Tales of the Guildhall - part XI
Boston's wealth built on sheep
Words and pictures by communications manager Andrew Malkin
Pictured: A Hansa Cog, a bigger cargo ship but especially adapted to navigate the shallow waters of the Witham
It might sound a bit baa-rmy these days, but much of Boston's wealth, signified by some of its finest buildings, was built on sheep - millions of them.
There was a time when trade in wool was more valuable than trade in gold and more fleeces were exported through Boston than any other place in the country.
The Port of Boston was second only to the Port of London and, with the country's wealth based on wool, merchants in the town became fabulously wealthy.
That wealth is reflected in the money they made available in order that St Botolph's Church (The Stump) and the Guildhall could be built.
Both buildings were in a different league of grandness so far as public buildings for a town of Boston's size could boast.
The Guildhall was built from a new material not readily available in the 13th Century. The clay to make its red bricks was dug out locally, and even Flemish brick makers were employed, when it would have been much easier and cheaper to build out of more traditional materials such as stone or timber.
The importance of sheep in Boston's history remains with us today in the borough crest, which shows a sheep on a woolsack.
The merchants, medieval stockbrokers, made their fortunes by trading homegrown wool supplied by vast estates, many associated with the abbeys.
The buyers were in Europe, and, under a special closed-shop arrangement, only the merchants could sell to traders across the North Sea from the Baltic states - the so-called Hanseatic League.
But not just anyone could trade with the Hanseatic League. To be a merchant you had to be a guildsman and that meant handing over a gold noble worth, in today's value, almost £700. The Guild took the cash and the guildsman got a ticket to trade.
Fleeces from Lincolnshire and Yorkshire were channelled through Boston Port - three million between 1280 and 1290.
So good was the product and so high the demand that some Boston merchants were taking payment for fl eeces to be supplied as much as 15 years into the future. There were fortunes to be made... and lost by gambling on this ancient futures market. To keep track of all the deals a board was used with counters and criss-cross columns, called the Exchequer Board, from which is derived our own title of Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Boston Port continued to grow because of trade with the Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic merchants even developed a special, bigger ship, called a Hansa Cog, to carry two or three times as much cargo, but with a flat bottom and removable keel to cope with the shallow waters in the Witham - the eventual undoing of Boston's thriving economy.
As Boston took advantage of its strategic importance and its trading links grew, Lincoln suffered a blow when its rights to trade with the league - the wool staple, which it had held since 1291 - was transferred from city to town in 1369.
Boston's fair grew in such importance, because of the opportunities to trade, that the Court of London was shut down annually so that people could travel to the town.
With cargo ships arriving in Boston to take away wool, exotic imports became commonplace, including fi gs and currants, spices and silks, furs and fi rs - in fact timber used in the construction of the Guildhall came from the Baltic countries.
When Henry II married Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine most of the wine came through Boston from France.
This massive money machine ground to a halt when the river began to silt up and the large cargo ships could no longer access the port and internal struggles saw the Hanseatic League implode.
Queen Elizabeth I attempted to help the port's plight with the award to the borough of the Charter for the Jurisdiction of the Admiralty of The Wash in 1573. This allowed the borough to collect revenue from ships using The Wash so it could generate income for maintenance. Today's Mayor of Boston retains the title Admiral of The Wash.
Queen Elizabeth I's Charter for the Jurisdiction of the Admiralty of The Wash, awarded to Boston in 1573. Inset: Close-up of the image of Queen Elizabeth I on the charter
A gold noble - this way fabulous wealth, perhaps. On display at the Guildhall Museum, courtesy of The Collection Art and Archaeology of Lincolnshire, Lincoln
The seal of Heinrich Kneval, a 14th Century Hanseatic merchant. The seal was discovered in South End, Boston, in 2002