5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About 17th Century English Funerals

Ben Norman

Early Modern
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In many ways the English funerals experienced by 17th century men and women were little different to the solemnities we observe at the passing of a family member or friend in 21st century England.

There was the familiar congregation of the deceased person’s loved ones and acquaintances, a preacher presiding over the somber occasion, a religious setting – at this time the Christian church, a sermon combining a commemoration of the departed with sage religious instruction, a procession to the church, and, of course, a healthy outpouring of sadness.

However, other elements of the ceremony might come as a surprise to the modern onlooker.

1. Coffins were uncommon

Before the 17th century, coffins were only just being introduced to funerals in England. Royalty, aristocrats and the very wealthy might expect to be buried in one, but for the rest of the population a shroud – or winding sheet – was the standard mode of preparation for interment, mainly due to costs.

Only in the early 17th century did coffin usage increase in England, becoming less an indulgence of the rich and influential, and more a recognised means of housing corpses.

In 1631 Anne Smith, a modest single woman living in Suffolk, left some wood and boards, two iron wedges, and one ‘pair of wool cardes’ in her will to be made into a coffin for her body.

Funeral Cortege of the executed king, Charles I, about to enter St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, in 1649. Painting by Ernest Crofts (1847-1911) (Credit: Bristol Museum and Art Gallery/CC).

2. People gave away their money at funerals

In a time when religion played a hugely significant role in the day-to-day lives of English men and women, giving away one’s wealth, or at least a portion of it, on the day of one’s burial was felt to constitute an act of Christian charity from beyond the grave.

It was therefore common practice at 17th century funerals for doles to be handed out to those in need, who could be relied upon to turn up at the church doors if a financial reward was likely. Doles could range from a modest offering of two pennies per person to a lump sum of £20 or more.

This ritual was sometimes forbidden due to the disruption it might cause at an otherwise solemn and dignified event. In 1601, so many people turned up at the funeral of Lady Ramsey in London in hope of money that 17 people were trampled to death in the ensuing rush for a hand-out.

Mary Ramsey (née Dale), Lady Ramsey c.1544-1601, philanthropist (National Portrait Gallery, London/CC).

3. The aristocracy liked to be buried at night

The heraldic funerals of the elite had previously tended to take place during daylight hours, but during the 17th century nighttime burials were increasingly preferred amongst the English nobility.

A crusade against pomp and solemnity stemming from Protestant values meant that high-ranking individuals were inclined towards modest funerals reflective of the national faith. These were best achieved in the quietness of night.

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Sir Mark Guyon, a knight living in Coggeshall, was buried by torchlight at 10 o’clock in the evening at the church of St Peter ad Vincula, in the 1690s.

Thirty or forty men in black gowns and caps lit the way with burning flames for the procession of coaches, while a wreath of black cloth was hung in the chancel and more black cloth was draped over the pulpit. For a knight of the realm, Guyon’s funeral was quite an understated affair.

Some of the gentry were less keen on the reduction of the heraldic funeral, ordinarily a large and grandiose event, to its bare bones.

The baronet Sir Simonds d’Ewes complained in 1619 that the burial of Sir Thomas Barnardiston, of Kedington in Suffolk, ‘was in the night, without any manner of solemnity befitting the antiquity of his extraction, or the greatness of his estate’.

The funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth I to Westminster Abbey, 28th April 1603 (Credit: British Library/CC).

4. Feasts and ‘drinkings’ were a popular addition

Just as funerals in 21st century England are often followed by a wake, in the 17th century it was common for a feast or ‘drinking’ to be held immediately after a burial.

Such occasions provided an opportunity for neighbours, friends, and family to come together in the wake of tragedy and strengthen social ties.

Records indicate, however, that funerals could be curiously rowdy affairs. Pious bystanders worried about the custom of funeral feasting and drinking throughout the century, believing it to be sinful and lacking in decency and respect.

In 1692, the Reverend Robert Meeke described the practice as an ‘ill custom’ that reduced mourning to mirth. In 1676, a preacher called Oliver Heywood noted regretfully in his diary that a funeral feast in Yorkshire had culminated in a full-blown drinking session in a tavern.

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5. Funerals sometimes witnessed heated scenes

17th century English funerals were not exempt from the violence that was frequently on display in the social landscape around them. Conflict could make its way into a burial with little difficulty.

On the day of Lady Henrietta Strafford’s funeral in 1686, a riot broke out between local men and the soldiers instructed to watch over the pageantry.

Escutcheons were torn from Strafford’s decorated hearse by the locals before resisting troops were pushed back into York Minster. The resulting stand-off saw men on each side hurt. Black cloth was also stolen from the choir by the townsmen.

Etching of York Minster, the location of Lady Strafford’s funeral, by William Martin. This depiction was created after the building was damaged in 1829 in an arson attack by Jonathan Martin, brother of the artist (Credit: Public Domain).

Religious tensions were the basis for many a heated graveside scene. In 1605, the Catholic Alice Wellington’s body was interred by force at Allenmoor near Hereford after the curate there refused to bury her.

Civil officers were beaten off by Wellington’s friends in their quest to get Alice in the ground. The disturbance became so great that the Bishops of Hereford and Llandaff were forced to flee the scene.

Ben Norman grew up in South Cambridgeshire, in a 700-year-old farmhouse that was supposedly visited by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century. He has always found the strange but familiar world of Early Modern England fascinating. Ben holds a master’s degree in Early Modern History from the University of York, for which he achieved a distinction. This is his first book for Pen & Sword.

Ben Norman