How much wine is in a barrel?

Units of measure change often through the course of history. Biblical measurements of liquid came in Logs, Hins, and Baths. One Bath to every six Hin, one Hin to every 12 Logs (with a Bath being 5.75 gallons). In the US, it is common to use pints, quarts, and gallons, while the majority of the rest of the world uses milliliters and liters. But when it comes to wine, it is often measured in barrels.

A tun of wine at Heidelberg castle in Germany
A tun of wine at Heidelberg castle in Germany

A wine barrel is defined as one-eighth of a tun (or tunne) or half a hogshead. What exactly is a tun? That’s up for debate. Most commonly it is defined as 252 gallons. However, due to the fact this measurement is quite antiquated, different sources claim many things. Below is a 1918 reproduction of a 1507 definition:

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Translated, it reads: “He that is a gauger ought to understand that there is in a tunne 60 sesters, and every sester is 4 gallons, be it wine or oil.” By this definition, a tun is 240 gallons. This still seems like a butt-load of wine, but that would be technically false. A butt (also known as a pipe) is a half a tun.

In 1478, legend tells of someone who died in a butt of wine. George Plantagenet (1st Duke of Clarence, 1st Earl of Salisbury, 1st Earl of Warwick), brother of King Edward IV of England, had slowly begun to lose stability after his wife died in 1475. His instability (as well as Edward stopping George’s remarriage) brought forth a strained relationship with Edward.

King Edward IV (unknown artist, 1540)
King Edward IV (unknown artist, 1540)

Things came to a head when Thomas Burdett, chaplain Thomas Blake, and astronomer Dr John Stacey were implicated in a plot to kill the king. All three were condemned to death, but Blake was saved by the plea of a bishop in the last moments. After the death of Stacy and Burdett, George sent one Dr John Goddard to the Parliament to show the dead men’s declarations of innocence. The choice of Goddard was a poor one, however, as Goddard was a supporter of Henry VI’s right to the throne (a treasonous belief). After Goddard’s bursting into the Parliament on George’s orders, King Edward IV accused George of treason. On 18 February 1478, the 1st Duke of Clarence was executed in the Tower of London by drowning in a butt of fortified wine. 

Drowning of the 1st Duke of Clarence
Drowning of the 1st Duke of Clarence

Admittedly, this story is a legend and it’s not known how much is true. If you’re interested in learning more, take a look at the Richard III Society’s article on the subject.

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