Wealth from Wool

Wool – and the trade in wool – was at the heart of the wealth of England in medieval times. From the 12th century to the 17th century it was the main industry of the nation. By late medieval times, the century of the first William Paston and his son John Paston, the country had enough wool to meet its own needs and was selling large amounts of wool to other countries. East Anglia, the home of the Pastons, the de la Poles and the Heydons, was one of the great centres of the wool trade.

A ram from a traditional breed of sheep. Picture copyright: Paston Footprints.A ram from a traditional breed of sheepBefore shears were invented, wool would be pulled or combed from the backs of sheep. Once simple shears were developed, whole fleeces could be collected. The carders and the combers could then become busy, straightening the strands of wool before passing them to spinners and weavers. There were no great factories for spinning and weaving; it was all carried out in the homes of families. In the town of North Walsham in Norfolk over 60 families at one time made their living from the preparation of cloth from wool. The fine woven material known as walsham was one type of cloth; the name of the nearby village of Worstead lives on in the long-fibre cloth we now called worsted. Shorter fibre Norfolk wool was better for the coarser cloths.

Busy spinning and weaving

The raising of sheep and the preparation of wool was just one part of the story. The trade in wool and the trade in the finished cloth were profitable businesses in themselves. Robert Toppes of Norwich, a friend of the Paston family, lived above his great warehouse that we now call Dragon Hall. In his storeroom were bundles of cloth to be sold on to the merchants of London and merchants overseas, in the Low Countries and further away. His wharf on the river behind his warehouse would have been a busy scene, as vessels were loaded with bundles of cloth, ready for the journey to market. The city of Norwich based much of its wealth on wool and the wool trade. All over the city families were busy spinning and weaving.

A wool brogger on Mattishall village sign. Picture copyright: Paston Footprints.A wool brogger on Mattishall village signThe kings and queens of England and their governments found it very useful to be able to put a tax on wool. If they decided to raise an army to fight a war, then money from the wool trade was often the way they could do it. The local council of Norwich also had its own taxes, charging merchants in the city on the amount of trade they did. Because of the Norwich taxes, wool dealers – broggers – sometimes set up in business at other places. The village of Mattishall benefited from their presence, being central to the county of Norfolk. Several houses in Mattishall and many other Norfolk towns survive from medieval times. The most famous town with houses built with the profits from wool is probably Lavenham in Suffolk.

Through such a great building

A member of the Worstead Weavers demonstrates wool spinning. Picture copyright: Paston Footprints.A member of the Worstead Weavers demonstrates wool spinning.Many of the great churches of East Anglia are signs of the wealth in wool from medieval times. The churches of North Walsham and of Worstead are two of the best-known examples. The present North Walsham church was built before the Paston family became important land-owners, but the previous Lords of the Manor would have wanted to show their wealth through such a great building – and their religious beliefs made it even more important to them. The Heydons and the de la Poles, great rivals of the Pastons, had vast flocks of sheep. It is estimated that the Heydons had 20,000 to 30,000 sheep in their lands north of Fakenham. When the tower of Cawston church fell in 1412, Michael de la Pole and his family were rich enough to rebuild it not just from flint but to face it with Caen stone, shipped from France.

In the Paston letters we see glimpses of the importance of wool to income. In 1450 Sir John Fastolf for whom John Paston was both a lawyer and inheritor of his estate, is writing to two of his staff in 1451 about making a payment for a property. Part of it is to be paid for in cash and part is to be paid in wool. About 15 years later Margaret Paston gives us a cost in cash for wool, when she says that she can sell it at 40 pence for a stone – about six kilograms. She is writing to her husband John in London to let him know how their estates are getting on. In an earlier letter of 1460, Margaret is expressing the concerns of the poor people of the manor, hoping that wool will be sold so that they can stay on their lands. In this instance she reports that their agent Thomas Bone has been able to sell the wool at 20 pence a stone.It will be paid for by Michaelmas and she is clearly pleased because it wasn't of the best quality.

Large flocks of sheep

With the development of water power and the coming of the Industrial Revolution in later centuries, much production of cloth from wool moved to the north of England; the production of high quality cloth remains an important industry, and it is exported to countries across the world. Farms across England continue to have large flocks of sheep. A journey through East Anglia will often result in seeing a flock of sheep, now bred to produce the maximum wool possible; the wool is bundled and sent off to the mills.

Weaving machines in a 21st century mill. Picture copyright: Paston Footprints.Weaving machines in a 21st century millCloth from wool was eventually made mainly in factories in West Yorkshire, thanks to the properties of the River Colne, which had the perfect qualities to wash wool without needing to use chemicals. Because of this, cloth made in England is different to wool products made anywhere else. There are many finishes that can be applied to wool to make it smooth, silky or even fluffy, and today this is carried out mainly by two companies in the north of England: Roberts Dyers & Finishers Ltd, and W T Johnson & Sons.