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The Tudor Darwin Awards… Strange accidental deaths

Dr Steven Gunn has been trawling 16th Century coroners’ reports from 1551 to 1600 and researching accidental deaths in Tudor England. The results are both interesting and sad.

As far back as 1363 parliamentary laws insured that Englishmen spent their Sundays practicing archery with their Long bows. England had no standing army and archers could be needed at any time and come from all walks of life.

The coroners’ reports reveal that fifty six accidental deaths occurred by people standing too close to targets or by men collecting their fired arrows at the wrong time. Nicholas Wyborne was lying down near a target when he was hit by a falling arrow, which pierced him to a depth of six inches.

In 1552, Henry Pert, a gentleman of Welbeck in Nottinghamshire shot himself in the head with his own bow. Henry 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 at what had happened, the arrow was released. He died the next day.

St. Martin in the fields on the Agas map. Two men walking near Charing cross on their way to practice archery or gun target practice. Notice the washer women and people walking their dog.

Thomas Curteys of Bildeston in Suffolk, was practising archery in June in 1556. He took off his hat and asked another bowman called Richard Lyrence to try to hit it with an arrow. He died in the process.

The first fatal shooting accident was 1519, when a woman in Welton near Hull was accidentally killed by a handgun. She had not understood what the gun was and stepped out in front of it to take a closer look when it fired. The gun belonged to a bookbinder from called Peter Frenchman.

The Duke of Norfolk had a gun accident in 1557 when the horse he was riding stumbled on a road in Tottenham. His gun went off and shot dead a servant. By the1560s guns were causing more accidental deaths than longbows.

 According to Sean Coughlan,‘Fatal accidents were much more likely to take place during the agricultural peak season, a study of 16th Century coroner reports has revealed. Cart crashes, dangerous harvesting techniques, horse accidents and windmill mangling were among the perils facing the Tudor farm worker.

Robert Calf was walking through some fields on March 10, 1557 when a cow belonging to William Cheills of Hogsthorpe gored him with her horn. He died that night.

Not many people could swim and even if they could the weight of their clothes could pull them under and drownings were common.

On 29th January 1558, a spinster called Elizabeth Bennet was baking bread at the house of a local widow Matilda Nanfan in Birttsmorton in Worcestershire. Elizabeth went to the moat to get cabbage leaves to put under the loaves of bread she was baking. A fence broke and she fell in and drowned.


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 year, 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.

Bear baiting was a Tudor entertainment that was enjoyed by all ranks of society. In a bear garden, the bear would be tied to a post in a pit and would be set upon by hunting dogs. Lord Bergavenny’s bear escaped from his house in Birling, Kent in 1563 and it killed a widow called Agnes Rapte. Another woman, Agnes Owen from Herefordshire, was killed in her bed after being bitten by another escaped bear.

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Bear baiting Rings on the South side of the river Thames: Agas map. Look closely you can see the little dogs.

When his bear bit a 24 year old man to death in Oxford in 1565, the bear’s owner was punished by taking his bear into royal custody. The bear was worth 26 shillings and 8 pence which was about six months’ wages for a labourer.

Thomas Alsopp of Coventry on 26th April 1558 was standing in former monk’s cemetery when the maypole fell over. It missed Thomas and hit the city wall. Then a stone fell off the city wall, hit him on the head and killed him.

In the16th century more people died playing football than sword-fighting. Seven footballers were killed during matches in English villages between 1500 and 1575.

A Cambridge baker died in June 1523 while relieving himself, fell backwards into a cesspit and died.


Sources: Journal: Past Present (2010) 209 (1): 53-81.

Published: 13 November 2010


I love Tudor history and my bookshelves seem to groan a bit more every year...

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