Comparing Monastic and Landed Families as Medieval Wool Producers

I’ve had a bit of a health and family enforced break from blogging but have been reading and writing short posts for Facebook history groups in the interim. I mainly write posts for British Medieval History, The History Geeks Community and The Mysterious and Gory History of the British Isles.  I’ve had the opportunity to think about the focus of this blog and how I can develop it to include the research I’ve been invited to do alongside two historians, David Gladwin and Sara Hanna Black .

David and I are working on the medieval monastic orders, that had houses in Medieval England and Wales, my focus will be to take an in depth look at four monasteries,  Wigmore, Herefordshire; Strata Florida, Wales; Beaulieu, Hampshire and St Radegunds, Kent and explore how they used the wool trade to fund their activities. Wigmore and St Radegunds also tie into the work I’ll be doing with Sara, who is studying the Mortimer Earls of March. Two minor noble families have come to our attention through their marriages, the Poynings, who held lands in Sussex and Kent and the de Port/ St John family of Basing, Hampshire, who married into the Poynings and Mortimer families. Both families held lands that were particularly suited to farming sheep and through their feudal obligations served in many of the conflicts of the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries.

Wigmore Abbey Grange, Louisa Puller, 1884, via the V&A (please click on image to be taken to V&A website for further information)


Study Plan

This is a plan for a prolonged study, and apart from the research deadlines of my partnering historians, I’m not putting a time limit on it as yet as it may expand. The posts will not necessarily follow the order of the study plan, developed to identify the areas needed to expand my knowledge, and skills, it will be revised as my research develops, to include new areas and exclude superfluous study. I’m optimistic that this will be an interesting journey, and provide a valuable resource for future studies I plan to undertake.

Please note: Some blog posts will be shared with the Mortimer History Society Blog, hosted by Sara Hanna Black.

General History

  • The economy of England under Edward I – III, Richard II and Henry IV, with specific focus on their control of the wool trade with Europe.
  • Feudalism, affinities and knight service
  • Land holdings, both secular and ecclesiastic to include demense lands, moieties and advowsons
  • Religion and medieval lives
  • Textiles and rank – using clothing and decorative fabrics to denote status, sumptuary laws
  • Climate change, murrain and plague


  • A brief history of the monastic orders with Houses in Medieval England
  • The risks and benefits of “alien monasteries” on the South Coast
  • An exploration of the effects of the changing fortunes of supporting families on monastic houses.
  • In depth study of each of the named monastic houses, focusing on their income, the use of their demense lands and the role of sheep farming in supporting their economic activities
  • The impact of laws to control the export of wool, introduced by Edward I and III on the financial stability of monastic houses.

Poynings and St John Families

  • A brief history of each family and their land holdings
  • A focused study on the effects of the somewhat turbulent reigns of Edward I – Henry IV on the fortunes the Poyning and St John families
  • The relationship between the nobility and the Church, through the actions and wills of the Poynings and St John Families and their compatriots, with a focus on Church building, chantries and pilgrimage.
  • The feudal roles of the Poynings and St John families, their relationships with their liege Lords and their role in Parliaments. This will include exploring their military roles in the wars of all three Edwards and the rebellions against Edward III and Richard II.
  • The role of marriage in expanding the land holdings and improving the rank of minor nobility.
  • Factors leading to loss of rank and titles in minor noble families
  • The role of the Poynings and St John wives in managing their husband’s estates when they are absent or deceased.


  • Transcribed primary sources, including Domesday book, Monastic Cartularies, Estate Accounts, Wills, Inquisition Post Mortems, and the various Rolls of the Medieval Kings.
  • Secondary sources including Burke’s Peerage, studies of monastic life, studies of minor nobility, texts on diverse topics including: ecclesiastical history, social history, economic history and military history and Victoria County Histories
  • All posts will include references and bibliographies plus footnotes where required.









Comparing Monastic and Landed Families as Medieval Wool Producers

Cultivation of Fibre Flax in Prehistory

The bushier seed flax plant

According to Vavilov (1987), flax was domesticated independently, in Africa and Asia, from the same wild parent plant  Linum bienne, to create the domesticated  Linum usitatissimumHe suggests that natural selection lead to the development of the long and short stemmed varieties, used for textiles and food respectively. These differences were created by the plants’ response to the ambient climate. Fibre flax, growing in the cooler North and food flax in the warmer south. Ivanov (1926) demonstrated this experimentally by moving the fibre plants south and seed plants north. The results showed that the fibre plants became shorter and bushier, with an increase in the yield of seeds and quality of seed oil. Whereas the seed plants grew taller, and were less bushy, yielding fewer seeds and a low quality oil. So this demonstrates that once cultivars were available, it was geography and not breeding that created the two forms of the plant.

