Archive of the ‘discoveries of the month’ from the project
June 2016. Summer 1583 stood out in the reports of contemporaries as very hot and dry. The obvious thing to do was to go for a swim to wash and cool down, but that had its dangers. In a normal summer month in the 1580s one two or men might drown while taking a dip, in a bad month like May 1584 or August 1587 four or five. In June 1583 it was thirteen, all across the South and Midlands from Kent and Surrey, Dorset and Somerset, to Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. They ranged from boys of 13 through young men of 18 or 20 to adults. They went into ponds, marshes, streams, even rivers like the Avon, Welland and Tone. Often they waited until 7, 8 or 9 pm, after a hot day’s work, but sometimes they could not wait and took the plunge either side of noon. It was possible to take precautions, but they might not work. Thomas Carpenter, servant of Peter Holden, carpenter, went to the millstream at Maidstone on 9 June with other young men, but when he got caught in a whirlpool he had swum too far away for anyone to help him without putting themselves in danger. On 30 June Martin Robinson went into the Thames at Paris Garden in Southwark equipped with two bladders to help him float, but the buckle with which the bladders were fixed to him broke when he was in deep water and he sank beneath the waves of London’s busy river.
May 2017. Food poisoning seems rarely to have been reported as accidental death, except when rat poison was involved. Presumably it was not easy to tell from other kinds of illness with similar symptoms and the food, having been eaten, could not readily be confiscated to the use of the crown as the cause of the accident. The few cases that do occur, however, give colourful details of contemporary life. On 7 May 1574, James Penvye, an octogenarian, devoured – ate insatiably, said the jurors – a mackerel at White Waltham in Berkshire, but all was not well. He immediately started to complain of its effects and soon became unwell; a week later he was dead. Alice Johnson’s end was more sociable but even more dramatic. At 8 in the morning on 2 December 1565 she had a visitor at the house of Robert Staneburne, merchant, in Petergate, York. It was Katherine Aynley, a seamstress, an old friend who had formerly been a fellow household servant. Katherine brought with her an electuary, a medicinal conserve or paste, which they ate together, not realising it had become harmful. We do not know the effect on Katherine, but Alice’s body swelled as the poisoning took effect and she died at 6 that evening.
April 2017. While deaths from disease were not generally subject to coroners’ inquests, they might be when failed medical treatment was involved, presumably to clear the practitioners from any suspicion of murder. Two-year-old James Horseley, son of Thomas Horseley of Baldock in Hertfordshire, suffered from scall, a skin disease of the head, perhaps the fungal infection ringworm. On 19 April 1527, at his father’s request, a local surgeon treated him with a plaster or poultice and he died, but the jurors decided that this was a case of misfortune rather than malpractice. In other cases surgeons were exonerated when their patients pulled off their dressings and died from loss of blood, or gave their consent to the amputation of a broken leg after treatment by other surgeons had failed.
March 2017. In our own age the homeless will seek shelter wherever they can on a cold night and it was no different in Tudor times. Thomas Gray was an old man and a beggar in York. On the night of 2 March 1568 he was wandering the streets alone and with nowhere to sleep, but at 8 pm he saw an opportunity. At the city walls on Fishergate there was an opening in the upper part of the door into a room in the postern gate, a building which survives to this day. He climbed up a piece of wooden board until he could reach the gap and pushed his arms and head, then his chest, over the top of the door. As he struggled to get inside, his feet slipped off the board and he found himself jammed, bent over the door on his stomach. Cold and weak, he hung there until he was found, dead, by a young woman called Marjorie Henrison.
February 2017. Fuel for the fire needed to be laid in to keep warm in a Tudor winter. In many parts of the country it included turves of peat. July was the peak time to dig it and that month saw accidents transporting it by cart, by boat and carried on one’s shoulders in Derbyshire, Dorset and Yorkshire. The surrounding months saw similar mishaps in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Westmorland. It needed not only to be collected but well stored. At 6 pm on 24 February 1566, at Ashwicken in Norfolk, John Marten, a shepherd, was sent out into the yard by his master John Loye to fetch ‘certen flagg[es] or turves’ to burn. As he pulled some out, the whole stack fell on him and he was crushed.
January 2017. The causes of disasters and the lessons to be learnt from them were debated in the sixteenth century as they are today. On Sunday 13 January 1583 the scaffolding on which the spectators stood collapsed at a bear-baiting show in Paris Garden, Southwark. Five men and two women from all over the metropolis – Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, Lombard Street and Southwark – were killed and many others injured. The coroner’s jury recounted how the larger than usual crowd had been warned by those in charge of the scaffolding to stand still when the old, weak timbers began to creak, but they took no notice and ran from one side to the other until all fell flat.
John Field, the militant puritan preacher who had once been curate of St Giles Cripplegate, home parish of one of the victims, had no time for such worldly explanations. Inside five days he rushed out a 44-page pamphlet, arguing that the city magistrates had neglected their duties in allowing a thousand or so Londoners to prophane the Lord’s Sabbath day by crossing the river to attend ‘that cruell and lothsome exercise of bayting beares’. He admitted that the spectators’ gallery was ‘very old and rotten’ and fell under a greater weight of people than it usually bore. But he maintained that the comprehensive nature of the collapse, for not a post or board was left standing higher than the stake to which the bear was tethered, was a sure sign that the event was a ‘fearefull example of God’s judgement’. It was left to Londoners to make up their own minds about Field’s diagnosis: not only the mayor and aldermen, but also masters who should, he suggested, keep their servants from such vanities, and humble townsfolk like the victims, who should recognise such ‘vaine pleasures’ as ‘sweete poysons’, and rather seek after ‘the comfortable worde of salvation’, especially on a Sunday afternoon.
December 2016. Christmas past was a time for finer than usual dining, just like Christmas present. Jane Typtott, wife of John Typtott, must have felt some excitement on Christmas Eve 1567 as she lifted her pig onto a bench at Rickinghall Superior in Suffolk to slaughter it. Sadly for her, though quite understandably, the pig had other ideas. It struggled so violently that she fell over and stabbed herself in the right leg with her knife, dying soon afterwards. Jane was not the only victim of porcine resistance. On 12 January 1571 at Bromyard in Herefordshire, William Pitte of Stoke Bliss, gentleman, was killing a ‘Baken hogge’, a big animal worth three times as much as Jane’s Christmas pig. It bit him in the right hand, the wound presumably became infected, and twelve days later he died.
November 2016. The rains and frosts of November make soils and rocks unstable. In the sixteenth century it was a bad month to dig and pits of all sorts collapsed on those working in them. In Walton, Derbyshire, in 1502 it was iron ore that was being excavated, while in Wednesbury, Staffordshire in 1518 and Wentworth, Yorkshire in 1561 it was coal. At Westbury in Wiltshire in 1553 it was stone from a quarry and at Bletchingdon in Oxfordshire in 1549 it was sand. Chalk was dug in Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, and in Bedfordshire ‘hurrocke ston’, a local variety of hard chalk. Most often and most widely – Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire – the pits were for clay or marl. Most of those killed were instantly crushed or suffocated and sometimes the detail makes it all too clear why. Twelve cartloads of ‘wallyng erth’, clay for making cob walls, fell on two weavers, William Castenell and John Wever, at East Chisenbury, Wiltshire, in 1527, and sixty cartloads on John Elys and Thomas Wheytt at Quidhampton in the same county in 1538.
