The perils of piety in Tudor England

Steven Gunn and Tomasz Gromelski, who are researching thousands of 16th-century coroners’ inquests reports, reveal how Elizabethans’ attempts to get closer to God often ended with them meeting their maker...

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Death from above

In the later Middle Ages, the calendar was filled with all manner of Christian festivals. On one of these – Palm Sunday – the boys of Chippenham in Wiltshire climbed onto the church roof to throw small cakes to those walking in procession. In 1507, Francis Gore and Nicholas Hulkebere were not sitting on the roof of the south aisle throwing cakes, but down below, scrambling to collect them, where they were killed by two stones dislodged from the battlements.

Towns routinely put on seasonal plays with religious themes, but the special effects used to entertain the audience could be hazardous. In June 1519, an exploding gun killed William Duntyng of Ivychurch in Kent when he was watching a play about St Erasmus.

Later in the century, many festivities died out under pressure from reformers who thought them unseemly. But eight-year-old Thomas Johnson, son of a weaver, found a play to watch with other boys in Gloucester Cathedral churchyard on the evening of 28 June 1592. A labourer climbed up the nearby cross to get a better view, dislodging a stone that hit Thomas fatally on the back of the head.

 

Praying on shifting grounds

Throughout the 16th century, men and women were encouraged to pursue a life of piety, whether traditional – using devotional books or works like The Imitation of Christ – or influenced by the Protestant ideas coming in from Germany and Switzerland. Some used sacred buildings for private prayer. Alexander Qwhip was praying in the parish church at Smeaton in Yorkshire on Holy Saturday 1516 when a large beam from the church roof fell on top of him. Thomas Parkes went to mass in the parish church at Deerhurst in Gloucestershire on Sunday 14 September 1516 and sat on a bench under the belfry to pray, only to be hit by a small beam dislodged by the bell-ringers above.

Others preferred to worship amid the glories of creation. On 22 November 1531 Christopher Conyers of Brotton in the North Riding of Yorkshire sat down at the seaside cliffs to pray with a book in his hand. When it was nearly noon, he got up to go home, but the grass beneath him broke up and he fell about 150ft to his death. At the top of the cliff those who came to look for him found his reading glasses.

 

Gripped by religious fervour

In the 1530s, England’s lord chancellor Thomas More, a ferocious opponent of the Reformation, reinvigorated the persecution of heresy. The fate of William Wale of Walton in Leicestershire may suggest the dramatic impact this had on some people’s state of mind. On 11 September 1530, having reportedly been insane for a year, he set fire to a cartload of hay and stood in the middle of it, just like a heretic burning at the stake.

William suffered serious burns to his legs and other parts of his body before his servant Jane Moreton, with the help of his neighbours, pulled him away from the fire and took him home. There he told them that Blessed Mary had protected him from the fire and asked them to take him back so that he could show her to them. But when they arrived, he suddenly fell into the ashes. He died, back at home, the following day.

 

Felled in the shadow of the monasteries

The most dramatic change enacted in Henry VIII’s Reformation was the dissolution of the religious orders. Hundreds of monasteries and friaries came under crown ownership and had their lands rented out or sold by the king.

The dissolution transformed the built environment, as buildings were converted to other uses, or cannibalised for their materials. But demolition was dangerous work. At the Lichfield Greyfriars in June 1537, Richard Yatte was taking down a stone wall when his feet slipped and he fell backwards and broke his neck. At Stone Priory in Staffordshire in August 1538, Henry Skatergoode was hit on the head by a stone thrown down by the labourers dismantling the bell tower. In 1541 and 1542, walls or chimneys fell on demolition workers at Wymondham Abbey in Norfolk, Wigmore Abbey in Herefordshire, and the Whitefriars at Cambridge and Gloucester.

Yet it wasn’t just members of demolition crews who met their maker in the shadow of former monasteries. In 1554, 12-year-old John Malkyn drowned in the moat of Missenden Abbey in Buckinghamshire chasing a moorhen; and in 1599, 10-year-old John Phipp, minding his father’s sheep at Dallington, fell into the stream lining the lands of the former priory of St Andrew, Northampton.

