Brexit Monasteries

It Was The Wool That Paid For All

…The church was an early version of the EU; a joined-up economy, where trade was done easily across borders…

Mount Grace. ©Penelope Hemingway, 2019

As so many of us have been starved of our usual fix of medieval, I thought I’d travel back further in wool trade time than I usually do, and share with you some photos we got last year at Mount Grace. And whilst doing it will give you a superficial skinny-dip in the waters of monastic woolly history.

Mount Grace in the Cleveland Hills of North Yorkshire, is the most complete Carthusian monastery site in the U.K.

We’ve been English Heritage members for many years and forget castles – my favourite sites are the monasteries – especially those in Yorkshire, Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland. Some we have visited repeatedly. Most of my favourites belonged to the Cistercian or Premonstratensian orders but one of my absolute favourites is Mount Grace, in the Cleveland Hills of North Yorkshire, which was Carthusian.

Doorway into a monk’s cell. ©Penelope Hemingway, 2019

It was the most wealthy religious order in England, at points. Mount Grace is comparatively intact (advise caution with that “comparatively” – not many abbeys apart from those in built up areas that might get converted to churches, or rather, whose churches were converted to parish churches, survived the lead, money and gold grabbing propensities of Henry VIII). These monks did not live communally, like their more well known brothers, the Cistercians, but each monk lived in a cell, his food delivered to him wordlessly, through a hatch. He tended a small garden, and laboured every day as well as studied and spent time in prayer and contemplation. The labour was sometimes, the spinning or weaving of woollen cloth.

Loom at Mount Grace, monk’s cell. ©Penelope Hemingway

One monk, who entered the order as Sir Thomas Goldwynne, was a weaver and brought with him his loom and possessions in 1519, so there is record of at least one loom, at one point, in the cells! The English Heritage recreation of a cell is not fanciful.

Carthusians were known as “the white monks”; vows of poverty meant no “sinful” dyed clothing. Undyed was the ideal; white symbolising purity and an absence of colour which spoke of abstention from worldliness and vanity. Monks who left the order were sometimes disciplined with rulings from Rome to continue to wear the white under their everyday clothes…

‘Christ on the Cross with a Carthusian Monk’, Jean de Baumetz, between 1385-96. This monk is directly contemporary to the first Carthusians at Mount Grace. CREDIT: Wiki Commons

Like other orders, the Carthusians owned land – sometimes many miles from the monastery. The faithful willed property to them, to secure their prayers and a place in heaven. The monasteries’ tenant farmers would agree to run large flocks of sheep alongside their own flocks, to raise the wool needed by the monks; or monastery owned sheep would be grazed on common land. And of course, the church was an early version of the EU; a joined-up economy, where trade was done easily across borders, often facilitated by religious orders, as UK monks travelled freely across Europe, and European monks came to the UK, oiling the wheels of commerce as well as more godly concerns. Some monasteries owned over a thousand sheep. Or thousands, like Bruern which before the dissolution of the monasteries had over 3,200 sheep and 300 head of cattle. [The Tudor Cistercians, David H. Williams, 2014, p. 242].

Upland sheep in Yorkshire Dales, ©Penelope Hemingway, 2020

Yet wool was only one aspect of monastic economies; tanneries and corn mills were also common, as were raising other livestock, rabbit warrens and fishponds – monasteries also owned lead mines. Whilst it’s hard to overstate the importance of wool to the monastic economy, it’s worth remembering that there were also other ventures.

Monasteries were self sustaining micro-economies. At the same time, they were part of a wide-ranging, international trade.

The silent life of a Carthusian monk seems appealing, to me. All day reading, spinning, weaving, a little light gardening… I always imagine myself the nun version of Cadfael – messing about with herbs and beehives, in golden sunlight and maybe solving the odd murder. I’m sure the reality was more unrelenting but it has often occurred to me that the monastic life was probably life as good as it got in medieval times – books, food, hospital – all laid on.

