10 Bizarre Medieval Deaths: Tudor England’s ‘Darwin Awards’

Tudor AccidentsPhoto: Keven Law

Did you realize that if you were to fall to your death from a roof while relieving yourself, 500 years from now historians could be going through death records and reporting on it as a Darwin Awards candidate? A four-year project led by an Oxford University don has taken a look at coroners’ reports in Tudor England, from the 16th century. The lead author, Dr. Steven Gunn, has already found many unbelievable and amusing instances of death (which were nevertheless doubtless sad events at the time!). Dr Gunn said: “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.” Here are ten incredible tales.

10. Three Bear Attacks
Tudor AccidentsPhoto: :Simm

Poor Christopher, a 24-year-old man, was bitten by a bear in his parish in 1565 and died. The punishment for the bear’s owner? Forfeiting it to the Queen! In another instance, in 1563, Lord Bergavenny had the incredibly stupid habit of keeping his bear inside, where it broke loose and attacked “Agnes Rapte, widow”, killing her. It is a pity the beast didn’t get him instead! Then in 1570 another Agnes was killed in her bed by a bear that got loose.

9. Dangerous Baking
Tudor AccidentsPhoto: Laitr Keiows

Elizabeth Bennet, a spinster, was baking bread at someone’s house in Birtsmorton, Worcestershire in 1558 when she went to the moat (which is still there) to get cabbage leaves to put under the bread. However, the fence broke and she fell in and drowned. We want to know what she was doing on the fence!

8. Mad Cow
Tudor AccidentsPhoto: Christine

You almost wonder if this is a serious report. What are the odds on the name of the victim (and town)? Robert Calf (yes, Calf) was walking through some fields on March 10, 1557 when a ‘madd cowe’ belonging to William Cheills of Hogsthorpe gored him. He died that night.

7. Maypoles Are Murder
Tudor AccidentsPhoto: Mike Goren

We’ll let Dr Gunn explain this death (which took place in Coventry in 1558) himself: “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.”

6. Deadly Street Theater
Tudor AccidentsPhoto: compagnie d’ailleurs

As part of a piece of street theater, a man was meant to discharge three guns in a Corpus Christi play on a street called Clothmarket in Newcastle. Unfortunately, the cloth head had never bothered to unload the guns and one chamber exploded, hitting – and killing – a boy lying on a scaffold (an appropriate place to die) and another man who died later that night.

5. Bad Driving
Tudor AccidentsPhoto: Martin Bodman

Now this is familiar to us, of course – deaths due to bad driving – but this story takes the cake, and of course it was before the age of the motor car. Three men were going back from a local market in 1558 when one of them whipped the cart horses and somehow managed to stumble on a bush resulting in the left wheel, crushing his head. Nuff said.

4. Archery Gone Awry
Tudor AccidentsPhoto: unknown

Bows and arrows are dangerous, but standard safety precautions when using them do help. Such as don’t put your face in front of the arrow. Henry Pert pulled his arrow back so hard that it lodged in the bow. So the young man decided to make it fly straight up to dislodge it, forgetting that it was still attached to a string and that he was leaning right over it! The arrow went through his head and he died that night.

3. Relieving Yourself at the Cesspit
Tudor AccidentsPhoto: Jacek Bednarek

On the June 2, 1523, a Cambridge baker fell off his seat while drunk over the ‘sege pytte’ and fell in. He was ‘quesomed’ by the noisome contents and died, poor fellow.

2. Washing After Work
Tudor AccidentsPhoto: Fin Fahey

This one is a bit of a surprise because Tudor England wasn’t known for its hygiene – but there were quite a lot of deaths that came about as a result of washing, apparently. Three people in three months all drowned after a quick wash in different ponds after work in 1558.

1. Christmas Games
Tudor AccidentsPhoto: Twice25/Rinina25

This goes into the “WTH?” category. We’ll let the words stand as they were written by Dr. Gunn: “John Hypper was ‘playinge Christenmas games’ on Boxing Day 1563 at about 6 pm 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.” Tell me what Christenmas games might cause your testicles to be injured?

Dr. Gunn has teased out some fascinating facts, giving us a peek into everyday life a long time ago. Deaths from house fires were far less common than today – even though people used candles for light – perhaps because houses were generally one story-high and so were easier to escape from. Even odder is the fact that fewer died from falling over! Maybe this could again be due to the lack of stairs.

What an interesting journey of discovery into the deaths of common men back in days of yore!

Sources: 1, , journal: Past and Present