The Road to Ludlow#

From Archaeologia Cambrensis, the official proceedings of the sixth annual meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association at Ludlow in 1852, we might reasonably assume that Mr. Matthew Moggridge, Esq., himself learned of the tradition from “Aubrey”, writing in the Lansdowne manuscripts, as held by the British Museum, via Hone’s Year Book, p. 858.

A query raised following the meeting by one of those in attendance, Mr. Jelinger C. Symons in Notes & Queries also revealed by way of response a reference to the same quote appearing in Brand’s Antiquities, vol. ii. p. 247., edit. 1849.

So in our attempt to track down the origins of the story of the sin-eater, let us begin with those two sources before broadening our search to other possible references to the tradition in the years prior to 1852.

Hone’s Year Book, 1832#

The year book of daily recreation and information by William Hone, originally published weekly from January 1831 to January 1832, in 52 numbers was published in a single volume in February, 1832 [Hone, 1832].

The publication of an Edinburgh edition was announced in The Scotsman on Saturday 18 February 1832


This day is published.


And STILLIES, BROTHERS, 140, High Street, Edinburgh.

In one very large vol. 8 vo., with 114 Engravings, price 14s. in cloth

THE YEAR BOOK of Daily Recreation and Information, concerning remarkable Men and Manners, Times and Seasons, Solemnities and Merry-makings, Antiquities and Novelties, forming a complete History of the Year, and a Key to the Almanacks.

By W. Hone

N.B. Persons wishing for Odd Numbers to complete the YEAR BOOK will make immediate applicationto R. GRIFFIN & CO., as some of the numbers are getting scarece.

64, Hutcheson Street, Feb. 11, 1832

The full title of the book is more correctly recorded as The year book of daily recreation and information concerning remarkable men and manners, times and seasons, solemnities and merry-makings, antiquities and novelties: on the plan of the Every-Day Book and Table Book, or everlasting calendar of popular amusements, sports, pastimes, ceremonies, customs, and events incident to each of the three hundered and sixty-five days in past and present times; forming a complete history of the year; and a perpetual key to the Almanac; with 114 engravings.

This work drew on Hone’s previous works, The Every-Day Book and The Table Book. Whilst neither book contains a description of the sin-eater practise, the list of “topics to be covered” in the first edition of the Every-Day Book (started at the end of 1824), does mention that “sin-eater” will be one of the topics to be covered.

In the entry for July 19th, 1831, on pages 858-9 of The Year-Book, we find the following reference to “Sin Eaters”.

Sin-eating is the only that can be used to signify a practice which prevailed with our ancestors. Lawrence Howell, mentioned above, wrote a “History of the Pontificate”, in which he mentions a decretal epistle, attributed to a pope Alexander, in the second century, which, by an exposition of “They eat up the sin of my people,” Hosea iv. 8, implies that this passage signifies “the dignity of priests, who, by their prayers and offerings, eat up the sins of the people.” An usage called sin-eating undoubtedly arose in catholic times, and, however it may have been limited to the clergy in early ages, was afterwards continued and practised as a profession, by certain persons called sin-eaters.

This reference to Hosea iv. 8 was presumably picked up by the person responding to Symons’ letter to Notes & Queries; we also have an indication suggestive of catholic origins to the practise.

We then get a more direct statement regarding the folkloric character we are pursuing:

In a letter from John Bagford, dated 1715, printed in “Leland’s Collectanea,” there is the following account of a sin-eater. — “Within the memory of our fathers, in Shropshire, in those villages adjoining to Wales, when a person died, there was notice given to an old ‘sire’ (for so they called him,) who presently repaired to the place where the deceased lay, and stood before the door of the house, when some of the family came out and furnished him with a cricket (or stool), on which he sat down facing the door. Then they gave him a groat, which he put in his pocket; a crust of bread, which he ate; and a full bowl of ale, which he drank off at a draught.” After this, he got up from the cricket, and pronounced, with a composed gesture, ‘the ease and rest of the soul departed, for which he would pawn his own soul.’ This” says Bagford, “I had from the ingenious John Aubrey, esq., who made a collection of curious observations, which I have seen.”

Here, then, it would appear that we have another description of a visiting fellow in the Shropshire area in the last quarter of the 17th century (“within memory of our fathers”, from a basis in 1715) who arrives when a death is announced; who is paid groat (four pence); who sits on a small stool facing the door, eats some bread and drinks a “full bowl” of ale in one go; and who then stands, and with a particular gesture (though what sort of gesture we don’t know), makes a ritual pronouncement. Bagford claims this account comes from Aubrey, perhaps as a personal communication, who was collecting and writing in the latter quarter of the seventeenth century, or perhaps from Aubrey’s writings. But in either case: from Aubrey.

