Tales from End to End
The Tale of the Cotswold Lion
by John Eckersley
At Cirencester Museum is a stuffed life-size sheep. In its former life it was a Cotswold Lion. Sounds strange? The explanation is that the Cotswold Lion is the name of the traditional breed of sheep living in this delightful part of the world known as the Cotswold Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Some people think that the Cotswold Lions were first brought to this country by the Romans, although others believe that the breed was already here when they arrived. Whichever view is correct, they thrived on the rich grassland of the limestone hills and for centuries provided meat and wool for their owners.
After the Normans arrived in 1066, numbers started to increase as the Normans developed the open field system which meant that bigger flocks of Cotswolds lions could be kept. Some of the biggest flocks were those owned by the monasteries and during the Middle Ages Cotswolds sheep became the main source for England’s wool export trade to mainland Europe.
Merchants came from Flanders and Lombardy to buy large quantities of Cotswold wool because they could not produce the same luxurious, linen-like wool in their own countries. The wool was sometimes called ‘The Golden Fleece’, partly perhaps because it brought such wealth to England but also because it could be made into ‘Cloth of Gold’. The wool was woven with extremely fine wires of real metallic gold to make magnificent costly clothing for priests and kings. The process is an ancient one and it is described in the Biblical Book of Exodus. There we read that in order to make Aaron the priest’s ephod garment the craftsmen ‘hammered out sheets of gold and cut them into thin strips to be worked into the fine linen and into the blue, purple and red wool’ (Exodus 39:3).
The Cotswold sheep’s fleece is prized partly because it is long and relatively quick-growing – it can grow 8-12 inches a year – but also because it produces a wool rather like mohair. In fact, sometimes it is called ‘the poor man’s mohair’.
Exports of Cotswolds Lion wool during the Middle Ages were vital for England’s wealth and as a sign of this dependence, the Lord Chancellor’s seat in the House of Lords was made a sack of stuffed wool – the Woolsack. He still sits on this today as a reminder of the importance of wool in the nation’s history. *
Great prosperity came to the monasteries as well as to individuals and the fine ‘Wool Churches’ of many Cotswold villages owe their existence to the medieval merchants who endowed them.
Selling the woollen fleeces brought wealth but greater prosperity could be obtained by processing the material into cloth and then selling it. During the late 16th century the woollen weaving industry became concentrated in the area around Stroud. Here a number of fast-flowing streams coming down the Cotswolds escarpment were able to provide the water power needed for the woollen mills. However, when the Industrial Revolution came (roughly 1750-1850) Cotswold cloth production could not compete with the new steam-driven mills of Northern England and wool supplies from the Pennine Hills provided a readily available raw material. The Cotswold Lion inevitably declined in importance.
In recent years prospects for the Cotswold Lion have become brighter. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust recognises that the long-woolled Cotswold is relatively rare and classes it as a ‘minority’ breed requiring protection. Conservationists have ensured its survival and the number of flocks has increased. New outlets for its fleece have been found and when the wool is tightly curled, it is in demand for sale as Santa Claus Beard material – that really is a niche market! The logo for the Cotswolds ANOB is a Cotswold Lion and the free newspaper distributed by Tourist Information Centres is called the ‘Cotswold Lion’. The Lion may not be roaring but it is certainly bleating loudly in this idyllic part of the country.
* Footnote: On the first Monday in May every year, Tetbury in Gloucestershire hosts the ‘World Championship Woolsack Races’. The town thrived as a wool market in the Middle Ages and the races are thought to have started in the 17th Century when young shepherds wanted to show off to the local lasses by running up a steep hill with a heavy woolsack on their back. Today’s Races go up Gumstool Hill from the Royal Oak pub (at the bottom) to the Crown pub (at the top). In places the gradient is said to be 1 in 4 and the men carry a 60 pounds woolsack while the ladies carry a 35 pounder. Separate youth and children’s races are included in the programme and one group has performed using unicycles. Associated with the Races is a grand street fair. Great hilarity is said to take place, inordinate quantities of beer and cider consumed and record breakers have the opportunity to achieve international acclaim in The Guinness Book of Records.