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British-Sheep-art - 3/1/12


"A History of Sheep Breeds in Britain" by Maistreas Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, OL


NOTE: See also the files: sheep-lambs-msg, The-Sheep-art, B-H-Cheviot-art, livestock-msg, lamb-mutton-msg, merch-fleeces-msg, wool-clean-msg, felting-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org




by Maistreas Siobhan nic Dhuinnshleibhe, OL


The start of wool production in England goes back over 2000 years ago with the arrival of the Romans. They brought their sheep and other domesticated animals with them as they migrated through Europe. By 55 BCE when the Romans reached Britain, their sheep had evolved into a medium-wooled variety between their hairy predecessors and the fine wool sheep that would evolve from their breeding stock. Native British sheep were much like the Soay breed, which developed from the wild Scandinavian and Northern European Sheep. The Romans encouraged the cross-breeding of their sheep with these native sheep to improve the quality of the domesticated livestock. Some wool was even being imported to Rome, where it was used to make robes and gowns for the Emperor and other nobles. To this day, Italy still remains one of the biggest importers of British wool.


               Over the next thousand years, sheep in Britain gradually evolved into the breeds that we know today by selective breeding for wool quality and adaptability to the climate in which they lived. The largest flocks generally belonged to Abbeys and Monasteries, where they were chosen carefully for their fleece, which was the chief determinant in the selection of breeding stock. New blood was infused into these breeds by the invading Norsemen and the sheep they brought with them, by trading with other Europeans for their livestock, and survivors of shipwrecks that found their way on shore and started breeding with the native stock. Legend has it that the ancestors of the Swaledale, Cheviot and Herdwick breeds swam ashore from galleons that wrecked off of Englands western shores. The Ryeland breed found in the Western Midlands is indicative of the type of short-wool sheep that probably existed in Britian during the Middle Ages. Similarly, the modern Romney is indicative of what the longer-wool medieval breeds looked like.


               Henry I of England established the Scottish woolen industry on the river Tweed in 1111. He sponsored the first woolen cloth guild in England in 1120 and greatly advanced the textile skills of the nation by assisting Flemish weavers to relocate throughout the country and spread their knowledge throughout the villages and countryside. In 1132 French Cistersian monks relocated to England and started wool production in their abbeys. In 15 years they had over 15,000 sheep in the flocks scattered between their 50 abbeys in England.


               The woven woolen cloth industry in England grew so much that a guild for those that fulled woolen cloth was established in 1164. England's woolen industry continued to expand and became such an important factor in the national economy that when Richard the Lionheart was captured by the Saracens in 1195 during the Crusades, English wool was sent as part of his ransom. During this time Spain's woolen industry also became powerful due to the softness of its merino wool, and increasing lengths of Spanish wool were imported by England. So much Spanish wool was exported to England that Henry III was forced to order all cloth containing Spanish wool to be burnt in 1221 in order to protect the English woolen industry. A little over 200 years later, England would once again outlaw the importation of woolen goods from any country in order to protect their national woolen industry.


               In 1327 and for 50 years afterwards, Edward III earned the title of "Royal Wool Merchant" for his efforts to improve the national textile skills by offering asylum to all textile workers willing to immigrate to England. Many Flemish weavers relocated to England and were able to establish separate industries for both spinning and weaving woolen and worsted wool products. Only 20 years later the woolen industry of England, as well as the rest of Europe, was hit hard by the succession of plagues that swept through the countryside. During the Black Plague in 1349, sheep so outnumbered people that they ran rampant throughout the countryside.


               The English woolen industry continued to have its ups and downs through the next 200 years, at times promoting exportation of English wool or preventing the importation of foreign wool in order to bolster the economy. Wool became such a strong force in the national economy that Elizabeth I began the tradition of having nobles kneel on sacks of wool when swearing fealty in 1570, and the Lord Mayor of London and all members of Parliament sat on wool sacks as a poignant reminder that much of England's power rests on wool.


               Until the mid 18th century, mutton (the meat produced by the sheep) was considered a by-product of wool production. During the Industrial Revolution, technical developments in textile industries as well as mining and engineering promoted population growth in industrial towns, which soon meant that food producers could not keep up with demand. Robert Blakewell, a farmer, began applying precise methods to the development of pedigreed livestock in an attempt to produce animals that matured quicker and would give greater profit by a quicker turnover to both fiber and mutton. Rather than focus primarily on wool production (for which he was often criticized) he focused on breeding sheep for mutton production. He did not completely abandon fiber quality as evidenced by the extensive notes he left on the qualities of texture, fineness, and softness of the wool on the breeds he was working with.


               Although Blakewell sought to improve many livestock breeds including horses, pigs and cattle, sheep were the animals that benefited most. He started with the old Leceister Longwool breed and carefully bred them, monitoring such factors as rate and quality of food consumption and carcass development, to create an entirely new breed known as the Dishley and now the New Leceister. This breed matured twice as fast as its predecessors while still producing good quality wool, thus making it profitable for both it's fiber and meat. These sheep were exported to France in large numbers and quickly spread to other parts of the continent. When the Dishley sheep were introduced to Northumberland in the 1760’s, they were rapidly acquired by a number of breeders who started integrating into their flocks. Almost 100 years later, 2 distinct breeds had evolved in the area the Border Leceister and the Leceistershire. The further influence of the Dishley/New Leceister can be seen in many of the present-day British breeds such as the Devon, Longwool, Lincoln, Weynesleydale, Dartmoor and so on.


               This cross-breeding of long-wool breeds was also done in the short-wool breeds. John Ellman used the short-wool heath sheep of the south downs and carefully bred them for mutton production, eventually producing the English Southdown breed. This breed was then further crossed with most of the shorter-wool heath breeds to produce higher-quality mutton.


               Breed refinement and improvement continues to be made in modern times to keep pace with the changing preferences in tastes of consumers for both fiber and mutton.





British Wool Marketing Board. British Sheep Breeds, Their Wool and It’s Uses. London: British Wool Marketing Board. 1980.


Fournier, Nola and Jane. In Sheeps Clothing. Loveland: Interweave Press. 1995.


Henson, Elizabeth. British Sheep Breeds. Shire Album #157. Shire Publications Ltd. 1986. 5th ed. 1997.


Vester, Paula. “The Wool Story.” Stone Mountain: World in a Spin. Presentation/demonstration at the GA National Fair.



Copyright 2011 by Heather McCloy. <siospins at charter.net>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited.  Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org