October 2016. On the night of 18-19 December 1543, Archbishop Cranmer’s palace in Canterbury burnt down and it is known from other sources that one of Cranmer’s brothers-in-law was killed in the fire. His inquest report tells us which: it was Henry Byngham esquire, burnt by misfortune at about midnight in the place called the ‘palles’ in the parish of St Alphege, Canterbury.
September 2016. Looking back at events in the past it is not always easy to judge whether what happened was an accident. Sometimes contemporaries themselves were unsure. The death of James Whettell of Lyneham, Wiltshire, gentleman, on 25 September 1567, was such a case. About 1 o’clock that afternoon he met John Woodroff of Whitley, yeoman, at Lyneham and they fell out. Whettell publicly spoke ‘certain opprobrious and unbecoming words’ against Woodroff, but they went their separate ways. Later, around 4 o’clock, at the ‘longe barrowe’ at Lyneham, as Woodroff was returning home to Whitley, Whettell attacked him with sword and dragger drawn and wounded him several times. Woodroff drew his sword to defend himself and, going backwards defending himself, fell to the ground, where he lay holding his sword in his right hand, together with a buckler or small shield. Whettell furiously and hastily attacked him, striking him with his sword, but by misfortune he ran onto the point of Woodroff’s sword and gave himself a mortal wound in the left side of his chest, 6 inches deep and 2 inches wide, from which he instantly died.
That, at least, was what the coroner’s jury reported, but they may have had trouble agreeing that version of events. They did not report until 28 April, seven months after the death, and the jury was unusually high-powered, led by an esquire and a gentleman, Nicholas Quynteyn and Richard Danvers. Their language included phrases often used in murder indictments to describe Whettell’s attack on Woodroff: he made it with malice aforethought and in his anger. But someone also noted that Woodroff was at large rather than in custody, as they would do for a murder suspect. The point that Woodroff was going backwards, indeed lying on the ground, was one that often occurred in narratives of killing in self-defence. The jury’s official verdict was that Whettell had feloniously murdered himself, a suicide verdict. Yet one clerk wrote a note on the report that it was a self-defence case, another that it was a misfortune or what we would call an accident. In the end the self-defence note was struck out and the misfortune one left to stand, so perhaps we should count it an accident on the grounds that that is what the system decided at the time. Yet doubts remain. Might this have been a duel tidied up after the event, two antagonists meeting at a landmark, the long barrow, to settle their earlier dispute with its unbearable public insults, Whettell the gentleman with the fashionable duellist’s sword and dagger, Woodroff the yeoman with the more old-fashioned sword and buckler? We shall never know, and perhaps the jurors were not sure either.
August 2016. In an age before shops were widespread, much retail trade depended on the pedlars who walked the roads of England with assorted small goods in their heavy packs. The fate of Jane Iron of Bristol shows the dangers of their life. On 30 August 1567 she was tramping along the queen’s highway from Syon to Isleworth in Middlesex. It was between 6 and 7 in the evening and she had been drinking. On her back she carried a wicker basket loaded with various goods to the value of £1 13s 4d, a substantial sum. She sat down on a stile and tried to take off the basket, but it fell down on one side of the stile while she, overcome by drink, slipped down the other. The belt which carried the weight of the basket across her shoulders caught round her neck as she fell and, unable to get up, she was strangled.
July 2016. Criminals trying to evade arrest in the sixteenth century could be desperate. William Hutt sold poultry in Northampton, but amid the financial chaos caused by mid-Tudor governments’ debasement of the coinage he tried to turn a dishonest penny by forging coins. On 10 July 1550 the mayor’s men were sent to arrest him so he could be charged before the borough court, but he ran off. First he leapt from a high wall, crushing his left side on landing. From there he made it to a mill pond, which he jumped into, threatening to drown himself, but his pursuers pulled him out. Locked up first in the bailiff’s house and then in the town gaol, he confessed to forging nineteen or twenty groats, which were duly found. Before he could be tried, however, he died from his injuries, two days after his attempted getaway.
June 2016. Today we associate seabirds with holidays at the beach, but in the sixteenth century and for long afterwards they were a valuable source of food. On 14 June 1549, John Coffe climbed a cliff at Swanage in Dorset with his brother Robert, in search of shags breeding there. John fell onto the rocks in the sea below, injuring his right side, and died two hours later. In an unusual addition to their report, which was recorded in English rather than Latin, the jurors pointed out that the climb was so dangerous, two other men having been ‘byffore thatt tyme … in lyke man[er] kyllyd’, that such attempts ‘ought utterly to be denyed’.
May 2016. Jokes from the past do not always strike us as funny, but a prank that went sadly wrong in 1572 may still raise a smile. William Hall, aged 24, was a labourer in the service of Edmund Beamont of Tolleshunt D’Arcy in Essex, husbandman. At 4 in the afternoon on 1 June, he was with Edmund and his other servants in the salt marshes of the Blackwater Estuary, washing about 300 sheep in a creek. As a jest, the inquest jurors reported – and perhaps making the best of having to work on a Sunday – William decided to ride across the stream on the back of a ram. It must have been a surreal sight, but once in the water, he fell off the ram and drowned. His body was recovered from the bottom of the stream some three hours later.
April 2016. Rook chicks were a delicacy in Tudor England and one best taken from the nest in April. The only problem was that rooks nest high in trees. On the afternoon of 27 April 1533, for instance, John Curteys, aged 22, climbed an ash tree in a grove called ‘Rokewode’ at Ketteringham in Norfolk to catch young rooks, but grabbed a branch that broke and fell 30 feet to the ground. Similar mishaps, all in April, all in ash or elm trees, befell John Sygge at Boxford in Suffolk in 1532, George Gybbes at Hunscote in Warwickshire in 1548, a labourer called Nicholas at Marten in Wiltshire in 1551 and a gentleman, Thomas Harmon, at Moxhull in Warwickshire in 1564. The carnage continued into mid-May, with falls at Odstock in Wiltshire in 1539, Kingston in Warwickshire in 1564 and Drayton in Northamptonshire in 1591, when Timothy Burbage’s quest for ‘yonge rookes’ ended at the foot of an ash tree in ‘the kylhowse close’ near the home of Lewis, Lord Mordaunt.
March 2016. The poor state of England’s roads was a constant complaint of early modern travellers. Many cart accidents involved the deep ruts cut into muddy roads by wheeled vehicles, but they could be a danger even to pedestrians. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon of 11 March 1550, John Rusey, a labourer, was walking down the road at Chieveley in Berkshire. He stumbled on a ‘carte rote’ and fell over, and the knife hanging at his belt stabbed him in the stomach to a depth of 2 inches. He was found, dead on the road, by a neighbour on the way home from market.
