Wool was once one of the wonders of England, with economic and ecclesiastical benefits in addition to its practical applications, says Matthew Dennison
Once a wonder of England, wool had both economic and ecclesiastical benefits, says Matthew Dennison, as he considers the country’s wool churches.
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A certain wistfulness coloured the claim, in 1612, by Joseph Hall, afterwards Bishop of Norwich, that “there were wont to be reckoned three wonders of England – ecclesia, foemina [sic], lana – churches, women and wool”.
For 200 years, beginning at the end of the 13th century, the wool trade had formed the backbone of England’s economy, a mainstay of national revenues, funding, for example, opening skirmishes of the Hundred Years War. In the dog days of Tudor England royal taxation was among factors that brought about its decline; the same period witnessed completion of the English Reformation and the Church of England’s break from Rome. Although neither development dimmed the wonders of English womanhood, falling wool revenues and new attitudes to church building and decoration contributed to the demise of one of the greatest of late-medieval architectural phenomena, the so-called wool church, constructed or embellished with profits from the trade in wool and woollen cloth.
Four centuries after Hall’s lament, a clutch of wool churches in villages across East Anglia and the Cotswolds bears witness to the pre-eminence of English wool in the marketplaces of medieval Europe. English wool was universally esteemed as the finest in the world. In the Flemish weaving centres of Bruges, Ghent and Ypres, the cloth-making towns of Lombardy and Tuscany, in Florence and Venice, English wool commanded a higher premium than any other. Medieval Spain exported fleeces across the Continent: for the highest-quality cloth, it was considered essential to add English yarn to Spanish.
Some of the wool produced by flocks that grazed the Lincolnshire wolds, the Cotswolds, the Lake District, the Chilterns, the Pennines and the South Downs was woven at home for domestic consumption, but, with the exception of a woad-dyed blue broadcloth produced in Lavenham, known as Lavenham Blue, it was the raw material itself, rather than English woven cloths, that the merchants of Flanders and Italy valued most. Prized above all was the long, pale golden fleece of Cotswold sheep, described in medieval manuscripts as ‘Cottys’ wool, as William Camden recorded as late as 1610: “In these Woulds there feed in great numbers flockes of sheepe long necked and square of bulke and bone, by reason… of the weally and hilly situation of their pasturage; whose wool being so fine is held in passing great account among all nations.” Trade in English wool made farmers, merchants and landowners wealthy. Even Cistercian monks kept sheep on abbey pastures, the open field system of medieval agriculture facilitating the establishment of huge flocks. As well as London, the ports of Southampton, Sandwich, Boston and Calais burgeoned thanks to the export of wool. In a churchgoing age, many of those who benefited bestowed a portion of their profits on the church.
A surpassing grandeur at odds with their village settings and highly decorative interiors distinguish England’s wool churches. Some, like the church of St Agnes at Cawston in Norfolk and Holy Trinity Church at Long Melford in Suffolk, were endowed by a single sponsor or family: Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, at St Agnes’s, and the Cloptons of Kentwell Hall at Holy Trinity. Others, like Lavenham’s Church of St Peter and St Paul, were enriched by more than one donor, in this case the de Vere and Spring families. All suggest a spirit characteristic of late-medieval English Catholicism: a combination of piety, family pride and a degree of cynicism on the donor’s part, smoothing his path to Heaven through visible open-handedness. Whatever the motive of these medieval worthies, the artistry they sponsored, wherever it survives, continues to ornament both towns and parishes: souvenirs of a once-thriving rural economy and the skills of masons, carvers, sculptors and stained- and painted-glass makers that it funded.
In some instances, Italian and Flemish merchants journeyed to English markets to purchase the precious cargo direct from producers, but much of this trade was conducted by local merchants called ‘woolmen’. The Cotswolds wool church of St Peter and St Paul in Northleach, a soaring, cathedral-like example of modish late-15th-century perpendicular architecture, was endowed by a gaggle of local woolmen, including Thomas Busshe, Robert Serche, William Midwinter, John Taylour and Thomas and John Fortey. Thanks to John Fortey’s generosity, the church was virtually rebuilt. In his will of 1458, Fortey left 40 shillings for work on the church’s High Altar. His principal bequest consisted of £300 – an enormous sum at the time – “to carry on and complete the new work by me already begun”. Fortey’s endowment funded a remodelling of the nave as well as the clerestory windows that continue to flood with light this handsome church.
