of references to hymele in Old English sources, and while the word does sometimes seem to refer to the hop, she struggles to find any occurances of hymele that might be connected to ale. The best is a reference in a 9th or 10th century copy of a herbal originally written in Latin around the fourth or fifth century AD, known as the Herbarium of Apuleius. In one section, chapter LXVIII, a plant named “herba brionia, which some call hymele” is recommended for “curing sore of spleen, making the disease pass out with the urine”. The writer of this version of the Herbarium (which is now in the British Museum) said the cure should be given to the sick person “to swallow among his mete“, that is, solid food, not drink, but added that “this wort [that is, herb] is to that degree laudable that men mix it with their usual drinks.” The comment about the herb being mixed with drinks is missing from some of the surviving Latin versions of the Herbarium, although a Latin version from the (Benedictine) monastery of Monte Cassino, in Italy, has that part but lacks the ” some call [it] hymele” bit, referring only to herba brionia.
Now, here’s where the analysis gets complicated, so hold my hand and I’ll try not to make this too confusing. Some commentators (influenced, apparently, by a 19th century translator of Apuleius, the marvellously named Thomas Oswald Cockayne, in a book with the equally marvellous title of Leechdoms, wortcunning and starcraft of early England, published 1864) have decided to ignore the herba brionia reference, fixate on the idea that “hymele” can only mean hops here, and conclude that “usual drinks” must mean ale. They decide, therefore, that “men mix it with their usual drinks” must means that hops went into ale in 9th or 10th century England.
But we cannot at all take it that “hymele” here means “hops”. The passage is talking about a herb that encourages urination. Hops are a mild diuretic. But bryony is much better at the job: bryony was recommended by herbalists right up to the 20th century for disorders of the urinary passages, and was “said to be one of the best diuretics in medicine”. Bryony fits the whole passage much more satisfactorily than hops do – and if “some” called herba brionia, the herb under discussion, by the name “hymele“, that would almost certainly be because bryony and “real” hymele/hops are both lobe-leaved climbing plants that throw out tendrils, and “some” were confusing one with the other. In which case it was briony that went into the “usual drinks”, not hops.
It could be argued that since some copies of the Herbarium lack the part that says “this wort is to that degree laudable that men mix it with their usual drinks”, this bit was added by a later scribe copying out the Herbarium, who was himself confused, didn’t know what herba brionia was, thought the reference to “hymele” in the original really did mean the hop plant, and added the “men mix it with their usual drinks” line because he knew that’s what happened with “real” hymele. Thus – tada! – some monkish copyist makes a mistake but in doing so “proves” to later readers that the Anglo-Saxons put hops in their ale. Except that this whole circumstantial chain relies on at least three assumptions: that the “men mix it” line is a later interpolation, that the person who interpolated it while copying out the Herbarium themselves didn’t know that herba brionia wasn’t hymele, and that “men mix it with their usual drinks” means “men put it in their ale”.
Even ignoring the fact that there is nothing in that whole passage about boiling or brewing, or ale, nor anything about using the cones or inflorescences, which would unequivocally identify this “wort” as the hop, that’s too many assumptions for me. Wilson says of the passage in the Herbarium of Apuleius that it “would seem to be an obvious reference to the making of hopped beer.” But I hope I’ve just shown that it’s a very long way from that.
Anything else? Well, there was a form of rent called “hopgavel” or “hoppegavel” in medieval Kent, which Wilson says “appears to be the name given to a money-rent replacing an earlier customary due of hops”. She quotes a German publication from 1967, Die Traditionen des Hochstifts Freising, by the aptly named Theodor Bitterauf, which apparently details documents mentioning orchards with hop-gardens that appear in the records from 859-875 AD onwards of the (then Augustinian) Abbey of Freising, Bavaria (home, of course, of the Weihenstephan brewery). Wilson also lists printed sources from 1844, 1853 and 1909 that apparently show that “[f]rom the mid-9th century other monasteries in France and elsewhere expected dues of hops from their tenants, in such quantity that cultivation is implied, for example St Remi [Rheims, France, Benedictine], Lobbes [Hainault, modern Belgium, Benedictine] and St Germain [Paris, Benedictine]. Hoppegavel, she suggests, had its roots in similar hop dues to those found in Rheims, Hainault and Paris, and “[t]he hop dues were surely for brewing, just as on the continent.”
But again this assumes that people collecting hops were doing so to make beer: just because that was the case at Corbie does not mean it was the case in Rheims, Hainault, Paris or Canterbury. They could have been collecting hops to make dye with, or any of the other uses the plant was put to. And anyway, we may not even be talking about Humulus lupulus here: “hoppe” in Middle English could also mean the seedpod of the flax plant, and “hoppegavel” is defined in one Middle English dictionary as a rent paid in flax pods. Flax was certainly cultivated in Kent, from as early as the Bronze Age, and evidence of the plant turns up in analyses that have been made of charred plant remains found during the construction of the Channel Tunnel rail link. So Wilson’s “hoppegavel = hop dues” evidence for the use of hops in Anglo-Saxon brewing is also shaky. (Incidentally, none of the admittedly few recent palaeobotanical studies in Kent that I have seen seem to have found any evidence of ancient hops. The Graveney Boat really is an anomaly.)
