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A History of the Cotswold Sheep

Today there is not much more than a ton or two of Cotswold fleece-wool available each

year. It is long-stapled (more than six inches), reasonably lustrous and of mid 40's quality

(For comparison Merino is mid 60's plus, Lincoln about mid 30's). Until recently,

Cotswold wool was for many years lumped in with other English lustre-wools - and used

mainly for carpets and industrial cloths.

During the early 1980's Cotswold Woollen Weavers recognised its potential and revived

its use. In particular, the natural lustre and the clarity with which it accepts dye made the

wool ideal for loose-twist worsted spinning, and weaving into soft-furnishing cloths - a

range of dramatic block-weave throws and rugs. Visitors are welcome all year at the mill

to see both the processes involved and the products.

Cotswold Woollen Weavers' activities have been coincident with a renewed interest in

the Cotswold breed, so this is a good time for re-appraisal. For too long the illustrious

historical pedigree of Cotswold wool has been ignored as irrelevant.

But it was not always so. The Cotswolds are indelibly marked with the history of the

Cotswold sheep and its fleece. But it is a puzzling, clouded history. When Aldous Huxley

nearly said that facts begin as heresies and end as superstitions, he might have been

thinking of the Cotswold sheep. For although the great Wool Churches stand four-square

in many a Cotswold village, as solid testimony to the power and wealth of the medieval

merchants who endowed them, not much can be said with certainty about the wool which

the Cotswold sheep provided. There is certainly a lot of superstition: even a bogus

derivation of the very word Cotswold (sheep cot on the wold, or open hillside) has been

widely used to puff the influence of wool in the area.

Certainly wool has long been an important English commodity, and the Cotswolds an

important source for it. 500 years ago wise men agreed that half the wealth of England

rides on the back of the sheep - wool exports paid for Richard the Lionheart's ransom to

the Saracens. The Lord Chancellor sits in The House of Lords to this day on a sack

stuffed with wool to show the pre-eminent position which the wool industry has played

in this country's affairs. The medieval weavers of 12th century Flanders happily sang:

   The best wool in Europe is English

   and the best wool in England is Cotswold

But what sort of wool was it that they prized so highly?

There is evidence that the Romans brought sheep with them as they battled northwards,

and perhaps they introduced them to the Cotswold hills around the important Roman

settlement at Corinium, the modern Cirencester. They would have valued these sheep for

their milk and for their fleece: shivering Southern European mercenary soldiers needed

warm winter coats. There is further evidence, based mostly on scanty skeletal remains,

that these Roman imports were the ancestors of the great flocks of Medieval Cotswolds -

and indeed of all the English long-wool breeds.

The temptation is to look at a Cotswold sheep today, to sink one's hand in its thick

lustrous long-wool fleece, and think fondly of an unbroken pedigree stretching back 2000

years to those early Roman farmers. The problem is that for most of the intervening years

virtually nothing is known for sure. Shepherds reasonably enough have rarely thought it

sensible to spend their time writing down descriptions of their flocks: the first book in

English entirely about sheep was not published until 1749 (Ellis - The Shepherd's Sure

Guide), and the first comprehensive resumé of English wool not until 1809 (Luccock - An

Essay on Wool). But by then, the early  19th century, the heyday of the Cotswold sheep

was over. And of course, woollen cloth gets worn out, and is attacked by moth and

mould: there is very little extant medieval woollen cloth available for analysis.

During the Early Medieval centuries England was a relatively underpopulated country,

with plenty of rolling hill-pasture to sustain vast land-hungry flocks of sheep kept for

their fleece. Perhaps 500,000 sheep roamed the Cotswolds, and most of their wool was

exported to Flanders and Lombardy; more densely populated countries which could not

spare land for wool growing. Thousands upon thousands of pack-horses laden with

wool-bales wound their way down from the High Cotswold hills to The Thames. They

crossed the river at Radcot and proceeded southwards to Southampton, or saw their loads

shipped on barges to London. The continental weavers paid royally for the wool, the

Cotswold merchants grew rich and built their churches, and the English crown paid its

way with the taxes levied on the trade.

But was this Golden Fleece (the Cotswold sheep was long known as The Lion of the

Cotswolds) the long, heavy, lashy wool that the modern Cotswold bears, or something

shorter, softer and more like the Ryeland wool from Herefordshire which was equally

important to the medieval weavers?

There are memorial brasses in Northleach church which show what look like newly

shorn Cotswolds just like those which crop the grass today, and some commentators

suggest the Cotswold was always a big, long-woolled breed (Youatt, for instance, quotes

that sage Gervase Markham to this effect). But others suggest that the wool was once

much softer: Michael Drayton, writing at the end of the 16th  century suggests that

Cotswold wool was very fine: it comes very near that of Spain, for from it a thread may

be drawn as fine as silk.

