St. Luke’s Churchyard: Woollen Burials

Article No.1 by Carol Beadle



Luke’s Churchyard (Jan 2021)

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 in the 1600s some people thought the British Wool Industry was under threat. Even as early as the late 1500’s some were worried and tried to increase the use of wool. In 1571 an Act of Parliament ordered that everyone over 6yrs of age was to wear a woollen hat on Sundays to support the wool industry.

Many Members of Parliament whose constituencies were in the yarn and woollen cloth producing areas became very worried. Then there were the wealthy landowners whose incomes came from rents paid by tenants whose living relied on wool and sheep and these landowners ensured that their voices were heard. These influential people combined together to pass an Act of Parliament to try and maintain the demand for domestically produced wool

In 1666 an Act of Parliament was passed stating that all corpses were to be buried in wool. This was a turbulent time in Britain with the plague taking many lives and the Great Fire of London, so this Act was not enforced.

The powerful men determined to save the wool industry did not give up. In 1677 a 2nd Act was put to Parliament and this Act was enforced with vigour.

‘For the encouragement of the woollen manufacturers of this kingdom and the 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 and 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 to 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 workhouse for the setting them to work, to be levied by the churchwardens and overseers of the poor of such parish or one of them 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…………….’

Coffins had to be lined in wool and the shroud made from wool also. An affidavit then had to be sworn by a relative in front of a JP and two witnesses to state that the burial was in wool only. If the Parish did not have a JP, the 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 Vicar.

The affidavits took many forms. There was no specific way of registering the fact that an affidavit had been produced that was entirely up to the vicar. Some appeared in the Parish Register or maybe in a separate register or on a form. If an affidavit was not given to the Vicar within 8 days, it had to be reported to a Magistrate as this was an offence. There was a fine of 50 shillings for non-compliance. Half of the fine went to the informant and the other half to the poor of the parish where the body was buried

‘Pulling the wool over your eyes’ is a well-known saying meaning to deceive and some believe that it originated from this period of corpses having to be buried in wool.

The wrapping of a corpse in linen is older than Christianity and so this custom would have been difficult to break down. Some families would pay the 50 shillings fine so their relative did not have to be buried in wool. However, a member of the family would act as the informant and thus get half of the fine back as a reward. Thus the authorities were being deceived and having the wool pulled over their eyes and not around the corpse

Those dying of the plague were exempt from being buried in wool

This Act was very unpopular.

By the 1750’s the practice of ‘burial in wool’ had mostly died out but some areas carried on enforcing this Act until much later particularly in the wool industry areas. The Act was eventually repealed in 1814.


THE FIRST BURIAL IN WOOL IN HICKLING following the law requiring this to be done was the burial of Elizabeth Thurkell on 10th December 1678

An affidavit had to be obtained before a woollen burial could take place and the burial of ELIZABETH MARRIOT on 9th November 1679 did not quite run smoothly.

Elizabeth Marriot of  the greene  buryed the 9th day of November 1679

I received an affidavit concerning her being buried in woollen within the time permitted under the Act of Parliament. I gave notice by a note in writing under my hand by Mr Stephen Pickard an overseer of the poor on the 17th day of December that no affidavit was brought concerning the buryall of Elizabeth Marriot in woollen

Wool was expensive and many poor people lived in Hickling’ in 1682 ELIZABETH GREASLEY of the Green burial caused quite a stir as her family could not afford for her to be buried in wool. The Overseer to the poor became involved.