Help for Heroes

Churches and Wool: A Study of the Wool Trade in 15th Century England

J. Guthrie Oliver discusses a major source of funds for both medieval England and the Church.

As a clerical author, Bishop Hall of Norwich, the poet and satirist, observed in 1612: “There were wont to be reckoned three wonders of England, ecclesia, foemina, lana—churches, women and wool.” In this article I am concerned with churches and wool, for I am dealing with the fifteenth century, when the woollen trade of England was at its height and when its surplus profits, after the King had extracted what he required, were frequendy devoted to religious purposes. At the onset of the century, the wool trade in England had reached its peak. For generations past England had possessed, in the produce of Lincolnshire and the Cotswolds, the best wools obtainable; while the main centres of wool-manufacture were in Florence and other parts of Tuscany, Venice and Lombardy, and farther north in the towns of Bruges and Ghent. It was said, indeed, that “Bruges did not go to the world, the world came to Bruges.” The Italians and the Flemings, however, were dependent upon English, and particularly upon Cotswold, wool. It is true that they could use Spanish and other wools; but these had to be mixed with English to produce a satisfactory fabric. England had been exporting wool for many years, and perhaps characteristically, had neglected its manufacture. Great fortunes had been made by individual merchants, for instance by the Ludlows of Stokesay; but the economy of the country was not what it might have been, had we made better use of our resources. At the time of the establishment of the Order of the Golden Fleece, it was remarked that the Flemings had the Gold and we had the Fleece— a criticism that led to the introduction of the first Fleming manufacturers, who were to revolutionize the woollen industry by teaching the English how to make the finer fabrics required in world-trade.

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