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History of English Wool

History of English Wool

English wool generated a lot of wealth for the merchants. Traded from Bruges to Venice, a product taxed by Kings and in demand across Europe. Click through to read more. An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983 with small group educational tours for senior couples and mature solo travellers.

History of English Wool

Wool plays a significant role in England’s history and heritage. Sheep, along with Neolithic shepherds, first migrated to the British Isles around 6,000 years ago, and it didn’t take long before their wool was being extracted to make cloth. A thriving wool industry then existed under the Romans, and the wool trade was a fundamental part of the medieval English economy. Over its long history, English wool has helped to start wars, drive large-scale migration, form English culture and language, and fund some of the country’s grandest architecture.

This article explores the history of sheep and the wool trade in England, intended as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s small group tours to England for mature and senior travellers. We explore the medieval history of English wool during our 22-day Medieval England Tour and our 22-day Seven Ages of Britain Tour. During both these tours, we visit Lavenham in Suffolk, widely regarded as the best example of an English medieval wool town.  The prosperous wool merchants here were responsible for most of the town’s most memorable buildings, including the church of St. Peter and Paul, perhaps the finest “wool church” in the land. Read on to learn more!

Much of the information used in this article is sourced from Robert Winder’s The Last Wolf.

Lone sheep high above misty countryside in Monmouthshire, UK

English Wool in Prehistoric and Ancient History

Archaeological evidence reveals that primitive tribes were breeding domesticated sheep across Northern Europe from as early as 6,000 BCE. Soon, neolithic shepherds, with the help of the first sheepdogs, began to migrate the sheep into new lands, eventually reaching the British Isles around 4,000 BCE. By around 1900 BCE, a few cunning humans had learnt how to twist and knot the wool into rough cloth.

The discovery of iron then transformed farming by giving people much stronger tools. This allowed for practices such as shearing to emerge from around 500 BCE. Soon clothes fabricated from wool, rather than pelts and furs, also began to appear. Winder writes, “It was rudimentary (sustenance weaving) but it was the kernel in which the textile industries of the future began to be hatched.”

By the time the Romans conquered Britain in 55 BCE, there already existed a thriving wool industry, with British woven cloth considered a luxury item. The Romans then further encouraged the industry, establishing a wool plant in Winchester in 50 CE and further developing the methods of skilled British weavers. Before long wool had come Britain’s most valuable commodity, with the Romans fetching top prices for the high-quality product in foreign lands.

Medieval English Wool Trade

With the fall of the Roman empire the wool trade died down, with the sheep of Anglo-Saxon England kept for their milk rather than their fleeces. Nevertheless, the English climate had made a significant impact on the quality of the local wool. Through the process of evolution and natural selection, the wool had become unusually long and strong, but also soft and thick. By the time of the Norman Conquest, it was the finest raw material for cloth in the world.

The Normans realised this immediately. There was only one problem: large numbers of wolves across England were making it impossible to adequately protect the sheep. The predators needed to be exterminated. So, between 1066 and 1152 CE, Norman Kings employed servants as wolf hunters and often organised wolf-hunting parties. By the early 1200s, King John (r. 1199 – 1216) was offering a sizeable reward for the capture of wolves – at 5 shillings a pelt. Edward I (r. 1272 – 1307) went even further, ordering the total extermination of all wolves in his kingdom. Entire woodlands were cut down for this reason.

The culling was successful. Wolves had become very rare by the late medieval period, and by the 15th century they were extinct. England had successfully been turned into a giant sheep farm, which in turn had created a new sort of economy and society.

Already by the 13th century, an enormous demand for wool, mainly to produce cloth, was driving the English economy. Wherever there was land, there was sheep – owned by everyone from peasants to big landowners. Even the Church was involved, with many monasteries organising grazing lands efficiently, pioneering breeding techniques, and taking an active part in the wool trade.

Close up view of Mother sheep feeding its newborn on a beautiful Summer evening on the Cumbrian Fells, England.

It had become agriculture on an industrial scale, with England as Europe’s pre-eminent wool producer. The English wools, particularly from the Welsh Marches, the Southwest, and Lincolnshire, were exported to France, Italy, and the Low Countries, where it was spun into finished clothes. The best weavers, who lived in the cloth-making capitals of Bruges, Ghent, and Ypres, were especially willing to pay top prices for the quality English wool.  This fostered the growth of ports like Hull, King’s Lynn, and Southampton, from where the fleece would be shipped to the cloth-working centres.

Because England controlled the production of wool, it had power over the whole weaving industry. Realising this, King Edward I imposed heavy taxes on the industry in order to fund his wars and crusades. Successive monarchs would follow suit. King Edward III (r. 1313 – 1377), in particular, was encouraged to go to war with France with the knowledge England was better resourced, resulting in the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453). The cause of the Hundred Years’ War in itself was partly to protect the Flanders wool trade, with burghers from the rich Flemish cloth-towns appealing to Edward III for help against their French overlords.

However, the taxes levied on the wool trade to finance this war were so heavy they actually began to damage the trade, with wool becoming unaffordable for the Flemish. Ultimately, this led to the production of more cloth in England itself, especially as Flemish weavers, fleeing war and French rule, migrated there. Their migration was encouraged by Edward III, with many Flemish settling in small country villages and towns in Norfolk, Suffolk, the West Country, the Yorkshire Dales, and Cumberland.  These areas would become the flourishing centres of the wool industry, utilising the expertise learnt from the Flemish weavers to produce first-rate woollen cloth.