February 2016. Stormy February weather was dangerous to those travelling on sixteenth-century England’s waterways. Boats were overcome by tempests on the Avon at Tewskesbury in 1532 and Twyning in 1564, on the Wye at Lancaut in 1543, on the Thames in the parish of St Clement Danes in 1560 and on Whittlesey Mere in 1537. Goods of all sorts were transported by water and drownings resulted from the carriage of sheep on the Wiltshire Avon in 1507, iron on the Gloucestershire Severn in 1510 and wood on the Yorkshire Wharf in 1562. Fishing led to disaster on the River Swale in 1520 and dredging for oysters on the Medway at Gillingham in 1566. Boat accidents were also prone to multiple fatalities, particularly on overloaded or ill-kept ferries. Two millers went down crossing the Nene in Northamptonshire in 1591, three men crossing the Witham in Lincolnshire in 1548 and three men, a woman and three mares on their way over the Trent at Barton in Nottinghamshire in 1545.
January 2016. The game of prison base, prison bars or prisoners’ bars was widespread in early modern England. It involved teams of players who tried to catch members of the opposing team when they ran outside a safe area and like other games it was often played in holiday periods. Though less dangerous than football, wrestling or sports involving weapons, it could nonetheless cause fatalities. On 1 January 1545 Louis Rugge, a husbandman of Ombersley, Worcestershire, fell heavily when playing ‘prysone bace’; he died of his injuries six days later. William Warter’s mishap at Dartford in Kent on St George’s Day the same year was recorded in more detail. He was playing ‘base’ with many young men and girls – making this an unusually mixed sport – for recreation at seven in the evening, after supper. He was told to stand in a certain place near a stone road bank. At one point, however, he moved, against the game’s rules, and ran across the bank towards another player, Richard Harwood of Dartford, miller. William slipped and fell over backwards onto the bank and Richard unintentionally ran into him and fell on top of him, so that his back and kidneys were injured on sharp stones. He died at 3 am next day.
December 2015. Market days in the nearest town were a chance for people who lived in villages to buy and sell, catch up with news and try some urban entertainment. But they were dangerous when those with a long walk home had one drink too many, especially on winter evenings. On 7 December 1563, William Raynoldes did his business at Towcester market and then set off for Ashton, seven miles away. Drunk and in the dark he wandered off the right path and fell into a stream by a bridge in the fields of Stoke Bruerne. Men were more often drunk than women, but Mabel Elcokes, a married woman from Atterley in Shropshire, met a similar fate on the evening of 8 December 1544. She had been drinking all day while going about her business in Much Wenlock, and frequently fell over on the three-mile walk home. About a quarter of a mile from her house she wandered off the road and fell again, dying of cold in the night.
November 2015. Accidents can give us an insight into the early history of famous industries. Belbroughton in Worcestershire was known in the nineteenth century as the centre of a successful scythe-making industry whose products were exported around the world. Lawsuits noticed by the Victoria County History show that there were already scythe-makers there in the 1560s, but accidents show us how they worked. On 4 April 1564 Thomas Burnefford of Belbroughton, scythe-smith, was sharpening scythes at the watermill of Roger Sturmye in Stone, five miles away. Something went wrong with the spindle of the watermill and he reached down with his right hand to fix it. Suddenly he was pulled between the spindle and the cog, his body was crushed and he died instantly.
October 2015. The lives of the rich and famous in Tudor England were made possible by the work of numerous servants and accidents bring their lives sharply if momentarily into focus. Sir Thomas Gresham was a pioneer of economic thought, a government adviser on coinage and state debt and a public benefactor, founder of the Royal Exchange and Gresham College. But his horses needed looking after like any others. At 11 pm on 13 January 1564, Henry Heywarde, the fifty-year-old yeoman who had charge of them, was in bed in his chamber at Gresham’s country house, Intwood Hall in Norfolk. He was woken up by the trampling and disquiet of the horses in the stables below. He hurried to the stairs to go and calm them, but fell down them in his haste and broke his neck.
September 2015. Inquest reports give fascinating glimpses of sixteenth-century language because the clerks often noted down English expressions the jurors had used in the middle of their Latin reports. It is reassuring to know that they were as casual as we are about hanging prepositions: Isada Deller, drowned fetching water from the Thames near Kingston-upon-Thames in February 1564, had ‘twoo payles to carye water w[ith]’. Sometimes the reports show technical terms in use long before their first recorded appearance. John ap Owen was running through a cornfield at Church Stretton in Shropshire in July 1561. He stumbled on ‘a clod of yerth’ and fell on an ‘evyll’, a two-pronged wooden fork, which gave him a six-inch wound in the thigh from which he died three hours later. Evell or evil is first recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary from 1642, but the first known mention of a springle, a thin rod of wood used in thatching, dates to 1836. John Houson, labourer, was up a ladder roofing his house in Newcastle-under-Lyme in November 1563. He fell off and landed on a ‘spryngle’ which went five inches into his left side and killed him on the spot.
August 2015. The wool produced by England’s millions of sheep was a mainstay of the later medieval and early modern economy. Its value is brought home by events onthe highway through the common fields of Princethorpe, Warwickshire, on 9 August 1561. Martin Clerke of Blaby in Leicestershire was driving what must have been a large cart, drawn by seven horses and loaded with 73 tods of wool, some 146 stone or more than 900 kilos. The cart overturned and he was crushed beneath cart and load, dying two days later. When the objects involved were valued, the cart and horses were judged worth £2 5s but the wool, at £24, was worth more than ten times as much. No wonder Midlands gentlemen like Clement Throckmorton esquire, owner of the wool, who was shortly to serve as MP for Warwickshire, found sheep-farming profitable.
July 2015. Death was the great leveller in Tudor England and accidents as much as disease could afflict the children of rich and poor alike. Toddlers who wandered off drowned all too readily in a landscape full of open water, even when their father owned the river. At 6 in the evening on 1 July 1562, two-year-old Raphael Champneys tried to cross a broken bridge on the estate of his father, Justinian Champneys, gentleman, of Hall Place, Bexley, Kent, and fell into the River Cray. Just over three weeks earlier, between 4 and 5 in the afternoon of 6 June, Margaret Wymarke, aged three and a half, daughter of Roland Wymarke of North Luffenham, Rutland, gentleman, had gone into the orchard on the east side of her father’s house, where there was a well more than 20 feet deep. There, as the jurors imagined it, she played by the bank in a childish manner washing her straw hat until she fell in. At 5 o’clock her father and his servant Isabella Fynne found her body.
June 2015. Sixteenth-century people played different sports at different times of year. A classic summer pastime was throwing the hammer, though without the elaborate safety precautions of the modern track and field version. Flying sledge hammers hit John Cadbole at Corfe in Dorset on 8 June 1552, Elizabeth Albott at Ardington in Oxfordshire on 18 June 1565 and Richard Showlder on the downs outside Lewes in Sussex on 17 July 1575. The throwers were not blamed for mishaps provided they warned spectators when they were about to throw. But some eyebrows must have been raised at Robert Woode, a weaver of Knowstone in Devon, who practised by throwing a hammer over a house on 2 July 1591 without checking whether someone was standing on the other side, as, it turned out, the unfortunate Amicius Byckner was.
