69 Merchants and trivial stuff about Magnates

Wool was the wealth of England, the great trade that brought wealth and prosperity to England. The people who really made the money were the big ticket Italian Merchants. This week we also look at the life of Magnates, the super-rich during the period, and their households.

69 Merchants and Magnates



By the way, I have a page with some basic data from medieval times – so click here if you want to look at population, prices and other economic data.

External Trade

Just as the 13th C saw a continued growth of towns, so trade grew – to a value of about £500,000 by the end of the century. By and large, England was an exporter of raw materials, and an importer of finished products, or Agricultural products we could grown ourselves. Here are a few of the the things we exported: 

  • Wine: counting Gascony as part of the piece, Gascony exported wine especially to the Continent. England of course was a very valuable  customer – sometimes taking 20% of its output. 
  • A million tons of tin from Cornwall
  • Lead from the Pennines and North Wales
  • The Wool Trade and Merchants

The Wool trade

But the big one was Wool; it generated something like half of England's external trade at this time.
The size of our exports varied –  reaching a height of 46,000 sacks. You might wonder what a sack of wool looks like  The Woolsack– and if so, look no further than the Woolsack, which, slightly oddly, the Lord Chancellor chooses to sit on in the House of Lords.Those 46,000 sacks of wool were produced by something like 10 million sheep. 

The trade was driven by the relationship with one of the two economic powerhouses of Europe – Flanders. Just across the channel, Flanders had the largest concentration of towns and cloth producing industry outside of North Italy, and our closeness to this key market gave us the edge. Although the wool we produced was not as fine as Spain's Merino, is was softer, and easier to felt – and so therefore cheaper to manufacture. 

 If you want to know more about the wool trade and industry, then here's a series of Ford lectures produced by the  Economic Historian Eileen Powers. 

Download The Wool Trade by Eileen Powers


Fountains AbbeyThe merchants who dominated this trade were initially not English. The biggest firms were Italian – names like the Riccardi, the Frescobaldi, Peruzzi and the Bardi dominated the English scene. They dominated because of their access to markets, but also their unique way of joing together, giving them access to capital that the English Merchant couldn't compete with. Often, they would work with English merchants, who would gather wool from their hinterland, and sell to the large exporters at local fairs. But increasingly, Italian merchants went straight to the biggest producers – the Cistercian  monasteries like Fountains or Rievaulx. They would buy up several years of crop in advance – the merchant got a great price (maybe as low as £4 a sack, which they could sell for £8), but took the risk that prices would fall; the Abbey got les for their crop, but got their money in advance, and the security that brought. 

By the time of Edward I, the Italian houses were also lending serious amounts of money to the English crown – to their eventual downfall. 

Nicholas of Ludlow and Stokesay Castle

The great hall at StokesayNot all successful merchants were foreign; and over time, and certainly by the early 14th Century the picture had reversed, and English Merchants controlled the majority of the English trade. 

An example is Nicholas of Ludlow, and his son Laurence, who became the richest merchants of their time. Laurence was enormously rich – lending for example, £4,000 to one baron in a single transaction. He became an adviser to Edward I on commerce, which to the fury of other merchants resulted in Edward tripling the customs duty on wool to £2 per sack. Laurence had the typical life of a Merchant – we know that he travelled the English fairs such as Boston, but also the great French fairs of Champagne. He sold to the cloth Stokesay - the new gatehouse merhcants of the Low Countries such as Ghent, Bruges and Types. In 1291, he set off on a normal voyage, carrying in his ship 189 sacks of wool, each worth about £7 and containing 250 fleeces. Unfortunately, but much to the glee of his competitors, he was shipwrecked and drowned. 

In 1280s, Laurence had bought into the landowning classes, in a model that will be recognisable for  many hundreds of years of English history. 

Stokesay great hall from over the MoatThey built the rather exquisite Stokesay Castle in Shropshire in the Welsh Marches, which would more formally be called a fortified manor house. It was strong enough to resist a casual attempt at banditry from robbers or the Welsh, but not strong enough to resist a proper siege – there are lovely big windows that give direct access to the main hall, for example, that you could drive a wagon through. 

But it is also, in fact, a rather exquisite building, and hopefully you'll see from these pictures, or if not by going to the History of England Facebook page

9 thoughts on “69 Merchants and trivial stuff about Magnates

  1. My first “real time” episode, and I am happy to say that I learned a few things that didn’t know. Firstly, the Lord Chancellor’s wool sack. Looking at the photo you’ve posted above, it looks more like something that a Grand Vizier would recline across in Topkapi Palace, while entertaining a wife and eating a grape. I don’t suppose that sort of thing happens in the House of Lords.
    Secondly, the latrine tower. While it is inevitable that sanitation had to be taken care of *somehow*, the pitiful amount of history that I studied in school extended little beyond “colour in this diagram of the feudal pyramid and dress up as a knight”. No one thought to teach me about the nitty gritty of castle life. Or nitty grotty, as the case may be.
    Anyway, my curiosity got the better of me and google, and I found a great picture of a latrine tower at Skipness Castle:
    The mental image of this being used is truly horrifying.

  2. Hi Dan
    I loved the picture ! As you say, a really nasty thought…and where, I wonder did it all go? Into the moat? The smell….
    Yes, I think the woolsack thing is an absolute hoot. I’m trying to visualise the conversation between two sober faced magnates:
    1-er..we need a new chair for the Chancellor you know
    2-oh dear, those things cost a fortune, do you think he’d put up with a stool?
    1-well, I was at my brother’s farm the other day. We were messing around on his woolsacks. They were really fun, and really squashy and comfy.
    2-Yay! Great idea! Then after we’ve given the king a beating we can have a bit of a bounce! Or a big pillow fight!

  3. Though it is still a rather long time from the era you’re discussing now, I hope you will pay some attention to the machinations of Edward I in the Low Countries, among them his actions that led to the assassination of our beloved count of Holland: Floris V in 1296.
    Anyway, keep up the great work, I was waiting for another great installment of this podcast, and You provided :p

  4. Hi Matt
    That’s very exciting. I have just read a book on E1, which represented Floris’s claim to the Scottish throne as a bit eccentric. So fascinating to see there’s a back story. I feel a digression coming on! I shall definitely cover it – any local colour you could provide would be grand.

  5. That’s cool David, looking forward to that. I don’t really have any ‘local colour’ to add to it sadly, except that Floris is the son of the only Dutch Holy Roman King (William II, who was killed by Frisians) and he’s famous for expanding the County of Holland at their expense.

  6. I know this is way after the fact, but the fact that English wool was good because it was easy to felt – has nothing to do with how easy it was to make yarn. “Felting” has to do with the finished cloth, and how the yarn in the cloth can bind together to make a warm, not permeable, cloth. The fulling mills do this by beating the cloth, and it will come out nice, warm and soft, and less like burlap.

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