Killed by a Bear

15 June 2011, 06:00

A study carried out in the Thames Valley is looking at ways our Tudor ancestors died.

An Oxford University academic is leading the project to study coroners’ reports of accidental deaths in Tudor England.

Dr Steven Gunn from the Faculty of History said:

"Coroners’ reports of fatal accidents are a useful and hitherto under-studied way of exploring everyday life in Tudor England. Some medieval historians have used them, but the Tudor records are much fuller. The enquiries into deaths were extensive and solemnly undertaken."

"Although the material we are studying is tragic, there are some deaths which could well be material for Laurel and Hardy or Monty Python’s upper class twit of the year."

"One man shot himself in the head while trying to get out the arrow stuck in his longbow and another fell into a cesspit while relieving himself.  At least three people were killed by performing bears – one bear’s value is listed as a princely 26 shillings and four pence. One unlucky man was standing in a garden on the edge of Coventry when a maypole fell over. It missed him and hit the city wall – but his narrow escape turned to disaster when a stone fell off the city wall, hit him on the head and killed him."

"Some of the records ask more questions than they answer - one man crushed his testicles while playing a ‘Christmas game’ and a Scottish man is recorded as dying after offering to demonstrate a pastime popular in his country which seems to have involved lying down and being tied up."

Dr Gunn added:

"There are some very revealing things to come out of our project already. Some miners suffocated from coal damp and it’s interesting that this was already happening in shallow sixteenth-century mines, while most deaths happened in summer because people tended to be travelling around and working in the open more at this time. Workmen often drowned when they stripped off to bathe in rivers and ponds after work, so maybe sixteenth-century people had more sense of hygiene than we think."

"There are some striking differences to the frequency of modes of death today. Deaths from house fires were much more rare, because houses tended to be only one storey high so were easier to escape from, and considerably fewer people died from falling over in Tudor England – perhaps because the population was a younger one and because there were fewer stairs to fall down!"

"The project also throws light on the development of sport and military training in Tudor England. Fatal handgun accidents overtook archery accidents in frequency in 1556, while sport-related deaths show the popularity of different sports and leisure activities, not just football and wrestling but bell-ringing and throwing the sledge-hammer. They even tell us where in towns and villages such activities took place."