May 2015. Most work in sixteenth-century England was characterised as either men’s or women’s; Adam delved and Eve span, as the old rhyme had it. Digging, for coal or ore in mines or for marl to fertilise the fields, was overwhelmingly men’s work, yet when needs be women did it too. On 24 May 1561 Oliver Wright of Exhall near Coventry, gentleman, sent his servants out to dig marl from a marl pit in a croft near his house, Alice Carter among them. A piece of earth hanging from the side of the pit above their heads fell on Alice, crushing and bruising her; she lay injured in her master’s house for three days before she died. Her case was not unique. Elizabeth Awse at Eynsham, Oxfordshire, in 1519 and Catherine Wattes at Northampton in 1552 died digging clay, Jane Felkyn and Agnes Smyth at Stone, Staffordshire, in 1539 digging sand, and Elizabeth Haddon at Thorpe St Andrew, Norfolk, in 1597 digging chalk.
April 2015. The pole vault is now a highly technical sport, but in the sixteenth century it was a convenient way to cross streams, ditches and ponds; convenient, but potentially risky. On Christmas Day 1521, Robert Bakar of Croxton in Cambridgeshire, labourer, was going from the parish church to the rectory in a hurry at 6 am. He took a shortcut, climbing over a fence and jumping across ‘the parson’s pond’ using a ‘heggestake’, but the stake broke and he fell into the pond and drowned. At Stoke Rochford, Lincolnshire, on 18 January 1540, John Tydde tried to use a pole in the same way to jump over the River Witham to check on his cattle. The pole snapped in the middle and he too fell to his death.
March 2015. Rich young men in Renaissance England were expected to go about their business with a certain elegant nonchalance, but some carried it to dangerous extremes. John Norton, esquire, was the son of Elizabeth Norton of Norwood manor in the parish of Milton Regis, Kent. On 22 March 1599, between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, he decided to feed his hawk by shooting a pigeon for it, but thought he could do so without leaving his bedchamber. Apparently repeating a routine he had used before, he charged his ‘small birdinge peece’ with powder and hailshot and propped the gun in the open window while he replaced the ‘skowringe sticke’ in the ‘stocke’. The gun spring caught on the wire holding the window frame in place and he was shot through from the left side of his chest to his right shoulder, causing instant death.
February 2015. We are used to the idea that food might be bad for us as part of our diet, but in freak accidents sixteenth-century food could pose other dangers. Elizabeth Bowne, a widow said to be weak and debilitated since her childhood, was a servant in the household of Hugh Talmage of Bury, just outside Ramsey in Huntingdonshire. On 12 February 1543 she was sitting by the fire in the kitchen of her master’s house, warming herself, when the rope suspending four flitches of bacon to smoke in the chimney broke. The bacon fell on her, knocked her to the ground and crushed her head and body; she died four days later.
January 2015. We usually think of the seventeenth century as the first great age of horse racing, with the rise of Newmarket and the spread of Arab and Barbary bloodstock. But accidents show that racing already posed dangers in the mid-sixteenth century. Jane Jonys, wife of William Jonys of Brinkworth, husbandman, was watching a ‘ronnyng game’ at Dauntsey in Wiltshire on Sunday 2 August 1534 when one of the horses ran her down, giving her chest and leg wounds from which she died four days later. In more suburban settings, riders risked races in dangerously cramped spaces. On 16 January 1540 Henry Hedlam and Brian Newton were racing in a garden at the Charterhouse just outside London, galloping up and down a narrow path along a wall. Newton’s horse drew ahead and to catch up Hedlam switched onto another path, lined with great elm trees. He rode so fast and so carelessly that his horse ran straight into one of them. He struck his head on a branch stub, broke his neck and fell from his horse, dying at 5 am the next day.
December 2014. Very cold weather caused problems for sixteenth-century people as it does for us, but it also gave unusual leisure opportunities. Their risky winter sports, however, were different from those we might try today. On 28 December 1534 Henry Skelbroke, an Oxford miller, was playing bowls on the ice on Milham Mead, next to the River Cherwell, with six other men, five of them servants of Roland Cowper. He threw his bowl into the river and ran to retrieve it, but the ice broke beneath him and he fell into the water and drowned.
November 2014. In Reformation England the landed gentry, unlike some of those below them, had the time and the literacy to follow reformers’ prescriptions for a life of interior piety, whether traditional or inflected by protestant ideas. On 22 November 1531 Christopher Conyers of Brotton in the North Riding of Yorkshire, gentleman, spent his morning walking around his land to watch his servants working, as he used to do each day. At around 11 he reached the seaside cliffs, where he sat down to pray with a book in his hand. When it was nearly noon and time to go home, he got up, but the tussock of grass on which he had been resting his feet broke up and slid down the cliff. He tried to cling on, but fell about 150 feet, breaking his right arm, his left leg and, as the jurors summed it up, his whole body. At the top of the cliff those who came to look for him found his reading glasses.
October 2014. In the autumn rutting season male deer turn aggressive, not only against each other but also against human intruders. Richard Wyrall found this out to his cost on the morning of 18 October 1535 at Shugborough in Staffordshire, still a wooded enclave between Stafford and Rugeley. He was moving a load of birch wood from a secluded part of Haywood Park when he was attacked by a stag, which broke his right arm and gave him many other wounds, killing him instantly.
September 2014. In the early years of Henry VIII’s Reformation, mental illness could take dramatic and resonant forms. William Wale of Walton, Leicestershire, husbandman, had reportedly been insane for a year when, on 11 September 1530 at 4 in the afternoon, he set fire to a cartload of hay and stood in the middle of it, for all the world like a heretic burnt at the stake. He suffered serious burns to his legs and other parts of his body before his servant Jane Moreton, with the help of his neighbours, pulled him away from the fire and took him home. There he told them that Blessed Mary had protected him from the fire and asked them to take him back so that he could show her to them, but when they arrived he suddenly fell into the ashes. The neighbours dragged him away again and led him back to his house, but he died the following day.
August 2014. At harvest time young men and women worked together in the fields and things could get out of hand, especially when hot workers began to strip off. On 20 August 1535 Felicia Clerk, a single woman, was harvesting peas in a field in Dartford, Kent. Due to the heat she undressed down to her smock or shift. John Gill, labourer, ran over to her, intending, as the inquest jurors perhaps coyly put it, out of stupidity to grab her to wrestle and play with her. Unfortunately he fell over and stabbed himself in the leg with the knife he carried in his purse to a depth of three inches, a wound from which he rapidly died, presumably from loss of blood.
July 2014. Construction was a dangerous industry in the sixteenth century as it is now, but not many recorded accidents happened in connection with projects as grand as that which killed Griffith Dey. On 28 July 1527 he was driving a cart loaded with long pieces of timber from Kidlington to Oxford for the construction of Cardinal College, Cardinal Wolsey’s magnificent foundation which survives today as Christ Church. Near the pasture lands of Cutteslowe the poor condition of the road caused the cart to collapse and two pieces of timber hit Griffith, breaking his back and killing him outright.
