Burying in woollen

One of the things that interests me as I wade back through history in my family research is the shifts in power between the various institutions, and the impact of these shifts on our ancestors’ lives. In the earliest days to which I’ve traced ancestors the Manor would have held sway, but its impact gradually waned, and the already-powerful Church was given a big boost by the requirement to keep registers of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials. Gradually more tasks became the responsibility of the secular parish authorities, which eventually gave way to local councils, and beyond that the growth of the State in setting out standards, duties, responsibilities and rights.

Within the Parish, the distinction between religious and secular might seem straightforward, but even something as clearly ‘religious’ as the recording of the rites of Baptism, Marriage and Burial actually had a secular purpose: a record of every man, woman and child in the country, created at the behest of the King’s Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell. In fact there are so many ‘grey areas’ in the purpose of historic parish records that in his seminal work The Parish Chest, W.E. Tate divides his chapters into part one, considering ‘Records Mainly Ecclesiastical’ and part two, covering ‘Records Mainly Civil’.

I came across an interesting example of this mingling of religious and secular in a burial register recently:

Entry in burial register, 1702.
“4 Deborah daughter of J[ohn] Lucas of Woodhouse carr att & cert”

What interested me was the bit at the end: “att & cert”, short for “attested and certified”. Athough it was the first time I had seen this in the registers, I knew what it related to: the deceased had been ‘buried in wool’. You can see the above entry within the Leeds Parish register at Ancestry.co.uk [here]. Looking through the years before and afterwards I see that this particular notation was introduced in this parish at the beginning of 1701 and gradually ceased in 1704.

However, the requirement for burial in woollen cloth was much longer lived. It was introduced in 1666 by Act of Parliament, and amended by further Acts in 1670 and 1680 – collectively known as the Burying in Woollen Acts 1666–80. The text of the 1678 Act provides that:

No corpse of any person (except those who shall die of the plague), shall be buried in any shirt, shift, sheet, or shroud or anything whatsoever made or mingled with flax, hemp, silk, hair, gold or silver, or in any stuff or thing other than what is made of sheep’s wool only; or be put into any coffin lined or faced with […] any other material but sheep’s wool only.

The purpose of the Acts was to protect the English woollen trade from foreign imports of linen. Maintaining the demand for domestically produced wool benefited the wealthy merchants, the sheep farmers and landowners whose tenants relied for the payment of their rents on their work with the sheep, the wool and the cottage manufacturing of cloth.

The Acts required that, within eight days of a burial, an affidavit had to be sworn by ‘two credible persons’, attesting that the burial was carried out in compliance with the Act. The affidavit was sworn before a Justice of the Peace or the Mayor; or failing that, in front of the priest – generally at the time of the burial. That’s clearly what happened in my example above – but why did the entries including the words ‘att & cert’ stop in 1704?

I wonder if the answer might be that the priest decided that the register of burials was not an appropriate place for the recording of what was essentially a secular statutory measure, and started a separate register. Signed, printed affidavits do also survive in various archives, but many were just thrown loose into the parish chest and have been lost or destroyed. You can see examples of several that have survived if you google ‘burial in wool affidavit uk’ and filter for Images.

The Burying in Woollen Acts were not popular. Despite a hefty £5 fine for non-compliance, those who could afford it often chose to ignore the requirement and simply pay the fine. Reasons for wishing to do so were a desire to be buried in one’s finery or conversely to be buried simply in linen, according to Judeo-Christian practice. Nevertheless, although largely ignored by 1770, the Acts were not repealed until 1814.

Have you come across ‘burial in woollen’ before? What wording was used in the parish register? Or perhaps you even found an affidavit for the burial of an ancestor? Do leave a comment if you did.