Wool was the backbone of the English economy. Customs duties levied on wool formed a large proportion of national revenue. The woollen trade had suffered though. War was one factor, but competition had increased, customs duties were being evaded, and raids on lone ships or shipwrecks due to inclement weather had resulted in the trade’s profitability being adversely affected.
For most exports of wool, the intention was to sell in Northern Europe. As the Wars of the Roses ebbed and flowed, a series of regulations were introduced to protect English merchants and the interests of the treasury. Most ships leaving England with a cargo of wool had, by law, to sail to Calais.
Newcastle had an exemption, being allowed to sail into more northerly ports in Flanders and to Scotland. The concept of a wool fleet was introduced to address the regular losses and diminish the risk of raiders.
20 July 1479, Embarkation of a large Wool Fleet from London to Calais.
Many vessels would carry goods from many merchants. The cargo shipped by these merchants could be spread over several of the vessels. Therefore, there was safety in numbers, which was easier for the Calais or Sandwich Fleets to protect and, should a vessel sink, the loss per merchant was limited.
One of the first large scale, wool only, fleets set sail on 20 July 1479. It was a fleet of some 38 ships. London customs accounts show that in subsequent days the number of ships departing was, as expected, much lower than previously. The following spring, further wool fleets set sail in a practice that continued beyond the end of the Wars of the Roses.
Why was a Wool Fleet needed?
The English Channel was rarely a safe place in the later medieval period. Not only did it encounter inclement weather that presented serious risks to the mariners but there were also frequent encounters with pirates and, at times, opportunistic attacks upon shipping by stronger vessels. In 1479 the picture was a little more complex. Whilst England had formalised a peace with France, the same was not true of other European powers. Chief among those was the Hanseatic League, with whom England entered a conflict that was largely a trade war but at times led to clashes at sea.