June 2014. Sixteenth-century sanitary arrangements could be not only unpleasant but deadly. George Dunkyn was a Cambridge baker who lived in St Mary’s parish outside the town’s Trumpington Gate. Between eight and nine on the evening of Tuesday 2 June 1523 he went into the back garden of his house to relieve himself into the cess pit in the corner. Unfortunately he was very drunk at the time and fell backwards off the wooden seat into the pit, where he was ‘qweasomed’, or suffocated, by the stench.
May 2014. House fires were comparatively less deadly in the sixteenth century than they are today. Even conflagrations that consumed whole neighbourhoods claimed few victims, for wooden houses burnt readily but slowly and few had many storeys. Yet occasionally disaster struck. On 2 May 1530 fifty-eight houses were burnt in Long Preston, Yorkshire, but in only two were the residents killed. One was the large house in which the fire started, that of John Kay, where he died with his wife Jane, his sons Robert and William, and Anna Baterisby, probably a servant. The other was the home of William and Jane Nelson, where they perished with their daughters Elizabeth, Jane and Margaret and with Jane Forte and James Lethom, again presumably servants. The reason for the unusual death toll was probably that the flames were, as the jurors pointed out, fanned by a strong wind, and spread too fast for escape.
April 2014. We are used to the process by which technological gadgets such as phones and computers become smaller and more portable. In the sixteenth century it was happening to clocks, which began the period as large fixed devices with elaborate metal mechanisms like those at Salisbury and Wells Cathedrals. At Ringland in Norfolk on 5 April 1513, five-year-old William Bret fell victim to the imposing scale of medieval clockwork. At 4 pm he was in the house of Thomas Mere, lord of Brockdish Manor in Ringland. John Towneshend of Ringland, labourer, was in the upper story of the house, holding in his hand a ‘hole gemetry of Iron concernyng a clok’. It fell out of his hand and one corner of it hit young William on the forehead, giving him a wound 2 inches deep and 1½ inches wide. He languished until 8 pm the next day and then died.
March 2014. In the later Middle Ages the Christian year was the framework for a wide variety of festive customs. On Palm Sunday the boys of Chippenham in Wiltshire, like those of other parishes, climbed onto the church roof to throw small cakes to the crowd below. In 1507, Palm Sunday fell on 28 March. At Chippenham Francis Gore and Nicholas Hulkebere were not among the boys sitting on the roof of the south aisle, but on the ground with those taking part in the church procession and scrambling to collect the cakes. Disastrously it was not only the cakes that came down from the roof. Two ‘batell stonys’, presumably stones from the battlements, fell on top of them and crushed them.
February 2014. Poisoning in the sixteenth century was not confined to the Rome of the Borgias. In England the use of ratsbane, arsenic trioxide, to kill rats and other domestic pests posed a constant threat of contamination. One housewife, Barbara Gilbert of Syston in Leicestershire, mistook ratsbane for flour, mixed it with milk to feed her family, and poisoned herself when she tried some. Ralph Olyver of Coventry and William Keme of Whateley in Warwickshire each found tempting morsels of food left out for vermin and ate them with deadly results. Most poignant was the case of Margaret Morlande of St Margaret South Elmham in Suffolk. She got up at about midnight on Friday 20 April 1599 to help her husband, a lame clergyman, as she often did. Feeling thirsty, she reached in the dark for a pot of beer she had left out, forgetting that next to it stood a pot holding a ‘water to kill lyce’, made with ratsbane, which she drank with fatal effect.
January 2014. Flooded roads were a problem in sixteenth-century winters as they are now and anyone trying to travel them could get into difficulties. Agnes Horseley of Walthamstow, spinster, was riding a black mare down a highway flooded with rain water at Stratford Langthorne in Essex on 3 February 1597. The force of the water swept her off the horse and she drowned. Roger Tallet’s bay gelding was a packhorse, carrying kersey cloths belonging to Robert Greenewoode of Halifax, a great weaving centre. On 2 December 1599 Roger, aged about 55, was trying to help his horse over the flooded bridge across the River Soar at Belgrave in Leicestershire, but he fell off the causeway at the south end of the bridge.
December 2013. Coroners’ inquests shed baleful light on life in Tudor prisons. Most of the deaths recorded came from disease in insanitary conditions, but there were also failed escape attempts. One horribly disastrous jailbreak came at Colchester Castle on Christmas Day 1502. Twenty-eight prisoners, including one woman, Agnes Scalys, were in the ‘doungeon’ of the castle, a space thirty feet long, fourteen feet wide and twelve feet high, with stone walls seven feet thick. Nineteen of them were chained to a wooden beam for extra security. Somehow they had smuggled in some firewood, some sulphur and the means to strike a light. They broke the bolt on the chain so they could all get away, then set fire to the door. But instead of providing a way out, the burning door filled the dungeon with smoke and flames and all were overcome. They must have hoped that the distraction of Christmas celebrations would make for an easy getaway, but they created the largest mass accident we have yet discovered.
November 2013. The Reformation changed the calendar, as many saints’ days were replaced by festivities linked to England’s providential history. Gunpowder treason day, November 5, is the greatest relic of the process today, but in Elizabeth’s reign it was 17 November, the anniversary of her accession, that was the day to celebrate. By the 1590s many parishes were lighting bonfires, drinking beer and ringing the church bells in honour of the day, but with bells came accidents. In 1592, at Cobham in Kent, John Robinson was ringing with others between 8 and 9 at night. He stood on a bench to reach the bell-rope as it was too short for him, but the rope caught round the end of the bench and lifted it and him six feet into the air. He fell on his head and left side and died just after midnight. Eight years later, at York Minster, Robert Grymstone was ringing the ‘William bell alias the first bell’ when the bell rope caught between his legs and threw him to the floor. He died between 1 and 2 next morning from a head wound one inch wide, one inch long and, fatally, one inch deep.
October 2013. Physical violence was an accepted means for sixteenth-century heads of household to enforce their authority over wives, children and servants, but when it became extreme or unreasonable, neighbours might step in to urge restraint. Such intervention could be costly. At Loughborough in Leicestershire on 3 October 1598 at 5 pm, a joiner, Robert Wilson, was punishing his son Thomas by beating him with the handle of a saw. He raised his right hand for a blow and Thomas bent down to avoid being hit. Thomas Nycholles came between father and son in an attempt to calm them down, but was accidentally struck on the left side of his forehead. He lay ill for nearly a week, until 4 pm on the 10th, and then died from the effects of the blow.
September 2013. Pets feature quite frequently in modern accidents, usually as people trip over them or their leads. They were less prominent causes of mishaps in the sixteenth century, but do crop up occasionally in the coroners’ records. Alan Walton met his end at Pontefract Castle on 21 June 1599 at about 6 pm. He climbed onto the winding gear for the portcullis at the ‘Treasure howse’ next to the castle gate in the attempt to catch ‘a litle bird calld a martyn’ for his daughter Ellen. Unfortunately he fell onto ‘a rotten borde’ and, when that broke, down into the pit into which the portcullis used to be lowered, where he broke his neck.
