ID: PH01_BWL / Elaine Barker

TitleBurial in Wool
AbstractBurial in Wool

In burial registers from 1666 up to 1814 a note is often written alongside entries saying affidavit or An affidavit that he was buried in woolen.

This refers to the oath that had to be sworn by the relatives of the deceased to show compliance with the Acts of 1666 and 1678 (amended in 1680) requiring that everyone had to be buried in wool.

Below is a typical eighteenth century form comprising the oath to be sworn by two witnesses followed by the certification by a clergyman.

Affidavit Courtesy of the Hungerford Virtual Museum

In 1666 during the reign of Charles II, an act was passed protecting the interests of the wool producers in this country. The act ruled that all burials nationwide were to be in woollen cloth.

For the encouragement of the woollen manufactures of this kingdom and prevention of the exportation of the monies thereof, for the buying and importation of linen

Linen had long been imported from abroad and with the demand for wool declining in this country there was pressure to support the home-grown woollen industry. Linen was this country's second biggest import after groceries and France produced a third of all the UK's linen.

Linen shrouds had been the norm for centuries, especially across the Christian world, Jesus himself was buried in linen, and there was some resistance to this change to wool.

The MP for Hastings, Edward Waller (1606 - 1687), who was appointed to manage a conference on burying in wool, stated in a 1677 debate in the House of Commons

Our Savior was buried in linnen ... Tis a Thing [ie burial in wool] against the Customs of Nations and I am against it.

Twelve years after the 1666 act, the Government deemed it necessary to set out more clearly defined conditions and penalties for not complying presumably due to parishes not conforming. On 1st August 1678, the 1666 act was repealed and a new act passed. The text of the act was quoted on the affidavits which were in many cases a printed form with blanks to be filled in by a church official (as above), often with a depiction of a skull and crossbones, a skeleton or a corpse in a shroud at the head of the certificate. The Act stated

no corpse of any person shall be buried in any shirt, shift, or shroud, or anything whatsoever made or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold or silver or any stuff or thing other than is made of sheep's wool only or to be put in any coffin lined or faced with any sort of cloth or stuff or anything whatsoever that is made of any material but sheep's wool only

Exceptions were those who had died from the plague. In a time when the plague was rife it was feared that wool retained the contagion longer than linen. Those who were destitute were also excepted, which makes the entry in Little Wigborough's burials register on 27th October 1672 all the more poignant

A stranger was buried. An affidavit that he was buried in woolen brought November 2nd

All that was known about this stranger was his Christian name was Cornelius.

On 3rd February 1733/4

A boy unknown to us was buried in sheep woolen only

Presumably both these burials were financed by the Parish of Little Wigborough.

The affidavit had to be presented within 8 days and the fine for not burying in wool was £5, initially half to be donated to the poor of the parish and half to be paid to the informant.

Upon pain of the forfeiture of the sum of five pounds, to be employed to the use of the poor of the parish where such person shall be buried, for or towards providing a stock or work house for the setting them to work, to be levied by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of such parish.

The act of 1678 stipulated that witnesses of the burial had to appear before a magistrate to swear an oath but following the 1680 amendment to the act it became the norm for a clergyman to sign the affidavit. Another change meant a proportion of the £5 fine for non-compliance was now to be paid to the King.

Rich and poor, educated and uneducated were all to be treated the same as is clear in the Little Wigborough register where the stranger and the unknown boy were buried in wool as were the wealthy Mazengarbs of Copt Hall, and the parish rectors, Rev Turbridge and Rev Trotter.

In some parishes, where the family were too poor to pay for a burial in wool the words 'naked burial' would appear by the entry, although this does not appear in registers for the Wigboroughs or Peldon.

For some, however, being buried in their own finery as opposed to the rather thin, off-white woollen cloth, was worth paying the fine for and it became a common occurrence, in the case of non-compliance, that a member of the family would be the informant, so reducing the fine by half! Generally though, the level of fine was too great for most people to do anything but comply.

Alexander Pope, poet and satirist, imagined the response of the actress Mrs Oldfield, (referred to as Narcissa), being told she had to be buried in wool.

'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
One would not, sure, be frightful when one's dead -
And - Betty - give this Cheek a little Red.

Mrs Oldfield, who died in 1731, in fact, was buried in all her finery.

Brussells lace headdress, a Holland shift with tucker and double ruffled of the same lace, and a pair of new kid gloves

The philosopher, Bernard Mandeville (1670 - 1733) wrote that those who were alive in 1678

... must remember the general Clamour that was made against it. At first nothing could be more shocking to Thousands of People that than they were to be buried in Woollen and the only thing that made that law supportable was that there was room left for People of some Fashion to indulge their Weakness without Extravagancy

He also noted that younger people accepted the change more readily

I observed then that those who, when the Act was made, had Buried many Friends and Relations remained averse to it the longest.

In some parishes a new register was kept from the time of the 1678 act but we have no evidence this happened locally.

The burial register for Little Wigborough from 1587 to 1755 notes affidavits for most burials between 1672 and 1755.

The entries in the burial register for Great Wigborough covering 1570 - 1812 are rather more erratic. The first noted is in 1688 and it was not until 1724 that there was a period of three years where affidavits were regularly noted, then again for a forty year period from 1739. Its last entry of burial in wool is in 1800.

The Reverend Nathaniel Ashwell, incumbent at St Mary's, Peldon, between 1690 and 1725, listed all those who had been buried annually from 1702 (some years are missed out). It is interesting to note annual deaths in the village range from 3 - 20. Without fail 'affidavit' is written next to each name and he signs a statement to say

There have been none buried in Linnen this year past - Peldon Parish Book Essex Record Office D/P 287/8/1

These entries pre-date the first burials register for Peldon which begins in 1725. The noting of affidavits is a little erratic but one presumes this reflects that it was the normal custom that an affidavit would be produced.

On 3rd October 1729, the Peldon overseer lists the cost to the parish of burying a poor man, Samuel Clark, which included

... for laying him forth & wool for rapping 6.00
paid Mr Cook for burying and affydavit 2.06

The act was not repealed until 1814 but by then adherence to the act had begun to lapse. It is believed the last entry in Essex was in the parish of Great Oakley in its Vestry Minutes for 1813.

Elaine Barker
Peldon History Project

Alice Dolan PhD thesis The Fabric of Life: Linen and Life Cycle in England 1678 - 1810
"A Search Into the Nature of Society". Bernard Mandeville Buried in Woolen
"The Parish Registers of Great and Little Wigborough" P.A.F. Stephenson

AuthorElaine Barker
PublishedAugust 2020
SourceMersea Museum