Half-forgotten lines from our school days often lurk at the back of our minds. Many of them are from the Shakespeare plays that were part of most school syllabuses. Studying Shakespeare’s Tragedies, I thought at the time that they were great fiction but experience and life has shown me just how relevant so many of the concepts and adversities still are to our daily lives.
A critical passage in Macbeth brings together the two themes of guilt and sleeplessness:
“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast”
It is clear that even in Shakespeare’s time sleep was considered restorative. It is described as a method of renewal, an essential part of life’s rhythm, soothing both body and mind – something that we instinctively know today, although we look rather to science than playwrights to tell us so.
Macbeth had started to fray and needed “knitting” up again. This powerful metaphor is that of sleep knitting the fibres back together again with the warning that without recourse to this restorative essence, we will remain “raveled” and unsettled.
Four hundred years ago when Shakespeare was writing, sheep, wool, its fibres, cloth and garments, was a ubiquitous and widely understood commodity and the source of vast fortunes. When Macbeth was published in 1623, wool contributed a significant proportion of GDP. It was the driving force of the English medieval economy and everyone who had land from peasants to nobles raised sheep. By the 14th century almost 63% of the Crown’s total income came from the tax on wool and by the late 1500’s a law was passed that all Englishmen except nobles had to wear a woollen cap to church on Sundays as part of a government plan to support the wool industry.
There were quite literally millions of sheep and they were an established part of the national consciousness. It was therefore not surprising that the old wife’s tale to help you get to sleep involved counting sheep. Even today it seems a rather monotonous task but I am not sure when I was young if I ever worried about what each sheep looked like, imagining general white blobs.
Now of course I may still count sheep but I am more conscious of their different shape and breeds. Highclere has about 1800 ewes, some are Llyens, some are Romneys and some Lleyn/Romney crosses.
Lleyns are a 19th century cross named for the Lleynn peninsular in Wales. Sadly, fifty years ago this breed had nearly died out but hopefully they are off the endangered breeds list now. They are compact and quiet – perfect for falling asleep to.
The Romney Marsh are easy to spot as they tend to have woolly fringes and in fact are generally rather woolly all over. As the name suggests, the breed originated in the Romney Marsh area in Kent – south east England and, as you might expect from the name, they can thrive in wet and cold environments.
It is one of the oldest known sheep breeds, with its origins traced back to the 13th Century and possibly earlier and it also has the highest quality of fleece of any native British breed. Sadly, it is not quite as valued as it once was but we have teamed up with Adam Henson to use the wool as part of mattress construction which should definitely help everyone sleep.
“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
Thank you once again for an interesting & informative blog – I can imagine how gorgeous it would be to lie on a sheep’s wool mattress, bliss!
I hope you & all your lovely people at Highclere have a wonderful Spring,
Love Caroline x
Lovely the pictures of sleep Tight and did you and lord Carnarvon have a nice weekend and lovely spring all lamb are born and lovely to visit Highcelere castle and l am fan of Downton Abbey
The sheep are adorable.
The lambs are so sweet!
Thank you again for a great Blog.
fondly Jenny ( Baa Baa )
Thank you Lady Carnarvon for such a very well crafted piece of writing and the accompanying images. Entertaining and informative….. you wear your knowledge lightly. I so enjoyed the links and quotes from Shakespeare and the line from the Tempest is unforgettable.
Thanks for your delightful look at the history of sheep through the ages, and how Shakespeare drew from their activity, or perhaps lack of such, to encourage imaginative use of their daily lives to encourage sleep! Oh what a bard he was! (As I yawn my way to morning…)
Agreed, Lady C. As one American critic remarked, “Shakespeare wrote us” – little happens in today’s society that isn’t somewhere reflected in the plays and sonnets, whether it’s war or fleeces. Quite extraordinary.
Equally extraordinary how even today some theatrical directors find new insights to bring us from the plays, while others can so easily wreck them.
As and when other matters allow, please consider the occasional revival of a performance before Jackdaws Castle – I’m sure one or other of the local ham-dram troupes would oblige, though this particular ‘lean and slippered pantaloon’ may have gone to ‘mere oblivion’.
Keep up the good and interesting commentaries.
I learn more each time I read your Monday thoughts. It’s so interesting to me how much Highclere really is a working estate with that many sheep! Wow!
Thank you for sharing with us. I cannot wait to visit!
April is the month for young lambs to arrive
What a lovely story! I particularly enjoyed the Macbeth connection and the explanation regarding the wool trade in medieval times. I also enjoyed the pictures of the little furry baby sheep! Thank you once again for this wonderful blog!
