Weaving Wool into Death: Burial in 17th-Century England

The rituals we use to honor someone in death often reflect the way that they lived, from their religion to their favorite color. People have strong preferences for what will happen to their body after they die and what kind of funeral they want. Twenty-four percent of UK adults have already chosen which songs they want to be played at their funeral and nearly 16% of Americans ages 18–39 think people should plan the individual touches for their funerals before the age of 40.

Funerals are now filled with personal choices but, for nearly 150 years in England, one important choice was controlled by law – the clothing that people wore when buried. In modern-day Britain, people may be buried in any clothes they wish, but the Wool Acts of 1667 and 1677 decreed that all who died during the 17th and 18th centuries were legally required to be buried in wool.

During the medieval period, wool became essential to England’s economy. In the 13th century, English barons claimed that wool represented half of England’s wealth. This was probably an exaggeration, but wool certainly held a large enough proportion that Parliament needed to keep the wool industry running smoothly. In the 14th century, Edward III even introduced a seat made of wool to Parliament as a reminder of this, which is still used by the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords.

Over the next several hundred years, wool’s importance in England continued to grow. By the middle of the 17th century, it was the island’s main export and comprised 80 to 90% of the goods exported out of London’s docks.1 Agriculture, including raising sheep, and wool manufacture were the two biggest industries at this time, with around 12% of the population employed in the wool textile industry by the century’s end.

A mosaic depicting Jesus’s burial in a linen shroud. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

The Wool Act of 1667 was introduced to support the wool industry. This law required that everyone was buried in woolen clothing with a woolen coffin lining. This was not a popular choice at the time, as wool was more expensive than similar materials such as linen. Many people also preferred to be buried in linen for religious reasons. Abrahamic religions have a long history of using linen shrouds, and many Christians at the time wished to be buried in the same way as Jesus, who was wrapped in a linen shroud. Shrouds made of natural materials remain an important part of Muslim and Jewish funeral rites to this day.

Given the Act’s unpopularity, it’s likely that few people actually followed the directive, and a large swath of those dying at the time were exempt. The Great Plague of London reached its peak at the end of 1665, at which time it was the main cause of death in London, and people continued to die from the plague for the next 14 years. Those killed by the plague were exempt from being buried in wool, possibly because wool was believed at the time to remain infected with the plague for three to four years.

To ensure compliance, Parliament strengthened the original Wool Act in 1677. The new act required the church performing the burial to keep a record of the fabric used. Two members of the deceased person’s family (or other “credible” people) had to submit an affidavit declaring adherence to the act within eight days of burial. Those who buried their dead in other textiles were fined £5 (equivalent to more than £550 today).

Those killed by the plague were exempt from being buried in wool. (Courtesy Wikimedia)

This fine was high enough that the majority of people complied, but those who had the money to pay the fine often broke this law. Richard Brodrepp, who lived in Dorset in the early 18th century, did just that. The wealthy Brodrepp family owned multiple houses and over a thousand acres of land. They were also well-respected in the community: Richard’s father was an MP in 1689, and the people of the local parish trusted Richard enough that Parliament allowed others being buried in the wool to swear affidavits to him. Despite this, when Richard and his son died in the 1730s, both broke the act and paid £5 to be buried in linen.

Half of the money paid for the fine was used to help poor people in the parish and for the upkeep of any local workhouse, so the elites viewed flouting this law as a kind of alms. The other half went to the person who informed on the deceased, so a member of the family could inform on themselves and effectively halve the fine.

By the end of the 18th century, wool had become less important to the economy. The start of the Industrial Revolution began to diversify the workforce as well as the types of textiles that could be manufactured cheaply.2 Cotton, in particular, benefited from the invention of the mechanical cotton gin and spinning jenny, which led to England exporting ten times more cotton by the end of the century than at the start.3

This made the Wool Act less relevant and adherence to it became less common, with some parishes ignoring it completely. The Wool Act was repealed in 1814 after which people quickly reverted to using other fabrics for burials, regardless of location or income.

Today, people dress their dead in a range of ways: from evening wear to their favorite football jersey, and, of course, some people still want to be buried in linen shrouds. The only clothing restrictions now relate to what’s going to happen to the body. Some materials cannot be cremated, including leather or rubber, as well as metal or plastic fasteners. At a natural burial site, only natural materials may be buried, including bamboo, cotton, and wool. The increasing number of people considering the environmental impact of their death has led to a resurgence in being buried in wool, with the creations of eco-friendly wool coffins and burial clothes.

The death of a loved one is a private and personal time but the Wool Acts of 1667 and 1677 elevated national economic concerns above personal ones. The deceased’s religious requirements were disregarded, as well as the fabric that was cheaply available to them. Today, people are able to dress themselves (or their family members) in any way that they choose, even in death.

Notes

  1. Ralph Davis, “English Foreign Trade, 1660-1700,” Economic History Review, New Series 7, no. 2 (1954): 150. Return to text.
  2. Phyllis Deane, “The Output of the British Woolen Industry in the Eighteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History 17, no. 2 (June 1957): 221–23 Return to text.
  3. Davis, “English Foreign Trade, 1700-1774,” Economic History Review, New Series 15, no. 2 (1962): 302. Return to text.

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One Comment

Colleen

You cannot even imagine how much I enjoyed this article. I work in palliative care and have a side obsession with textile history. You brought those together in one great article. Thanks so much for it.

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