Long stems of fibre flax

We know domesticated flax, spread across the globe over time, and archaeological remains can help us explore the process by examining finds including: seed and pollen analysis of soil samples, and preserved flax thread or linen remnants. Breniquet (2015) says that cultivated flax was grown in ancient Mesopitamia between 12 & 8000 BC; co-inciding with the appearance of both twined and woven textiles, such as basket weaving, spinning and cloth weaving cloth. This was noted to have preceded the domestication of  wool producing animals and production of woollen textiles, which appear when settled, agricultural communities formed in the neolithic period. Evidence from Eastern European sites suggests that bast fibre textiles emerged during the late paeleolithic (Sankari 2000), whilst flax and linen are evident in Northern Europe by C4000BC. The British Museum’s collection of Swiss Lake Dwelling Textiles, has given researchers the opportunity to examine and analyse these ancient fibres, with finds indicating processes for harvesting and extracting the fibres, through to spinning to dyeing and weaving (Higget et al 2011).

Although today Britain is an island, it was part of mainland Europe until rising sea levels cut it off, around 6000 BC. Whilst evidence found on the mainland, suggests that Britain did not make the transition to settled, agricultural communities until 4000 BC;  ancient plant DNA recovered from the underwater Boulder Cliff site, in the Solent, shows wheat was grown there, before it was submerged. It is thought seeds were obtained through trading goods and skills with “advanced” societies in Southern Europe (Allerby 2015). Allerby suggests that only lowland areas were actively engaged in farming at this time, but Clay (2001) notes that flax seeds and lime tree pollen were found in late mesolithic and neolithic settlement deposits in Buxton, Derbyshire, which was much further inland. However as no textile remnants have been found so there is no evidence for how flax was used.

Yet despite the evidence of the spread of cultivated flax we don’t really know how it happened. Was knowledge spread by word of mouth, trade or some form of proto-marriage, that created opportunities to share knowledge between tribal group. We don’t know who first discovered that the retted or rotted flax plant, contained a fibre that could be stripped out and used to make cloth, or why they tried to do so. Who first twisted the fibres? Invented the drop spindle and spun the fibre ever more finely? Wove with it?  Built the first looms for weaving? For a plant still used today, that lead to the development of technologies for preparing and creating textiles, created global trade, funded wars, peace, education, religions, and other important facets of later societies, it seems a pity that its origins are lost in time.

Fragment of Neolithic / Bronze Age Textile  British Museum

References and Bibliography

Allerby, R (2015) Changing Perceptions of Britain from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic Age. Warwick Knowledge Centre [online] Available at: Accessed 23/08/16

Clay, P (2001). An Archaeological Resource Assessment and Research Agenda for The Neolithic and Early-Middle Bronze Age of the East Midlands. [Online]. Available at: Accessed 23/08/16

Higget C, Harris H, Cartwright C, Cruickshank P (2011) Assessing the Potential of Historic Archaeological Collections: A Pilot Study of the British Museum’s Swiss Lake Dwelling Textiles. British Museum Technical Research Bulletin Vol 5 (pdf)

Ivanov MM (1926) Variation in the Chemical Composition of the Seeds of Oleiferous Plants in Dependence on Geographical Factors IN Vavilov NI, Dorofiev VF (ed) (1987 published post huomusly) (translated Love D (1992)) Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Sankari H (2000) Towards Bast Fibre Production In Finland: Stem And Fibre Yields And Mechanical Fibre Properties Of Selected Fibre Hemp And Linse Genotype,  Academic Thesis.  Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry of the University of Helsinki. [online] accessed 24/07/2016

Vavilov NI, Dorofiev VF (ed) (1987 ) (translated Love D (1992)) Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Cultivation of Fibre Flax in Prehistory

Woolly Saints – The Festival of St Blaise 1 – Medieval

Holy Days 

Holy Days (latin feria, later corrupted to fair) dedicated to named Saints have been a common event since the inception of the Christian Church. Originally their function was the veneration of the named Saint, perhaps with a special mass or blessing, feast or pageant or pilgrimage to the site of the Saint’s relics, with communities making a special effort, to gather and worship. It is worth noting that there was literally at least one Saint’s Day every day of the year,  during this period, Blaise sharing his day with with St Margaret of England, Patron Saint of the Dying; an early Cistercian Nun, related to St Thomas Beckett (Farmer 1978), and St Werburga of Mercia, Patron Saint of Chester; daughter of a Mercian King, who became a Benedictine Abbess, (Bridgett 1985) (Chester tourist); according to the calendar at The Medieval Combat Society.

