The Cotswolds and the Medieval Wool Trade
The Cotswolds is a wealthy area in the 21st Century, largely to its immaculate agricultural and built heritage. The source of all of this wealth goes right back to medieval farming and the high price paid for fleeces from the Cotswold breed of sheep. As a 12th century saying went: 'In Europe the best wool is English and in England the best wool is Cotswold'. The industry was profitable and important – so much so that the Chancellor in Parliament sits, symbolically, upon a ‘woolsack’. In later centuries the government went to great lengths to support the industry. For example, an act was passed in the reign of King Charles II for the express purpose of increasing the consumption of English wool. The ‘Burial in Wool Acts of 1667 and 1678 decreed that all bodies were to be buried in wool only. The penalty for not doing so was £5 and these Acts were only repealed in 1814.
The Cotswolds thus became an economic powerhouse through the combination of the Cotswold breed and the gentle hillsides, slow flowing water and mild climate that together allowed for the successful production of fleeces and washing and drying of the wool. Merchants carried wool off to the markets of Europe, from Abbeys and monastic estates. These merchants became very wealthy, an emerging middle class and in turn built houses for themselves, as well as investing in their own spiritual future by building churches – so called Wool Churches. Cotswolds breed sheep became referred to as ‘Cotswold Lions’.
The visitor today will find traces of the wool trade right across the Cotswolds area. Head for Chipping Campden, to see an ancient ‘Chipping’ or market place, as well as ‘Grevels House, an example of the kind of house that medieval merchants built.
At Bibury village you can see Arlington Row, a row of cottages originally constructed 600 years ago. Here the wool was processed and dried on the adjacent Rack Island. You’ll see rare breeds of many animals, such as Cotswold sheep at Adam Henson’s, Cotswold Farm Park. Above all, the sight of sheep dotted on the hillside remains one of the great Cotswold views. Even in the language - pub and street names for example – there are frequent reminders. If you’ve ever used the phrase “"You can't pull the wool over my eyes", you’re referring directly back to that 17th century ‘Burial In Wool’ Act.
If you’re spending some time in the area, look out for the Churches in Northleach and Winchcombe as fine example of Cotswold ‘Wool Churches’, aim to visit Cotswold Woollen Weavers at Filkins and include a stop at villages such as Chipping Campden, Stow-on-the-Wold and Lower Slaughter.