The Year Book then quotes a written description of the sin-eater as provided by Aubrey:

Among the Lansdowne MSS., in the British Museum, are statements in Aubrey’s own hand writing, to this purport. — “In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them the sins of the party deceased. One of them (he was a long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor rascal), I remember, lived in a cottage on Rosse highway.

Which “Rosse highway” is not clear: is it the road out to Hereford, or to Monmouth? (See for example this map of Herefordshire by Morden, c.1700.)

Aubrey then describes the ritual:

The manner was, that when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid on the bier, a loaf of bread was brought out, and delivered to the sin-eater, over the corpse, as also a mazard bowl, of maple, full of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money : in consideration whereof he took upon him, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead.”

Aubrey then reviews other places where the practice is said to occur:

Aubrey adds, “This custom, though rarely used in our days, yet, by some people, was observed even in the strictest time of the Presbyterian government ; as, at Dynder (volens nolens the parson of the parish), the kindred of a woman, deceased there, had this ceremony punctually performed, according to her will : and, also, the like was done at the city of Hereford, in those times, where a woman kept, many years before her death, a mazard bowl for the sin-eater; and the like in other places in this county ; as also in Brecon : e. g. at Llanggors, where Mr. Gwin, the minister, about 1640, could not hinder the performance of this ancient custom. I believe,” says Aubrey, “this custom was heretofore used all over Wales.” He states further, “A. D. 1686. This custom is used to this day in North Wales.”

A reference is then made to what appears to be a commentary on, or attached to, the manuscript itself by Bishop White Kennett:

Bishop White Kennet, who appears to have possessed Aubrey’s MS., has added this note. “It seems a remainder of this custom which lately obtained at Amersden, in the county of Oxford ; where, at the burial of every corpse, one cake and one flaggon of ale, just after the interment, were brought to the minister in the church porch.”

Aubrey, quoted in White Kennet’s Parochial Antiquities, 1818

A footnote to the 1818 edition of White Kennett’s Parochial Antiquities attempted in the History of Ambrosden, Burcester, and other adjacent parts in the counties of Oxford and Bucks, with a Glossary of Obsolete Terms (“A New Edition in Two Volumes, Greatly Enlarged from the Author’s Manuscript Notes”, edited by Bulkeley Bandinel quotes Aubrey, and also includes a further observation about the giving of doles as a current tradition.

In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them all the sinns of the party deceased, and were called sin-eaters. One of them I remember liv’d in a cottage on Rosse high-way. The manner was thus : when the corps was brought out of the hous, and laid on the biere, a loaf of bread was delivered to the sinne eater over the corps, as allso a mazar bowle (a gossips bowl of maple) full of beer, which he was to drink up, and six pence in mony, in consideration whereof he took upon him ipso facto all the sinns of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead. In North Wales the sinne eaters are frequently made use of; but there, instead of a bowl of beer, they have a bowl of milk. This custom was by some people observed even in the strictest time of the presbyterian government. As at Dyndar, volens nolens the parson of the parish, the relation of a woman deceased there had this ceremony punctually performed according to her will. The like was done in the city of Hereford in those times, where a woman kept, many years before her death, a mazar bowl for the sinne-eater; and in other places in this county, as allso at Brecon, at Llangors, where Mr. Gwin the minister, about 1640, could not hinder this superstition. Methinks doles to poor people, with mony at funerals, have some resemblance of the sinne-eating. Doles at funerals were continued at gentlemen’s funerals in the west of England till the civil warrs ; and so in Germany, at rich men’s funerals, doles are in use, and to every one a quart of strong and good beer. Aubrey of Gentilisme, MS.

This giving of doles is now observed in most country funerals in cake to all the better part, and bread to all the poor people.

Leland’s Collectanea, 1774#

Regarding the “letter from John Bagford” in Leland’s Collectanea, it first seems to appear in the second edition of Joannis Lelandi antiquarii De rebvs britannicis collectanea, edited by Thomas Hearne, and published in 1774, as “A Letter to the Publisher, written by the ingenious Mr. John Bagford, in which are many curious Remarks relating to the City of London and somme things about Leland, p. LVIII-LXXXVI.

On p. LXXVI, we have the comment regarding the “old Sire”:


Letter from John Bagford

Within the memory of our Fathers in Shropshire, in those Villages adjoyning to Wales when a Person dyed, there was notice given to an old Sire, (for so they call’d him,) who presently repair’d to the Place where the deceased lay, and stood before the Door of the House, when some of the Family came out and furnished him with a Cricket, on which he sat down facing the Door. Then they gave him a Groat, which he put in his Pocket, a Crust of Bread which he eat, and a full Bowle of Ale which he drank off at a draught. After this he got up from the Cricket, and pronounced with a composed Gesture, “The safe and rest of the Soul departed, for which he would pawn his own Soul”. This I had from the ingenious John Aubrey Esq; who made a Collectìon of curious Observations, which I have seen, and is now remaining in the Hands of Mr. Churchill the Bookseller. How can a man think otherwise of this, than that it proceeded from the ancient Heathens?

