Burial in Woollen

In some of the burial registers of our older congregations, the words Woollen, or In Wollen, appear in the entry recording an interment. This was in accordance with a stringent enactment which required an entry to he made in the register that the Act of 1666 (18 and 19 Charles II, c. 4), “for burying in woollen,” had been duly complied with. It was professedly passed “for the encouragement of the woollen manufactures, and prevention of the exportation of moneys for the buying and importing of linen,” and it enacted that after the 25th March, 1666, no person should be “buried in any shirt, shift, or sheete other than should be made of wooll onely.” The provisions of the Act were so strict that even the quilling round the inside of the coffin and the ligature round the feet of the corpse were required to be of woollen. The statute, however, was generally disobeyed, and the penalty could seldom he enforced, because an information could only be laid by those who were most interested in concealing the offence. To remedy this, a still more stringent Act was passed in 1678 (30 Charles II., c. 3),. which obliged the minister who officiated to make an entry in the register, that an affidavit had been brought to him, within eight days after the burial, certifying that the requirements of the law had been fulfilled. “ Who makes affidavit ? “ was the question then asked by the sexton immediately after the conclusion of the burial service, whereupon one of the relations came forward, and made the necessary declaration, which was duly noticed in the register.

The Act was repealed in 1814 (54 George III., c. 108). Many who could afford to pay the fine did so, rather than observe the law. Mrs. Ann Oldfield, buried in Westminster Abbey in 1730, was by her express request wrapped “in a very fine Brussels lace head-dress, a holland shift, with a tucker, and double ruffles of the same lace, and a pair of new kid gloves, and was then wrapped in a winding-sheet of fine linen.” Her posthumous vanity has been immortalised by Pope in the well-known lines:

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.


Rhodri Young