When we have friends around for dinner, I used to believe it was all very relaxed and informal and didn’t particularly follow any set rules. We go out of our way to be unpretentious, to make our guests feel welcome, to be generous with the booze. Of course when you think of it, this is clearly untrue, there are lots of rules to follow – bread plates on the left, glasses on the right, aperitif first, then chilled white wine, then red. Cheese afterwards never before, and so on.

The list is endless, as are the social pitfalls. As you visit other countries you realise this is true everywhere, not least Japan and their tea ceremonies. It’s tradition and etiquette and national identity all rolled into one and it’s what makes foreign travel so interesting. And this brings us to the tale  of passing the port. 

As with most good true stories, the tradition of asking “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?”, is the result of accident, history and coincidence.

Part one – 1143

The Kingdom of Portugal was established in 1143 and even back then, wine was an important export. On their way to the Holy Land, the English stopped by to help the Portuguese King Alphonso Henrique during the siege of Lisbon in 1147. I’m not sure why they lent a hand, but Alphonso was extremely grateful. Ever since then we have pretty much remained firm friends with the Portuguese and had very good trading links.

By the second half of the 15th century a significant amount of Portuguese wine was being exported to England. But it was French Bordeaux wine that remained more popular. It was considered ‘fuller’ than the Portuguese equivalent which was regarded as thin and more unstable.

Part two – 1667

In 1667, a minister of Louis XIV, embarked on a series of measures to restrict the import of English goods into France. In revenge Charles II banned the importing of French wine altogether, obliging the English wine trade to seek alternative sources of supply. The merchants in Portugal spotted this opportunity and rapidly concentrated their efforts on significantly expanding wine production.

From Oporto, ships would be laden with Portuguese ‘Vinho do Porto’ bound for England, but in bad weather the wine could deteriorate. It’s said that for this reason a small amount of grape spirit, or brandy was added, which increased its strength and prevented it from spoiling. This is now an essential part of the making of port.

Part three – 1837

By the 18th century port had become a regular feature around the English gentleman’s dinner table. With due ceremony, it was always decanted because of the crusty sediment that lurked at the bottom of the bottle. Etiquette, and a love of ceremony, dictated that the port decanter should be passed to the left. When glasses had been downed the ‘around table’ pouring would begin again until there was none left.

Henry Bathurst was a prominent Whig and Bishop of Norwich. At a time when the average life expectancy was 43 years, he became a bishop at 61 and died in 1837 at 93. This despite his prodigious capacity to drink alcohol, particularly wine and port.

During his latter years with his eyesight failing and after a suitably big meal he had a tendency to fall asleep. Guests waiting further down the table for the decanter to arrive would become impatient. This being England it was considered bad form to directly demand the decanter. You may wish to cough loudly but asking was out of the question. It was thought though, that Bishop Bathurst was not so frail as he made out, and would accidently leave the decanter at his elbow to sneak an extra glass or two.

Two tactics became employed to ensure gentlemen met their port passing obligations. The first was the design of the Hoggett decanter specifically for port. The design has a round bottom and will fall over if put in front of a guest. It has to be held aloft and can only be put back down in the specially carved wooden base which is situated in front of the host. Clever.

Without a hoggett to hand, the second tactic was believed to be steadfastly perpetuated by another Bishop of Norwich, the splendidly named, John Sheepshank. It was said that he was so annoyed by the behaviour of his predecessor that he wished to enshrine his greedy behaviour in perpetuity. Whatever the reason, the following etiquette has been in place ever since…

The person preventing the decanter from continuing its journey around the table is asked politely “Do you know the Bishop of Norwich?” This is a gentle reminder to get the decanter moving again. If some puzzled person does not understand the reference and replies, “No… why do you ask?” they are advised “He is a terribly good chap, but he never passes the port!” Thus getting around the etiquette of directly asking the transgressor to get on with it.

Only in England would this happen. 

Sue Nelson