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A cup of negus, c.1703 [audio available]
Something nice to mull over…
A warm welcome to the 41 new subscribers since last week! Again I’ve experimented with an audio version – forgive the one-take imperfections.
I like to be a curmudgeon in the run-up to Christmas – it’s all part of the game, right? But of course when the actual festival comes I enjoy it. And what better than a glass of mulled wine to help the process?
I’ve written before here about Christmas overindulgence and family fun in times past. One staple of such occasions might well have been a glass of negus – a form of mulled wine that is mentioned in countless novels of the 19th century in particular, from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens (yes, him again), although its origins date to the century before that. I got a bit carried away looking into those origins. (We’ll get to the recipe later.)
The earliest reference in the Oxford English Dictionary to the drink relates to a 1743 letter by the antiquarian Daniel Wray with a passing note on “warming a little negus”. Looking through newspapers and books from that era, it’s clear that by the 1750s and 1760s, it was certainly in common parlance (there were even poems referring to it). For example, John Poulter – a highwayman who went on a five-year crime spree and then wrote a book about it – yes, of course I’ll follow this up another week! – noted a night in October 1752 when “after supper we called plentifully for White Wine Negus”.
James Boswell’s London Journal contains numerous references to the drink.1 On 15th November 1762, for example, he wrote, “We had a slice of hard dry toast, a bowl of warm negus, and went comfortable to bed.” And a few weeks later, in January 1763, it crops up when he was seducing a maid by the name of Louisa, whom he describes as having “a handsome face and an enchanting languish in her eyes”:
I then caused make a bowl of negus very rich of the fruit, which I caused be set in the room as a reviving cordial.
I came softly into the room, and in a sweet delirium slipped into bed… [We’ll overlook the bit where he boasts about his sexual prowess.] At last I sunk to rest in her arms and she in mine. I found the negus, which had a fine flavour, very refreshing to me. Louisa had an exquisite mixture of delicacy and wantonness that made me enjoy her with more relish…
Er, anyway. Let’s close that door behind us.
What most authorities agree on is that the drink was named after one Francis Negus (c.1670–1732), an army officer who served under William of Orange who also became a politician. He was born in Covent Garden, London, but with a family seat at Dallinghoo in Suffolk. He was still serving in the army in 1703. In 1704 he married the daughter of the Whig publisher and politician William Churchill (also from Dallinghoo), who Negus succeeded as MP for Ipswich in 1717. Negus also had minor roles in the court of George II, including being ‘Master of His Majesty’s Buckhounds’ (a deer-hunting role only abolished in 1901), and was the governor of Chelsea Waterworks for a while.
In the course of looking into his life, I found a 1729 newspaper article reporting:
…a fire broke out in the House of Col. Negus at Dallinghoe in Suffolk, which entirely consumed the same; together with all the Furniture, Paintings, &c. to the Damage, ’tis said, of about 10,000 l. A Servant Maid narrowly escaped with her Life, having one of her Arms broke by leaping out of a Window. This Fire is supposed to have been occasioned by the careless leaving some Shavings, by Workmen employed in some repairs.
Negus was clearly very well off and well connected. The politician John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont, was friendly with Negus and noted in his diary for January 1729 that “Negus knows many modern anecdotes”. And so to the anecdote which provides the origin myth for the drink.
According to the 1894 Dictionary of National Biography:
It is related that on one occasion, when the bottle was passing rather more rapidly than good fellowship seemed to warrant over a hot political discussion, in which a number of prominent whigs and tories were taking part, Negus averted a fracas by recommending the dilution of the wine with hot water and sugar. Attention was diverted from the point at issue to a discussion of the merits of wine and water, which ended in the compound being nicknamed ‘negus.’
Sadly I can’t find a first-hand account of this occasion, which would have been fun to read about directly, I think. A report in the Gentleman’s Magazine in February 17992 by a contributor signed only M.A.C. tells us as much as we know for certain:
It is now nearly 30 years ago that, being on a visit to a friend at Frome, in Somersetshire, I accompanied my said friend to the house of a clergyman of the name of Potter, who, with a wife and two daughters, then resided in a good family house in a street (which I do not recollect the name of) near to the church. The house was decorated with many paintings, chiefly family portraits; amongst which I was particularly pleased with that of a gentleman in a military dress, which appeared, by the style, to have been taken in or about the reign of Queen Anne.
In answer to my enquiries concerning the original of the portrait, Mrs Potter informed me it was a Colonel Negus, an uncle of her husband’s; that from this gentleman the liquor usually so called had its name, it being his usual beverage. When in company with his junior officers, he used to invite them to join him, by saying, “Come, boys, join with me, taste my liquor.” Hence it soon became fashionable in the regiment, and the officers, in compliment to their colonel, called it Negus.
In the 1st July 1854 edition of Notes and Queries,3 there is another snippet to be found. The correspondent (‘T.S.B.R.’) spotted a book catalogue listing for a 1604 book once owned by a Thomas Vernon (1704–1753) of Ashton in Hampshire, who had recorded everything from his opinions and observations to his will, all in its margins. One of these marginalia recounts:
After a morning’s walk, half a pint of white wine, made hot and sweetened a little, is recond [i.e. reckoned] very good,—Col. Negus, a gentleman of taste, advises it, I have heard say.
The magazine then recounts the same tale I gave above of the drink being used to defuse an argument, although alas without giving a source for this story, so we can only decide for ourselves if it’s true – it’s reminiscent of the 1760s origin myth of the sandwich being named for John Montagu, Earl of Sandwich, because of his reluctance to leave his gambling table and demanding a fortifying snack.
As for the fortifying drink of negus, there seem to be two schools of thought as to whether it should be made with port or with white wine. Nineteenth century celebrity French chef Alexis Soyer (1810–1858) provided a recipe for the former thus:
Port Wine Negus – 1 qt. fruity port, 1 tblsp. spirit of cloves, 1 teacup sugar, 1 sliced lemon, 1/2 grated nutmeg; over these pour 2 qts. boiling water.
Amusingly Mrs Beeton wrote in her 1861 Book of Household Management, “As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose…” – she suggested one pint of wine between nine or ten children…
Negus isn’t the only spiced alcoholic drink of the season, of course: there’s also eggnog, made with cream, eggs and spirits and probably dating from the 17th century; and there’s the 19th century ‘bishop’, or ‘smoking bishop’, again mentioned by Dickens and very similar to negus, typically made with hot burgundy, spices, sugar and Seville oranges.
Whatever warming beverage you fancy, may this Christmas bring you good cheer!