It's that time of year again when the countryside starts to fill with the plaintive bleats of new born lambs and the anxious - or possibly exhausted - calls of the ewes trying to track down and identify their young from the increasingly bold hordes of youngsters.
In medieval England, wool became big business. There was enormous demand for it, mainly to produce cloth and everyone who had land, from peasants to major landowners, raised sheep.
Whilst the English did make cloth for their own use, very little of what was produced was actually sold abroad. It was the raw wool from English sheep that was required to feed foreign looms. At that time the best weavers lived in Flanders and in the rich cloth-making towns of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres, they were ready to pay top prices for English wool.
Wool became the backbone and driving force of the medieval English economy between the late thirteenth century and late fifteenth century and at the time the trade was described as “the jewel in the realm”! To this day the seat of the Lord High Chancellor in the House of Lords is a large square bag of wool called the ‘woolsack’, a reminder of the principal source of English wealth in the Middle Ages.
As the wool trade increased the great landowners including lords, abbots and bishops began to count their wealth in terms of sheep. The monasteries, in particular the Cistercian houses played a very active part in the trade, which pleased the king who was able to levy a tax on every sack of wool that was exported.
From the Lake District and Pennines in the north, down through the Cotswolds to the rolling hills of the West Country, across to the southern Downs and manors of East Anglia, huge numbers of sheep were kept for wool. Flemish and Italian merchants were familiar figures in the wool markets of the day ready to buy wool from lord or peasant alike, all for ready cash. The bales of wool were loaded onto pack-animals and taken to the English ports such as Boston, London, Sandwich and Southampton, from where the precious cargo would be shipped to Antwerp and Genoa.
In time the larger landowners developed direct trading links with cloth manufacturers abroad, whereas by necessity the peasants continued to deal with the travelling wool merchants. Obviously, by cutting out the middle man and dealing in larger quantities, the landowners got a much better deal! Perhaps this is why it is said that the wool trade started the middle-class / working-class divide in England.
Successive monarchs taxed the wool trade heavily. King Edward I was the first. As the wool trade was so successful, he felt he could make some royal revenue to fund his military endeavours by slapping heavy taxes on the export of wool.
Realising the importance of these taxes to his royal coffers Edward III actually went to war with France, partly to help protect the wool trade with Flanders. The burghers from the rich Flemish cloth-towns had appealed to him for help against their French overlord. Although called the Hundred Year War, the conflict would actually last 116 years, from 1337 to 1453.
During this period the taxes that had been levied began to damage the wool trade, which ultimately resulted in more cloth being produced in England. Flemish weavers fleeing the horrors of war and French rule were encouraged to set up home in England.
By the fifteenth century, not only was England producing enough cloth for her own use, materials were now being sold abroad. Working in their tiny cottages the weavers and their families transformed the raw wool into fine cloth, which would eventually end up for sale at the markets of Bristol, Gloucester, Kendal and Norwich.
In the 1570’s to 1590’s a law was passed that all Englishmen except nobles had to wear a woollen cap to church on Sundays, part of a government plan to support the wool industry.