Everyday life and accidental death in sixteenth-century England
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Oxford
Unit of AssessmentHistory
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Medical and Health Sciences: Public Health and Health Services
Summary of the impact
Despite the great public appetite for knowledge about life in Tudor England, until Steve Gunn
undertook a huge study of coroners' records, we knew very little about how people lived — and died.
Some of his findings shine new light on famous figures, such as the family of William Shakespeare.
Others show how ordinary people lived — at work, at home, travelling or relaxing. They reveal the
similarities and contrasts between dangers faced by our ancestors and those in modern life. The
research has inspired enormous public interest, and it has also provided a historical perspective for
organisations concerned with the implementation of health and safety policy.
Research into coroners' inquests on accidental deaths has been conducted in two phases by
Steven Gunn; and in the third phase, in progress with ESRC funding, by Gunn and Tomasz
Gromelski, post-doctoral researcher. Both have been employed by the University of Oxford
throughout. The first, conducted between 2002 and 2009, examined inquests on deaths caused by
archery practice and by firearms in order to investigate the supposed decline of archery practice in
sixteenth-century England. The ensuing article argued that archery practice was widespread, but
did indeed decline from the 1540s: a concomitant rise in firearms accidents suggested that the
increasing popularity of guns offered a partial explanation. The second, a pilot project undertaken
in 2009, analysed all inquest reports for 1558 in order to demonstrate the possibilities of widening
the scope of the research by studying all accidents. The third phase is currently (2011-15)
examining all 9000 or so inquest reports filed for the sixteenth century.
48% of deaths in 1558-60 were by drowning, and this central finding has been the focus of an
article and podcast for BBC History Magazine. The reasons for the contrast with modern
experience (2% of accidental deaths in 2010) have been explored in detail. Few people could
swim, yet many worked near water, in mills and on boats, washing and watering animals. There
are illuminating contrasts by age, wealth, gender and geographical location. For example, women
drowned in large numbers while fetching water from slippery rivers and deep pits. Sports also
claimed a number of victims: football followed archery as the next most dangerous leisure activity,
but there were many others. The inquest reports illuminate how sports were conducted and when
and where they were most prevalent. Articles on sporting accidents and on children's games have
emerged from this research. Finally, the reports on work, investigated for a conference lecture,
show that many occupations that are considered dangerous now were also dangerous then — building,
farming, mining — but again reveal important regional, age and gender variations.
References to the research
3.1 Steven Gunn, `Archery practice in early Tudor England', Past and Present, 209 (November
2010), 53-81. DOI 10.1093/pastj/gtq029 (peer-reviewed journal article)
The following articles arose from research conducted under a competitively awarded grant of
£349,347.63 from the ESRC (reference RES-062-23-2819) for `Everyday life and fatal hazard in
sixteenth-century England' for the period 1/04/2011-31/03/2015 (PI: Steven Gunn). All are
available on request:
3.2 Steven Gunn, Tomasz Gromelski, `Drowning in Tudor England', BBC History Magazine, 12/13
(December 2011), 46-9.
3.3 Steven Gunn, Tomasz Gromelski, `Toys and games that killed in Tudor England', BBC History
Magazine, 13/13 (December 2012), 37-40.
3.4 Steven Gunn, Tomasz Gromelski, `For whom the bell tolls: accidental deaths in Tudor
England', The Lancet, 380 (2012), 1222-3.
3.5 Tomasz Gromelski, `Życie i śmierć w Anglii Tudorów', Mówią wieki, 3/13 (2013), 24-7.
Details of the impact
The dissemination of this research in many different media has stimulated public interest in
sixteenth-century history in Britain and abroad and changed people's understanding of diverse
aspects of early modern life.
Public debate on one famous accidental death, that of Amy Robsart, wife of Queen Elizabeth's
favourite Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, was enhanced by the discovery, during phase one of the
research, of the previously unknown coroner's inquest into her death, revealing that she was found
with two `dyntes' in her head as well as a broken neck. This was used by Steven Gunn's former
graduate student Chris Skidmore MP in his Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the
Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart (London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010), one of the
Independent's books of the year for 2010 and highly commended in the John Rhys Llewellyn Prize.
Reviews often stressed the central importance of the discovery of the coroner's inquest, describing
it as `a dramatic new discovery' (John Guy) and Skidmore's use of it as a `great coup' (Sarah
Gristwood) (5.1). The book's publication resulted in two documentaries including interviews with
Gunn about the discovery: Revealed: The Virgin Queen's Fatal Affair (Quickfire Media, shown on
Channel 5, 18/11/2010, attracting 676,000 viewers (5.2)); Secrets of the Virgin Queen (National
Geographic TV, shown on 25/01/2011; shown on History Channel, 23-24/9/2011).
