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The Wool Inheritance

It is almost impossible to overestimate the importance of wool to medieval England. It powered the economy in the same way as the Industrial Revolution was to do four centuries later. England produced the best wool in Europe, much prized by the weavers of Flanders and Florence, and the best of English wool came from the Cotswolds.

Wool paid the huge ransom of Richard the Lionheart after his capture while returning from the Crusades; it paid for the military adventures of Edward I; it funded the entire cost of the early stages of the Hundred Years War during the reign of Edward III. It is no surprise that wool was often referred to as ‘the jewel of this realm’.

Overseas trade in wool was conducted by the Company of the Merchants of the Staple, who were granted a monopoly by Edward III in the 1340s. Exports were taxed, and trade was strictly controlled by exporting all wool through the ‘staple port’ of Calais, which was under English control at that time. The Merchants of the Staple, in turn, sourced their wool from local merchants known as woolmen.

Prominent among the Merchants of the Staple during the 15th century were the Celys, who traded from Mart Lane in London. We know much about the Celys, since their papers are preserved in the Public Record Office.

The wool bought by the Celys came almost entirely from Northleach and the surrounding area, and the Cely letters make frequent reference to the town and its woolmen:

“Your letter came to me the Sunday before All Hallows day at dinner-time at London, and Wyll Eston, mercer, and Wyll Medewynter of Northleach dined with me at [the] time; and the comfort of your letter caused me for to buy of the foresaid Wyll Medewynter 60 sacks of Cottys [Cotswold] wool, the which is in pile at Northleach, and John Cely hath gathered and bought for me in Cotswold 37 sack by the tod and sack and half sack … I am advised for to pack the aforesaid wool after Christmas toward Candlemas, and I trust in God ye shall be at the packing of the said wool in Cotswold.”

Excerpt from a letter from Richard Cely to his son George, 6th November 1479

The woolmen of Northleach included Thomas and John Fortey, John Taylour, the aforementioned William Midwinter, Robert Serche and Thomas Busshe; their memorial brasses are all to be found in St Peter & St Paul, and together make up one of the finest collections of brasses in the country.

The woolmark of William Midwinter

The wool trade brought riches to the woolmen and ensured that the town of Northleach was more than normally wealthy. Indeed, strange though it may appear today, Northleach in the 15th century was at the economic hub of Europe – all the more remarkable given that records suggest a population at the time of fewer than 400 people.

It is this wealth in particular that has made the Church of St Peter & St Paul into what it is today. We know from the wills of the woolmen that many bequeathed sums to the church. But, more than any other single individual, we must thank John Fortey. In his will of 1458, he writes:

“I give to the High Altar, for tithes omitted 40/- and £300 to carry on and complete the new work already by me begun.”

This sum (enormous at the time) allowed John Fortey’s ‘new work’ to be completed, raising the roof of the nave and installing the clerestory windows, thereby achieving his vision of making the church ‘more lightsome and splendid’.

So, it is through the piety and dedication of John Fortey and his 15th century contemporaries that we have inherited the magnificent building that we treasure today. And, as acknowledged by a Merchant of the Staple at the time, ‘it is the Sheepe hath payed for all’.

John Fortey - east window

John Fortey, commemorated in the East Window.

The Wool Inheritance
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