Death in Tudor England

Fleeing the plague

As Halloween in Sydney comes to an end, I thought it would be fitting to find out a little more about death in Tudor England. Luckily, I found a fabulous article written by Professor Peter Marshall of Warwick University and available at Hampton Court’s Website that answered most of my questions.

Even before reading this article I was aware that death plagued the minds of the Tudors more than it does our own today. The lack of sanitation, the presence of a variety of epidemic diseases and the lack of medical understanding and effective medical cures meant that death was everywhere. In his article, Professor Marshall offers us some startling and very sad statistics:

Black Death from the Toggenburg Bible 1411

“Average life expectancy in the early sixteenth century was barely thirty, a figure determined largely by heart-breaking levels of infant mortality: 25% of children died before their first birthday, and 50% before their tenth.”

I was well aware that a large number of children died in childhood but I hadn’t imagined that the mortality rate was quite so high.

I feel that I should acknowledge that there are still countries today where the average life expectancy is not much more than what it was in Henry VIII’s Tudor England. A lack of antibiotics and other factors means that in our ‘modern’ world people are still enduring the excruciating pain that comes with high levels of infant mortality and a short life expectancy.

It was also just as common for marriages in Tudor England to end in death as it is for them to end in divorce today. Thus, remarriage was also very common.

Major killers in Tudor England were epidemic diseases to which there was no effective cure.  The Tudors constantly battled with “typhoid, dysentery, smallpox – not to mention the periodic visitations of plague, and the mysterious, deadly ailment (new to Tudor England) known as the sweating sickness” (Marshall, Pg. 1).

It is no wonder then that Henry VIII was so paranoid about disease. The Tudors believed that death was something you needed to prepare for and so diseases that took you by surprise were particularly feared. They were taught from young that death was not the end and there was something that all good Christians feared more than death – eternal damnation.

The purpose of life for the medieval Christian was to prepare for life with God in heaven and an essential part of this preparation involved making a ‘good death’. Professor Marshall describes this as “a fully conscious, hard spiritual effort to repent of sins and affirm belief and trust in God.”

This unfortunately was not as easy as it sounds because the devil lurked around the deathbed of Christians trying to win their souls by luring them into “despairing of God’s love” (Marshall, Pg. 1). The Tudors viewed the deathbed as a battle between the forces of good and evil. Angels and demons would try to outdo each other to win the ultimate prize – the immortal soul.

The Catholic Church’s ‘last rites’ were aimed at helping people get though this ordeal and transition from this world to the next. If you were going to resist the devil’s temptations then you needed some help and this help came in the form of a crucifix in one hand and a lighted taper in the other. Marshall describes in great detail the process that followed

“Three of the Church’s sacraments – ritual means of administering the saving grace of God – were offered to the sick and dying by the clergyman attending their final hours. There was a last opportunity to confess sins, and receive absolution from Christ’s representative, the priest. After this, the dying person would be strengthened by receiving the consecrated bread of communion, called here the viaticum (meaning, ‘take with you on the journey’). There was also a last anointing of the body, or ‘extreme unction’, with sacred oils.” (Marshall, Pg. 2)

The ‘last rites’ had another important purpose, to ensure that the dead did not return to haunt the living. The Tudors believed in ghosts. They believed that if a person had failed to make a ‘good death’ then their restless soul would return and haunt the living. This is perhaps why the Tudor deathbed was often a busy place. Apart from the priest, it was not uncommon for there to be family and neighbours present helping the dying person through this very important challenge. Perhaps they feared that if they did not help, the person would return to haunt them?

One group who definitely did not believe in ghosts was the growing band of English Protestants. Professor Marshall quotes the reformer Robert Wisdom in 1543 as saying that “souls departed do not come again and play boo-peep with us” (Pg. 3).

Ghosts were often reported as asking the living to pray for them. This is part of the Catholic beliefs of Purgatory, a doctrine that the Protestants worked hard to overturn.

Early Christians believed that only ‘saints, martyrs and pious monks’ would be immediately rewarded with salvation in heaven. The rest of the population (those not evil enough to deserve eternal punishment in hell) would progress to heaven only after they had passed through purgatory.