Public understanding of the life of William Shakespeare and its relation to his works was
increased by a second discovery, that of the inquest report of the death of a two-year-old girl called
Jane Shaxspere at Upton Warren, about twenty miles from Stratford, in 1569, when William
Shakespeare, who may have been her cousin, was about five. Like Ophelia, she was drowned
while picking flowers. The story spread mainly from the BBC website (estimated readership 19.79
million), where it first ran on 8/06/2011 and had been shared 1,603 times by 20/6/2011, but was
also carried by AFP and Reuters. By noon on 9/06/2011 Google news showed 246 websites
reporting it, including news and cultural sites in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, China, France,
Germany, India, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Portugal,
Qatar and the USA, as well as some major UK sites (Channel 4, estimated readership 3.06 million;
Guardian, 4.30 million; Telegraph, 4.24 million, Yahoo, 20.15 million (5.4)). On 11/6/2011 it was
posted as a pond safety feature on the website of Swell UK, `one of the UK's leading retailers of
aquarium, pond and water gardening supplies' (5.5). Newspapers also carried the story on
8/6/2011: The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Mail, and Metro (estimated
readerships respectively 2.8%, 2.2%, 1.1%, 8.9%, 7.1% of national adult population).
Responding to public interest in the initial story, the BBC website followed with a more general
story on what can be learnt from coroners' inquests on 14/6/2011, `10 strange ways Tudors died'
(5.3). This spent 22 hours amongst the ten most read stories on the BBC site and was for 18 hours
the most shared story on the site, having been shared 5519 times by noon on 20 June. It spread to
websites in Argentina, Poland, Spain and the USA. It provoked wide comment on Twitter, with 401
posts between 14/6/2011 and 10/5/2013 including `Fascinating stuff' and `Macabre but irresistible'
(5.6). This coverage led to interest both in the Shakespeare connection and in the wider project
from radio programmes, newspapers and magazines. On 8/6/2011, the BBC Radio 4 Today
programme (estimated listeners 7.18 million) carried the story at 8.08am, and interviews followed
that day for BBC Radio 4 News, BBC Radio Oxford breakfast show, BBC Radio Scotland
Newsdrive (estimated listeners 8.7% of national adult population), and BBC World Service
(estimated weekly listeners 188 million), the last repeated in several programmes on 8-9/6/2011.
Interviews followed on 9/6/2011 for Radio New Zealand Morning Report (estimated listeners 14.3%
of national adult population) and Newstalk Ireland's `Moncrieff!'. The Oxford Times carried an
extensive interview feature on 23/6/2011, as did The Lancet on 28/1/2012. BBC History Magazine,
August 2011 (estimated readership 0.5% of national adult population), carried a news item on the
discovery, as did BBC Who Do You Think You Are Magazine, August 2011.
Public understanding of the historical lessons to be drawn from a wider range of accidents was
stimulated by further publications and news stories. Several accidents drawn from this research
were used by Ian Mortimer in his Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England (2012) (pp. 327,
331, 335, 386-7), which reached number 5 in the Sunday Times' non-fiction best-sellers list. Two
articles by Gunn and Gromelski in BBC History Magazine (3.2, 3.3) focused on drowning and
children's toys and games and were supported by freely available podcasts on the magazine's
website (5.7). Public interest in the research in Poland was developed by a general article in the
popular history magazine Mówią wieki (3.5). Research on sport, in particular football, attracted
attention from newspapers, and stories ran in the Times and Telegraph on 17/12/2011 as well as
on the Daily Mail website (5.8). This led to interviews on two radio programmes with different
listener demographics from those stations which had previously considered the research, Talksport
FM (Hawksbee and Jacobs show, 20/12/ 2011) (estimated listeners 2.1% of national adult
population) and Italk FM (Maurice Boland show, 19/12/2011). Football, archery and bell-ringing
accidents were featured on Have I Got News for You (BBC1, 23/12/2011), attracting 6.11m
viewers (5.9). Archery deaths appeared in Horrible Histories `Stupid Deaths' section (BBC 1,
9/4/2012), subsequently posted on YouTube (in three versions totalling 65,193 views by
Current debate on health and safety policy was equipped with historical perspective by the article
in The Lancet (3.4) exploring what the coroners' inquests can tell us about understandings of
health, illness and death in the past, and by a press release about sixteenth-century work
accidents. The story about work-related accidents was covered by the DailyTelegraph on 5/4/2012
and on the BBC website (5.3) with the story `Summer was the most dangerous time for Tudors',
which was widely shared and tweeted. Organisations and individuals concerned with contemporary
health and safety issues tweeted or used it on their websites to give historical context to their
policies or campaigns. These included the NHS Health Improvement Network, the Health and
Safety Executive of Indonesia and GK First Aid Training. The Farmer's Guardian website linked the
story to their Farm Safety Charter campaign to cut accidental deaths in modern farming, and Karen
Thompson (a legal executive in the personal injury department of Blake Lapthorn solicitors)
reflected in her blog on the parallels between sixteenth-century accidents and modern mishaps
with potholes and cracks in the pavement (5.6, 5.11).