The holy days were a celebration of:

  1. Specific events in  Christ’s life – Christmas and Easter,
  2. The change of seasons, gratitude for a good harvest, blessing of the land pre planting crops
  3. Patron saints linked to their occupation, community or Kingdom.

Fasts, Feasts and Festivals

Major Christian holy days were preceded by fasts where no meat could be eaten – Lent and Advent. – and ended with celebratory feasts for all. Peasants would dine at their Lord’s table, and have time off from all but essential work. The various merchant, trade and religious guilds would hold special religious services, sponsor feasts for their members and the local poor, and entertain the community with pageants and mystery or morality plays. Depending on the Feast, Priests might bless animals, land, tools of the trade or buildings to enhance productivity and profitability.

A Medieval Market

The content of the Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs to 1516 (Letters 2013), shows that the majority of fairs were held on or over the festival of a saint, the majority being founded in the reigns of Kings John and Henry III. Fairs were taxable and hence in the Kings gift, so needed to be granted, with fines being payable for “unlicensed” events. The Church, being financially shrewd, seems to have exploited the opportunity for income presented by these gatherings. by seeking Royal franchises to establish markets in church grounds.  (Medieval Life and Times). The secular community also saw the business opportunities presented by such gathering and local lords or guilds would also apply for Royal franchises for fairs or by claiming they had been held in perpetuity (Letters 2013). A future post, examining the foundation of fairs and markets in more depth, will explore the local and political tensions this could create. The majority of fairs seem to have been held between April and early December and could last from 1 to 15 days. (Letters 2013) They also provided opportunities to purchase goods, not commonly availalbe locally. Some fairs became specialised, such as the fleece or animal fairs, which will be explored in more depth at a later date.

The Feast of St Blaise

Holidays, Church and Feasts

The Feast of St Blaise, was a public holiday (Koenig 2012) and provided wool workers with a break from their daily lives, spent washing, combing, carding, spinning, weaving or knitting, fulling, tenting, buying and selling wool. They could reflect on and give thanks for the good fortune their Saint granted them in Church and enjoy leisure time with friends or fellow guild members. A feature of the High Mass on St Blaise’s day was the offering of a special taper (Williams 1998), which is likely to be the precursor to the blessing of the throat with two crossed candles (Matz 2000).

A modern depiction of a procession of St Blaise

There could have been a pageant, play or feast. Guild members might parade an effigy of St Blaise or a Ram, through the streets, (although the only evidence for this is the modern day parade in St Blazey, Cornwall), to and / or from the parish or guild church, where the priest might also bless the tools of the trade. He might also travel to farms or wool warehouses blessing the sheep or fleeces. Priestly blessings of agricultural land and craftsmen’s tools were an important ritual in medieval life (BBC TV, Tudor Monastery Farm). Once the religious part of the event was over, a feast might be held and whilst there are no specific references to its content, lamb or mutton would celebrate the connection to sheep. Feasts were provided by the local Lord in the country and the woolworkers guild(s), in the towns. Guilds were organisations of master craftsmen, serving a wide range of purposes including quality control, social support and preservation of the mysteries of the craft. Guild members were expected to contribute financially throughout the year, with a portion of these funds allocated to feasting (Wikipedia).

St Blaise Fairs

1222 – Synod of Osney, convened by Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Langton, the son of a Lincolnshire Farmer, stated that all woolcombers should not work on St Blaise’s Day – with wool being such a big industry, this implied that most rural people and many townspeople had a holiday. According to Koenig (2012), women caught spinning on this day would have their distaff confiscated and burned. This laid the way open for the development of fairs.

1235 – Fair of Blaise the martyr (3 Feb); granted by King Henry III to the Priory of Boxgrove (CChR, 1226–57, p. 211). Included a mandate to the  Sheriff of Sussex to proclaim the fair and cause it to be held. Letters (2013). According to the Calendar of the Charter Rolls of Henry III, this fair ran over three days:

The prior of Boxgrove has a charter for a fair at Boxgrove, on the vigil, the feast and the morrow of St Blaise the Martyr” (Deputy Keeper of the Records, 1908).

