How wool helped transform our island story from offshore backwater to global superpower.
In medieval England, wool was big business. England also had an extraordinary appetite for wine which was purchased from wealth produced by the wool trade with Flanders. Everyone who had land, from peasants to major landowners, raised sheep.
The raw wool from English sheep was required to feed foreign looms. At that time the best weavers lived in Flanders, in the rich cloth-making towns of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres. They paid top prices for English wool.
As the wool trade increased the great landowners began to count their wealth in terms of sheep. The monasteries played a very active part in the trade.
Throughout England, but in the Cotswolds especially, huge numbers of sheep were kept. 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 from where the precious cargo would be shipped to Antwerp and Genoa in Italy. Large landowners developed direct trading links with cloth manufacturers abroad, whereas the peasants could only deal with the travelling merchants. The landowners got a much better deal, which is why it is said that the wool trade started the middle-class / working-class divide.
Wool became the backbone and driving force of the medieval English economy and the lifeblood, with the wine trade, of the monarchy. The wool trade was described as “the sovereign merchandise and jewel in this realm of England”. During the 13th century 30,000 sacks of wool were exported annually, at 250 clips per sack that represents the fleeces of 7,500,000 sheep. The wool trade was so successful that successive monarchs taxed the export of wool heavily. When the English crown was short of cash, which was often, the king would rig the wool market to make more money. This upset the Flemish and, when the king placed an embargo on wool exports, the furious Dutch turned to piracy. As with most things the Flemish did, they made brilliant pirates. The king, having made the ludicrously arrogant claim, at the time, that he was ‘sovereign of the seas with unlimited jurisdiction’ found instead total anarchy reigning around England’s shores with vast amounts of wool lost to piracy. John Crabbe, a voracious Dutch pirate, was finally caught and faced execution. But the king made him a sort of anti piracy gamekeeper, and Crabbe was highly successful at that too.
Nevertheless, during the 1300s the wool fleets were in constant danger from pirates as well as the French and the Genoese who built by far the biggest and best ships in the world at that time.
In the ever changing politics of the Middle Ages, Edward III went to war with France after Flemish cloth-towns appealed to him for help against their French masters. Flemish weavers fleeing the horrors of war and French rule were then encouraged to set up home in England, with many settling in the Cotswolds.
In 1340 248 French and Genoese ships, (ships that had been making a mockery of the English for so long) were holed up in the Scheldt estuary in Flanders, ready to invade England. The Genoese found the French battle tactics unconscionable and sailed away before battle started. Still, the French had a far larger fleet than the English. There followed the largest battle of the Middle Ages. The French fought valiantly but the English captured 190 French ships and killed and threw overboard 18,000 men, a staggering number given the tiny populations of the time. The planned invasion of England, one of countless failed invasions of England in the Middle Ages, was called off. But this was a rare victory in a catalogue of English military disasters in the Middle Ages. The wool trade was so important it was regularly used by the English and her enemies as a political and military weapon. Even so the revenues from wool exports were not enough to pay for huge wine imports as well as a powerful enough navy and army.
By the 1400s England was exporting cloth. 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, for example, Gloucester.
Today the seat of the Lord High Chancellor, in the House of Lords, is a large square bag of wool called the ‘woolsack’. A reminder, if it were needed, of the principal source of English wealth in the Middle Ages.
All round the world today British wool is recognized as a superb natural product and demand has increased, especially from places like China.