From Scythes To Rat Poison – The Unusual Ways Of Dying In Tudor Dorset and Wiltshire

An Oxford academic will soon share stories of the strange ways in which Wiltshire and Dorset people died during the Tudor years.

Steven Gunn is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Oxford. His Town Hall talk will feature the fatal farming practices and unsafe sports that kept undertakers busy in the 16th century.

For decades, movie and television programme makers have had a morbid curiosity with peculiar ways to die. The ‘Final Destination’ movie series and TV show ‘Six-Foot Under’ featured unusual fictional fatalities. Steven says his research has been used by programme- makers, too. “They used some of our stuff on the TV programme called ‘Hidden Killers of The Tudor Home’.”

Steven Gunn. Photo by John Cairns.

The Tudors are possibly the royal dynasty best known by school pupils because of ‘The Virgin Queen’ and Henry VIII. Steven says his talk, delivered as part of Gold Hill Museum’s Teulon Porter Memorial Lecture programme, will focus on everyday citizens of the period.

He has learned about their lives by studying their deaths. “What we’re doing is looking at accidental death reports from coroners’ inquests, to see what they tell you about what people are doing all day,” said Steven.

For example, Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries affected more than just the nuns who lived in holy places like Shaftesbury Abbey. “You had significant numbers of people injured in building accidents as a result of the dissolution of the monasteries. People were taking down monastic buildings, then they were up on scaffolding. There were stones being thrown around and there are walls collapsing on people,” said Steven.

You might be surprised to hear that coroners’ records were kept over 400 years ago. “The idea was that it was important for the King and his legal system to check up if somebody died. Had they been murdered? In which case they should have a murder investigation to try and put somebody on trial. Was it a suicide? That had certain legal implications. Was it an accident? The detail varies, but it will tell you quite a lot about where people were, what they were doing, what specifically caused the accident and the ‘value’ of the thing that caused the accident,” said Steven.

The ‘value’ of the thing that caused the accident was important, as Steven explained. “It’s this that is forfeited to the King or Queen. If you run somebody over with your cart, then your cart might be forfeited.”

The cause of death is also recorded. “They tell you what injuries the person has. They tell you how long people took to die because, quite often, people only died a week or ten days after the accident, presumably from blood poisoning or from blood clots they’d got from injuries that go around their body and lodged somewhere. It tells us quite a lot about the conditions of life,” said Steven.

The coroners’ records reveal that causes of death differ according to geography and topography. “The two halves of Wiltshire have very different kinds of accidents, because the farming systems were different,” said Steven. “The downs have a lot of sheep farming, but the clay vales have a lot more farming with cattle and cheese making. On the downs, if something falls on you, it’s going to be a big stack of wheat or barley. If something falls on you in the in the clay parts, it’s more likely to be to be a pile of hay.”

Across the border in Dorset, some workers met their maker in a different way. “We have accidents in the chalk quarries in Cerne Abbas, near the Cerne Abbas Giant,” said Steven.

Steven’s talk will reveal there were some health and safety sensibilities, even back then. “You can see practical things that people did to avoid accidents. People cut hay with scythes, which were big, heavy and very sharp. If you want to cut an entire field of hay with three or five people, you need to make sure you don’t hit each other with your scythes. The way they do this, which they explained in some of these reports, is to walk in a diagonal line, so that the person to your right can cut a swathe of hay without hitting you and you can see what swathe that person’s cut, and then you can cut the next one and so on. You need to keep the right distance apart all the way across the field in order not to end up crashing into each other and getting caught with the scythe,” said Steven.

He’s found agricultural handbooks that offer advice. “One of them is to be very careful where you put your rat poison, because people might just pick it up and eat it. We do get instances of people coming in from work, seeing bread that has been laced with arsenic trioxide or ‘rats bane’ as they call it. They see bits of bread laced with it and think, ‘That looks tasty’ and eat it, not realising that it’s put there ready to be put out to poison the rats.”

Away from work, in Tudor times, even ‘the beautiful game’ could see you being sent off for good. “Football is a big killer, partly because everybody’s got a knife in their belt for cutting up food. People fall over on top of each other and then stab each other in the leg, or stab themselves in the leg. It seems to be more like American football in that you can tackle all kinds of people including people who haven’t got the ball. There’s one man who gets into trouble because he rushes into the middle of a football match apparently shouting, ‘Let’s make work for the surgeon’, and basically starts beating people up and somebody has a nasty accident.”

One mostly forgotten traditional sport also proved to be a killer. “They were still in the process of inventing cricket in the 16th century. The big harvest time sport was throwing the hammer, but they haven’t got the safety cage that they have now for Olympic hammer throwing. In Dorset a man was practising throwing the hammer by throwing it over a house, not realising there was somebody stood on the other side,” said Steven, adding, “You’d think things like dancing was safe, but you get quite a lot of collapsing maypoles, which fall on top of people.”

Shaftesbury Town Hall

Attending church could prove fatal too. “The Reformation is a period for long and learned sermons in churches. We have somebody who was killed by a book falling off the side of a pulpit. It tells us which Swiss theologian the book is by – Heinrich Bollinger, a popular theologian amongst the preachers of Elizabethan England.”

Think carefully if you travel over to Sherborne and you’re tempted to admire the Abbey’s architecture. “On Saturday the 17th of May 1589, Robert Mitchell had been bellringing in Sherborne Abbey and afterwards he stood in the belfry looking up at the vault. A stone of ‘great weight’, fell and hit him on the left side of the head, killing him instantly,” said Steven.

And the notes reveal something else about Sherborne. “You can see from these reports who were sitting as jurors. In some places, jurors make marks on the report to show they’re signing up to what they’ve said. Sophisticated people in the 16th century could actually sign their names. Sherborne turns out to be quite a sophisticated town, because four of them can sign their names, rather than just making a little cross.”

Steven Gunn’s talk takes place at 7.30pm on Tuesday, 24th September at Shaftesbury Town Hall. If you are a member of the Shaftesbury and District Historical Society, your admission is free. Otherwise it’s £5 on the door.