1447 – John Lowe, Bishop of Rochester held a fair on St Blaise’s Day (3 Feb); recorded 20 Jul , held by John Lowe, bp of Rochester (CChR, 1427–1516, p. 87).(Letters 2013). Lysons (1796) notes that this fair was held within the manor (p307 fn1). There is also a holy well, with healing waters from a chalybeate spring,  dedicated to St Blaise in Bromley, which Lysons suggests had an oratory attached pre reformation. Pixyledpublications (2013) states that local lore suggests that the parish church was once dedicated to St Blaise, but the earliest documentation suggesting a link between Bromley and St Blaise is that of the grant of the fair by Henry VI in 1447.

Clothing of Bocksten Man

What Was Sold At A St Blaise Fair?

Whilst its not possible to establish exactly what was sold at these fairs, it is possible to made an educated guess, based on what is known of farming practices and day to day life. Firstly, the season suggests that sheep or fleece were unlikely to be sold, unless the fair specialised in selling castrated male yearling lambs that were good for producing wool and meat. Ewes would be waiting to lamb in late February and shearing was in June (Staples 1999). Secondly we must assume the roads were well maintained to facilitate travel, so perhaps there was a pilgrim trail, to bring the customers along? Canterbury held relics of St Blaise, but the distance between it and both Bromley (56 miles) and Boxgrove (98 miles) would suggest that neither of these fairs would cash in on this domestic pilgrimage, as there was no way they could reach  Canterbury for the Feast. However Morrison (2002) notes that Easter pilgrimages to Rome often started in January or February, so could these people, perhaps walking to Dover for passage to France be the prospective customers?  If so, perhaps these St Blaise Fairs, specialised in selling woollen clothing for pilgrims? A full outfit was discovered in Sweden, worn by the “Bocksten Man”, a 14th C murder victim, discovered in a peat bog (The Local SE 2006). During winter, agricultural work was limited (Staples) and so more time was available for indoor work, possibly spinning, weaving, and tailoring previously fulled cloth.


Bonfires seem to be a feature of St Blaise’s Day events, Williams (1998) states that they were lit on the hills at night. When first considered, it could be thought that the pronounciation of Blaise sounds like the English word Blaze, meaning fire. However it appears these bonfires took place across Europe, possibly because this was the time of year that stubble was burned. This custom might have originated in Pagan times and is still celebrated in the town of Fuiggi, Italy; the practice having saved the town from being sacked by a Papal army, who assumed that the flames meant the town had already been attacked by their allies (Fiuggi Turismo Convention and Visitors Bureau 2014)


References and Bibliography

Anon (no date) Medieval Life and Times – Medieval Fairs [online] Available Accessed 13/11/15

Bridgett, Ronald W (1985) The Life of St Werburgh: Princess of Mercia, The Parish and Church Wardens of the Parish of St Werburgh, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent [online] Available: accessed 4.11.2015

Burns P (1998) revision Butler’s Live of the Saints, Full Edition, February. Burns and Oats (Tunbridge Wells) pp33-4

Chester Tourist dot com (no date) The Shrine of St Werburgh [online] Available: Accessed 4.11.2015

Farmer, David Hugh. (1978). The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. Oxford: Oxford University Press. In St Margaret of England [online] available: accessed 4.11.2015

Fiuggi Turismo Convention and Visitors Bureau (2014) Popular Festivals -St Blaise/ Stuzza [online] Available: Accessed 13.11.15

Koenig, C (2012) Recalling the Cult of Bishop Blaze, Oxford Times [online] available: accessed 11/11/2015

Letters, S. (2013) Online Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516 <;:

Lysons Rev D (1796) The Environs of London, Counties of Herts, Essex and Kent Cadle & Davies (London) [online] Available Accessed 13.11.15

Matz T (2000) Catholic Online – St Blaise [online] Available: Accessed 6.11.15

Morrison SS (2002) Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England Routledge (London) [online] Available Accessed 13.11.15

Pixyledpublications (2013) Holy and Healing Wells – A Well for February, St Blaise’s Well, Bromley, Kent [online] Available Accessed 13.11.15

Staples A (1999) The Medieval Farming Year v1.0 [online] Available: Accessed 13.11.15

The Local SE (2006) Swedish Bog Man, Murdered 700 years ago [online] Available Accessed 13.11.15

The Medieval Combat Society (undated) Historical Information, Medieval Calendar [online] available accessed 4.11.2015

Wikipedia (2015) Guild [online] Available: accessed 6/11/15

Williams B (1998) St Blaise’s Well, Bromley, Kent [online] Available: Accessed 11.11.15

Woolly Saints – The Festival of St Blaise 1 – Medieval