The Wool Churches of the Cotswolds: a Brief History and Guide
The bucolic landscape of the Cotswolds has a rich founding history in the medieval wool trade. Following the Norman conquest of 1066, wool merchants realised that the rolling grassy landscapes of the Cotswolds were an ideal place to raise sheep, and they set about raising vast flocks of sheep that were later dubbed the “Cotswold Lions” on account of their enormous size and long, flowing golden fleece. Sales of this wool proved to be so profitable that it enabled the merchants to build grand churches and stately homes with the proceeds. The architectural traits that we have come to know and appreciate as traditional Cotswold traits with their limestone walls and cottage-like structures, as well as the high-reaching lines of the Perpendicular Architecture of the time are the direct result of this profitable wool trade. Most notably, are the churches that were built during this time, sponsored by the successful wool merchants of the Cotswolds, and referred to now as “wool churches.”
The wool churches of the Cotswolds directly mirror the profitable nature of the medieval wool trade in the elaborate nature of their designs. Many of these churches bear more of a resemblance to cathedrals, complete with carvings, stained-glass, and interior funeral monuments. For medieval architecture fans who may be considering a visit to the Cotswolds, there are quite a few of these churches still standing that should definitely grace your “don’t miss” lists.
St. Oswald’s Church, Wilford, Oxfordshire
Despite the overall image of the churches of the Cotswolds being small yet lavish, this tiny church, located all on its own atop a hillside in Oxfordshire’s Windrush Valley, is a small and quaint mixture of 11th Century Saxon and Norman elements mixed with its mainly 13th Century components. It stands next to the ruins of a deserted medieval village, and boasts hidden treasures; there are uncovered Roman mosaics and 14th-century wall paintings within the church. It is a refreshing and bucolic setting, and something a bit different for fans of medieval Saxon history.
The Parish Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Northleach, Cheltenham
The town of Northleach can be traced back to the year 1227. Its beginnings were little more than a humble nave, which was then built upon and redeveloped by the wool merchants of the 15th century. When visiting The Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, it is easy to see the effect of the very profitable wool trade in the grand appearance of the redeveloped 15th Century nave, as well as the additions of aisles, satellite chapels, and a porch that were all developed right about this time. A breathtaking, cathedral-like appearance of Perpendicular Architecture makes The Parish Church of St. Peter and St. Paul among the most famous of the wool churches of the Cotswolds. This singular architecture is a direct result of the cash injected into the churce by the 15th Century wool merchants, many of whom bequeathed their estates to the church in their wills.
Of the many points of interest within St. Peter’s Church in Winchcombe, one of the most talked-about is the abundance of amusing gargoyles that embellish the roofline. Half of the carvings (sometimes referred to as “grotesques”) depict various demonic-looking creatures, while the rest offer an amusing mix of what is likely a collection of important civic leaders, church officials, and other locally known people during the church’s 15th-century heyday. The most recognised of these carvings is a grimacing figure in a hat, who is rumoured to have been author Lewis Carrol’s inspiration for the Mad Hatter in the classic story Alice In Wonderland. Other points of interest at St. Peter’s Church include an altar frontal that is thought to have been stitched by Catherine of Aragon, and a north aisle wall that is marred with the bullet holes from the muskets of Parliamentary soldiers, who executed Royalist sympathisers against the wall in the year 1643 after taking control of the town. Another favourite pastime for visitors is to locate the Winchcombe Imp; a small impish face that has been skilfully carved into the rood screen, and dates back to the 15th Century. The Winchcombe Imp is surprisingly difficult to spot, and seems to heighten the odd juxtaposition of lightheartedness and heavy historical symbolism that St. Peter’s church has to offer.
St. Mary’s Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire
St, Mary’s Church in Fairford, Gloucestershire was built in the 1490s, and has remained structurally unaltered ever since. Another fine example of the Perpendicular Architecture that was in favour at the time, St. Mary’s is an excellent example of the original gothic slim windows and light buttresses that set the bar for church architecture during this time period. St. Mary’s true claim to fame however, is its stained glass. St. Mary’s boasts a complete collection of stained glass, which represents the designer’s intentions to represent a clear theological plan from start to finish. What is perhaps most amazing about this collection of stained glass, is the fact that it has managed to endure the test of time. Religious upheavals in the 16th and 17th Centuries, followed by an order by King Edward VI to rid the country’s churches of such theological imagery threatened to permanently remove the windows, as they had in so many churches of the time. Ultimately, the only real damage any of the windows have sustained was from a storm in 1703, in which three of the west-facing windows were damaged. In the years since, the windows have undergone a careful restoration that started in 1988, and only recently ended in 2010. The effects of this restoration are thought to be long-lasting; the effect of exposure to the elements has been dramatically lessened, thus ensuring that the windows will remain intact and beautiful for the centuries to come.
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