The Tudor Way of Death

My new novel The Woman in the Shadows opens with the death of Elizabeth Williams’ husband’s death. She has kept his secret for years but now she is free. She is a widow, ready to take on the management of her cloth trade. Then, she meets Thomas Cromwell who helps her to overcome her father’s opposition and that of jealous traders. She marries him. As Thomas Cromwell rises to be a merchant and lawyer during the fifteen twenties we see his ambition through her eyes. We also see what their family life might have been. Look at my website for more about this novel. It is on amazon pre order and is released on August 4th.

If you pre order the paperback let me know via my website email and I shall send you a signed bookplate for your new book.

n this post, I write briefly on the dark subject of the Tudor way of death. When a person was dying, the Parish bell tolled. It tolled again at the point of burial. This alerted the community to a death and it showed respect for the deceased. The bell also summoned attendants to the graveside. It is at Tom Williams’ graveside in St Albans’ churchyard that we first encounter Thomas Cromwell, in Chapter 1 of The Woman in the Shadows. Attendants would bring comfort, not only to the living, but to the dead. Mourners were prompted to prayers which helped the soul on its precarious journey to heaven. The bells sanctified the soul in its passing and, for the superstitious, even ward off evil spirits which could molest the soul. After the Reformation in the 1530s and particularly during the Elizabethan Age this tradition was limited.

Winding and watching was a practical necessity. If necessary, a surgeon would be engaged to open the body first and investigate the organs to establish the cause of death. Infectious bodies were always buried as soon as possible. Watching involved sitting through the night with the dead body. The body might be laid out on a floor or table and covered with a sheet. Candles would be lit above it. This secured another mark of respect to the deceased and his/her family. It also prevented tampering with the corpse. Sometimes watchers saw visions which could be frightening.

Most bodies rested on biers from the time they departed for the church until they were placed in a grave. A bier was a frame with handles designed to transport and support the corpse. Often these were supplied by the Parish and kept at the back of the Church. The Parish might also loan out a mortuary cloth, a pall to cover the bier and companies likewise provided such trappings for company members. The fishmongers had a gorgeous covering done in Opus Anglicanum work, cloth which was used at burials of prestigious members of the Fishmongers Company. A hearse was originally a frame to hold candles that were placed over a body during the funeral service. The meaning changed to include the whole ensemble whether just bier or coffin that transported the corpse to its grave.

The funeral procession was a very solemn journey. The poor, who expected the distribution of a funeral dole, were sometimes employed to accompany the corpse. Funeral processions in London were traditionally led by members of the poor clad in mourning livery. The journey was usually short, just as far as the nearest Parish Church. Black was the Tudor colour of mourning. The wealthy, who could afford acres of black cloth, which was expensive, provided draperies, covers and mourning gifts. These might be gloves or rings The gifts were for the funeral guests. Mourners who accompanied the body to the church were often be fortified with wine or spirits. Later the guests would enjoy refreshment at a table laden with meat and drink. Funeral meals were semi public occasions and a large company could be expected. Thus vast amounts of food and wine would be consumed at a Tudor funeral.

Rosemary was the herb of remembrance. Mourners would scatter nosegays of rosemary and laurel on the corpse as earth falls on the shrouded body. The sharp smell cut through the putrescent smell emanating from the deceased in his/her shroud.

The Woman in the Shadows is located in London and throughout the story festivals such as Christmas and Easter are described as Elizabeth and Thomas Cromwell live out their daily lives, and the events are revealed that mark his passage from successful Cloth Merchant to canny lawyering for Thomas Wolsey and finally Cromwell’s imminent involvement with the Tudor Court. It follows Elizabeth’s family life as well as the couple’s house moves within the City. There are, described vividly, the dangerous challenges they face in a London where time is marked by trading, processions, birth, marriage, death and a city which is frequently visited by plagues, particularly the disease known as ‘The Sweating Sickness’.

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