Wool and the Wool Trade

During the Middle Ages monastic orders ran large tracts of land in the Lake counties. They kept sheep for their wool, which was a major commodity. This must have meant they also used horses and ponies to market the resulting wool crop each year. grey Heltondale ponies

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

It is likely that the monks' ponies were of varying types. It is also possible there may have been an Irish Connemara influence in the area. 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).

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 their colour, large numbers of ponies 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".

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. 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, a sign of corporate ownership, but not an exclusive one. It would be an easy objective to achieve because grey horses were common at that time, but it does not mean, of course, that there were no grey horses or ponies outside of monastic ownership.

That the colour grey was common in the general equine population of Northern England in the early 16th century, can be shown by studying a list of 252 horses that were returned to Northern soldiers in 1513 after the Battle of Flodden, 95 were grey. It was easily the most frequent colour of all, and it did not include "white". (Dent) These horses were not from monastic stock; they belonged to the farmer-soldiers who were being "demobbed" after Henry VIII's Scottish campaign.

The Dissolution of the monasteries did not take place until 1540, a generation later, so we cannot maintain the idea that the monks had cornered the market until, suddenly, at the Dissolution, all the greys came back into general ownership. There clearly were lots of greys that were in secular ownership before then so the claim does not make sense chronologically.

If the monks bred horses and ponies, they would find it easy to breed greys if much of their stock was grey; to breed a grey foal you have to use a grey mare or stallion. But greys were common elsewhere too and if a secular owner bred a grey he might sell to a neighbour just as easily as to a Cistercian friary.