This Spanish comparison is important, because one conundrum revolves around the

export - widely noted by contemporary commentators - of Cotswold sheep to Spain,

particularly by Edward IV but up to 1425 when the export was banned as part of the

increasingly draconian network of laws to safeguard the interests of the burgeoning

English wool-weaving industry. Spain was the home of the fine-woolled merino sheep,

and it is inconceivable that English, and specifically Cotswold sheep, could have been so

fine as to be worth cross-breeding with merinos. The most likely explanation is that

Cotswolds were different from merinos: long-woolled enough to provide fleece to make

alternative cloths.

Until the late 19th century, and advanced mechanical innovation, it was not possible to

spin worsted yarn from short fibre. The wool from which worsted yarn was spun had to

be combed by hand to eliminate short hair (noils) and to align every fibre parallel to the

direction of the yarn. Then tight, flat yarn could be spun and tough, sleek cloth could be

woven: quite different from the spongy, less sophisticated cloths which could be woven

from yarn woollen spun from shorter merino and down-breed fleece. Perhaps medieval

Cotswold sheep were shorter and softer fleeced than they are today, but their wool was

still lustrous and strong enough to be ideal for worsted spinning. If nothing else,

Cotswold fleece could provide Spanish soldiers with tough, resilient serge uniforms, and

nobles with flowing, draping cloaks to wear over their shirts of soft, fluffy merino.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the rising clatter of loom-shuttles in the valleys

around Stroud presaged England's transition from raw-fleece exporter to major woollen

cloth manufacturer. So complete was this change that the crown eventually forbade the

export of fleece altogether, and it remained illegal until 1824. Although, gradually, vast

amounts of wool began to be imported from the wide open spaces of Australia and South

Africa (ideal for extensive sheep-rearing) it was the pre-eminence of English combing

wools (including Cotswold) which helped establish England's superiority as a woollen

textile manufacturer.


To some extent this issue of the nature of Cotswold wool is one of semantics: as William

Marshall wrote, after he rode the Cotswold hills at the end of the 18th century, the

Cotswold is a breed which has been prevalent on these hills, [since] time immemorial: it

has been improved, but has not changed. (During the Improving Years of the 18th

century, the Cotswold certainly increased in size as shepherds learnt new husbandry

techniques.) Or as Ezra Carman wrote disarmingly in 1892, as he strove to sum up the

evidence of three hundred years of literature about Cotswold fleece: It is difficult to

reconcile these opinions, nor indeed is it necessary; the Cotswolds beyond the memory of

our day have long been a long-woolled race and valuable... for their wool.

So, superstitions and all, in this volatile world perhaps it is acceptable, even necessary

that there are these noble, mythic links with the past. If this be so then The Golden

Fleece, which might have provided uniforms for the Roman legions, paid for the

Crusades, clothed 18th century Europe with West of England Broadcloth and today

makes splendid block-weave rugs, is certainly an ideal candidate.

Long live the Lion of The Cotswolds.

Select Bibliography

The bibliography of English wool and woollen textiles is vast. Here are a few of the more

interesting sources and historical reviews of the literature. Many of these books contain

more detailed bibliographies.

(Bath & W of E Society) Letters and Papers... abridged reports Bath 1802 et seq

Bischoff, J Woollen and Worsted Manufactures London 1842

Carman, E. Sheep Industry of the United States Washington (USA) 1892

Ellis, W. A Complete System... The Shepherd's Sure Guide London 1749

Kerridge, Eric Textile Manufactures in Early Modern England Manchester 1985

Luccock, J. An Essay on Wool London 1809

Marshall, W. The Rural Economy of Gloucestershire London 1794

McMurtrie, W. Examination of Wools Washington (USA) 1886

(Michigan State Board of Agriculture) The Cotswold... Lansing (USA) 1865

Murphy, J. The Art of Weaving Glasgow 1827

Ryder, M.L. Sheep & Man London 1983

Smith, J. Memoirs of Wool London 1747

Trow-Smith, R. British Livestock Husbandry London 1959

Youatt, W. Sheep, their breeds... London 1837

The Cotswold Lion: Explore the amazing story of why the Cotswold sheep became known as the Cotswold Lion. The Cotswold Lion: Explore the amazing story of why the Cotswold sheep became known as the Cotswold Lion. The Cotswold Lion: Explore the amazing story of why the Cotswold sheep became known as the Cotswold Lion. The Cotswold Lion: Explore the amazing story of why the Cotswold sheep became known as the Cotswold Lion. The Cotswold Lion: Explore the amazing story of why the Cotswold sheep became known as the Cotswold Lion.