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History: St Agnes and the Wealth of Medieval English Wool

A line of twenty saints decorates the rood screen at St Agnes' parish church in Cawston, Norfolk – but one of them in particular tells us the origins of this church, this village, and the wealth of the whole region.


The left-hand rood screen - (c) Simon Knott

St Agnes

The decorated rood screen at Cawston is one of East Anglia's best surviving examples. These medieval wooden screens, which divided the secular seating of the nave from the more sacred area of the chancel, were mostly destroyed during the Reformations in the sixteenth-century.


Any in place now are generally replacements or lucky survivals still showing their scars. Cawston's twenty waist-high panels are no exception, and some have had their faces scratched out.


Luckily, you don't always need the face to identify a saint. At the far left of the screen is one panel with a figure that points us very clearly towards the source of the wealth that built not only this church but other big, expensive ones in the area. It's St Agnes, and at her feet sits her traditional little lamb.


This is Wool Country

Most of the 'wool churches' – those built on profits from the medieval wool trade – are in the Cotswolds, where the best English wool came from. But at the other end of the cloth-making process was East Anglia, which was a hub for weaving and spinning, especially from the fourteenth-century. These include Holy Trinity at Long Melford, and St Peter & St Paul in Lavenham.


These are big churches, whose designs and appearance express the confidence and wealth of their patrons. For example, you can tell the wool church at Salle, near Cawston, was expensive because, like Cawston's, its tower is clad with imported stone, instead of the distinctive local flint.

St Agnes' church, Cawston, Suffolk
St Agnes, Cawston, Norfolk - (C) Simon Knott

At Cawston, St Agnes' church was largely rebuilt from 1385, and the existing building reflects the wealth of its sponsors, and the prestige they hoped to project.


The De la Poles

The church at Salle was a combined effort between several families who'd made money from the wool trade. At Cawston, there's largely one family to thank: the de la Poles.


Sir William de la Pole had become rich in fourteenth-century Hull as a wine merchant, but he also bought land that gave him a foothold in the lucrative wool trade. By the late 1320s, he was making money through funding Edward III's French and Scottish wars – some debts were paid back to him in the form of lands and titles. In a well-timed move of 1345, he withdrew from financing the military campaigns which, three years later, left many of his fellow merchants exposed to the Black Death's economic effects.


The De La Pole family tree
The De La Pole family tree, thanks to History of England podcast (yes, Alice is a grandaughter of THE Chaucer)

His son, Michael, benefited from falling land prices following the plague, and added to the East Anglian estates he'd inherited through his parents and his wife, Katherine Wingfield. He bought the manor of Cawston in 1385, the same year that Richard II created him earl of Suffolk.


This first earl fell from favour and died not long afterwards, so it was left to his son – Michael(!) – to take the role of local lordship and revive his family's reputation in the region. The second earl built up the resources of the estates, and alliances among East Anglian gentry and nobility. He also invested in local churches, including a chantry college, and was presumably responsible for the tower at Cawston, rebuilt after a collapse in 1412.


When the second and third earls died together fighting for Henry V, the fourth, William, continued the family tradition of supporting England's French wars, and also representing royal authority in East Anglia. A favourite of Henry VI's, he mediated between the young king and his minority council, and became his chief adviser in the 1440s (partly thanks to his role in negotiating the king's marriage to Margaret of Anjou). By 1448, he was chamberlain of England, duke of Suffolk, and controlled the company of the Staple, responsible for the trading and taxation of English wool.


England's Wool Trade

The church at Salle shows us that not every donor to a wool church had the kind of success we see in the exceptional de le Pole family, but demonstrates that some merchants could make huge gains from wool.


Historians have long agreed with medieval writers that England's economy and politics were built on wool. This was especially true from the middle of the thirteenth-century, when there were probably more sheep than people in England, until the late fifteenth-century, when various factors combined to reduce the trade in English wool.


Most manufacture and use of textiles for this period went unrecorded; cloth was woven for domestic use, typically by the family that would use it, from their own raw materials. But English wool and cloth gained an international reputation after about 1100. The kind of large-scale production that makes it into the later records – maybe coming from flocks on the lands of Cistercian monks, or some other great landowners – could get into long-distance trade, being sold as far away as north Africa or western Asia.


The traditional red woolsack in the House of Lords, which stands out in contrast to the dark blue floor and gold railings.
The Woolsack is still traditionally used as the Lord Speaker's seat in the UK House of Lords - image from Explore Parliament

Taxing woollen sales abroad gave English kings a fairly regular source of income. Importantly, because tax was collected on sales through the Staple (the official wool market), it could be gathered more efficiently than in less centralised rival systems; this allowed England's kings to punch above their weight internationally. But the fact that this income needed parliamentary approval gave parliaments another bargaining chip with kings who might not have consulted them otherwise, and helped cement the importance and power of parliaments in the English constitutional system.


Spending Success

Families who had success in the wool trade funnelled their gains into a number of projects: financing foreign wars, building grand houses, embellishing parish churches. Wool churches are so big not because they had large congregations to house, but in order to demonstrate the piety of the families paying for them, and to give space for locals and priests to say plenty of masses for the souls of that family.


And at Cawston, St Agnes and her lamb are there on the rood screen to remind everyone where that money came from.


 

Image Credits


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Further Reading

Online:

Cawston Parish Church, https://www.st-agnes.org.uk/

Simon Knott's excellent Norfolk Churches site:

Exploring Norfolk Churches, with a 360 degree virtual tour: https://www.exploringnorfolkchurches.org/church/st-agnes-cawston/

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries for the De La Poles, starting with Sir William: https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/22460


Print:

A R Bell, C Brooks & P R Dryburgh, The English Wool Market, c.1230-1327, 2007

R A Donkin, ‘Cistercian sheep-farming and wool sales in the thirteenth century’, Agricultural History Review 6, 1958

David Jenkins (ed.), The Cambridge History of Western Textiles. Vol. 1., 2003

T H Lloyd, The English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages, 1977

E Power, The Wool Trade in English Medieval History, 1941

Susan Rose, The Wealth of England: The Medieval Wool Trade and its Political Importance 1100-1600, 2018

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