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)
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 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.Illumination from ‘Hours 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)
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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