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Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors,
and British History

Buried in Wool

spinning wool
Wool spinning. Image PD

At look at why your ancestors may have been 'buried in wool'.

When researching your family history you may come across references in a parish register to an ancestor being 'buried in wool' or 'woollen burial'. What did this mean?

For centuries the woollen trade had been important to the wealth and prosperity of England, but with the introduction of new materials and foreign imports, some people thought that the industry was under threat.

Many of these sat in Parliament as members whose constituencies were in the woollen cloth and yarn producing areas, or as landowners whose incomes came from rents paid by tenants whose living relied on wool and sheep.

They combined together to pass an Act to try and maintain the demand for domestically produced wool. The first Act was passed in 1666 (18 & 19 Cha. II c. 4 1666), and the second, and rather more famous, in 1678 repealing the first (30 Car. II cap.3). Its aims were "for the lessening the importation of linen from beyond the seas, and the encouragement of the woollen and paper manufacturer of the kingdom."

The Act required that when a corpse was buried it should only be dressed in a shroud or garments made of wool.

"No corpse of any person (except those who shall die of the plague) shall be buried in any shift, sheet, or shroud, or anything whatsoever made or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold, or silver, or in any stuff, or thing, other than what is made of sheep’s wool only."

Failure to comply resulted in a £5 forfeiture. One-half of this went to the informer, the other half to poor of the parish where the body was buried. Within 8 days of the burial, an affidavit had to be provided attesting that the burial complied with the Act. The affidavit had to be sworn in front of a Justice of the Peace or Mayor by two creditable persons. If the parish did not have a JP or Mayor, the parson, vicar or curate could administer the oath.

In practice, the affidavit would often be sworn at the same time as the burial and certified by the officiating priest.

These affidavits took various form. Some appear in the parish registers, others as a separate register, or some on a specially printed form. Affidavits do survive in this form in the archives, but many were thrown loose in the bottom of the parish chest and subsequently destroyed.

This Act was obviously unpopular with many people as they wanted to buried in their finery as opposed to a cheaper garment or shroud in an off-white colour and of very thin material. Many were prepared to pay the £5, and a member of a family would become an informer so that in effect only half of the fine would be paid. This disgust at being buried in wool can be found ridiculed in literature.

"Harkee, Hussy, if you should, as I hope you won't, outlive me, take care
I ain't buried in flannel; 'twould never become me, I'm sure.
Richard Steele: The Funeral, a play 1700.
"‘Odious! in woollen! 'twould a saint provoke!’
(Were the last words that poor Narcissa spoke).
'No! let a charming chintz and Brussels lace
Wrap my cold limbs, and shade my lifeless face"
Pope: Moral Essays, Ep. i.

Narcissa was Mrs. Oldfield, an actress, who died 1731. Pope wrote this after reading that she was buried in "a Brussells lace head dress; a Holland shift with tucker and double ruffles of the same lace, and a pair of new kid gloves."

The Act was repealed in 1814, although long before then it had been largely ignored.

 

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