Worshippers at St Peter and St Paul have good reason to echo the sentiment inscribed in the house of a Nottinghamshire woolman who was also a member of the Company of the Merchants of the Staple of England, to which Edward III granted the monopoly for conducting England’s overseas wool trade: “I thank God and ever shall, it is the sheepe hath payed for all.” Today, John Fortey is commemorated in stained glass in the church’s east window. Kneeling surrounded by grazing sheep, he holds up to heaven a model of the church he so lavishly endowed. Outside the church, the two-storey South Porch of 1500, decorated with statues that, remarkably, survived the Reformation, postdates Fortey’s bequest. Even in its current weathered state, it illustrates strikingly the extravagance and attention to detail of many wool-funded church commissions.
As they survive today, England’s wool churches mostly date from the 15th century. A brass in the chancel of St James’s Church, Chipping Campden, commemorates the generosity of an early donor, William Grevel, who died in 1401. The ‘flower of the wool merchants of all England’, Grevel is immortalised with his feet resting on a staple of wool.
Decades later, a fire destroyed the church in the Suffolk coastal town of Southwold. Rebuilding work began in the second quarter of the 15th century, subsidised by a community whose wealth derived from wool and cloth-making. Present-day St Edmunds differs from the building created by those medieval merchants mostly thanks to the destruction of its original stained glass during the Civil War, but it retains its handsome painted wooden ceiling, ornamented by carved and coroneted angels that, with wings outspread, gaze impassively down on the congregation below. External, large, stepped buttresses appear to defy the possibility of a second fire.
Similar rebuilding projects – albeit not necessitated by fire – were undertaken at St Mary’s, Fairford, in the Cotswolds, and at the Norfolk church of St Mary the Virgin, Worstead, where enlargements begun in 1485 included heightening the nave, adding a clerestory and a hammerbeam roof and rebuilding the chancel. In Fairford, John Tame had made a fortune from the wool and cloth trades. In the early 1490s he obtained permission from the Bishop of Worcester to rebuild his local church. The Bishop consecrated Tame’s new church on 20 June 1497, but Tame himself remained unhappy with the project at his death in 1500 and his son, Edmund, heir to his fortune, continued where his father had left off. The commissions of father and son included a series of 28 painted- and stained-glass windows, which tell the story of the Bible from Adam and Eve to the Last Judgement. Their remarkable survival into the 21st century makes them the most comprehensive set of medieval church windows in England, a dazzling national treasure as well as a reminder of the centrality of the Virgin Mary in pre-Reformation English Christianity.
Fifteenth-century glass also survives at Holy Trinity Church in Long Melford, although its current position – in windows along the north aisle – is almost certainly not original. It probably dates from the lifetime of Sir John Clopton, the single largest donor among a group of local cloth merchants who funded the building of much of the church between 1467 and 1497. Clopton was responsible for Holy Trinity’s remarkable Lady Chapel, at the east end of the church. Two centuries after his death, the Lady Chapel was appropriated for use as a schoolroom, an example of local philanthropy this aesthetically minded benefactor almost certainly failed to anticipate.
It is possible that Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, would have had few misgivings about such a change of use at St Agnes’s Church in Cawston. In the 14th century, his was a prominent aristocratic dynasty. In the disputes that marred the end of the reign of Richard II, de la Pole successfully sided with the future Henry IV against Richard. More than national politics, however, he devoted the bulk of his energies – and a portion of his fortune, which included revenues from wool trading – to re-establishing his family’s influence across East Anglia. St Agnes’s includes the de la Pole family coat of arms. Its magnificent hammerbeam roof is also decorated with angels, as in St Edmund’s, Southwold, carved figures perched on projecting wooden beams high above worshippers’ heads. Finest of all is the church’s rood screen, one of the best surviving medieval rood screens in Europe. The choice of Flemish artists to paint its 20 panels testifies to the links between England and mainland Europe consolidated by the close commercial ties of the wool trade.
In some cases, the description ‘wool church’ is misleading, with wool-trade profits only one of several sources of funding for a given foundation. The huge church of St John the Baptist in Cirencester owes key features to the generosity of a group of 10 wealthy Cirencester woolmen, as well as the contribution of the nearby St Mary’s Abbey, which itself owned extensive flocks of Cotswold sheep. Over a period of 100 years, beginning in the middle of the 14th century, St John the Baptist was enlarged and revamped, with the addition of clerestory windows, a new Trinity Chapel and the rebuilding of the Lady Chapel. But the rich architectural palimpsest that is St John’s had begun to evolve before wool prices soared and would continue after the trade declined. The forgotten importance to our national life of the trade in sheep’s fleeces is inconceivable in today’s mixed economy. In soaring, perpendicular, sacred spaces across villages in eastern and southern England, its riches survive. Wool made medieval England wealthy; it positioned England in a Europe-wide trade network. And by forging links between English merchants and a handful of Italian cities in which the renaissance had begun to foment, it looked tentatively towards the future.