Wool smuggling from England’s eastern seaboard, c.1337–1345: an illicit economy in the late Middle Ages

January 24, 2022 | Blog
Home > Wool smuggling from England’s eastern seaboard, c.1337–1345: an illicit economy in the late Middle Ages

by Matt Raven (University of Nottingham)

This blog is based on the author’s article recently published on early view on The Economic History Review: https://doi.org/10.1111/ehr.13141

In the medieval period wool was the only English agricultural product with a substantial international market.  English wool was considered the finest in Europe and occupied a central place in contemporary perceptions of the realm’s commercial strength.  In 1297, the English barons – inaccurately but revealingly – declared that wool amounted to half the wealth of England itself, while in parliament in 1353, wool was described as ‘the sovereign merchandise and jewel of [Edward III’s] realm of England’.

Figure 1. A pen full of sheep in the Luttrell psalter (c.1320–45). Source: British Library Additional MS 42130, fol. 163v.

From 1336, taxation of the international wool trade was significantly increased by the imposition of heavy subsidies (additional duties) payable to the crown on each sack of exported wool.  The imposition of subsidies raised the level of taxation on wool exports to a level which in effect comprised an ad valorem duty exceeding 30% per sack. Consequently, government taxation burdened wool traders with increased transaction costs which seriously reduced the profitability of trade.

The relationship between government and trading practices is central to the history of economic development. My article suggests that government taxation and regulation created a flourishing smugglers’ trade between England’s eastern seaboard and the Low Countries in the middle of the fourteenth century.  Using evidence of legal proceedings in the royal courts, which contain accusations related to smuggling levelled against more than 650 people, my article explores the nature of this illicit economy and examines its significance for the history of England’s export trade.

Even a small quantity of wool was a valuable commodity: a single pound weight of high- quality wool was worth more than an average day’s wages for a skilled building worker such as a carpenter.  My article also reveals how the substantial  costs associated with the wool subsidies prompted numerous smaller-scale exporters to risk the smuggling of relatively small quantities of wool in order to maintain the flow of trade and minimize costs. The practice of smaller-scale smuggling appears to have been endemic in the late 1330s and early 1340s, even though domestic wool prices were depressed (Figure 2).  Clearly, smuggling was attractive for exporters engaged in smaller-scale wool smuggling.

Figure 2. Annual mean domestic price of wool in shillings per stone, 1322–80. Note: (Michaelmas to Michaelmas)
Source: as per article.

What, then, of larger-scale smuggling?  My research indicates weaknesses in the customs system which enabled important merchants to smuggle large quantities of wool overseas through major ports.  For instance, Exchequer investigations concluded that 2,500 sacks of wool had been smuggled in one fleet transporting wool to Dordrecht in 1337.  Indeed, illicit and legitimate engagement with the wool trade  seems to have comprised a business strategy for several prominent mercantile syndicates, such as a group of York merchants from the late 1330s. This smuggling was enabled by the complicity of customs officials, some of whom were also wool merchants.

While the total amount of wool smuggled cannot be accurately measured, it is certainly feasible that  large-scale smuggling moved substantial volumes of wool overseas (Figure 3). The scale of smuggling at this time therefore needs to be integrated into explanations of a marked drop in legitimate exports in the late 1330s and early 1340s.

Figure 3. Annual ‘customed’ wool exports, 1327–77 (in sacks). Source: as per article

The crown knew that smuggling posed a serious threat to its fiscality; this led to a series of important innovations in the administration of the customs, including transferring management of the customs to mercantile consortiums between 1343 and 1351;  reforming the Staple system in 1353, and returning to monopolistic practices in 1363. These experimental policies were designed in part to build a community of interest around the prosecution of smuggling between the crown and sections of the mercantile elite, thereby increasing the efficiency of commercial regulation. An increase in efficiency may help to explain the notable boom in exports in the 1350s and much of the 1360s (Figure 3).

My research situates wool smuggling as an important illicit practice in the mid-fourteenth century. By studying the shadow economy alongside the formal sector, we can see how government attempts to maximise revenues shaped the pattern of commerce by encouraging a broad cross-section of exporters to participate in illegal trade.  In turn, this highlights the role of conflict over economic resources in shaping both formal and informal economic institutions,  and allows the medieval wool trade to be integrated into a wider body of work on informal economies which is generally weighted towards the modern period.


To contact the author: Matt.Raven@nottingham.ac.uk