Friday, 16 September 2011

Tales from the Parish Clerks’ Memoranda No.7: The Bowels of Sir William Winter

I must confess that when I first read the Parish Clerk’s memorandum for 21 February 1588, I had flashbacks to every Hammer Horror graveyard scene I had ever watched as a child.

21 Februarie Anno 1588
The Bowels of Sr William Winter Weare buried
Memerandum that the Bowelles of Sr William Winter knygh[t] weare by Thomas Ponder ower Sexten Buried onn the northe Syde of the churche in the churchyeard the xxjth Day of Februarie anno 1588 Betwixt the oweres of Seven and eyght of the clocke at nyght and tha[t] in my prsentes
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 f29v

I could call to mind no image that was not, in short, gruesome. The previous day’s entry had been intriguing enough:

20 Februarie Anno 1588
Memerandum that Sr WilliamWinter Knyght Endid this Lyfe in His Howse in this parishe the 20th daye of Februarie Anno 1588 att ellevenn of the clocke in the nyght beinge Cutt of the collick and the stone
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 f29r

This was the only death notice I had ever seen in the PCMs. All other notices had been of burials, not deaths. It was clear that Sir William Winter, Knight, was an important man in the community, but why not simply record the burial, and why bury his bowels (oh dear) separately? Looking further down the entries, I found another clue:

10 Marche Ano 1588
The right Worshipfull Ser William Winter his corps Was caried towards glostershyer to be buried there
Memerandum that the Corps of the Right worshipfull Ser William Winter who Departed this lyfe Beinge Cutt For the Stone the xxth Daye of Februarie ano 1588 Last past was carried towardes glostershyre to be Buried there the xth Day of marche anno 1588 and Heare was Ronge for Him This Sayd Daye aforenoones knell wt the greate bell and the peales as yf that He Showld Have beene buried Heare wt us at wch tyme His Sonne mr Edward Winter Ded paye the Dewties unto this parishe For that He died in this parishe as yf that He Had beene buried in the parishe Churche as Followethe the Funirall chardgis received For the Funirall of Sr William Winter athowghe not buried heare
For the minester ijs
For the Forenoones knell
wt the greate bell vjs viijd
For the grownd in the church not used vjs viijd
For the best cloth not used ixd
For breakinge of the grownd not used ijs
For the peales ijs
For the pitt & knelles not made nor used xviijd
For the clarkes attendance viijd
For the Sextenes attendance iiijd
For iij passinge belles wt the great bell ijs
And for the pulpet clothe
wch I Had nott nether Had we anye to use For that He was not buried heare
P69/BOT2/A/019/MS09234/001 f35r

So Sir William wasn’t actually buried in St Botolphs – at least, apart from his bowels. But bells were rung and burial charges incurred. I wanted to learn more about him, and about the practice of separate burial of bowels. First, to Sir William.

Sir William Winter, Knight, was indeed an important man. He served as an Admiral under Queen Elizabeth I and played an active role in the Anglo-Spanish war. A very fine painting of HMS Vanguard, under Sir William’s command, battling against the Spanish fleet, can be found on the PortCities website. Whether his feats of derring-do on the high seas constituted heroism or piracy, however, rather depended on one’s point of view. Searching through British History Online, I found a record of “The Spanish King’s Complaints of English Piracies”, dated 1575, referring to Sir William Winter by name, along with Sir Francis Drake and other notable naval officers/privateers of the day. I also found on BHO that Sir William had a house near Tower Hill as well as his family residence in Gloucester.

Now to the more grisly matter of the bowels. Senate House Library provided me with the research sources I needed. I discovered that separate burial of the bowels – and indeed of the heart and other parts of the body – was certainly not unheard of in medieval and early modern England, particularly for royals and other high-status persons. If such a person died away from home, there was emotional value in returning the body to be interred in familiar surroundings1, and so a method needed to be found of transporting the body that would minimise decay and stench. Embalming techniques at the time were not particularly effective, and so before sending the body on the long journey home, the bowels would first be removed and buried.2 But on the death of important personages, there could also be conflicts about where they should be buried, with more than one locality wishing to claim the remains: one solution was to divide the body.3

In such cases, the heart and head were considered of the greatest importance, and a certain amount of competition could evolve over which locality received these for burial. I think we can safely say that if there had been any competition between Aldgate and Gloucester over the claiming of Sir William’s body, Gloucester most definitely won.

1Death and the Noble Body in Medieval England; Danielle Westerhof; The Boydell Press; Woodbridge, Suffolk; 2008 p.59
2Medieval Death: Ritual and Representation; Paul Binski; The British Museum Press; London; 1996
3Death and Burial in Medieval England 1066-1550; Christopher Daniell; Routledge; London and New York; 1997; p.92.

Many thanks to St Botolph without Aldgate and London Metropolitan Archives for permission to reprint extracts from the Parish Clerks' Memoranda.

The Parish Clerks' Memoranda transcripts were prepared by the Centre for Metropolitan History team as part of their Economic and Social Research Council-funded Life in the Suburbs project (Grant Reference: RES-062-23-1260;


  1. Please note: although the PCMs list the date of Sir William Winter's death as February 1588, in modern date conventions this is actually February 1589.

  2. We've had a Twitter query about 16th century dates from @fezzer1969: Is this due to the 1 year difference in modern and medieval calendars? ie. one date medieval one modern

    Reply to @fezzer1969: The year in England prior to 1751(ish) ran from March 25th to March 24th, so Jan 1588 followed Dec 1588!

  3. Jeffrey Miller23 May 2012 at 14:03

    Thank you. I learned just last week that Sir William Winter was my 12-times-great-grandfather. It was interesting to learn more about him.

  4. Thank you Jeffrey - really glad it was of interest.