The order started out in Chartreuse, Grenoble, as an attempt to live an austere life; the monks would be hermits; rejecting the soft, and as they saw it, corrupt life of other orders. Carthusian monasteries were called “charterhouses” after Chartreuse. There’s some great info about the monks’ everyday life here:

I’m writing here today about a smaller order, but will stray briefly into discussing the Cistercians – which I can do another time at greater length. But I did just want to touch on them here, while we’re lurking in the cloisters as they are synonymous with the medieval wool trade. I want to mention the woolhouse at Fountains Abbey, which used water power to work fulling mills. A reproduction great wheel is on display at Fountains. This abbey and other Cistercian ones like Byland, Rievaulx and Jervaulx, also had wool houses in Clifton, York which warehoused the order’s wool.

In 1276, Florentine merchants agreed to buy 62 sacks of wool for 697 1/2 marks, on condition it came “without clack, lok, cot and breech wool or black grey or inferior fleece and without pelt wool”. Clacked wool had the marks cut off, to avoid paying duties as it weighed less (duties were levied on wool including the coloured marks). “Lok” was probably daggy wool – ie: wool from the sheep’s rear end with poo on. Cot was coated (tangled) and breech the low quality stuff from the haunches, sometimes. That black or grey was undesirable probably implies this was destined to be dyed. And finally, “pelt” wool is the wool from dead sheep – which the unscrupulous might mix in to make weight. The monks were contracted to sort and weigh the wool and deliver at Clifton 14 – 17 sacks a year for the Florence trade. Each sack was 26 stones (364 lb of wool). This was just one of many transactions.

The Flemish wool industry had such an appetite for English wool that Richard I’s ransom was raised by confiscating the wool clip of the Cistercians (Henry VIII wasn’t the first king to rob the monks). Monasteries borrowed money against the sale of future wool clips – which wasn’t always wise. There were years when the entire flock might be wiped out by a disease, leaving the monks in debt with no product to sell. Despite the church’s disapproval of usury, the entire wool trade depended on a chain of credit and these debts stretched across Europe. In 1281-2 Byland lost its flocks and had to petition the King to get the Italians to reduce their debt. The York wool houses had to pay tolls at the city Bars (gates) to move wool about and also tolls were levied at the staithes (quays) on the river.

Various abbeys owned inns in York and on the routes between woolhouses and abbeys, where trade could be conducted, and hospitality shown to customers and potential customers.

Byland Abbey ©Penelope Hemingway, 2020

Back to the Carthusians.

For a long time, there were only two Carthusian monasteries in England – living alone, silently, in a cell had less appeal than the communal life of other orders. The Carthusians had been waning until the Black Death (1348-9) when folk were once more drawn to the idea of a life of austere, lonely contemplation (lockdown, anyone?) The London charterhouse was built on the site of a plague burial ground. Several charter houses followed – Mount Grace was comparatively late to the non-party, in 1398. As in most orders, monks were drawn from the ranks of the wealthy (who else would have land to donate to the church after their deaths?) They would usually be literate and educated men – not always true of Cistercian monks whose abbots often got a university education after their promotion.

Carthusians refused to go along with Henry VIII’s shenanigans and as a result were kicked the first and the hardest, by the Dissolution. The order refused to acknowledge Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn or disavow the Pope. They were sitting targets for Henry’s coming, Brexity, storm.

Monk’s garden, seen from cell. Mount Grace, ©Penelope Hemingway, 2019

Much of the wool exported in medieval times came from two long wool breeds; the Cotswold and the Lincoln – and to a lesser extent, the Leicester.

Reconstruction of a simple great wheel, monk’s cell, Mount Grace. ©Penelope Hemingway, 2019

Mount Grace reconstructed a monk’s cell. Each cell was each monk’s private monastery – you can see how this model wouldn’t be sustainable on a large scale. His spinning wheel would be a constant companion. I’m not sure who made the reproduction wheel above, but they got it about right. Extant 14th century illustrations of wheels come from illuminated manuscripts and by the time Mount Grace was built, wheels seem to be typically hoop-rimmed, with a flat bed and four legs (later wheels often have a sloping bed and three legs for more stability). There are illustrations of nuns spinning on hand spindles but I feel fairly certain that a wealthy monastery founded as late as Mount Grace, would be more likely to use wheels than hand-spindles; (for the spinning nun search for “Stowe MS, 17” as I seem to be pulling up a plethora of Pinterest images and don’t really want to link to them) faster production and an easily affordable technology for a wealthy religious order.

