A wool church is an English church built primarily from the proceeds of the mediaeval wool trade. Wool churches are common in the Cotswolds and in East Anglia, where enormous profits from the wool business spurred construction of ever-grander edifices. A wool church was often built to replace a smaller or less imposing place of worship, in order to reflect the growing prosperity of the community in which it was situated. Many such building projects were undertaken by a small number of families in each village or town, who used the new church building to display their own wealth, status and faith. The building of wool churches largely ended with the simultaneous decline of the wool trade and the English Reformation between 1525 and 1600.
Notable wool churches
The church at Long Melford, Suffolk, is widely regarded as one of the finest wool churches in England. Built largely from 1467–1497, Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford contains magnificent stained glass from the fifteenth century, the Clopton family chantry chapel and the soaring Lady Chapel, which extends at Holy Trinity's east end. The Flushwork employed by the builders of Holy Trinity is some of the finest in England. The church stands as testimony to the wool business and its dizzying success in medieval times.
Another grand Suffolk wool church is St. Edmund in Southwold, which boasts extraordinary painted chancel screens, although nearly all the medieval stained glass is gone, thanks to zealous Puritans during Cromwell's reign. Ironically, Peter Hobart, who served as assistant vicar of St. Edmunds following his graduation from Magdalene College, Cambridge, later left Suffolk for the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, where Hobart became the first pastor of Old Ship Church in Hingham, Massachusetts, the oldest church in continuous use in the United States. (A more vivid contrast to England's wool churches can hardly be imagined. Old Ship Church is a hand-hewn wooden structure with a modified Hammerbeam roof and not a shard of stained glass in sight.)
St. Agnes's Church at Cawston, Norfolk is also well known as a "wool church." Its fifteenth century nave and western tower were financed by Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who had grown rich from the wool business. Typical of a 'wool church,' St. Agnes's scale is far grander than what the modest medieval village required. And the Earl of Suffolk spared no expense in embellishing the interior: the de la Pole crest is carved above the entrance; French stone was used for the tower and nave; the roof, although the typical wooden East Anglian style, is an elaborate hammerbeam confection with elaborate angels curving off the beam ends, and a trio of angels on outstretched wings hovering over each clerestory window.
Clearly in East Anglian medieval times, sheep furnished the currency for architectural atonement.
At St. Mary's Church at Worstead, Norfolk, the village which gave its name to the cloth, the village church built by local weavers in the fourteenth-century towers over the small community, its tower jutting strikingly above the landscape. In other East Anglian communities, the wealth from wool poured in: Wymondham, Diss, North Walsham, East Harling, Attleborough, Aylsham. The churches basked in the refracted glory of wool wealth. Even in Norwich, which boasts more medieval churches than anywhere in Europe, it was wool money that got the stone lifted, the glass stained and the panels carved. Norfolk wool was best suited to heavier cloth, and so Norwich and Norfolk eventually gained almost a complete monopoly on worstead. Those profits fueled an extraordinary ecclesiastical building boom.
At Lavenham, Suffolk, the striking Perpendicular church is one of England's largest parish churches. With its monumental flint and limestone tower, the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, largely rebuilt in the fifteenth century in the prevailing style, dominates the small weaving village. It was financed largely by two families; the Springs and the de Veres.
- Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford, Suffolk, suffolkchurches.co.uk
- web site of Holy Trinity, Church, Long Melford, Suffolk
- St. Edmund, Southwold, photos, suffolkchurches.co.uk
- In its Puritan ascetism and stripped down form, devoid of ornamentation of any sort, Old Ship Church could be called the 'anti-wool church.' In that most of the citizens of Hingham, Massachusetts, were former East Anglians, the message their house of worship sent was stark. There was no stained glass for these Puritans to shatter, no marble effigies to blast. 'This is a new place,' the sleek wooden shell suggests, 'with new rules. This is a game-changer.' Little did they know it, but these severe Massachusetts Bay burghers might have been the Frank Gehrys of their day.
- World History of Architecture, Marian Moffett, Michael Fazio, Lawrence Wodehouse, McGraw-Hill Professional, New York, 2003