Upon reflection of
the European Renaissance Period, specifically the Later middle ages and early
modern periods, the wool industry bloomed. Over the course of many centuries,
spanning from the early fourteenth century until around the seventeenth century,
wool textiles and cloth were produced in a variety of ways. It’s wide array of
uses, as clothing and determinants of social class, categorized wool as a very
important commodity during this time. Of particular importance is England’s
reliance of wool as one of the biggest driving factors of England’s economic
production. During this time, the increased amount of wool exports through
trade stamped wool as, “The Jewel in the Realm.”1
To fully understand the influence wool trade had on England it is crucial to
determine how wool became a commodity in England and how trade commenced. In
doing so, it is most effective to observe the relationships England had with
other countries and their economic impact. Using extensive research, this paper
will establish that while the wool trade was prosperous and an essential part
of England’s economy during the Renaissance period, it was largely controlled
by royal interest that subsequently resulted in the exploitation of workers in
the industry and the total demise of the wool as a desired commodity.
order to understand the full effect that wool had on England’s economy, it is
first important to determine the historical foundations of wool as a commodity.
Long before wool was traded and produced for economic means, wool was understood
to be a dynamic fabric material. Wool material was revolutionary in the way it
protected against inclement weather. The durability of its fabric was able to
keep people cool in times of extreme heat, and vice versa, in times of extreme
cold. These basic allures were some of the initial foundations of the
popularity of wool. Over the course of the Renaissance Period, the use of wool
was advanced for the production of wool based textiles and clothing. Thus, it
became a vital commodity of production and trade for European economies2
It was during this time that England emerged as a leading producer and
manufacturer of wool. England’s ability to produce very fine wool defined its foreign
status as a source for quality wool, which other European countries soon
depended on.3 In
particular, curly, short fibered yarns in both warp and weft, which were
considered the finest and most expensive, came from England.4
The ability to produce such fine quality wool was vital in wool’s effect on
stimulating the English economy at the start of the fourteenth century.
the turn of the thirteenth century, England was on the verge of an economic explosion
due to their production of wool. The fine wool that was produced in England was
desired by foreign countries and weavers, most notably those living in Flanders
and towns of Bruges, Ypres, and Ghent.5
Although economic developments were drastically connected with trade with foreign
countries, current events occurring at the time had a substantial impact on
wool trade as well. Firstly, as aforementioned, it is important to understand
the market demand for English wool at the start of the 14th century.
Specifically, the demand for English wool was dominated by the Flemish clothing
industry, located in northern Belgium, because of the abundance of talented
weavers in the area. Initially, from 1297 and 1305, there was a conflict between
France and the Flanders in what was known as the Franco-Flemish War. The
Franco-Flemish dispute is important to comprehend because of its implications
on the market demand for wool. Additionally, in 1303 England was involved in
the Franco-Flemish War. In May of 1303, the Treaty of Paris was established
involving France and England which stated that England could not assist
France’s enemies. Thus, by way of the Treaty, the French requested all Flemish
merchants that were in England leave. This put England in a difficult position.
They could not break the Treaty of Paris, and also understood the implications
of losing Flemish demand for their wool. With an understanding of the
importance of both circumstances, King Edward I, England’s king at the time,
recognized the written agreement with France and responded to the Flemish that
the ban must be executed. He further expressed that he would take the necessary
actions to settle the conflict between them and France.6
Ultimately, this announcement by King Edward I is important because it would
result in an increased amount of wool exports after 1305. This conflict, as a
result, impeded the forthcoming English economic boom. It was not until the
conflict was settled that wool trade in England unprecedentedly grew.
The early stages
of England’s relationship with the Flemish people in the wool trade is
important because of the events that occurred later in the century. The years
following 1305 were crucial in the development of the wool trade. The start of
King Edward II’s reign of England was characterized by fluctuating demands for
trade. It is difficult to decipher the exact cause of this fluctuation, but is
evident that tensions between Flanders and England were not beneficial in the
process. King Edward II recognized this growing tension and, as a result, took
action in establishing the first staple of wool. Thus, on May 20, 1313, the
first mandatory staple of wool was instituted by law. 7
The staple was enacted by the English and designated specific ports for wool
trade that were used to monitor exported goods. Moreover, England imposed a tax
on goods being exported to Europe as a way to generate domestic income. The
first establishment of the Staple in 1313 arranged a system that would be used
throughout the next two centuries.
historical context from the start of the renaissance period provides a
foundation for understanding the transformation of wool trade. After the Staple
of wool in 1313, a company of individuals was constructed by English
governmental authority to ensure the appropriate exportation of wool. This
company was coined the Merchants of the Staple.8
The Merchants of the Staple became a vital part of the wool trade because of
England’s reliance on the execution of its Staple of wool. The Staple was
initially set up at Antwerp and moved to St. Omer in May of 1314. The staple
was then removed from St. Omer the next year due to more conflict between
France and Flanders.9
Following this removal, the Staple was posted in various locations including
Bruges, Brussels, and finally Calais. The solidification of the Staple at
Calais was important in establishing long term control of the exportation of
the fixing of the Staple at Calais, the wool industry prospered from increased
exportation of wool. The Merchants of the Staple were executing their roles
sufficiently and the King was generating revenue form the imposed levy.
