There were three Burying in Woollens Acts passed during the 17th century, the first in 1666 (18 & 19 Cha. II c. 4 1666 ) and the second in 1678 (30 Car. II cap.3), which repealed the first. Their aim was to support the domestic woollen trade in the face of increasing competition from foreign imports and newer materials. The Acts mandated that when a corpse was buried it should be dressed only in a shroud or garments made of wool: The Woollen Acts are an early example of the state intervening in areas of life not usually considered to be criminal.
And it is hereby enacted [that] noe Corps of any person or persons shall be buryed in any Shirt Shift Sheete or Shroud or any thing whatsoever made or mingled with Flax Hempe Silke Haire Gold or Silver or in any Stuffe … upon paine of the Forfeiture of Five pounds of lawfull Money of England to be recovered and divided as is hereafter in this Act expressed and directed.
The first Act of 1666 was considered ineffective, as it stipulated no financial penalty for any breach of the law, hence its replacement in 1678 with the Act that laid down a fine of £5, about what an agricultural worker of the period might earn in three months. That later Act did make an exception in the case of plague victims however, for whom the fine did not apply. The Additional Act for Burying in Woollen Act of 1680 (32 Cha. II c. 1) extended those before whom an affadavit could be sworn that the corpse had been buried in wool to include parsons, vicars and curates.
The Act stipulated that half of the fine imposed was to be used to support the poor of the parish where the burial took place, with the other half going to whoever informed the authorities that the deceased had not been buried in wool. The rich were thus offered another avenue for the display of their wealth, partially subsidised by the state, as the family member of a deceased person could report the offence of not burying the dead in wool and collect half the fine to help pay for the funeral. Alexander Pope satirised the situation in his Moral Essays Epistle 1 (1734):
“Odious! in woollen! ‘twould a saint provoke”
(Were the last words that poor Narcissa spoke);
“No, let a charming chintz, and Brussels lace
Wrap my cold limbs, and shade my lifeless face:
One would not, sure, be frightful when one’s dead –
And–Betty–give this cheek a little red.”
The 1678 Act was repealed in 1814 by the Burying in Woollen Act (54 Geo. 3 c. 108)