Robert Gilbert Porteous Lanxeth –
the Scot who spread the fame of Golden Tokay
( 1600–1661 )
Among the personalities closely connected to the Polish Krosno, the presence of the Scottish immigrant known as Robert Wojciech Portius, the greatest Tokay wine merchant and the town’s commander, left behind an exceptional amount of traces, especially in the area of the cultural heritage of the glorious city on the River Wislok. Portius’s heraldic arms, a counterpart of the coat of arms of gentry also used by burghers, can be found in many parts of Krosno, for instance, in the Parish Church.
Robert Gilbert Porteous Lanxeth was born in Scotland around 1600. After fleeing from religious persecution, he first appeared in Poland around 1620. From 1623, he obtained the name of Wojciech, which can be probably explained by his conversion from Protestantism to Catholicism. Even the earliest mentions of him are in connection with commerce. At first, he was an assistant to John Laurensten (also of Scottish origin), a rich trader, after whose death of plague in 1623, Porteous became a small entrepreneur. His business was apparently prosperous as in 1626 the young salesman could purchase one of the largest houses in Rynek (Market Square), called Portius’ House No 27 today, from Dr Pawel Mamrowicz, a young medical practitioner.
That acquisition favourably affected the subsequent commercial activities of the lucky Scotsman. A year later he married his contractor’s mother, Anna née Hesner, the widow of Bartolomiej Mamrowicz, one of the richest residents of Krosno. Did he meet her as a result of the legal transaction or did he buy the house owing to Anna’s friendly disposition? Anyway, the marriage cleared his personal situation and raised him among the most distinguished Krosnians. He traded both in Rzeczpospolita and the Dukedom of Lithuania as well as with the Rákóczi Princes in the Hungarian Kingdom (from where he imported Tokay wine). Also, according to some knowledge, with Silesia and via Gdansk with the Dukedom of Prussia and, of course, with his beloved Scotland. At that time, he made a “contract of life” (almost the second greatest after his marriage…), being chosen the exclusive wine purveyor to the Court of King Sigismund III Vasa of Poland. He definitely did his service well. The King, in April 1632, already on his death bed, endowed him with the privilege to be exempted as a direct royal servant from the rule of municipal authorities. This included jurisdiction and all customs duties, taxes, as well as other fees usually payable at that time.
When in 1638 the Parish Church of Krosno completely burnt down, he immediately became the most generous donator. His donations included, besides the tall belfry tower, St Wojciech’s Chapel, the impressive St Peter and Paul’s Chapel, named the Portius Family’s Chapel, and a few works of art. He had at his disposal the royal artist Thomas Dolabella from Venice. The painting in the high altar is probably his work, while his helpers created the most unique ornamentation of the interior.
In spite of his great merits, the figure of Portius was not free from frequent envy and rivalry. His strong position in the local trade made the burghers and gentry extremely jealous. Unfortunately, soon after he died, Krosnian burghers saw it as one of the main reasons of the town’s unexpected economic decline.
Portius died suddenly in January 1661 during a big feast given by Governor Zygmunt Fredo, as one of the contemporary sources maintain. He was poisoned. His magnificient funeral was held on 10th February 1661 and more than 100 Catholic priests took part in the ceremony, ordered by Stanislaw Sanowski, Bishop of Przemysl.
Robert Wojciech Portius will always be remembered as an outstanding historic personality who had managed to promote and make Tokay wine the most favourite quality beverage ever drunk by the European royalty both to the east and west of the River Tisza in the seventeenth century and afterwards. His name duly deserves to be put next to that of Máté Szepsi Laczkó, the Hungarian Reformed minister and inventor of Tokay Aszú wine, best known as ’vinum regum – rex vinorum.’ The catchphrase, meaning ’the wine of kings – the king of wine, once exclaimed by French King Luis XIV after having tasted it for the first time at a royal dinner.’ The marvellous line ’You dripped the nectar from the vines of Tokay…’ in the Hungarian National Anthem could be also attributed to what Portius had done to spread the fame of Golden Tokay.
Portius Society’s member
Sarospatak (twin town of Krosno)