Moreover, the company of Merchants grew exponentially, helping to moderate
trade even more successfully. By the time of the fifteenth century, the
Merchants were considered elite because their jobs were so crucial to the
King’s own interests of safeguarding trade.10
The Merchants were not the only ones benefitting from the trading system.
Landowners who produced wool soon were able to develop direct connections of
trade to foreign clothing manufactures. These direct connections undermined the
system and led to profitable returns for landowners. As a result of both
Merchants and landowners benefitting from the system, the peasants who didn’t
own land but worked the labor of producing the wool were exploited. This
exploitation would become the source of the divide between lower and middle
It was during this same time the wool industry was evolving drastically. The
increased demand for wool in the cloth making industry provided many jobs for
citizens as clothiers while also stimulating domestic spending. Wool became the
vehicle by which economic activity used it to establish trade, generate tax revenue,
and employ many. Wool’s importance as a commodity to England would soon incite
the lower-class workers in the industry to require better compensation.
By the start of
the Sixteenth century, the wool trade under the reign of Henry VIII had nearly
During this time, King Edward VI implemented the Act of 1552. In an effort to
increase the revenues from exporting wool and stop Landowners from exporting to
“middle men,” the Act declared that purchase of wool for English looms should
only be done by the manufacturer. This Act was accompanied by a loss in value
of the coin in England. The depreciation of the coin allowed foreign countries
to purchase English wool at cheaper prices. This, in turn, hurt the domestic
worker in England as their wool products were being sold for less money in
trade. The Act of 1552 was an attempt by the King to increase export regulation
and revenue by increasing the amount of exports levied at monitored staple
ports. Although the act increased temporary exports during this time, the
simultaneous depreciation of English currency over time made wool less
valuable. Because of the depreciation of the currency, it could be purchased at
cheaper values abroad due to the England’s exchange rate decreasing. Over the
course of the next century, as trade continued, English wool workers and cloth
makers understood the cheapness of wool to be a consequence towards them as
they were receiving less in return for the value of their wool.
the time of the Seventeenth century wool had still been traded under these
parameters. At the center of the issue was conflicting ideas, between the
royalty and the people, on England’s best interest of trading its wool. On one
hand, the King was still inheriting revenue from tax collections at staple
ports and creating revenue. On the other hand, domestic wool manufacturers,
weavers, farm workers, and peasants, were all being exploited because of the
increased cheapness of their wool exports. The means by which these English
workers sought to change their oppression was to proclaim the benefits of
limiting the exportation of wool. Specifically, keeping their commodity within
the country for domestic stimulation. A primary source from 1677 accurately
dictates these benefits saying,
A limited exportation will be more for the
advantage of our own woollen-trade, and less for that beyond Sea, then the
hindring of it has been. For if strangers might come hither to buy the wool,
tho they bought greater quanities, yet should they pay dearer for it then they
do at present: and the dearer their commodities are, the dearer must they fell
their manufacture, consequently the more easily we may beat them out of their
quote, it can be understood that limiting wool exports abroad will benefit
England more than the current trade revenues produce. By limiting exports of
wool, more manufacturers will have to go to England to purchase the wool. This
will then allow England to charge a desired price because there is no exchange
rate. Moreover, the quote emphasizes that the current exportation of their
cheap wool to manufacturers abroad is aiding these countries in growing
stronger economically. Limiting the trade of wool to these countries will slow
their industries and make them realize their dependency on England.