By the 15th century, England was producing so much cloth that, satisfying its own needs, it had also started selling the materials abroad.  This was bolstered in the sixteenth century, as Huguenot weavers, persecuted under the French, also migrated to England, bringing further knowledge and skills. The industry became so successful that by the end of the 17th century, wool cloth made up two-thirds English exports’ value.

The Wool Industry in the Modern Era

New mechanical processes for spinning and weaving were invented during the Industrial Revolution of 1750-1850. This led to the rapid development of mills in the north of England, where there were steep hills and plenty of water to power the mills.

Cities such as Leeds and Bradford dominated the industry, with their mechanised mills and transport routes feeding ever-expanding trade to the growing British Empire. The mills were the biggest the world had ever seen. The largest was the Salts Mills in Shipley, near Bradford, which had 1200 looms creating 30,000 yards of cloth a day. Bradford would become the centre for trading raw wool, its wool exchange still one of the most spectacular buildings in England.

Increasingly large amounts of raw materials, meanwhile, were shipped into Leeds from across the ever-expanding British Empire, coming from as far away as Australia and New Zealand. The Leeds-Liverpool canal connected Leeds to the coast and was utilised almost exclusively to transport wool and cloth traded around the world.

Leeds-Liverpool Canal, Maghull, England / Global Water Forum / CC BY 2.0

British wool production did not just occur in England. Wealthy landowners and farmers in Wales and Scotland also recognised the huge profits they could make from sheep farming. This impacted on Scotland in particular, leading to some of the country’s darkest days. Through a process known as the ‘Highland Clearances’, between 1750 and 1860, Scottish landowners forcibly removed tenants and holdings from their Highland Estates, destroying their dwellings and other buildings, in order to convert the land into sheep farms. This caused a great famine and entire communities perished. The situation became so disastrous that thousands of Scots were forced to flee, seeking refuge in the New World along the east coast of Canada and America.

British mills and the global trade continued well into the twentieth century, until Asia took over the market with cheaper imports of fabrics form the early 1960s. Nevertheless, the British wool industry continues today, producing 40 million of fleece served by 40 operational mills annually. The wool remains valued for its high quality and continues to fetch the highest price.

The Impact of Wool on England

The consequences of the wool industry for England were significant. Winder writes that the industry in the Middle Ages “was the foundation stone for all subsequent English history”. It introduced the country to large-scale commerce, to fairs and markets, and it financed the construction of fine churches, guild halls, and granaries in towns and villages. It also changed the countryside forever, transforming the landscape into a giant pasture, as forests were felled and turned into meadows and thousands of acres of common land were enclosed to make sheep runs.

The most important consequence of sheep-rearing, however, was that it created the first solid accumulation of wealth. Of course, it was the merchants, rather than the shepherds who benefited most handsomely from the proceeds of the wool trade – but the profits did spill over, as can be seen in the cathedrals, abbeys, castles, gatehouses, dovecotes, tithe barns and chapels that adorn the English countryside to this day. The pools of capital would also eventually be invested in the next phases of commercial enterprise, influencing manufacturing, slavery, industry, and empire.

Wool also created the conditions that the supported the social and commercial organisations of later English life. Winder argues it influenced “systems of landownership and law, mechanisms for settling disputes, political institutions, schools (to produce an educated middle class of administrators, scientists and financiers) and all the ancillary trades and services (such as transport and storage) that were needed to keep the show on the road”.

Wool’s importance to England is also reflected in the fact that since the fourteenth century, the British Lord Chancellor has sat on a chair stuffed with wool, known as the Woolsack. Shepherds have also played an important role in the country’s history, making up several of its saints and bishops. Even cricket – a defining national pastime – was invented by playful shepherds.

Unsurprisingly, given the extent of farming, sheep have made their way into every aspect of England’s language, literature, art, architecture, and philosophy. Still today allusions to sheep are found in everyday language. The English talk of sacrificial lambs and pastures new. They still refer to God as their shepherd watching over his flock by night. They ‘separate the sheep from the goats’ when deciding what to keep and what to throw away. They ridicule ‘mutton dressed as lamb’, sigh over the ‘black sheep of the family’, and ‘have the wool pulled over their eyes’. And they eat a shepherds’ pie and weave a narrative thread. In various aspects of speech there is the reminder of wool’s prominent role in their sheepish past.

Tour of England

Odyssey Traveller explores the history of English wool during our 22-day Medieval England Tour and our 22-day Seven Ages of Britain Tour, both of which visit the English medieval wool town of Lavenham in Suffolk.

Our Medieval England Tour  has been especially designed for the active mature-aged and senior traveller, joining this tour as a couple or solo traveller with an interest in exploring what remains of Medieval England and Wales. On this worthwhile journey, we will discover how those years laid the foundation for modern Britain. We’ll concentrate on the period between AD 800, around seven centuries after Hadrian’s Wall was erected to mark the northern limit of Britain, and AD 1500. We will discover–through guided tours of medieval castles and cathedrals, sightseeing tours of the beautiful landscapes and natural beauty of the British Isles, and walking and city tours to view the modern world–just how much the country has changed over the centuries.

Our Seven Ages of Britain Tour examined seven formative periods of British history in an attempt to discover how the past informs the present. We begin in Orkney, Scotland, where we stroll through some of Europe’s best-preserved Neolithic and Viking monuments, before flying south to Newcastle, England and then travelling on through the quaint villages and hidden gems of York and Cambridge, before ending in London for a further exploration of the wonders of the United Kingdom’s capital.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles published by Odyssey helping to prepare for your England Tour

The following list of articles published by Odyssey Traveller for mature aged and senior travellers to maximise their knowledge and enjoyment of England when visiting;

External articles to assist you on your visit to England

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