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Here Are Some of the Weird Ways You Could Die in Tudor England

Pole vaulting and bacon are among the odd causes of death discovered by historians

In 16th-century England, death by plague, depicted in the wood carving above, might have been an easy way to go compared to the accidents that could befall a person in everyday life. (Michael Wolgemut/Wikimedia Commons)
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In Tudor England, death came in many forms. Wars took lives on and off the battlefield. Illnesses claimed the weak and old. Dangerous pregnancies threatened the survival of women and children. And even aside from all that, accidents could happen everyday.

Now, a team of historians at the University of Oxford in the U.K. is figuring out what sort of mishaps could lead to one's demise in 16th-century England. Analyzing coroner reports and cases of accidental death they hope to get a better picture of what life was like back then and compare those risks to the ones humans face today.

Thus far, their work has yielded some interesting insights. A death of a young girl, possibly a cousin of William Shakespeare, who may have inspired Ophelia's death by drowning in Hamlet. Drowning, in fact, caused half of all accidental deaths in this period. Occupational hazards, on the other hand, varied regionally. But, amid these broader insights, the research has also turned up some rather odd ways to go. Here are some highlights from their latest discoveries:

Pole Vaulting

Today, it's a sport. Back then, it was a way to get across a stream or a pond. On December 25, 1521, a laborer named Robert Bakar took a shortcut on the way from the local church in Cambridgeshire to the rector's house. This shortcut involved hopping across a pond with the aid of a pole. Unfortunately, the pole snapped in half, and Bakar fell into the pond and drowned. A similar case arose in 1540, as well.

Bacon

An ailing widow, Elizabeth Browne worked as a servant in the household of a man name Hugh Talmage in Huntingdon. On February 12, 1543, she was the victim of a horrible freak accident, while warming herself by the kitchen fire. Four flitches or sides of unsliced bacon had been suspended in the chimney above her to smoke. The rope broke, and the bacon crushed her. Four days later, she died of her injuries.

The Bathroom

Between 8 and 9 pm on June 2, 1523, a Cambridge baker named George Duncan went out to his back garden to use the cesspit — basically an outhouse of sorts with a wooden seat over a pit of sewage. Somewhat intoxicated, Duncan fell in. The overwhelming stench caused him to suffocate. (This particular freak accident may not be totally unique to the 16th century. In 2014, two people died trying to save a cell phone that had been dropped into a porta-potty.)

Horse Racing

This sport was growing in popularity at the time, but tracks weren't always ideal. On January 16, 1540, two riders, Henry Hedlam and Brian Newton, were racing back and forth along a wall in a garden outside London. Riding too fast on this narrow track, Newton's horse ran directly into an elm tree. His head hit a branch, knocking him from the horse and breaking his neck. Newton died the next day. Racing posed a danger to spectators and riders alike. In 1534, Jane Jonys was observing a race when a horse trampled her. She sustained wounds to her chest and legs and died four days later.

Clocks

Clocks were big in the 16th century, both literally and figuratively. Though clock-making flourished, the devices themselves were still fairly large in the early part of the period. Like some of the first mechanical clocks at Salisbury Cathedral and Wells Cathedral, they were made of metal and governed by complex machinery. In 1513, a laborer named John Townesend was holding an iron clock mechanism when it slipped from his hand, hitting five-year-old William Bret in the forehead. The child died the next day.

Cakes

In one of many Medieval religious customs that might strike modern readers as strange, every Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) young children would climb onto the roof of their local parish church and throw cakes at the congregation below. On March 28, 1507, two boys were not among the others. Instead, they walked out with the rest of the congregation. As the cakes fell that day, some dislodged battlement rocks fell as well, striking and killing the two boys.

Rat Poison

During the 16th-century, People commonly used arsenic trioxide or "ratsbane" to keep vermin from their food and from scurrying about their houses. Unfortunately, for Barbara Gilbert of Leicestershire, ratsbane looks like a harmless powder. Thinking she was grabbing flour, she inadvertently mixed it with milk when preparing a meal for her family. Upon sampling the concoction, she inadvertently poisoned herself. Gilbert's death was not the only instance of accidental ratsbane consumption. In 1599, Margaret Morelande got up in the middle of the night to nurse her sick husband and grabbed a pot of radsbane and water instead of beer to drink.

Deer

Don't mess with a male deer during mating season. On October 18, 1535, Robert Wyfall was moving wood in a forest grove when a stag attacked him, breaking his arm and wounding him. He died instantly.

Windows

On the afternoon of March 22, 1599, a gentleman by the name of John Norton wanted to feed his hawk. He thought he'd shoot a pigeon and serve it to his bird. Rather than going outside to do this, Norton chose to shoot from his bedroom window (as he apparently had done before). Setting his a small birding gun up in the windowsill, he charged it and began replacing a part in the butt or stock of the gun. At the time, wires held window frames in place, and the gun's spring caught on one such wire, sending the bullet backwards. It struck Norton in the shoulder and killed him instantly.

Today, we have a lot of safety mechanisms and regulations in place to avoid such injuries — or at least, some of them.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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