Monday, August 31, 2015

For Whom the Bell Tolls- Early Tudor Way of Death

by Carol McGrath

Imagine a silent, sombre procession moving slowly through the streets of London from the deceased's home to the local Parish church. The bells toll, and the funeral bier is covered with black cloth. The year is 1512. King Henry has been on the throne for three years. He is young, a golden Renaissance prince, and, as yet, there is no hint of Reformation in England. In fact Henry VIII was conservative. He was Catholic as far as the Church liturgy was concerned all his life. Funerals during his reign remained traditional, no different to those of Medieval times. Even during the Elizabethan era many features of medieval funerals for the wealthy, middling or poor remained the same.

Queen Elizabeth I 's funeral cortege

If the deceased was wealthy, this procession would be led by servants bearing banners and coats of arms. There would be attendants clad in black gowns carrying black staves. Black was provided to invited mourners. Generally there were no flowers. Mourners carried herbs. Sprigs of rosemary for remembrance would be worn in the hat, pinned to the sleeves and onlookers might wear mourning rings showing skeletons or crosses.

The bell's tolling would summon attendants to the graveside and bring comfort, not only to the living, but to the dead. People were prompted to prayer by the tolling bells. These helped the soul on its journey. If one was superstitious, one might believe that tolling bells would chase off any evil spirits that could molest the soul. After the Reformation in the mid sixteenth century, bell tolling was limited. The bells would ring 'moderately' at funerals. It was no longer an official belief that they were beneficial to the passage of the dead person's soul.

Bell tolling helped the passage of the soul

Winding and watching were important aspects of a death ritual. They were also a practical necessity. This work involved washing, winding the corpse in a shroud and watching over the candle lit corpse before it was carried in procession to the church for burial. A midwife could be employed for corpse washing duty! A shroud could be linen, but by the mid seventeenth century shrouds were woolen to give a flagging wool trade a boost. Although a box might occasionally be used, unless a person was wealthy he/ she was buried in the shroud. Generally, no more than two to three days would pass between death and burial. Infectious bodies were buried as soon as possible. Equally, the very wealthy might be embalmed to allow time for mourners to gather.

Watching the corpse involved sitting up all night with the dead body. It was a custom that continued after the Reformation. The body might be laid out on a floor covered with a sheet. The corpse was constantly attended and watched, a tradition similar to that of Celtic Wakes. It secured another mark of respect for the deceased's family. It safeguarded the body from tampering. Sometimes the watchers imagined that they saw visions. It could be frightening. Imagine the stories they whispered as they prayed for the safe passage of a soul.

Image result for free pictures of rosemary
Rosemary for Remembrance

Most bodies rested on biers and were not carried in coffins from the time they departed for the Church until they were placed in the grave. A bier was a frame with handles designed to transport and support the corpse. These were often supplied by the Parish, and they would be stored at the back of the Church. The Parish might also loan out a mortuary cloth, a pall, to cover the bier. Guilds supplied such trappings for the burial of guild members. The hearse was originally a frame to hold candles that were placed over the body during the funeral service. Eventually the meaning of hearse changed to include the whole ensemble whether bier or a coffin that transported the body to the grave.

Death was never far away. A Church wall painting

The poor of the Parish expected a funeral dole. In fact, it was the poor who were sometimes employed to accompany or carry the corpse. Funeral processions in Tudor London were often led by members of the poor dressed in mourning livery. Since black was the colour of Tudor mourning, the wealthy who could afford acres of black cloth would provide mourning cloaks for the guests, gowns, hangings, draperies, covers and gifts such as mourning rings or gloves. Thus, a mourner could easily be identified by apparel. Traditionally, the funerals of the well-to-do were accompanied by deeds of charity and acts of largesse.

Tudor Generosity!

Mourners who accompanied the body to the grave might be fortified with ale, wine or spirits. Guests would also be provided with refreshments later. Funeral meals were semi public occasions, and a large company could be expected. Vast amounts of food and drink were consumed after Tudor funerals. For the well to do, new middle class they became an occasion!

The Tudors Artifacts - The Tudors Wiki

To find out more about Tudor and Stuart funerals read Birth, Marriage and Death, Ritual, Religion and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England by David Cressy, Oxford University Press.

My new novel in progress opens with a London funeral and is set in 1512.


Carol McGrath

The Handfasted Wife published by Accent Press 2013
The Swan-Daughter published by Accent Press 2014
The Betrothed Sister published by Accent Press 2015


  1. It's an interesting topic, Carol. They also had designated paths to follow sometimes to get to the parish church.

  2. When I was a boy in Ireland during the late fifties, horse-drawn hearses were used on occasion. The horses necks were adorned with strips of linen as was the driver's black hat. Ironically, this was a relic of a two-hundred year old tradition started to "give a boost" to the infant Irish linen industry. This custom was initiated to compensate Ireland for the destruction of its woolen industry by England.

  3. An amendment to my previous comment: I meant to say, I saw horse-drawn hearses in Ireland during the late forties, not the late fifties.


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