Tudor England was a dangerous place - there were plagues and wars, perilous childbirths and shocking infant mortality to contend with. A new four-year study Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in Sixteenth-Century England is looking into the alarming risks that Tudors faced as they bustled about their daily lives. 

Engravings from Everard Digby’s De arte natandi (1587) Engravings from Everard Digby’s De arte natandi (1587)

by Matt Pickles 

A new Oxford study into Tudor coroners’ reports show how hazardous daily life was in an age of limited health and safety. 

Professor Steven Gunn of Merton is leading Everyday Life and Fatal Hazard in 16th Century England, a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). He estimates that there are 9,000 accidental deaths to investigate in The National Archives in Kew. The project is providing a valuable insight into the life and working practices of the time, and how these changed over the 16th century. 

So far the project has found that fatal accidents were more likely to take place during the agricultural peak season, with cart crashes, dangerous harvesting techniques, horse tramplings and windmill manglings all major causes of deaths.A Gloucestershire inquisition filed in 1538A Gloucestershire inquisition filed in 1538

The poor state of England’s roads was a constant complaint of early modern travellers, and we can see that this was justified. 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.the nature of hazard and riskIllumination fromHours of Henry VIII’ (c. 1500)

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.Woodcut from A most straunge, rare, and horrible murther committed by a Frenchman (London, 1586)Woodcut from A most straunge, rare, and horrible murther committed by a Frenchman (London, 1586)

Interestingly, it seems real efforts were made to manage these risks with 'health and safety' procedures. When mowing hay at harvest time, men would minimise the risk of hacking each other with scythes by walking across the field in a staggered diagonal line.

Trees were another point of danger. Handbooks warned about the danger of climbing trees to get rid of crows' nests, or to gather fruit because so many people died by falling out. Tree fellers were warned to direct trees to fall in a certain direction to avoid being crushed by falling timber.

'Reading about how people died in Tudor times, you might think that people must have been daft to have died the way they did,' says Professor Gunn. 'Actually people did make an effort to work out the risks and minimise them, but these methods didn’t always work.'

Follow the project and its latest discoveries on the website.

Images The Morgan Library  

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By Drr J P C Ŧoalster

"Prisca iuvent alios; ego me nunc denique natum
gratulor; haec aetas moribus apta meis."

By David McAvoy

Translation please.

By Drf J P C Toalster

"Let others take pleasure in days gone by; I am glad I was born now; this age is the right one for the likes of me".

That I should live to hear another Oxford man ask for the translation. Robert Levens must be turning in his grave.

nimirum hoc die
uno plus vixi mihi quam vivendum fuit.

And that means: "I could swear I have lived today one day more than I should have done".

By Chris Chapman

When I last went to renew my Bodleian Readers' Pass, I walked all around the Clarendon Building translating the bold Latin calligraphy above each entrance - but to no avail. It was on the third circuit that I noticed the eye level plaque - which was in English - with NO Latin translation ! My hard won 'O' Level Latin was not of any use.

By Bob Webber

David McAvoy was not the only one who would have requested a translation. I am grateful that by 1971 Oxford had dropped the requirement for Latin and thus allowed me read Physics at St Catz. I have learned many other languages such as Algol, AWK, BASIC, C, Pascal and Perl that I use to great effect in changing the world around me and my fellows, yet would never decry another Oxford person for their lack of these modern languages. Sic transit Gloria Mundi (Thus passes the glory of the world) is the only Latin I can recall. And of course: Dominus illuminatio mea (The Lord is my light)