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Death and the Reformation

A/N: Part II, paper 13 (ie. "Death in the Middle Ages" essay written in Michaelmas term of the 2009/10 academic year.

How Fundamentally Did The Reformation Change Society's Response To The Dying and The Dead?

The early sixteenth century saw the beginning of the English Reformation, a process that had succeeded, at least temporarily, in separating England from the Roman Catholic Church by 1536. For historians such as Dickens this represented a victory for the masses; dissatisfied with incompetent and immoral clergy, Dickens claimed the impetus for the English Reformation came from below. If this were the case it would seem to suggest that society’s response to the dying and the dead would change significantly, as the customs and traditions of the old religion were swept away. However it is now apparent that the Reformation was a more piecemeal affair. Beliefs changed only slowly, customs, in many cases, even more so. As a result there is often a discrepancy between the way in which people responded to the dying and the dead in the aftermath of the Reformation, and the reasoning behind it.

Pre-reformation religion has often been accused, in the words of Galpern, of being a “cult of the living in the service of the dead”. Death permeated almost every aspect of the medieval world as a result of the Church’s insistence that one’s own mortality should never be far from one’s mind. To this end the dying were treated in very specific ways. The fifteenth century ‘guidebooks’ on how to die, such as the Ars Moriendi, explained how those present at the death bed should ensure that the dying person made an explicit statement of faith, and received the last rites. The advent of Protestantism might be expected to have changed this in two ways. Firstly, the sacrament of the last rites was abolished, branded as nothing more than popery. There was also a shift away from placing such high levels of importance on making declarations of faith.

The reason for this was the slow demise of the theory of purgatory. Whereas in the later middle ages a person might reasonably expect their soul to go to purgatory when they died, to await the verdict of the last judgement, by the 1530s there were serious doubts about its existence. Tyndale, for example, claimed that as purgatory had no grounding in the bible it was an invention that served only ‘to purge thy purse’. The Chantry Act of 1547 seemed to confirm this, sweeping away over two thousand such foundations. As one could no longer hope to purge their worldly sins after death, emphasis moved away from the deathbed and onto leading a pious and virtuous life. Faith became something to be proven in everyday actions, meaning the deathbed became less of a trial for the dying.

Similarly fundamental shifts can be seen in attitudes towards the corpse itself. Evangelical fervour for instance was adamant that the pomp and ceremony of late medieval burials be done away with. They were a symbol of vanity. In 1588 for example girdler, Richard Walter, refused even to allow the preaching of a sermon at his funeral, claiming that it was just ‘superstition’ and would serve no purpose. Yet, lavish burials remained popular amongst the better off; perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the ostentatious royal funerals of the period. However the justification behind such displays had subtly changed. Instead of principally reminding people to pray for their souls, the extravagant tombs of the wealthy served almost exclusively as markers of worldly status. It was important that the funeral was fitting and ‘proper’ for a person of their status, and pains were taken to ensure this more for the sake of their living friends and relatives than for the dead themselves. Increasingly it was accepted that the dead could not benefit from the actions of the living, a radical and fundamental shift away from medieval understandings.

Again, the issue of where an individual was to be buried changed in emphasis. Before the Reformation people wanted to be buried near the Church altar, so that they might receive the benefit of proximity to the holy wafer during mass. Post-Reformation burial requests, unsurprisingly given the removal of mass from Anglican Church activity, tended to have a different focus. John Veron claimed that ‘wheresoever we are buried, we are buried in the Lord’s earth’. If specific demands were made, they were often for burial near to what had been the deceased’s customary pew in Church. This again suggests a preoccupation with stressing how pious an individual had been in life, rather than with how to ease their suffering after death as had been the case in the later middle ages.

Further examples of changing beliefs can be seen even in the survival of old Catholic customs surrounding death. The tolling of a bell to let the community know somebody had died continued for decades in many places. In the Catholic tradition this was to encourage people to pray for the soul of the deceased. The post-reformation practice on the other hand seems to have been more about common expectations of the ‘proper’ procedure to follow on someone’s death. As late as 1623 William Reade, minister at Cropredy, Oxfordshire, offended parishioners by refusing ‘the ringing of a peal’ for local widow, Margery Winter. There was no theological basis to people’s discontent; rather they felt that Reade was denying Winter the basic rights of the dead. The practice of sitting with the dead body overnight proved similarly difficult to stamp out. For the Church it symbolised superstition and dubious theology, but for those involved it was more of a customary expectation of things that ought to be done for the dead.

Post-Reformation wills might be expected to differ radically from those of the late medieval period. Then the primary concern of testators was often provision for their souls. This could include bequests of money and gifts to the Church to ensure their soul was prayed for, to ease their time in purgatory. With the removal of purgatory from the popular mindset, and the abolition of the chantries this became both an unnecessary and a difficult request. During the reinstatement of Catholicism under Mary, less than a generation since its original suppression, Sussex schoolmaster Gabriel Fowlle asked in his will for ten priests to sing masses for him. Importantly however was his comment that this should be done ‘if they can be got’, suggesting that resources just could not meet demand. What we see generally post-reformation are requests for sermons instead of for masses. Alderman William Dane provided for a sermon every Sunday for thirty weeks in 1563 for example. This implies a fundamental shift in society’s response to death and the dying, it was understood that the dead could not benefit from prayers, but the living could reap great reward from the opportunity to hear sermons.
A comparable picture is observable when looking at post-reformation almsgiving and charity. A crucial part of medieval wills, charitable bequests ensured your name lived on, allowing the living to pray for your soul. Because of this connection with purgatory some people felt the practice should be forgotten. In 1604 for example alderman Richard Goddard refused to provide a distribution of alms at his burial, arguing that such an action was ‘but a popish imitation of such as were desirous after their death to have their soul prayed for.’ This was a fairly extreme view however. Far more typical were charitable donations made to help the ‘deserving’ poor. To the medieval mind, the prayers of paupers were powerful because they did not carry sins such as avarice as heavily as the better off. With the removal of concerns over intercession for the soul we see a greater trend towards such distinctions as ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. This reveals the fundamental shift in why charity was being given. Rather than to help the soul of the dead, it was to help the living. The undeserving poor, it was felt, would gain little from charity and so could be excluded.

In conclusion the Reformation resulted in a fairly fundamental shift in society’s response to the dead and the dying, particularly in relation to beliefs. Customs such as bell tolling for the dead, and almsgiving in wills continued but the reasoning behind the actions changed. With the demise of purgatory as official doctrine people ceased to tailor their responses to death to easing the pains of the soul. Instead the focus was on the living. Funeral sermons could offer nothing to the dead, but offered comfort to the living. Similarly requests for obits, trentals and other memorials for the dead were replaced with improving sermons for the good of the living. In a way post-reformation society saw the dead and the dying as providing a service for the living, rather than the other way around. 


  • P. Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England (Oxford, 2002) 
  • D. Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death: ritual, religion, and the life-cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford, 1997) 
  • A. Kreider, English Chantries: the road to dissolution (Cambridge, 1998) 
  • N. Tyacke (ed.), England’s Long Reformation, 1500-1800 (1998) 
  • S. Wabuda, Preaching during the English Reformation (2002), Intro.


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