Death (Tudor and Stuart)


As in life, differences between rich and poor were very evident when someone died in the Tudor or Stuart period. The rich were buried inside the church, sometimes with elaborate tombs, and the poor were buried in the churchyard. Criminals or vagabonds were buried outside the churchyard.



Do a search on Buckinghamshire’s Heritage Portal to find all the sixteenth or seventeenth century tombs, chest tombs or brasses and find out the names of those people the monuments are commemorating.


You can also do a search on the Buckinghamshire Photographs website for sixteenth and seventeenth century tombs and brasses to find more.  

St Mary's church, Aylesbury


The Lee family tombs have now disappeared but they were once in St Peter’s Chapel, Quarrendon. Sir Henry Lee, Queen Elizabeth I’s champion, was buried there with his mistress. His wife who died before him, however, is buried in St Mary’s church, Aylesbury. Find a picture of this tomb on the Buckinghamshire Photographs website.


Chenies manor houseThe Earls of Bedford had entertained Henry VIII and Elizabeth I at Chenies and were some of the most important nobles in the land. Francis Russell, the 2nd Earl of Bedford, died in 1585. Amongst the goods he left behind include two coaches worth £10, a large carved and gilded bedstead and crimson silk quilt that had belonged to Henry VIII himself valued at over £36 and silver basins, ewers, dishes, plates, bowls, chargers, cups and knives worth over £195 in total. This was just a fraction of his possessions. This man, then, wanted to have a lasting monument to his greatness, which is now in St Michael's church next to Chenies Manor. Find a picture of this tomb on the Buckinghamshire Photographs website.


Tomb of Sir William Dormer and his wifeThere are four monuments to the Dormer family in All Saints Church, Wing. Sir Robert Dormer, who died in 1552, didn’t have a tomb for about 15 years until his grandson built a simple tomb with no stone effigies for him. This grandson, Robert Dormer, 1st Baronet, also built a tomb for his father, who died in 1575. This tomb has two stone figures lying on the top, his mother and father. A tomb was built for Baronet Robert Dormer on his death in 1616, showing him, his wife and their children kneeling in prayer. A female descendant is also commemorated in a wall plaque dated 1695. From the photographs of these tombs on the Buckinghamshire Photographs website, try to match them to each generation from the descriptions above. 


  1. Close-up of tomb of Sir William Dormer and his wifeWhat kind of clothes are the people on the tombs wearing?
  2. What position are they in?
  3. What other decoration is there?
  4. From these tombs, what do you think the people who had them built wanted to say about themselves or about the relatives buried within them? 



Most people were buried in the churchyard. Gravestones did not become common until the late seventeenth century. Before that time graves were only visible for a short while as a small mound of earth before this settled and left an even surface. This meant that gravediggers often did not know where the burials were and earlier burials were often disturbed on digging a new one. What are the benefits of having a gravestone?



Churchyard of Long Crendon churchCriminals, people who had committed suicide and unchristened babies were, by tradition, buried on the north side of the church. The south and east sides were supposed to be the most holy whereas the north side was thought to be associated with the devil. For instance, Charles II exhumed the bodies of the men who had had his father executed from Westminster Abbey and buried them on the north side of the Abbey in 1661. However, you can find burials of normal people on the north side of most churches. 



In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, one of the most unnerving outsiders to come across was a Gypsy or an Egyptian, as they were often known (they are now known as Roma). To people who lived in villages or towns, a life spent travelling from one place to another was not normal and threatened the established pattern of life. Vagabonds and vagrants were also feared.


Parliament passed acts from 1530 onwards to control the travelling population. Henry VIII forbade the immigration of Gypsies and there was a fine of £40 from the ship’s captain or owner for bringing them into the country. Any Gypsies caught entering the country were hanged. There were other acts, such as that of Elizabeth I in 1562 “for further punishment of vagabonds, calling themselves Egyptians, both genuine and counterfeit, all to be treated as criminals and suffer death and loss of land, goods”. Any Gypsies born in England and Wales were not compelled to leave the country if they quit their “naughty, idle and ungodly life and company”.


In 1596 106 men and women were condemned to death in York for being Gypsies. Only nine were executed as the others could prove they were born in England. Executions continued until the 1650s and afterwards the punishment for being a Gypsy was to be sent to the Americas.


The Gypsy King

The parish register for St Mary’s Church in Aylesbury records that on March 20th 1640 Edward Bozwell, “King of the Gypsies” and fellow Gypsies Tynimere Smyth and Edward Smith were executed. A gravestone was erected to Boswell  five days later in Quainton on the “First day of 1641” (March 25th was the start of the new year until the eighteenth century). No burial has been found but it is unlikely to have been in a churchyard and the gravestone, though probably not in it’s original position, was found on Carter’s Lane just outside Quainton.


Other Tudor or Stuart burials outside churchyards probably occurred but are difficult to date. There are undated burials just outside Stone churchyard and at the bottom of Church Hill, West Wycombe (where the churchyard is at the top!). These may be the burials of vagabonds or criminals from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.


Go back to find out more about the Rich and poor.