10 strange ways Tudors died
- 14 June 2011
- From the section Magazine
Research into accidental deaths in Tudor England reveals the strange way people died, writes Sean Coughlan.
Oxford University historian, Dr Steven Gunn, has been scouring 16th Century coroners' reports and researching accidental deaths in Tudor England.
These reports revealed an intriguing possible link with William Shakespeare's tragic character Ophelia. But they also revealed examples of some strange and sometimes stupid deaths.
1. Bears were part of the Tudor entertainment scene. There were performing bears and there were bears kept for the bloodthirsty attraction of bear-baiting. In a purpose-built bear garden, a bear would be tied to a post in an enclosed pit and would be set upon by hunting dogs. Henry VIII had his own royal arena built in Whitehall.
But sometimes they escaped. A widow called Agnes Rapte was killed by Lord Bergavenny's bear when it broke loose at his house at Birling, Kent in 1563. Another victim, Agnes Owen from Herefordshire, was killed in her bed by a runaway bear. When a bear bit a man to death in Oxford in 1565, the bear wasn't punished but was taken into royal custody. Perhaps because it was worth 26 shillings and 8 pence - about six months' wages for a labourer.
2. Archery was a dangerous pastime, both for participants and spectators. Coroners' reports reveal 56 accidental deaths from people standing too close to the targets or those who decided on just the wrong time to go and collect the fired arrows.
There were also some bad judgement calls. Thomas Curteys of Bildeston, Suffolk, was practising archery on a fine June evening in 1556, when he took off his hat and invited another bowman called Richard Lyrence to try to hit it with an arrow. No prizes for what happened next.
Coroners even noted the depth of wounds. The unwanted record is held by a Nicholas Wyborne, who was lying down near a target when he was hit by a falling arrow, which pierced him to a depth of six inches.
3. The first time a coroners' court came up against the new-fangled problem of a fatal shooting accident was 1519, when a woman in Welton near Hull was accidentally killed by a handgun.
The perpetrator was a bookbinder from France, called with dazzling Tudor wit, Peter Frenchman. The victim, not understanding this noisy gadget, had walked in front of the gun as it had been fired.
Establishing the gun's place in the social order, in 1557 when the Duke of Norfolk's horse stumbled on a road in Tottenham, his gun went off and shot dead a servant.
Showing the marvels of scientific progress, by the 1560s guns were causing more accidental deaths than longbows.
4. How do you shoot yourself in the head with your own bow? In 1552, Henry Pert, gentleman, in Welbeck, Nottinghamshire, drew his bow to its full extent with the aim of shooting straight up into the air.
The arrow lodged in the bow, and while he was leaning over to look, the arrow was released. He died the next day. Of embarrassment.
5. Imagine an episode of Casualty. How could baking a loaf lead to a fatal accident? There's not even a gas oven or an electric gadget to worry about, because neither had been invented.
Elizabeth Bennet, spinster, was baking bread at the house of Matilda Nanfan, widow, at Birtsmorton, Worcestershire, on 29 January 1558. She went to the moat to collect cabbage leaves to put under the loaves she was baking. The fence broke and she fell into the moat and drowned. End of.
6. "John Hypper was 'playinge Christenmas games' on Boxing Day 1563 at about 6pm with divers other parishioners of Houghton, Hampshire in the house of Thomas Purdew of Houghton, husbandman. While playing he involuntarily crushed himself and injured his testicles so that by reason of his old bodily infirmity he became ill and languished until about 3am on 28 December when he died."
If he'd lived, would anyone have believed him? Old bodily infirmity? Testicles crushed in a Christmas game? Pull the other one.
7. Tudor-style mad cow disease took the form of a "madd cow" belonging to William Cheills of Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire. A man walking through the fields in March 1557 was attacked by the cow, which gored him to death with her horn. The victim's name was Robert Calf.
8. Maypole injuries were not only caused by careering into another country dancer. Thomas Alsopp of Coventry was standing in the former cemetery of the Coventry Greyfriars under a stone wall on 26 April 1558 when a maypole fell over.
It hit the city wall and knocked a stone out of the top of it, which hit him on the left part of his head and penetrated his brain, killing him instantly. What were the chances? What would they have said in the health and safety assessment?
9. A quick shower after work wouldn't usually be a matter of life and death. But the Tudor post-work scrub meant taking advantage of nature's washtub in the nearest pond or river. It tells historians that working people liked to keep themselves clean. Clean, but unlucky.
Thomas Staple, a labourer of Biddenden, Kent, went into Mr Mayne's pond to wash and cool down on 2 June 1558, then suddenly fell into the deepest part and drowned.
In the same summer, John Joplyn and George Lee drowned while washing in rivers at Cambridge and Leicester, one getting trapped by bushes and the other falling into a whirlpool.
10. The occupation of "gong farmer" sounds quite cheerful until you realise it was what the Tudors called people who were paid to clear out the sewage from cesspits.
So what can be said about the drunken Cambridge baker who, while relieving himself, fell backwards into a cesspit on 2 June 1523? He died horribly. What a way to go.