The letter is signed off as follows:

I wish you a long Life, vigorous course of Health, and all imaginable encouragement of your learned and indefatigable Studies, (which I am glad have been so generously and so publickly taken notice of by the University of Oxfordd) and am, Sir, Your very humble servant Charter-House Feb, 1714|15. John Bagford.

So we can date this observation back at least to c. 1714.

We also note that the letter has a little more detail regarding the current whereabouts of Aubrey’s papers – and is now remaining in the Hands of Mr. Churchill the Bookseller – as well as a comment regarding the deeper history of the story: How can a man think otherwise of this, than that it proceeded from the ancient Heathens?

Who, then, is “Mr. Churchill the bookseller”?

Perhaps it could be Awnsham Churchill, (1658-1728), of the Black Swan, Paternoster Row, London and Henbury, Dorset, MP, publisher and son of a bookseller (William Churchill, also of Dorchester) (History of Parliament), which states “Churchill was distantly related to the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill), but preferred to carve out a strongly independent Whig career.”

Did Churchill the bookseller perhaps pass mention of the tradition to the Duke of Marlborough, as mentioned in the account of the Shrewsbury Chronicle of Friday 03 September 1852 of Mr. Moggrdige’s observations on “The Sin Eater”:

Matthew Moggridge, Esq. said the Duke of Marlborough was the person he had alluded to. He sent for Dr. Bowles during his sickness, and when the Dr. arrived he found that the Duke was already dead, and the plate and the salt was placed on the body. Far be it from him to desire that anything he should advance should not be combated, for all he wished was to get at the truth.

and who we consider might be George Spencer-Churchill, the 5th Duke of Marlborough, collector of antiquities and books, who died on March 5th, 1840? Or was the tradition simply part of a wider tradition?

The History of Parliament biography of Churchill continues:

Despite his strongly Whig sympathies, Churchill remained on friendly terms with his Tory kinsman George Churchill: he was the first to break the news of the admiral’s death to the Duke of Marlborough, who thanked him for the ‘kind concern’ he had shown, and he was appointed an executor of George’s will. Awnsham had nevertheless always shown a reluctance to approach Marlborough for patronage, preferring the independence his trade gave him.

so we know that they were on good terms.

From Aubrey to the British Library#

At this point, let us try to make a note of the likely path taken by Aubrey’s manuscript, from the time he died until the time it made it to the British Library.

Lansdowne MS 231/3 (1568-1637) British Library: Western Manuscripts Lansdowne MS 231/3 1568-1637 3. Remains of Gentilism and Judaism, collected by John Aubrey, Esq., and addressed to his friend Edmund Wyld, of Geasly Hall in the county of Salop, Esq. fo. 101. Some of these are printed in his “Miscellanies.” They relate chiefly to the old English popular customs and traditions.

Hone’s Year Book suggests “Bishop White Kennet, who appears to have possessed Aubrey’s MS”, and before that we have Bagford’s letter claiming prior to that the papers are “now remaining in the Hands of Mr. Churchill the Bookseller”. The Dictionary of National Biography then suggest the papers passed from White to antiquary and MP, James West and thence to William Petty (1737-1805), 2nd Earl of Shelburne, 1st Marquess of Lansdowne. And from Lansdowne, they were purchased with a parliamentary grant by the British Library.

Which gives us the following:

Aubrey (d. 1697) — Churchill, 1714 — White Kennett (1714-16?, d.1728) + annotation — (James West) — Lansdowne, 1773 — British Library 1807.

The Lansdowne papers are still held by the British Library today, as the Lansdowne Manuscripts Collection.

We have now also pretty much chased our way back to Aubrey.

We might also note that there is a transmission of elements of the sin-eater ritual via Bagford, perhaps via direct personal communication, or perhaps just via Bagford’s reading of Aubrey’s manuscript.

How, then, did Hone come across Aubrey’s comments? We should note that Hone appears to have been familiar with the term sin-eater in December 1824, where the term is mentioned as one of the items to be covered in his forthcoming (at the time) Every-Day Book.

One possibility is that he learned of it from “Brand’s Antiquities”, which we saw cited one response to Symon’s letter to Notes & Queries, specifically, Brand’s Antiquities, vol. ii. p. 247., edit. 1849.

We know that Hone was familiar with an earlier edition of Brand’s work, citing from it liberally right from the very start of his Every-Day Book of 1826. For example, even on January 1st, column 6, “The late Rev. John Brand, in his ‘Popular Antiquities’ edited by Mr. Ellis, observes…”