In order to be saved, all of your mortal sins had to be forgiven. The absolution that followed confession to a priest set you on your way but even once your sins had been forgiven you still had to pay a penalty for committing them in the first place. Marshall states “some of this penalty could be paid off in penances and good works in this life, but most people could expect to die with a debit in their spiritual balance-sheet. Purgatory was the place where the balance would be extracted” (Pg. 3).

The picture painted of purgatory was not a pretty one. It involved fire, pain and punishment and greatly resembled hell. Although the thought of visiting purgatory was not a welcomed one, it was necessary if you wanted to move on to heaven.

So why were ghosts reported as coming back and asking for prayers? Because it was believed that the prayers of the living could shorten the time a soul spent in purgatory. If you didn’t want to spend hundreds or thousands of years in purgatory then it was essential that those left behind remembered you and prayed for you. Hence, it became common practice to give gifts at the time of death; leave money for the upkeep of churches; donate vestments, chalices or stained glass windows with your name inscribed all in the hope that your soul would be remembered and your stay in purgatory shortened.

Another option was to directly arrange for masses to be said on your behalf. The institution that took on the role was known as chantries. Professor Marshall describes them as “elaborate free-standing chapels, or, more commonly, an altar within the main parish church” (Pg. 4-5).

Protestants despised the idea of purgatory. They found no evidence for it in scripture and instead thought it was simply a way for the clergy to make money from people’s fears. In one light, it does seem to suggest that the rich could buy their way into heaven where as the poor were left to suffer. But on the other hand it encouraged charitable activity and behaviour such as giving gifts to the poor whose prayers were thought to be particularly effective.

What were Henry VIII’s views on the matter? Well, it seems he was also a little unsure. In 1536 the first official statement of Henry’s new church, the Ten Articles, stated that “praying for the souls of the departed was a charitable act, but pointedly noted that the place of those souls, the appropriate name for it, and the nature of pains suffered there, were all ‘uncertain to us by scripture”(Marshall, Pg. 6). The King’s book of 1543 maintained that it was unknown how prayers and masses benefited the dead and insisted that people not use the name purgatory.

It is very interesting to note that although the dissolution of the monasteries greatly reduced the practice of praying for souls and even though Henry VIII considered closing the chantries in 1545, Henry’s will

“Directed that 1000 marks be given in alms to the poor, with instruction to pray for his soul, and that four solemn obits (annual commemorations) were to be maintained at St George’s Chapel Windsor, where also ‘an altar shall be furnished for the saying of daily masses while the world shall endure” (Marshall, Pg-6-7).

So it seems that Henry VIII feared what would meet him after death and took no chances either way.

I would like to end today’s article with a quote by Professor Marshall who states that “as all visitors to Hampton Court will recognise – whether there are ghosts or no – the past and the people who inhabited it retains the ability to haunt the imagination of the present.”

They certainly do!

Historic Royal Palces, Hampton Court Palace. Viewed October 31st, 2010,


  1. Natalie,

    I cant thank You enough for this website. I have systemic lupus and I am terminal. I spend a great deal of my time in bed. I think of my mortal soul often. This cavet was wonderful. I cant imagine that Henry slept very well. I think like most of us, the older he became the more he realized how stupid he really was.
    Thank you!

    • Dear Dona, I am so sorry about your illness and the obvious challenges you must be facing. I cannot even begin to imagine what you must be feeling but I am so happy that my website brings you a little comfort. I too hope that Henry realised how terrible some of his choices were although I fear that to acknowledge them would have meant accepting some of the blame and I don’t know if he would have ever admitted to this. I imagine that his subconscious though would have been plagued with the images of the many people he did wrong by in his lifetime. I wonder where his soul resides now…

  2. Dona! You poor thing! I will pray for you!

  3. Carol Dennis says:

    Dona, so sorry to hear about your illness – God Bless You.

    Natalie I congratulate you on an extremely interesting website. As I have mentioned before I volunteer at Historic Royal Palaces and I am often at Hampton Court Palace. There have been many sightings of ghosts reported over the years. I myself have been on a Ghost Tour there a couple of yeas ago and although I did not have anything out of the ordinary happen – I was very aware of the temperature dropping when I walked along The Haunted Gallery. A friend of mine on facebook had an experience a few weeks ago where she heard a woman scream – she is quite sure of it! What I would say is that the Palace is extremely atmospheric, especially at night. There are Ghost Tours taking place a couple of times a week between now and early March next year.

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