The History of Wool in the Cotswolds

March 28, 2024

The History of Wool in the Cotswolds

In around AD 43, the seemingly unstoppable Roman Empire invaded England. They would remain here for over three and a half centuries changing our country forever.

When the Romans arrived in the Cotswolds, they found the rolling hills ideal for their very own breed of sheep and rapidly introduced them to the landscape. Nowadays the breed is known as the ‘Cotswold Lion’ and notable for its exceptionally long fleece and the role it played in transforming life in the Cotswolds forever.

Since Roman times our region has been known as the ‘Cotswolds’. It basically means ‘sheep’s hills’. ‘Cots’ meaning ‘sheep’s enclosure’ and ‘wold’ is rolling hills. After the Romans left, the sheep ownership was transferred to landowners. This was initially the church and then gradually wealthy families. The wool from the prized sheep was highly desirable and as a result was considered very valuable. It was shipped all over the world and became an incredibly profitable European export. Merchants and weavers from Italy were particularly enamoured with the fine quality wool and enthusiastically sought to possess it.

By medieval times, the industry was thriving all over the UK and the saying ‘half the wealth of England rises on the back of sheep’ was both popular and true. The Cotswolds remained central for the production of fine wool. As a result, the region thrived and created wealth for the merchants and the communities around them. There were signs of growing prosperity everywhere. Houses were built and people basked in the economic stability the wool trade had brought to the region. Cotswold wool merchants were particularly fond of giving large donations towards the construction of grand and ornate churches in the hope that they would secure their place in heaven as a result. They were often built to replace a less impressive place of worship. This meant the church also stood as testament to a whole communities’ growing prosperity. Across the Cotswolds many of these ‘wool churches’ still stand.  There are ornate and beautiful wool churches in Chipping Campden, Northleach, Cirencester and Winchcombe with many more around the country. Today, embedded into the worn floors of these impressive structures, you can still see the brass merchant’s woolmarks. These woolmarks would have been stamped onto the sack of a merchant’s wool as a means of identification and authentication. When wealthy wool merchants paid large donations to a church’s construction, they had their woolmarks incorporated into the flooring for all to see. A visible testimony to their wealth and, of course, their devotion to god.

The wool trade quite literally shaped the villages throughout the Cotswolds. Village layouts were designed with sheep trade in mind. In Stow-on-the-Wold for example, come market day 20,000 sheep would head for market square. They’d spill out of the alleyways named ‘trues’ which controlled the flocks as they arrived for trade. The wide grass verges you see in places such as Burford or Broadway, for example, served as places to hold the sheep for market.

Eventually the wool trade declined and evolved, and locals began to weave the wool rather than just raising the fleece. This brought about the establishment of the trade’s guilds. Trade guilds ensured standards were maintained and consequently this meant Cotswold cloth became incredibly desirable. Again, this trade moulded the villages we see today, many rows of Cotswolds cottages that flank our village streets were originally weavers’ cottages.

The Cotswold weaving trade began to decline with the industrial revolution. Some merchants diversified into the silk trade, notably in the village of Blockley. However, on the whole the area remained predominantly rural and untouched by the ravages of large-scale industry. The farming of livestock and crops began to takeover where wool and cloth had once thrived.

Whilst the wool and cloth are no longer produced in the same way in the Cotswolds you can still see an abundance of sheep grazing our rolling hills. With our hills flanked by cottages built from the famous honey coloured Cotswold Stone, it’s easy to imagine how life once looked for the wool merchants and the weavers of the Cotswolds.

To get up close to a real Cotswold Lion, head over to The Cotswold Farm Park at Guiting Power for a really lovely family day out –

To get a taste of the wool and weaving trade in the Cotswolds, a day out at Cotswolds Woollen Weavers in the village of Filkins is definitely worth it –