the turn of the Seventeenth century, the commodity of raw wool and its trade
had been modernized. Although wool had been used to make clothes in earlier
centuries, the modernization of manufacturing techniques transformed the use of
raw wool into the making of clothes by weaving woolen fabrics and cloth. The
eighteenth century was characterized by a drop in the foreign aggregate demand
for wool. Increased technology and manufacturing abroad allowed some countries,
such as Italy, to enter in trade as a producer of wool.14
More competition in the industry supported the peasant and lower-class workers
disapproval and discontent over England’s exporting of wool. A primary source
survey from 1702 provides a concrete example of the workers argument. This
survey displays numerical data of the differences in revenue from wool by
exporting and producing domestically. Specifically this source states:
“Now, according to this computation of 63
people employed for a week by the working of one Pack of Wool into cloth,
Thirty thousand packs, which have been actually landed in three ports of France
in one year (by which the King loft Seventy Five Thousand Pounds custom) would
have employed in our Manufactories One Million Eight Hundred Eighty Nine
Thousand Nine Hundred and Forty people.”15
primary source connects numerical evidence of the division of labor and the amount
of return England gets on its wool exportation. Based on the source, it can be
seen understood that if exportation was limited the country would be able to
employ over a million workers in domestic manufactories. Moreover, the survey
illustrates that the King’s role in the situation. After the implementation of
the staple and export tax initially in the fourteenth century, the king has
profited from export taxes. As a result, the steady tax revenue is able to
blind the King of the exploitation and lost potential of workers producing wool
products in England.
Years later, in
1706, both of the aforementioned views were again affirmed by a book by John
Haynes wrote on the present state of the clothing trade in England. The book
captures the popular concept that wool was an extremely vital part of England’s
economy and overall livelihood. In particular, Haynes focuses on the clothing
industry at the turn of the seventeenth century. Haynes summarizes his argument
“Some are aware of the consequences of its
(wool) decay, and the vast advantages of its preservation: and fortheir
information I have here set forth what a great share it bears both in the
maintenance of the poor, and in most branches of foreign trade; and on the
other had how far the decay tends to the ruine of the people of England in all
stations, as well as lessening the revenue of the crow.”16
This quote highlights many aspects and
consequences of further allowing the exportation of wool in the eighteenth
century. For one, by devaluing wool the poor are suffering by receiving low
wages due to the depreciation of the pound. John Haynes extends this argument
by saying that the decline of wool will hurt all social classes in England by
allowing other countries to grow by purchasing England’s wool for cheap prices.
Haynes is calling for the awareness of the potential consequences if England
does not preserve it’s essential commodity, wool.
impact that wool had on England during the Renaissance period is tremendously
significant. Over the course of four centuries wool created jobs for workers,
dominated foreign trade, and provided material for clothing manufacturing.
England’s economic production during the Renaissance period simply cannot be explained
without recognizing the revenue created from the wool trade. The foundation of
England’s wool trade, particularly their foreign relationships with Flanders and
establishment of the Staple, is crucial in understanding how exporting wool
became dominated by royal interest. Ultimately, what the royalties believed was
best for the nation regarding wool trade did not reflect what lower class and
peasant workers believed was best. By providing evidence and sources of this
disagreement throughout the Renaissance period, it is evident that this royal
interest resulted in the exploitation of English workers and the overall debasement
of English wool.
1 Postan, M.
M. “Economic Relations between Eastern and Western Europe.” Chapter.
In Mediaeval Trade and Finance,
305–34. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.
2 Munro, John H. . “The Rise, Expansion,
and Decline of the Italian Wool-Based Cloth
Industries, 1100–1730: A Study in International Competition,
Transaction Costs, and Comparative Advantage.” 2012.
3 Ibid, 46.
4 Ibid, 47.
5 Lloyd, T. H. The English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages. Cambridge:
University Press, 1977.
6 Ibid, 101.
7 Ibid, 102.
8 Rich, Edwin Ernest. The
Ordinance Book of the Merchants of the Staple.
MI: The University Press, 1937.
9 Lloyd, T. H. The English Wool Trade in the Middle Ages, 107-10.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
10 The Editors of Encyclopædia
Britannica. “Merchants Staplers.” Encyclopædia Britannica. July 20,
1998. Accessed December 16, 2017.
11 Johnson , Ben. “History
of the Wool Trade.” Historic UK. Accessed December 16, 2017.
12 Hebron, Malcolm. Key
Concepts in Renaissance Literature .
Macmillan Education, 2008.
13 Anonymous, Reasons
for a Limited Exportation of Wooll. London, 1677.
14 Munro, John H. . “The Rise, Expansion,
and Decline of the Italian Wool-Based Cloth
1100–1730: A Study in International Competition, Transaction Costs, and
Comparative Advantage.” 2012.
15 Anonymous. “A short
survey of the loss by which is computed to be sustained in England
by the exportation of our clothing wool.”
16 Haynes, John. A view of the present state of the clothing trade in England:
of the causes and pernicious consequences of
its decay, and a scheme of proper
remedies for the
recovery of it. London: Printed
for the author, 1707.