Welcome to Episode #49 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford Upon Avon sits just outside the famous Cotswolds Hills, where wool was the primary industry. It’s even thought that shepherds in the area taking care of their sheep are responsible for the first discovery of graphite that would go on to be used in pencils. In Shakespeare’s plays, there are references to sheep, lambs, fleeces, wool, and shepherds in almost all of his works, leading us to wonder how personally connected to sheep and the wool industry William Shakespeare might have been.
Here to share with us the history of the sheep in Stratford Upon Avon is the lady who takes care of them at Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Lizzy Dobbin.
Lizzy Dobbin is the Assistant Farm Manager at Mary Arden’s Farm for Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. She helps take care of the numerous animals kept at Mary Arden’s Farm, a working Tudor era farm setup to be a replica of what would have existed in Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Lizzy takes time out of her day today to talk with us about sheep as she prepares for the lambing of 44 lambs which will be born at the farm this Easter, along with a traditional handfast ceremony that takes place at Mary Arden’s Farm this June.
Learn more about Mary Arden’s Farm, as well as Shakespeare Birthplace Trust properties and how you can visit for the exciting upcoming events right here.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Lizzy about :
- King Edward I was the first monarch to tax the wool trade heavily, but was that continuing into Shakespeare’s lifetime under Elizabeth I?
- At Mary Arden’s farm, you keep Portland Sheep, and since everything done at SBT is historically minded, what was it about Shakespeare’s history that lead you to choose Portland sheep over other kinds?
In Henry IV Part 2 Silence and Shallow discuss the price of sheep, and the Young Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale tries to calculate the value of his fleeces. Was William Shakespeare a farmer in addition to being a playwright? Were these references something he would have known about personally from his family’s business in the wool trade?
…. and more!
good pasture makes fat sheep
A Working Tudor Farm
Mary Arden’s Farm is a working Tudor farm located where William’s mother, Mary, grew up as a child. Once she married William Shakespeare’s father, John, she left and lived with him to raise their family at the home on Henley Street known as Shakespeare’s Birthplace. The farmhouse that remains and is run as a working Tudor farm was, during Mary Arden’s lifetime, a working Tudor farm as well. The design of the farm is to recreate the life and working arrangements which would have been seen there over 400 years ago. From the implements they use to the animals they keep, including the Portland Sheep born and bred there, visiting is a step back into time.
The wool industry
The wool industry was a vibrant one in Shakespeare’s lifetime and quite particularly in Stratford Upon Avon. In fact, there is a street there named Sheep Street as a nod to the importance of sheep and the wool industry to the economy of the town. John Shakespeare is thought to have dealt in the wool industry, and sheep were part of the farm animals kept at Shakespeare’s home in Stratford Upon Avon, which is one reason Shakespeare Birthplace Trust keeps them there today. A traditional Tudor home would use the wool from their sheep to create clothing, yarn, and other practical implements, and the meat of sheep was eaten as well.
According to Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, “William Shakespeare himself had links to the wool trade through his father, John, who was known to have operated as a ‘wool brogger’ — an unlicensed, and therefore illegal, wool dealer — after the occupation had been restricted to state-approved merchants only, following an Act of Parliament from 1553.” (Source)
It was difficult for the heavy English wool to compete with the lighter, Spanish wool during the late 1500s. In an effort to rally the economy for wool in England under Elizabeth I, a law was passed in 1571 declaring:
“every person above the age of six years (excepting “Maids, ladies, gentlewomen, noble personages, and every Lord, knight and gentleman of twenty marks land”) residing in any of the cities, towns, villages or hamlets of England, must wear, on Sundays and holidays (except when travelling), “a cap of wool, thicked and dressed in England, made within this realm, and only dressed and finished by some of the trade of cappers, upon pain to forfeit for every day of not wearing 3s. 4d.” Source
Although the law was repealed in 1597, the Monmouth cap was still so popular, that Shakespeare includes a reference to it in his play, Henry V. The real king Henry V was born in Monmouth, and that’s a recurring theme in the play as well.
It doth appear; for, upon these taxations,
The clothiers all, not able to maintain
The many to them longing, have put off
The spinsters, carders, fullers, weavers, who,
Unfit for other life, compell’d by hunger
And lack of other means, in desperate manner
Daring the event to the teeth, are all in uproar,
And danger serves among then!
While this picture is from the 18th century, and therefore well after Shakespeare, it does show what it looked like for a group of women to beat the wool into urine soaked troughs with their bare feet. Source
The Fuller’s Job
Perhaps the nastiest job in Tudor England was that of the fuller. In order to extract the lanolin from the wool once a sheep was sheared, the wool would be soaked in a vat of urine. The fuller then had to stamp out the wool with their bare feet before beating the wool and ringing it out by hand.
Eventually a fulling mill was developed which would replace the old fulling methods and thankfully at Mary Arden’s Farm in Stratford Upon Avon today, they do not use the authentic urine-soaked fulling method for their sheep’s wool.
They do however mill their own wool and in a new project being launched this year, you can now buy yard milled at Mary Arden’s Farm from sheep raised there.
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