August 2013. Some accidents that feature very largely in modern statistics seem to have been comparatively unusual in the past. Now, with multi-storey dwellings and an ageing population, falling down stairs is a major cause of accidental death. In the sixteenth century it was rarer, so much so as to make the famous death of Amy Robsart, wife of Lord Robert Dudley, seem suspicious: did she fall, did she jump in despair at her husband’s flirtation with Queen Elizabeth, or was she pushed? But staircases did claim victims other than poor Amy. One was Sir Robert Broughton of Denston in Suffolk, a justice of the peace who was coming down the stairs from his room to his son’s room at 11 o’clock at night on 11 August 1506. As the jurors explained, he ‘myssyd of his holde & of his fotyng comynge downe the sayd steyrs’ and badly injured his head and body, dying within six days.
July 2013. Attitudes to accidental death are usually hard to reconstruct from the dry formulations of the coroners’ reports. But occasionally they seem to peep through, especially in the more loquacious reports of the 1590s. The pervasive power of divine providence was a recurrent theme in Reformation preaching and publications, and jurors invoked it in an inquest at Snodland in Kent in June 1592. Between 5 and 7 on the evening of the 21st, Emmeline Tixsall, servant of John Dittye, miller, was walking to her master’s house carrying the miller’s baby daughter in her arms. She crossed a footbridge by the mill on the River Medway, but stumbled at the far end and fell into the mill race. She fell, the jurors said, ‘by misfortune, that is, divine providence’, a phrasing they probably adopted because of what happened as she tripped: she managed to throw the child onto the grassy bank of the pond, thus saving her while she herself drowned. Intriguingly, the jurors or the coroner combined with their providentialism a more legal or pragmatic attitude to safety and risk, for the report recommended that the inhabitants of the village be bound over in the sum of £2 to repair the passage on the eastern side of the mill so that it should be safe for the queen’s subjects to use, and to check that it remain safe in future.
June 2013. Injuries incurred while resisting arrest are controversial now, but they were equally problematic in the past when it was parish officers, rather than a professional police force, who secured suspected malefactors. On 1 June 1596, Thomas Gryffyn of Orsett, Essex, labourer, caused trouble in church, disturbing the efforts of John Adams, the curate, to conduct evening prayer on the Tuesday in Whitsun week. The parish constable, William Garreth, and the churchwarden, William Bright, assisted by others, tried to put him in the stocks. They secured his right leg but he continued to resist with all his might, dragging the stocks out into the road but injuring himself in the process. In the opinion of the jurors, in the course of the struggle he ‘did bruse and surfett’ his internal organs, which were already weak from a recent fall, and at 3 on the following afternoon he died. Precise responsibility for his injuries must have been hard to apportion, but the jurors surely gave the benefit of the doubt to their responsible neighbours rather than the violent heckler.
May 2013. Dancing round a maypole was a classic springtime entertainment in the sixteenth century. We might not expect it to show up much in accident reports, but while the dancing may not have been dangerous, the maypoles were. John Richardson was killed by a ‘maye poll or somer lugg’ that fell on his head and shoulders while a crowd was trying to set it up on the Abbey Green at Bath on 5 May 1594. At Coventry on 26 April 1558, a collapsing maypole in the churchyard of the former Franciscan friary dislodged a stone from the city wall, which fatally injured Thomas Alsopp. And on 30 April 1592 at Little Wakering in Essex, William Cerbe met his end in a maypole delivery accident, when the cart he was driving to take a maypole into the village overturned and he was struck on the back of the neck.
April 2013. The Elizabethan church was famous for long sermons, at least in areas of Protestant enthusiasm like the Weald of Kent. In one case the preaching may not have been dull but was certainly deadly. Henry Siesly of Rolvenden, butcher, was sitting close to the pulpit in the parish church at 9 in the morning on Monday 24 April 1598 as William Reade, the vicar, was preaching. A book called Opera Bullingeri, the Works of Bullinger, fell from the pulpit and hit him on the right side of the head. Doctors pronounced that the wound was not life-threatening, but he never recovered and died on 20 May. The book, which was worth 2s 6d, was presumably a volume of Bullinger’s Fiftie godlie and learned sermons diuided into fiue decades, containing the chiefe and principall points of Christian religion, a firm favourite of Elizabethan Protestant clergy. Three editions in English and one in Latin were published at London between 1577 and 1587. The English versions ran to three volumes and 1142 pages and measured about twelve inches by nine, so falling from a high pulpit and perhaps bound with metal clasps they were apparently stout enough to deal a fatal blow to an unfortunate parishioner. Reade, who was probably a graduate of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, stayed on as vicar for the rest of his life, to 1617, but may have been more careful with his books or his gesticulations in the pulpit thereafter.
March 2013. We tend to think of recreation for prisoners as an enlightened innovation of modern times, but one of our accidents shows that provision was made for it in the sixteenth century. John Boothe or Boodhead was a prisoner in Nottingham town gaol in 1593. On Friday 23 March, between 1 and 2 in the afternoon, he was leaping – a common sport, ancestor of our long-jump and high-jump – in a place called ‘the sporting place’ at the gaol. He took a few steps back so as to jump further and fell over a ‘lowe hedge’ and then into the pit behind it. In the fall he broke his neck and died instantly.
February 2013. Vagrancy was a much-debated social problem in the sixteenth century. Rising population and economic dislocation sent the homeless poor onto the roads, looking for work or begging for help. The lonely death of an unnamed beggar girl at Cockayne Hatley in Bedfordshire in 1556 was a long way from the hysterical stereotypes of vagrant gangs conspiring against respectable society. She slept the night of 19/20 February in a shelter called ‘the beacon howse’, presumably attached to one of the warning beacons used to spread warnings in time of invasion. At 8 in the morning she climbed the steps of a windmill belonging to Thaddeus Cockayne, gentleman, lord of the manor, perhaps looking for food. She got to the top and then came down, but fell off heavily and hurt her left side, an injury from which she died on the afternoon of the next day.
January 2013. Religious drama, whether great mystery play cycles like those of York or Chester or simpler parish efforts, was a lively part of late medieval religion. In the sixteenth century it came under pressure from reformers who thought it unseemly and many plays died out. But some kind of play was being put on in the upper part of Gloucester Cathedral churchyard between six and seven in the evening on 28 June 1592. Eight-year-old Thomas Johnson, son of Richard Johnson, weaver, was standing with other boys under the ‘preaching place or crosse’ to watch. John a Thomas, labourer, climbed up the cross to get a better view, but the weight of his body put a strain on the upper part of the cross and a loose stone broke off and fell on the back of young Thomas’s head. He fell to the ground and four days later he was dead.
