Sheep and English History

Sheep have played a huge role in the history of England.

For centuries, wool and woollen cloth were the major exports, in fact, they played a large but largely overlooked role in the Roman and Norman invasions. Why else would such people go to so much trouble over these rocky backward islands? English wool was Europe’s finest for centuries, and with grain was its major export, with huge flocks grazed on the church lands of southern England, especially the west country. Wool was so important that it was virtually used as currency, as shown in the Nursery Rhyme, ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’:

Baa, baa, black sheep, Have you any wool?

Yes, sir, yes, sir, Three bags full.

One for the master, and one for the dame,

And one for the little boy who lives down the lane.

According to the Opies, who are the experts on such things, this refers to the export tax on wool imposed in 1275. I find it strange that a song could survive so long,but what do I know?

I don’t know when the Spanish developed their soft, long fibred wool, which is much nicer than the English breeds, so the old European wool must have been like wearing nettles, but by the mid 18th century large amounts of Spanish wool was being imported to this country.

Australia famously was carried on sheep’s backs. In the early 19th century, sheep farming was a major driving force in settling the country, with huge tracts of land being taken up by landowners, The Squatters who became a de facto aristocracy of the new land, the Squattocracy.

This happened becuase the Napoleonic wars had destroyed large numbers of the Spanish flocks, so Australia was able to import – or rather, smuggle – the hardy and heat tolerant merino sheep that are still a major part of the economy.

The archetype itinerant farm worker, the swagman, was part of the agricultural cycle, and important enough to feature in ‘Waltzing Matilda’, the de facto national anthem, and probably the song in English with the most incomprehensible lyrics.

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