One of the best known illustrations comes from a French manuscript, Raymond of Penafort’s ‘Decretals of Gregory IX’, (some time early 14th century), often called the Smithfield Decretals as the illustrations were done in England. We are working on some illustrations “after” the style of these medieval MS, so those will be up here, soon but you can search this online, again if you want to be bombarded with Pinterest suggestions.

Here, a woman spins on a great wheel just like the one you can see at Mount Grace (which is reopening in July, but limiting numbers of people on site, so you have to pre-book online). You can see the even cop of spun yarn on the spindle shaft of the wheel. Another famous 14th century illustration of a great wheel is in the Luttrell Psalter (1338). Both these illustrations predate the monastery at Mount Grace, but only by a few decades and there were no substantial changes in this technology right through to the early 19th century. So we can safely say the spinning wheels in the Smithfield Decretals and Luttrell Psalter are likely very close, if not the same, as the wheels monks would have.

Outside of cells, Mount Grace ©Penelope Hemingway

I know of no extant great wheel with any more age to it than the 18th century. A wheel was a tool like any other – used, repaired, used some more – then, eventually – on the fire back when its useful life was done. So illustrations are our only reference.

In the still definitive ‘Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning’ (Batsford, 1977), Patricia Baines remarked:

…One could guess that the roles were made to such an exact size that the spinner could use a complete roll each time…


This is a point you don’t often see made, yet I think an interesting one. The monks will have had to card their wool into rolls, first, to make them spinnable. A rolag is like a little sausage of wool. Whether the Mount Grace brothers did their own wool preparation, or relied on others to do it, is something I don’t know. Whilst I can read Middle English, not in translation, I have no Latin whatsoever, so can’t do the requisite poking around in primary sources I’d love to do for this subject. I suspect the lay brothers did the real wool preparation donkeywork, at Mount Grace. And not every Carthusian monk would weave and spin; some came with or would have learned other trades, like bookbinding for the monastery’s manuscripts. Those of us who spin or weave can understand why these activities would complement the contemplative life.

Great wheel a little closer. Hoop rims normally thinner than this. ©Penelope Hemingway

These monks followed the same eight daily devotional offices (services) as other orders but unlike the others, observed them all alone, each man in his cell. They did join together for Vespers (afternoon) and the night offices together and attended Mass rarely but generally did Mass alone in the cell, as well. They dined together only on Feast days – saints’ days and the like. Any business dealings about the wool – which was spun and woven for their own use but also traded in further afield – could only be dealt with on these special days when the monks could communicate with eachother.

Pegolotti, a Florentine merchant, wrote Pratica della Mercatura (The Practice of Commerce), a commercial handbook in the early 14th century which listed the most famous English wool-producing monasteries. Yorkshire and Lincolnshire attracted wool merchants from across the continent. Welsh border shortwools were also in demand, as Pegolotti mentioned Tintern and Abbey Dore. (this latter, another haunt of our’s when we lived in the Midlands). This wool was priced at 28 marks per sack on the Flemish market (1 mark was 13s and 4d – a sack weighed 26 stone). The cheapest wool Pegolotti listed was only 7 marks. Italian and Flemish merchants were the most active in England as well as the French and the Dutch, There is also evidence of English trade with Norway in the 12thC. At some points, English wool almost had a monopoly.

All this pan-European trade led to some monasteries being very wealthy indeed at some points in their history. A wealth built on various commercial enterprises but mainly… on wool.

One rich wool merchant carved the window of his fancy new house:

I praise God, and ever shall

It is the sheep have paid for all.

Remarkable tiled floor at Byland abbey ©Penelope Hemingway, 2020

Further Reading

Spinning Wheels, Spinners and Spinning, Patricia Baines, Batsford, 1977

Clifton and Medieval Woolhouses, Jennifer Kaner, York Historian, Vol 8, 1988

The Wonder of the North: Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, Mark Newman, National Trust, 2015

The Wool Trade in English Medieval History, Eileen Power, OUP, 1941

The Tudor Cistercians, David H. Williams, Gracewing, 2014


5 replies on “It Was The Wool That Paid For All”

What an interesting article, Penelope. My late husband did a PhD at Hull in Medieval history and used to tell me about the wealth of the monasteries largely built on wool.


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