 

A custom that killed

The Reformation didn’t wipe out all of England’s religious customs. One parish tradition that survived Henry VIII’s reign was the practice of bell-ringing. Before the 1530s, bell-ringing often served to commemorate deceased parishioners. Later it summoned churchgoers to morning or evening prayer, announced the nightly curfew, or marked the anniversary of Elizabeth’s accession (on 17 November) as a token of loyalty to the queen and the nation’s rescue from ‘popery’.

Bell-ringers were killed by falling bits of broken bells, ringing gear and planks from belfries, or even falls from bell-towers. But the biggest problem was swinging ropes. Bell-ringers were caught round the legs, lifted in the air and dropped, often on their heads, in parishes from Cobham and Northfleet in Kent to Llanvihangel Crucorney in Monmouthshire.

 

The crushing effects of bishop-mania

The Tudor monarchs maintained much of the structure of the medieval church even while changing its worship and teachings. Bishops survived not just as regional church leaders but as great landed lords.

Some of the attention that bishops could command is evident from what happened on 8 September 1595 on the downs to the west of Bodmin in Cornwall. Walter Knyght was waiting near St Leonard’s Chapel, in a crowd of 5,000 or more people, for the arrival of Gervase Babington, bishop of Exeter. Babington was a noted preacher, and was undertaking his first tour of Devon and Cornwall. At Barnstaple, in August, so many had flocked in from the countryside for confirmation that he had had to leave town quietly.

At Bodmin, some of those gathered were mounted, and one of the horses grew restless. It suddenly charged and trampled Walter, who died of chest wounds a quarter of an hour later.

 

Beware the flying prayer book

Not everyone found the Elizabethan church, with its long sermons, easy to stomach. On Tuesday in Whitsun week 1596, at Orsett in Essex, Thomas Gryffyn, a labourer, disturbed the efforts of John Adams, the curate, to conduct evening prayer. The parish constable, the churchwarden and other parishioners tried to put him in the stocks, but he resisted so violently that he ended up with internal injuries that led to his death the next day.

Even obedient members of the congregation could find themselves in mortal danger. At Rolvenden in Kent on 24 April 1598, a volume of the works of the Swiss theologian Heinrich Bullinger fell from the pulpit – while William Reade, the vicar, was preaching – and hit the butcher Henry Siesly on the side of the head. Doctors pronounced that the wound was not life-threatening, but Siesly died on 20 May. Bullinger’s Fiftie Godlie and Learned Sermons, published three times in London between 1577 and 1587, measured about 12x9 inches and contained nearly 400 pages a volume. Falling from a high pulpit and perhaps bound with metal clasps, it was evidently dangerous.

 

God’s will or man’s negligence?

Attitudes to accidental death are hard to reconstruct from the dry formulations of Tudor coroners’ reports, but occasionally they peep through. The pervasive power of divine providence was a recurrent theme in Reformation preaching, and jurors invoked it in an inquest at Snodland in Kent in June 1592.

On the evening of the 21st, Emmeline Tixsall, servant of the village miller, John Dittye, was walking to her master’s house carrying his baby daughter in her arms. She crossed a footbridge by the mill on the river Medway, but stumbled at the far end and plunged into the water that turned the water mill. She fell, the jurors said, “by misfortune, that is, divine providence”, a phrasing they probably adopted because of one remarkable circumstance: she managed to throw the child onto the grassy bank of the pond, saving her while she herself drowned.

Intriguingly, the jurors or the coroner married their references to God’s will with a more pragmatic attitude to risk. The villagers were to be bound over in the sum of £2 to repair the path to make it safe for the queen’s subjects, and to check that it remain safe in future.

Steven Gunn of Merton College, Oxford and Tomasz Gromelski of Wolfson College, Oxford are working on a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on accidental death and everyday life in 16th-century England. For more information, go to tudoraccidents.modhist.ox.ac.uk

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