If only I’d have had you in the classroom to explain Shakespeare so easily,then I might have actually taken more note of it.As it is,I’m afraid apart from this little snippet,I remain quite ignorant of it.You would have made a great teacher
This was a lovely. And the details about the various breeds were enlightening.
Wonderful background helping Highclere maintain itself.. My week always begins with your comments ! Loved Shakespeare….
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
sheep are wonderful, the lambs are so cute. Real wool is so much richer and comfortable than man made textiles. Growing up, I was a little green eyed at the children at school who had smart shop bought jumpers, and my sister and I had our Nanny knit school jumpers. Now I am adult I am so grateful we had them, and I wish I could knit, a skill that is beyond me. And of course, there is nothing as luxurious as a wool blanket to fall asleep in.
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
You really know how to tell a story. (I was tempted to say “yarn,” until I remembered that the British use “wool” instead.) In the course of your post, you went from Shakespeare to sleep to sheep and ending with wool from one of the varieties at Highclere being used in mattress construction.
Those lambs are so adorable.
Thank you so much for the stories you knit each week. Truly amazing.
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
A lovely and informative piece this (snowy) Spring morning! We loved seeing your serene pastures dotted with sheep when we visited in 2021. I wondered if you were familiar with an excellent children’s book, “The Sheepover” by John and Jennifer Churchman. It truly is a book for all ages, exquisitely illustrated with photos and artful overlays. About an injured sherp, loved and supported by her barnyard friends, the story ultimately concludes with all them going to sleep.
Thank you for your wonderful column each Monday!
Dear Lady Carnarvon,
I didn’t know the importance of sheep to England. I always wondered where counting sheep came from. I think everyone has counted sheep at some point in life. I learned a lot from your very informative post. Thank you. I look forward to your posts because I know I will learn something new.
Lovely pictures to go along with the narrative. ❤ I follow a couple of shepherds on social media and they’ve all working through spring lambing. I hadn’t realized you had that large of a flock – I hope the crazy weather didn’t present too many issues for your own lambing season. I’m heartened to see more wool products coming back on the market, and I know the knitters always appreciate quality yarn. I hope your week goes well for you, your family/staff, and especially the shepherds, Lady Carnarvon! Cheers from over here in Summerville, South Carolina.
Oh my! This may be my favorite of your Monday blogs yet. Just brilliant the way you led into the heart of your thoughts. Your sheep are truly adorable. And all look healthy and well cared for.
When my parents visited us when my husband commanded the only American squadron at RAF Uxbridge, we took them all over Scotland. At the end of the first day, Daddy said, “I didn’t know there were that many sheep left in the world.”
My favorite high school memory is of a senior name Bubba. The big, funny football player had blond hair and blue eyes and was
He began: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in these petty pants . . .”
At that time slips had been replaced for teen girls and young womenThe shorts, made of slip fabric.
Everyone burst out laughing and our English Lit teacher told Bubba he could take a seat.
But seriously, thank you for sharing your life and the animals.
Another great blog! There’s nothing like sinking your hands in the wool and feeling the lanolin!
Very interesting. Thank you. I am wondering why sone sheep have markings drawn on them ???
Markings tell the shepherds number of lambs to be born from the sheep
Such an interesting article to read and I love the quote from Shakespeare. In case you haven’t thought of it I think this article together with some others from your blog would make a lovely book!
It is a pleasure to read what an educated person can write. Your blog fits the description. Thank you nourishing the minds of your readers.
As a knitter anything about sheep always catches my eye. The main purpose of my last trip to Great Britain last May was to get to Shetland to learn about their knitting tradition and to see and hear about its sheep. I understand that today the worldwide sheep/wool industry is finding new ways to use wool including as compost! A fascinating weekly blog about wool is available at The Wool Channel gathered by Clara Parkes. But your connections with words and literature is always something I enjoy, thank you!
Your homily certainly enlightens on the “toil and trouble” involved with maintaining an estate such as yours, even one that is such a labor of love. I marvel at all you have to know, have to learn, and how important good, knowledgeable help surely is. I’m betting you don’t have to count sheep at night after the days you put in!
I taught Macbeth for over 20 years to students here in California.
Macbeth’s words about sleep prompted me to look for more from Shakespeare.
With all that you do for Highclere, I found this one:
“Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired…”
Thank you for your toil!
You certainly have earned your repose.
I especially enjoyed your post today. My son and his significant other have a “hobby farm” as part of their life now. Their main “crop” is sheep, along with a few other precious animals. Anything that involves sheep catches my eye even more quickly now. Thank you for the informative and enriching information….and the darling photo of the “babies.”
