Funeral sermons and biography

Funeral sermons were not new in post-Reformation England; the practice had begun as early as the thirteenth century. However, both new ideas and new technologies had a growing impact across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Protestant rejection of prayers for the dead meant that such sermons could not solicit help for the deceased; their sole power could be as a source of inspiration and edification for the living. There was evidently an audience for such works, for a small but increasing number of such sermons appeared in print. These didactic texts not only served as one genre of religious teaching, but also as biographies of the deceased. Both functions can be seen in this particular sermon for William Lord Russell, published in 1614. The author of the text, a clergyman called William Walker, gives a detailed and vivid account of Walker’s deathbed struggles with his faith in a narrative clearly intended to demonstrate and disseminate Protestant teachings on salvation. Yet, as the title page makes clear, this is also a ‘godly life’. The quotation from the Psalms chosen for the title page further emphasises the message: ‘the righteous should be had in euerlasting remembrance’. CL

William Walker, A sermon preached at the funerals of the Right Honourable, VVilliam, Lord Russell, Baron of Thornhaugh, at Thornhaugh, in Northampton-Shire, the 16. of September. 1613 (London: John Hodgets, 1614), title page.

CUL: E.12.77 (item 5)

Further Reading

Patrick Collinson. ‘“A Magazine of Religious Patterns”: An Erasmian Topic Transposed in English Protestantism’, in his Godly People: Essays on English Protestantism and Puritanism (London, 1983), pp. 499–525.

Ralph Houlbrooke, ‘Funeral Sermons and the Assurance of Salvation: Conviction and Persuasion in the Case of William Lord Russell of Thornhaugh’, Reformation, 1 (1999), pp. 119-38.

Ralph Houlbrooke, Death, Religion, and the Family in England, 1480–1750 (Oxford, 1998), ch. 10.

Peter Marshall, Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England (Oxford, 2002), pp. 174-6.

Extended captions