Wandering monks not welcomed at Furness
THE importance of wool to medieval religious communities such as those at Furness Abbey, Shap and Calder was investigated by Harry Hawkins at a talks day held by the Cumbria Local History Federation at the Shap Memorial Hall.
Premonstratensian canons serving a hospital were given land in Preston Patrick, near Crooklands, around 1190 but within 10 years had move to Shap to build an abbey next to the River Lowther.
In the 16th century it was extended and a tower added. The abbey wasn't dissolved until January 14 in 1540 - one of the last to be closed by the government of King Henry VIII.
It had three monastic granges - land for sheep grrazing by tenant farmers - and even had its own coal mine.
However, it wasn't the only religious house with farming claims in the Shap area.
A Gilbertine priory at Watton in East Yorkshire had rights on the Howgills and the Cistercian Abbey of Byland in Yorkshire had land rights in Shap.
The Byland monks had started life at Furness Abbey and had failed to make a success of a new religious community at Calder Abbey in West Cumberland.
They returned to Furness but were not welcomed.
Mr Hawkins said: "The abbot wouldn't let them in."
Instead they went to Yorkshire and ended up ay Byland.
Sheep were vital to all the medieval religious houses and the communities which grew up near them - providing milk, meat, manure, skins, fleeces, wool and cash.
He said: "Sheep were very important to the medieval peasants."
Mutton was eaten rather than lamb and sheep skin was used for the parchment used in illuminated books and for recording Acts of Parliament.
He said: "Very little is known about what breeds of sheep there were in the Middle Ages."
Around 1300 it is thought there were around 30 different breeds but today the total is closer to 60.
He said: "The most likely early breed is the Soay of St Kilda which has been found on Bronze Age sites.
"The Romans introduced other types to breed with the Soay.
"Soay sheep cast their wood annually and it is gathered by pulling but can also be clipped ot sheered."
Another early breed is likely to have been the Shetland.
Wool from the British Isles has well regarded and as early as 300AD was described as being "As fine as a spider's web."
The Anglo-Saxons turned wool into a home industry by the use of spinning wheels and looms.
The largest Viking longships found in Norway had a sail of wool for which at least 500 animals would have been needed.
By the late 1290s it was claimed that up to 50 per cent of England's wealth - and all its export earnings - was of wool.
He said monastic houses would borrow money against the future income from woold sales.
Mr Hawkins said: "This is regarded as the birth of the futures commodities market."
Records from around 1340 show that Furness Abbey and Shap Abbey were exporting large quantities of wool to Flanders.
Shap Abbey also had two water-powered mills, with one likely to be a fulling mill used as part of the wool textile prodution process.
It was estimated that Shap may have had 1,500 to 2,000 sheep on its lands and Furness Abbey possibly 5,000 to 6,000 to meet the export demand.
He said: "Sheep flocks provided employment for significant numbers of men and women."