SO interested to read this weeks blog; I live just a couple of miles from Monmouth on the Welsh borders and am very familiar with the woolen caps you mention ! Here they are known as the Monmouth cap, and were produced in bulk in the 15th Century; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monmouth_cap
Some knitters locally still make them; one of my daughters a few years ago helped to sheer some local sheep, and spun the wool, which she then knitted into caps for her husband and herself. I hinted loudly that I’d like one too …. still waiting !!
Best wishes, Lynette
Thank you for sharing part of the history of England we never learned about. It certainly gives me more of a sense of Englands economy.
Congratulations on nearly spelling Llyn correctly with your two attempts lol
I will keep going … I normally say it rather than spell it ..but spelling in can case may vary
I would be interested in contact information for “Adam Henson” with whom Highclere is pursuing a mattress-use-outlet for your Romney sheep’s wool. As your US licensee, we import at considerable cost special wools from New Zealand sheep for use in our Highclere beds, and could be very interested in supporting your domestic effort.
Please do let LMI know; they can pass the information to us.
Lady Carnarvon ……..Thank you so much for your insightful post of Shakespeare, sleep and sheep. It reminds me of a time as a child when my Father ran a herd of 75 to 100 ewes. Being the youngest I had the duty of caring for orphaned lambs. When I was 5yo,
I had mumps. We had an orphaned lamb we called Mumpsy. Thank you for reminding me of lovely times gone by.
Sleep tight, childhood memories, a little didy we would say …..
“Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite…..and if the do beat them black and blue.”
Ah!………the education one received in California.
We must try to have restorative dreams ! Even if we cannot forget our friends that suffer from insomnia …For those people, William Wordsworth wrote the poem “To Sleep” where the speaker is someone who suffers from insomnia. He lies sleepless all night, wanting to be able to sleep, but he can’t. So he imagines a flock of sheep leisurely passing by, one after one…
Well, have a good and restorative night!
Before cattle, was “King” in Texas, sheep grazed vast areas in the Central to Western parts of the state, including my area of West Texas. In fact, one of our founding families, the Cowden’s were of British decent who came from a sheep raising background,
It is good to have a diversity of animals..
My first cuddly toy was a lamb. My mother thought she had given birth to a lamb
evidently I had to be removed from the general nursery due to my continual bleating.
I just love them but my tiny garden in Hungerford is just not big enough. My late
husband bred lambs on his farm and I find it difficult to put lamb on the menu !!!
Diana – Hungerford.
Lovely of pictures of sleep tight and l lovely to visit highcelere castle and did you and lord Carnarvon have a lovely weekend and lam fan of Downton Abbey
I need to start counting sheep, I wake up the middle of the night and then I can’t go back to sleep.
Wonderful topics – sleep & sheep! When does the shearing of your sheep happen?
It happens in June
Really enjoyed read this blog….thank you.
Thanks again for another wonderful, informative blog. The sheep are adorable and it was interesting to learn of the different breeds and use. I look forward to Monday mornings and your comments. Here in Virginia sheep are not prevalent. I am hoping someday to visit Highclere.
Thanks so much another wonderful informative blog . Lovely pics of your beautiful lambs .
Fascinating and informative, as your writing always is.
Thanks again for the lovely article. I was reminded of the beautiful monastery ruins in Yorkshire that had been built from the profits of the wool trade. On a visit to “Colonial Williamsburg” we were informed that sleeping tight referred to the rope support for the mattresses on the beds. Over time the ropes stretched and needed to be tightened to add comfort and support to the bed. So the admonition to “sleep tight” had more of a good practical reference to the bed and less of one to how tightly closed our eyelids were!
I look forward to your postings. We are enjoying the bursting of springtime colors and flowers here in Pittsburgh. I trust you are enjoying a beautiful spring as well.
Rev. David A. Eichelberger OSL
What a beautiful pile of lambs! And your post was very well-timed as I’m just now listening to an audiobook narrated by the lovely Alex Wyndham that mentioned Romney March sheep. Here in the US, we just called them Romneys. I’m a hand spinner and Romney fleece is perfect to spin, especially if new to the craft. Thanks for sharing your flock with us.
Dear Lady Carnarvon:
Thank you for this Monday’s blog and for providing a brief history on the variety of sheep in your region and how their wool is and was used.
The fore Macbeth picture reminded me of the framed pure Irish linen I have of the Catalogue of the feuarall Comedies, Hiftories, and Tragedies contained in the Shakespearean volume.
The picture of the huddled lambs is so sweet. Also, I have viewed the videos posted to both Facebook and Instagram with you and Highclere’s flock. When it is time to shear the sheep, please consider posting this activity to the two noted venues for your readers to observe.
Until next time, I wish you all the best.
P.S. Sleep is obviously something I lack, as I did not timely respond to this e-mail.
How cute are these sheep. And the babies are adorable..ahh ..