Wilson concludes her study by declaring that
“We have shown that the Graveney boat was probably destined for brewing. It provides the first concrete evidence that hopped beer was known in Britain in the tenth century.”
But there is no “probably” about it at all, and the evidence is a long way from concrete: not even balsa wood. Tissue. Most importantly, for nearly four centuries there is, apart from one other anomaly, no more hints at all that hops were used in English brewing, no sign of hop cultivation in England. Hops are not mentioned anywhere in the Domesday Book, the mighty Anglo-Norman land survey completed in 1086. Hops are not mentioned at all in the compilation of 13th century records of St Paul’s Cathedral by William Hale Hale (sic) called The domesday of St Paul’s of the year MCCXXII, and published in 1856, although it gives all the quantities of oats, wheat and barley that went into the ale drunk by the priests of St Paul’s, and even lists the brewery workers. Hops are not mentioned in the section on brewing in the late 13th century Treaty of Walter de Biblesworth.
When hops and hopped beer finally do incontrovertibly appear in England, in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, the English language had to adopt the name for the plant that flavoured beer from Dutch, the language of the Low Countries immigrants who brought the taste for hops with them, since the English had apparently forgotten “hymele”, if that had ever meant “hop”. The fact that hopped beer was seen as something completely new in England is clear from the violent reaction beer provoked from the 15th century onwards, with Henry VI having to step in to stop “alien” beer brewers being attacked in 1436, Andrew Boorde – who was originally a Carthusian monk – thundering against it in the 16th century, complaining that while “Ale for an Englysshman is a naturall drynke,” beer was “of late days … much used in Englande to the detryment of many Englysshe men”, and as late as the 17th century, John Taylor, the self-styled Water Poet, still moaning that compared to good old traditional unhopped English ale, “Beere is but an Upstart and a Foreigner or Alien.”
This is, I think, the big question that has to be answered by those who declare that Anglo-Saxon ale was, at least on occasions, flavoured with hops: if that is so, why did brewers in England clearly forget all about hops as a flavouring? Why did hopped beer have to be (re?)introduced from Continental Europe hundreds of years after the Graveney Boat supposedly “provided concrete evidence” of Anglo-Saxon brewers using hops? Why, if hymele meant “hops”, did we forget that word, and have to import a word for the plant from Europe? It seems to me much simpler to suppose that hops never arrived in English brewhouses until the 15th century than to suppose that we were brewing with hops in the 10th century and then dropped the idea for a few centuries until the Flemings and Hollanders came over and reminded us about the hop again.
But what about that other anomoly? In the records of the priors and convent of Westminster Abbey appears an entry dating from around 1118-1120 regarding the weekly “farm” (allowance) of the monks:
Hec est firma monachorum in septimana: ad panem: vj cumbas et lx et vij solidos ad coquinam; et xx hops de brasio; et × de gruto; et iij cumbas avene; et ad servientes j marcam argenti.
“Brasio” is pretty obviously a late Latin word cognate with the medieval French “brasser”, “to brew” (from which English ultimately derives the word “brasserie”, via French eateries), so it’s clear what “hops de brasio” means – though note that they are being used alongside “gruto”, which must be “gruit/grout”, “flavouring for beer before the introduction of hops” (Oxford English Dictionary). So there we are: clear evidence that in the time of Henry I, hops were being used in brewing in London, albeit alongside gruit. “Avene”, incidentally, is “oats”, and “cumba” must be “coomb”, a measure equal to half a quarter or four bushels. Oats were commonly used in medieval brewing. But were hops?
No, I think, has to be the answer. This is the only known reference to the use of hops in brewing in England for nearly 300 years. The Westminster monks were Benedictines, like those in Corbie, Rheims, Hainault and Paris (and, by then, Freising), and Abbess Hildegard of St Rupertsberg, in Germany, who was writing about hops and brewing in 1155 or so, and if they were using hops in their beer, it seems quite plausible that the Benedictine monks of Westminster did the same. But if they did, then once again, there is no evidence at all that this practice spread out into the wider world of medieval English brewing, and credit to introducing hops to England must still go to the Low Countries immigrants of the 15th century.
Still, I doubt that my trying to drive a stake into this particular claim is going to kill it off. Here’s Francis Pryor at it again on his own blog last month, prompted by recollections of working at the “family brewery”, Truman’s, in the East End (his ancestors were Quaker brewers and maltsters from Baldock in North Hertfordshire, and one branch of the Pryor family took a lease on the brewery in Shoreditch High Street that had originally been Ralph Harwood’s: when that lease ran out in 1816 the Pryors joined their fellow Quakers at the nearby Brick Lane brewery): “The Saxon (pre-Norman) boat from Graveney, in Kent, was carrying a cargo of hops. Despite this, the myth persists that all medieval beers were un-hopped. Some may have been, especially domestic or home brews, but many weren’t.” Sorry, Francis, you’ve got no evidence at all for saying “many weren’t” unhopped.
And incidentally, your account in your blog of the latter history of Truman’s, that it “was taken over by Watneys (later Grand Metropolitan)”, is completely up the spout as well. Grand Met – then a hotel and catering company – bought Trumans in 1972, and acquired Watneys the following year.