December 2012. Sixteenth-century showmen had to advertise their wares just as much as their more modern equivalents. Simon Poulter was one of the great entrepreneurs of the Southwark bear-baiting shows, remembered by witnesses in a court case in 1620 as the man who built stands for spectators there. On Wednesday 4 June 1567 he sent his servants out to proclaim that bears and a bull were to be baited with dogs at Paris Garden two days later. Between 10 and 11 in the morning they came past Charing Cross, banging a drum and leading along a bull and a bear. Startled by the drum and scared of the animals, the horse drawing a collier’s cart bolted and five-year-old George Jeames was run over in the street.
November 2012. Literacy rates were rising in the sixteenth century, stimulated by the spread of printed books, the Reformation’s enthusiasm for Bible-reading and the commercialisation of the economy. There must have been many young people who could read, or read fluently, when their parents could not. Thirteen-year-old Richard Wulley of Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, seems to have been one of them. On 23 November 1554 his father, Thomas, asked him to cut open a newly arrived letter and read it out to him. Richard bent to look for his knife under the table, but collapsed due to a stomach complaint and hit his head on a stool. The blow to his left temple killed him instantly.
October 2012. Many accidents are recorded as happening to small children when they were playing, but the games they were playing are not often described. One exception is the case of three-year-old Christiana Jelyan of Wrangle in Lincolnshire. On 8 August 1551 she was sitting in the street near the edge of a ditch, ‘making out of mud certain wastell [bread] called cakes’; mud-pies, we might call them. She fell backwards into the ditch and drowned in the water, where her uncle, John Hynde, found her.
September 2012. Some sixteenth-century accidents are painfully familiar, though today they might not have the same fatal consequences as in the past. Every summer there are punts on the Thames in Oxfordshire and every summer punt poles catch in the muddy bottom of the river, pulling the punters off their punts and into the water as the punt slides away and the pole sticks fast. On 16 June 1554, sixteen-year old Anthony Wylder, son of Thomas Wylder of South Stoke, husbandman, was on the Thames at Goring with ten-year-old Edward Holwen and fourteen-year-old John Roberds, son of Richard Roberds of North Stoke. They were in a boat seeing to eel traps called grig-weels, basket-work fish traps of a sort still used on the Thames three hundred years later. Anthony tried to steer the boat towards the bank, but pushed the ‘rowyng pole’ so strongly into the muddy river bed that he could not pull it out, fell into the water between the pole and the boat, and drowned.
August 2012. Harvest in the English climate often demands quick work to get crops in before rain. With carts around that could be dangerous. On 2 August 1557 at Pentlow in Essex, Thomas Olyvere was harvesting his barley in ‘Walnotte Felde’ and loading it onto his cart. At 11 am he stood on the cart to tie up the load of barley, but the cart turned over and fell on top of him, breaking his neck. On 26 August the following year, on a family farm at Fenny Compton in Warwickshire, another cart accident involved a different crop, but the same outcome. Edmund Dodde was working in John Dodde’s barn when a horse drawing a cart loaded with peas belonging to William Dodde backed up suddenly. The tiller of the cart hit him on the right side of the head, giving him a fatal wound.
July 2012. Harvest has always involved long hours of repetitive and potentially dangerous work, but sixteenth-century mowers tried to minimise the danger of cutting adjoining swathes with a sharp hay scythe by the way they spread themselves over the field. At Welford in Northamptonshire, on 1 July 1559, Richard Goodall was mowing hay with Ralph Billinge of Welford, labourer, John Page, Thomas Tracelove and Richard Moumford in the field of Elizabeth Symes of Welford, widow, in a place called ‘Grindelcoine’. They mowed, walking forwards in a staggered line so as not to hit one another, from 7 am to 11 am. Then, at the end of cutting a swathe, Richard suddenly got in the way of Ralph, who by misfortune struck the back of his right leg with his hay scythe. Richard languished for three hours and then died; even with precautions in place, accidents can happen.
June 2012. The sixteenth century did have a notion of health and safety advice, but it was not always successfully put into practice. In his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573), Thomas Tusser warned that when climbing trees to drive away birds that damaged crops or preyed on small domestic animals and birds, ‘Beware how ye climber, for breaking your neck.’ John Coole, labourer, did not beware enough when he climbed an oak tree in the fields of Exton, Rutland, at noon on 12 June 1560. He destroyed the kite’s nest that was his target, but while climbing back down he stood on a weak branch which broke. He fell 20 feet to the ground and died about an hour later.
May 2012. Sixteenth-century governments passed laws on a vast range of subjects, from the killing of crows to the wearing of woollen caps, but it is very hard to know how far some of them were really implemented. Thomas Ilys of Poulshot in Wiltshire found out about one of them to his cost on 28 May 1556. The parliament that sat from October to December 1555 had passed an act for the mending of highways, which were judged to be ‘verie noysome & tedious to travell in & dangerous to all Passengers and Cariages’. Under its terms, the churchwardens and constables of every parish were to appoint two surveyors of the works for the amendment of high ways to organise four eight-hour days of communal labour between March and June each year to improve the roads leading to market towns. Workers were to bring along and use ‘suche shovels spades pikes mattockes & other tooles & instruments as they doo make their owne diches & fences withall’. Clearly the village authorities in Poulshot managed to organise a day’s work, presumably on the Devizes road, on 28 May. Towards the end of it, about 5 pm, Thomas was shovelling gravel to mend the highway according to the statute, at a place called Grangyate. He bent his head forward too near where Thomas Pollard of Poulshot, tucker, a worker in the local cloth industry, was digging with his mattock and was hit in the forehead. The mattock gave him a small wound; the depth of one barley corn, said the jurors, and only a quarter of an inch long; but he died the next day.
April 2012. St George, the heroic warrior, had been England’s national saint since the Hundred Years War and his day must have seemed a good time to show off one’s fighting skills. John Coksegge and Richard Chelliffeld seem to have thought so. On 23 April 1521 they were playing with their swords ‘in an unrestrained manner’ or ‘carelessly’ (insolenter) at Gillingham in Kent, in a place called ‘churcheplayn’, presumably the large green next to St Mary Magdalene church. Richard’s sword suddenly and involuntarily fell out of his hand onto his right leg, giving him a wound half an inch deep, from which his blood flowed copiously. He died instantly, by misfortune and not, the jurors were quick to point out, by the malice of John. He had presumably cut an artery. Both John and Richard were described as labourers, so sword-fighting was not just for duelling noblemen.
March 2012. Just as today, different parts of sixteenth-century England offered different employment opportunities. The coal industry was already developing in many of the areas where it would boom in the industrial revolution: Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and so on. At Beeston in the West Riding of Yorkshire at 5 pm on 13 August 1559 Richard Shafton fell victim to the scourge that would take so many miners’ lives before the invention of the safety lamp. He was supervising the work carried out in a coal-pit by William Calkeke, reported the jurors at his inquest, when he was overcome by the stench and gases called ‘dampe’ and suffocated.
