The Fell Pony Museum: 14th Century
The Fell Pony Museum
Chaucer :: Monks :: Wool trade :: Rakkers

Wool and the Wool Trade

During the Middle Ages monastic orders owned large tracts of land in the Lake counties. They kept sheep for their wool, which was a major commodity. [Gregorian chant]

The large, prosperous churches built in many parts of Cumbria during medieval times show how highly British and Continental merchants valued the various grades of cloth made of wool from the "sheep walks" of the Lakeland fells. The prosperity of the monasteries can be said to be built on the backs of sheep, and on the sturdiness of the ponies who carried the "woolpacks" to the spinners and dyers, or the panniers of metal ores to the smelters.

grey Heltondale ponies

<< Left: Photo of grey Heltondale mares: courtesy of Barbara Muller

It is likely that the monks' ponies were of varying types. It is also possible there may have been an Irish influence in the north of England. Norsemen, who had settled in Ireland, later migrated to Northern England, and could have brought their own type of pony with them. Cistercian abbeys in particular are said to have been fond of keeping grey animals, the colour being recognised as a badge of their ownership (Richardson). By contrast, Ryder, in a paper about Kirkstall Abbey in 1961, said in an introductory passage, "There are no descriptions of Cistercian farm animals." I wondered if there might be accounts of goods and chattels taken from the monasteries at the time of the Dissolution but surprisingly there do not seem to be any relevant documents still in existence.


Travel was possible at all times of the year, even through winter, as shown by the itineraries of various Kings from John onwards. Hindle says: "the baggage train, comprising from ten to twenty carts and wagons, containing everything from the treasury to the king's wardrobe, had to move about with the king and must have required adequate roads. The kings were almost constantly on the move, and there are few recorded complaints about the condition of the roads." He also notes that "after the Black Death had reduced the population, there was a shortage of labour and people started to move to find better paid work."

Whatever the colour of the ponies belonging to religious houses, large numbers must have been in use to carry wool from the monastic lands to the ports.

"There are ... records of Newcastle merchants buying Cumbrian wool for export in 1397 and again in 1423, 1427 and 1444." (Postan, cited in Williams) "Similarly there is evidence that ... Bristol merchants were shipping Kendal cloth to Spain ... Southampton Brokerage books referred to Kendal traders by name in the autumn of 1442, and record that between November 1492 and March 1493, eleven Kendal traders made a total of 14 journeys to Southampton, carrying packs of cloth."

Working for the Monasteries

11th and 12th century monastic work for ponies could include pack work carrying wool, woollen goods, and local metal ores; shepherding; and wolf hunting by professional "wolvers" whose job was to protect the sheep on the "sheepwalks".

Pack ponies were called "capuls", so some placenames in Cumbria such as Chapel Waste or Cappelrigg may not be referring to ecclesiastical "chapels" but to "capuls" or pack horses.

Kirkstall Abbey had horse breeding "ranches" in the Slaidburn (Lancashire) area up until the dissolution. A local farmer has deeds for his farm that actually mention that horses were kept rather than sheep or cattle as they were able to escape the predations of wolves. (D Higham of Slaidburn, in an email to author 2002).

Some of the pack bridges and great lengths of wall on the fells are believed have been built by monastic landowners (though many more date from the period of Enclosure, from the 17th C onward). These boundaries, and years of energetic shepherding on a daily basis, have laid the foundations of the "heafed" or "hefted" flocks which still pass on the knowledge of their traditional territory from mother to lamb each year.

Grey Colour, Monastic Owners: Cause or Effect?

It has been asserted by various authors that the Cistercian order - the "White Friars" - used white or grey horses and ponies. This is possible; it would be rather like a company owning a fleet of cars such as Fords or Vauxhalls. It would be a sign of corporate ownership. The monks would certainly find it easy enough to breed greys if much of their stock was grey; to breed a grey foal you have to use a grey mare or stallion. However, it doesn't mean their ownership of greys was exclusive. Greys were common elsewhere too and if a farmer bred a grey he might sell to a secular neighbour just as easily as to a Cistercian friary.

A clerical preference for greys, whether true or not, does not mean that there were no grey horses or ponies outside of monastic ownership. The colour grey was common in the general equine population of Northern England in the early 16th century, as can be seen by studying a list of 252 horses that were returned to Northern soldiers after the Battle of Flodden. 95 of them were grey. It was easily the most frequent colour of all, and that is without counting those that were "white". (Dent) These horses belonged to the farmer-soldiers who were being "demobbed" after Henry VIII's Scottish campaign in 1513.

The Dissolution of the monasteries did not take place until 1540, almost a generation later than Flodden. This information about soldiers' mounts doesn't support the idea that the monks had cornered the market in greys. There clearly were plenty in secular ownership before then; so the claim that suddenly, at the Dissolution, all the greys came back into general ownership, does not make sense chronologically; still less that they were released into a wild or feral population on the fell instead of being sold to add funds Henry VIII's war chest.



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Last updated 23 May, 2021 .
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