Being born and bred in Yorkshire…the heart of the wool industry, I have often been intrigued to see notes on burial records saying “ buried in wool” or a reference to “affidavit” on many of the records, and wondered if it was something to do with the fact that many of our Bancroft ancestors were employed in the wool industry, either as woolcombers and hand-loom weavers or later after the Industrial Revolution working in the Mills as spinners and weavers……was this therefore a practice peculiar to wool workers?
Many affidavits survive today, and the picture at the top shows one from 1714, which unfortunately is not of a Bancroft burial.
On further investigation it appears that being buried in a shroud made of wool was not just a practice in our area, but was actually required throughout the country because of Acts of Parliament known as “The Burial in Woollen Acts”.
The decline of the wool industry, on which so many people and places in this country depended upon, was behind the reason that an Act of Parliament being passed to encourage the wool industry in this country, and lessen the fear of importation of wool products. Many of the MP’s in Parliament had constituencies heavily dependant on woollen cloth and yarn particularly if they themselves were mill owners. Many were also landowners relied on the rents paid by tenants who’s livelihood relied on keeping sheep, so an Act of Parliament intended to create a new market for woollen cloth was brought in.
In the reign of Charles II, Parliament passed "An Act for Burying in Woollen only " saying:
"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. Be it enacted by the King's most excellent Majesty and with the consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority thereof, that from and after the five and twentieth day of March in the year of our Lord, one thousand six hundred seventy seven, no person or persons whatever shall be buried in any shirt, shift or sheet made of or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold or silver, or other than what shall be made of wool only, or be put into any coffin lined or faced with anything made of or mingled with flax, hemp, silk or hair; 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 or one of them by warrant from any Justice of the Peace, or Mayor, Alderman or Head Officer of such city, town or place-corporate respectively within their several limits by distress and sale of goods of any that had a hand in putting such person into such shift, shirt, sheet or coffin, contrary to this Act, or did order or dispose the doing thereof, to be levied and employed as above said. Provided, that no penalty appointed by this Act, shall be incurred for or by the reason of any person that shall die of the plague, though such person be buried in linen."
Sometimes another name appears in the register either alongside the actual entry or listed at a later date. This is the name of the person who either laid out the body for burial or viewed the body before the funeral and has sworn that the regulations have been followed. In some registers, there are also entries detailing infringements such as the word “Naked” and the subsequent payment of a £5 fine when it was found that the body had not been buried in wool. It is difficult to understand how people who were too poor to afford a woollen shroud, could afford to pay a £5 fine, but presumably this was not enforced. It was not uncommon for the very poor to be buried completely naked if the parish could not help by providing woollen cloths. Cloths were valuable items for those struggling to survive in these difficult times, as can be appreciated when one reads some of the old probate records, which quite often paint a vivid picture of how the dead person’s belongings were divided between other members of the family.It was also common practice for a poor family within a parish, who after paying for the woollen shroud, could not afford a wooden coffin, so many churches kept a coffin ready for use at funerals for the poor, and once at the graveside the body was taken out of the coffin and buried just in the woollen shroud. The coffin was then returned to the church ready for the next funeral!
This law was sometimes unpopular with the wealthier, who wanted to be buried in their finery, as opposed to a relatively cheap, thin, off-white coloured garment made of wool, so they just paid the fine. Their disgust at being expected to be buried in this fashion is told in this short poem, written by the poet Alexander Pope.
“Odious in woollen!..t’would 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”
It was not easy to enforce this legislation. The wrapping of a corpse in linen, rather than wool, was older than Christianity itself, and this old custom could not be broken down by Acts of Parliament, and its provisions were easily avoided. Because of all this, another Act, far more stringent, was passed in 1678, which said that not only had the corpse to be buried in wool, but the coffin had to be lined with wool as well. It was enacted that within eight days of the funeral an affidavit of the fact of the burial being in woollen should be brought to the minister, failing which, notice should be given to the churchwarden or overseer, who would levy on the defaulting person for the recovery of the fine. This new act was very sweeping, but was no more successful than the former one, and long before its repeal in 1814, it had fallen into disuse and generally ignored.
Shown below is a later affidavit from 1770, which shows the wording of the act much more clearly.
Just in case you were wondering if being buried in wool has anything to do with the saying “Having the wool pulled over your eyes”, the answer is no….This saying can be traced back to when wigs were commonly worn by men (especially judges and attorneys) in the 18th century. A Judge fooled by a clever lawyer, it is said, would be said to have the "wool" (slang for a wig) pulled over his eyes, blinding him to the facts of the case.
However, as they say “what goes round, comes round” and this was never more true!…..Guess what you can be buried in these days?….A WOOLLEN COFFIN!! An enterprising company, called Hainsworths in Leeds, have started manufacturing coffins made from wool and recycled cardboard at a cost of £600 - £700 each…everything, including the packaging, is biodegradable...Each coffin uses three fleeces and can bear a weight of up to 60 stones!