February 2012. We know that football was a popular sport in the sixteenth century, because governments kept trying to ban it to make men practise archery instead. We don’t know much about how it was played, though it did have regional names: camping in East Anglia, hurling in Cornwall. On Sunday 4 February 1509, at Tregorden, Cornwall, sixty men were playing in a game of ‘whurlyng’ according, said the coroner’s jury, to ancient custom. John Coulyng of Bodieve, a village one mile west of Tregorden, ran very strongly and rapidly towards Nicholas Jaane of Benbole, a village two miles east of Tregorden, holding a ball in his right hand. They grappled and Nicholas threw John away from himself. John fell on the ground from the force of the tackle and broke the lesser part of his left leg. He died on 20 February, a classic football victim because nearly all matches seem to have taken place in that month. So football was more like rugby or even American football – other accidents show that players could be tackled whether they had the ball or not – and could be played by large teams from neighbouring and perhaps rival villages. Players often wore knives at their belts and played on fields where they could fall onto stones or tree stumps. The authorities’ claim that it was dangerous as well as distracting, starts to make more sense.
January 2012. The Christmas holidays were a time for games, but they could be alarmingly rough. Thomas Bunting was killed wrestling in the hall of the rectory at Kneesall in Nottinghamshire on Tuesday 1 January 1549, falling onto the point of the knife hanging from his opponent’s belt. Maybe he had been challenged to a fight in the same way as John Homler, who was playing and wrestling with Thomas Tenyson and William Lamrose in the churchyard at Skeckling near Burstwick in Holderness, Yorkshire, at about 2 pm on Sunday 31 October 1518. Stephen Kayngham of Skeckling, husbandman, came up to them and said that he was a manly man who could throw all three of them over the churchyard wall. John Homler, unwisely as it turned out, said that he could not. Stephen took John and, the jurors stressed, without malice or ill-will put him over the churchyard wall. As John fell to the ground, his knife, which was sticking out of its sheath, pierced a vein under the elbow in his right arm to the depth of an inch and his blood flowed out copiously, though he did not die until weeks later, perhaps from an infection, at about 2 am on 8 January 1519.
December 2011. Horses seem to have been by far the most dangerous animals people worked with in the sixteenth century, though we have found one man gored in the Lincolnshire marshes by ‘a madd cow’. For small children, pigs were also a threat. In September 1558 at Huggate in the East Riding of Yorkshire, William Burghe, aged 5, was driving a herd of pigs into the fields. One of the boars attacked him and gave him a wound in the stomach, from which he instantly died.
November 2011. The years 1557-9 saw a terrible sequence of epidemics strike the English population, but historians still debate what disease or diseases were responsible and quite what proportion of the population died. Dorothy Cawthorn of Belton in Lincolnshire had such a high fever that she lost her reason, said the jurors at her inquest. She got out of bed between 4 and 5 a.m. on Thursday 19 October 1559 and smashed a hole in the kitchen wall – presumably the door was locked for the night – so she could get out into her mistress’s hop-garden, where she drowned in a pit of water five feet deep in the attempt to get a drink. Maybe she was suffering from influenza with accompanying, disorientating, encephalitis? Whatever the infection, her plight shows the desperation of those struck down by the disease.
October 2011. Much work in sixteenth-century England was seasonal and this strongly affected the pattern of accidental death. Thomas Tusser’s agricultural handbook Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (1573), advised that October was the month to find ‘plenty of acorns, the porkling to fat’. Between 8 and 9 am on 3 October 1559, Amice Hyllyar, daughter of Thomas Hyllyar, of Preston Capes in Northamptonshire, husbandman, climbed an oak tree in Preston Wood. She sat on a rotten branch, which broke, and she fell to the ground, breaking her neck and dying instantly. She was collecting acorns, presumably to fatten pigs, like the five other people who fell out of trees collecting nuts or acorns between 1558 and 1560, all of them in either September or October.
September 2011. Parish church accounts tell us that bell-ringing became an increasingly popular pastime in sixteenth-century England, but its attraction could be fatal. On Sunday 22 August 1568, between 4 and 5 pm, Adam Strutt was in the bell-tower of the church at Preston in Suffolk. He rang ‘the thirde bell’, pulling a rope attached to the wheel of the bell, but the rope caught round his feet and pulled him seven feet off the ground, from which height he fell head-first onto the paved floor of the bell-tower. He languished until 6 pm on 23 August, when he died. The jurors added that the bell, rope and wheel, which were the cause of the accident, remained in the custody of inhabitants of Preston and were worth 13s 4d.
August 2011. Machinery was simpler in the sixteenth century than it is now, but it could still be dangerous. George Rydyoke was ‘the kep[er] of one wynde mylne’ at Ashby field in Horncastle, Lincolnshire. On 21 August 1559, he was in the upper chamber of the mill, greasing the collar of the axletree, when a sudden gust of wind caused the sails to move and the cogwheel to turn. It caught his clothes, pulled him into the works and ‘sore wounded’ him, breaking his right arm and two of his ribs, so that he died. So far we are finding slightly more watermill than windmill accidents, but by far the most dangerous machine was a cart or wagon: traffic was a killer, then as now.
July 2011. Medical advice in the sixteenth century was against bathing, as it opened the pores and let in disease; much better to change your shirt if you got hot. But working men didn’t have lots of shirts and working in hot weather made it too tempting to strip off and cool down. On 4 July 1558 two men drowned at opposite ends of the Midlands. In Leicestershire a man called Thomas – the jurors didn’t know his surname – who was travelling from Leicester to Loughborough went into the mill dam pond on the River Soar at Quorndon to wash because he was hot but went under water and drowned. In Shropshire a labourer called Richard Chidlowe went into the River Tern to clean and wash himself and met the same fate.
June 2011. Women often did different work from men in early modern England, but some seasonal tasks needed so much labour that everyone joined in. Sheep had to be washed before they could be sheared, and at 11 am on 9 June 1560, Alice Bonde and her sister Katherine were washing sheep in the River Hodder at Slaidburn, in the Pennines in the West Riding of Yorkshire. A wether – a big castrated ram – jumped up and knocked Alice head over heels into a whirlpool. Katherine went after her and John Swinglehirst jumped in from the bank to help. All three, probably weighed down in fast-flowing water by thick woollen and linen clothes and unable to swim, drowned.
May 2011. Sometimes accidents give us a glimpse of the fringes of the great events of Tudor life. May Day was a time for celebration, and at court the celebration was lavish. On 1 May 1559, the first May Day of her reign, entertainments were put on for Queen Elizabeth. She was staying at Whitehall Palace and there were firework displays on the River Thames. John Penne, mariner, was on a boat taking part. A small barrel of gunpowder caught fire and his face was burnt. Fearing a bigger explosion, he and his crew-mates rushed to the other side of the boat. The boat overturned and he drowned. Whether the accident was allowed to spoil the queen’s fun we don’t know.
April 2011. We know little about William Shakespeare’s family beyond his parents, siblings and children. At about 8 pm on 16 June 1569 at Upton Warren in Worcestershire, about 20 miles from Stratford upon Avon where William was growing up, a two-and-a-half-year-old girl fell into the mill pond and drowned while picking flowers called ‘yelowe boddles’ (corn marigolds). Her name was Jane Shaxspere. Was she William’s cousin; perhaps even the model for Ophelia in Hamlet? We don’t know. But the accident certainly tells that the everyday tragedies of Shakespeare’s time can help to set his plays in their original context.