Finally, a series of public lectures delivered by Dr Gunn between February and June 2013
stimulated the enthusiasm for understanding history of a wide range of individuals. These
lectures addressed audiences of between 50 and 200 members of the public of a variety of ages,
ranging from children at Stowe School and undergraduates at Bristol University to adults of
working and retirement age at the Winchester and Beckenham and Bromley branches of the
Historical Association, the Lincoln branch of the Workers' Educational Association and the BBC
History Magazine `Talking Tudor' public history day. The impact of these lectures on individuals is
best shown by questionnaire returns. At Lincoln, for example, 51 people returned questionnaires.
Of 48 who gave their employment status, 9 were employed or self-employed, 39 were retired and
only one was a member of staff or student at a university. The average rating given on the question
`To what extent did the lecture increase your awareness of everyday life in the sixteenth century?'
was 4.1/5. 27 commented on particular aspects of daily life on which their perspective or opinion
had been altered, such as the prevalence of drowning (2), the variety of leisure activities (3), the
lives of children (2), guns and traffic (1 each). 28 specified aspects of daily life about which they
would have liked to hear more, such as women's lives and the importance of the landscape, thus
helping to shape the future focus and presentation of the research. 28 said they would take action
as a result of the talk, such as attending more history lectures or joining a local history group (14),
reading more about the subject (7), or being more careful of their own safety (2). At the BBC
History Magazine event, with a more varied audience (including 21 employed, 1 unemployed, 22
retired, 5 university students and staff and 8 school students), 59 questionnaires were returned.
The average score on increased awareness was 4.3/5 and 29 intended to take action. This
included reading more about Tudor life (16), attending more history lectures (4), reflecting on
present safety measures (4) and, in the words of a school student, `studying ordinary people as
well as monarchs'. Four, including a primary school teacher, a secondary school teacher and a
National Trust volunteer, said they would pass on what they had learned to others. A broader view
of the lectures' impact can be gained from the Lincoln group's website, which commented: `On
Saturday 2nd March 2013 Dr. Steven Gunn of Merton College, Oxford enthralled almost 100
people at St. Hugh's Church Hall, Lincoln with a description of his cutting edge research on Tudor
Coroner's Reports. He very kindly tailored the information to the Lincolnshire taste and talked on
Everyday Life and Accidental Death in Tudor Lincolnshire. The afternoon was extremely
informative and thanks to Dr. Gunn's sharp sense of humour very entertaining. ... The Lincoln
learners are certainly looking forward to more of the same in the future' (5.12).
Sources to corroborate the impact
5.1 Reviews of Death and the Virgin: John Guy, The Sunday Times, 14/3/2010; John Hinton, The
Catholic Herald, 9/4/2010; Sarah Gristwood, The Guardian, 17/4/2010:
5.2 Revealed viewing figures: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/nov/19/beenys-restoration-nightmare-tv-ratings
5.3 BBC website stories: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13682993;
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-13762313; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-176016165 pm 4/4/2012.
5.4 Sample websites for Ophelia story: http://www.channel4.com/news/was-shakespeare-heroine-based-on-bards-cousin;
5.5 Swell UK pond marketing: http://www.swelluk.com/news/800574851/pond-incident-played-role-in-shakespeare-character-creation
5.6 Twitter response to BBC website stories: http://topsy.com/www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13682993;
5.7 History extra podcasts, 22 December 2011, 10 January 2013:
5.8 Football accidents story: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2075065/More-people-died-playing-football-SWORD-FIGHTING-Tudor-times.html
5.9 Have I Got News for You viewing figures: printout of relevant data from Christmas 2011 top 30
Programmes from the website http://www.barb.co.uk/, available on file.
5.10 Horrible Histories: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c6geFUQOEa8;
5.11 Work accidents story: http://www.farmersguardian.com/home/latest-news/research-shows-farming-was-deadliest-industry-in-16th-century!/46113.article 3 pm 5/4/2012;
5.12 Lincoln WEA: http://www.weaeastmidlands.org/new-lincoln-branch-kicks-off-with-anne-ward-memorial-lecture;
event feedback questionnaires from Lincoln WEA and BBC Talking Tudor
sessions available on file from Dr Gunn.