This article was first published in the Christmas 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine


Hundreds of people lost their lives in accidents involving animals in the 16th century. And, as Gunn and Gromelski’s research shows, creatures of all shapes and sizes posed a threat to human life and limb…

Horses: Kicking, biting, dragging and trampling

One in 10 fatal accidents in 16th-century England involved animals – and horses were the prime culprits. More than a third of all ‘animal accidents’ were falls from horses, and nearly as many saw horses kicking, trampling, biting or dragging those who died.

The chief reason for the high death toll was that so many people rode horses. An Italian visitor reported with astonishment in 1557 that “there is no male or female peasant who does not ride on horseback”. Riding accidents afflicted gentlemen, clergymen and rich yeoman farmers, but also farm labourers, servants and craftsmen – not to mention boys, girls and women of all social ranks.

With a population of under 4 million, the landscape was relatively empty, and horses were the best means to get about. So it was quite natural for labourer John May of Moulton, Lincolnshire to send his son, Ambrose, on his bay mare to Alexander Symson’s house to collect a pig in September 1552. The mare stumbled and Ambrose fell off and died.

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Not all the victims were on horseback. Many of the accidents occurred when horses were being fed, watered and taken to pasture. Sometimes bystanders got unlucky, like Anthony Coke, who was kicked by the courtier Thomas Heneage’s horse as he rode into Lincoln in August 1550. Heneage’s horse was a fine animal, reckoned by the coroner’s jury to be worth eight times more than May’s mare. But they could both be deadly.

Working horses: Runaway horse-carts

Horses were the most common draught animals. Ploughs, harrows, field-rollers and horse-powered mills could all cause accidents, but the majority of mishaps involved carts. Manoeuvring in tight spaces was difficult. Edmund Dodde was hit on the head by a cart loaded with peas when the horse drawing it backed up suddenly inside a Warwickshire barn in 1558.

The open road was dangerous too. With one in eight cart accidents taking place on downward slopes, it’s little wonder that Leonard Mascall’s First Booke of Cattell (1587) warned of the dangers of manning horse-powered vehicles going downhill. The thill horse, which was placed between the shafts of the cart, was the key to steering and speed, and more than one in 10 cart accidents involved this animal. Mascall warned drivers to keep “thy hand nigh his head: wherby thou maiest the better rule him”.

A horse-cart proved fatal to John Burton who was run over by a cart carrying grain downhill towards Newbury in icy weather in January 1551 – despite the efforts of his colleague John Nashe to hold onto the thill horse to brake the cart’s descent.

Illustration by Becca Thorne.

Cattle: Mad cows and milkmaids

Cattle were the second most dangerous animals to work with. Oxen were used for pulling ploughs and carts, sometimes in teams of four or six, and caused similar mishaps to those involving draught horses.

Occasionally cattle trampled or crushed people, but most of the damage was done with their horns, which caused deep, often fatal, wounds. Bulls wandered loose and attacked passers-by, like Alison Alderson, who was walking down the road in Grinton, Yorkshire, in November 1599 when she was charged by a black bull. The following year, Hugh Dese was hit under the jaw bone by a two-year-old bull calf while walking down Woodclose Lane in Staffordshire.

Illustration by Becca Thorne.

Cows caused nearly as many accidents as bulls and oxen combined. Some were described as mad when they attacked, and those with calves were easily frightened. John Elwarde went into a barn on a December morning in 1599 to check on a red cow with a calf, and his dog followed him in. The cow attacked the dog, the dog hid behind John and the cow charged him and gored his left thigh to a depth of three inches.

Milkmaids were especially at risk. Jane Wheler was milking a cow in her husband’s croft in November 1550 when a young red bull came up from behind and attacked her. She died within an hour from loss of blood.

Pigs: Hungry boars on the prowl

Pigs were a danger less to adults than to babies and young children, who accounted for at least two-thirds of the deaths they caused. It was mostly boars rather than sows or hogs that attacked, goring with their tusks as well as biting.

Some young boys died herding pigs. Five-year-old William Barghe of Huggate, Yorkshire, hit in the stomach by one of a herd he was driving to the fields, is the youngest victim of a work accident we have yet found. More gruesome were incidents where pigs scavenging for food came into houses and bit sleeping babies in the head. Twenty-day-old Agnes Clay at Erringdon in Heptonstall, Yorkshire, and young James Ball – who was in a cradle in the kitchen at Charlton Adam in Somerset – both died this way.

Illustration by Becca Thorne.

Pigs also caused accidents indirectly, as people gathered acorns to fatten them in the autumn. Several fell to their deaths after climbing oak trees to knock down acorns for their animals.

Sheep: Following the herd into danger

Sheep, even rams, do not seem to have attacked people to fatal effect, but they still caused deadly accidents. They led those herding them into danger by wandering into salt marshes criss-crossed with treacherous creeks, fields edged with streams, and woods where horses galloped.

These resulted in single deaths, but larger tragedies struck between May and July when sheep were taken into rivers for washing before they were sheared. When a sheep drifted downstream or struggled in the water, it was easy for a labourer – often a young woman, clothed in waterlogged wool and linen, and unable to swim – to get into trouble too. Others tried to help and soon whole parties were drowning. Four died at a ford on the Wiltshire Avon near Beanacre in 1551, four in the Nidd at Plumpton in 1557, and three more in the Hodder at Slaidburn in 1560.

Illustration by Becca Thorne.

Birds: Falling from Pontefract Castle

Birds caused the widest variety of accidents because of the numerous means used to catch them, kill them or scare them away from crops.

Guns grew ever-more popular in the 16th century, and with them came accidental shootings. In March 1599 John Norton of Milton Regis in Kent tried to use his “small birdinge peece” to shoot a pigeon to feed his hawk without leaving his bedroom. A wire on the window frame caught on the gun’s sear (the piece of the lock that held the hammer ready to fire when the trigger was pulled) and he shot himself through the chest and shoulder.

Catching birds to eat, or destroying their nests to stop them eating crops or taking chicks, often involved climbing. People fell from dovecotes and trees when taking young rooks to put in pies or pulling down the nests of ravens and kites. Alan Walton was trying to catch a pet martin for his daughter Ellen when he climbed up by the portcullis of Pontefract Castle and fell to his death.

Nets could also be hazardous. Richard Wolstanrrose was running along with a “cockeshut nette” (a large net to catch woodcock) at Westbury in Shropshire in November 1596, when, so the jurors reported, he ran under a large rock. The net snagged on the rock and he hit his head on it, dying instantly.

Illustration by Becca Thorne.

Bears and blood sports: Mauled to death in Hereford

Blood sports caused accidents of many sorts, from a collapsing cockpit in Coventry and a Buckinghamshire huntsman attacked by a deer he had shot, to the goring of Peter Tucker, a Bridport sailor, by the bull on which he had just set his mastiff.

Yet if there was one animal to approach with caution in 16th-century England, it had to be the bear. In three separate incidents between 1563 and 1570, bears mauled people to death: near Hereford, in the suburbs of Oxford, and at Lord Bergavenny’s house at Birling in
Kent. The bear in the last case had to be shot with a gun by one of the lord’s servants.

Bears frightened other animals too. In June 1567, Simon Poulter, one of the great entrepreneurs of the Southwark bear-baiting shows, sent his servants out to announce that bears and a bull were to be baited with dogs at Paris Garden two days later. Banging a drum and leading along a bull and a bear, they reached Charing Cross in the mid-morning. Unfortunately, the horse drawing a collier’s cart was startled by the drum and scared of the animals. It bolted and ran over five-year-old George Jeames.

Illustration by Becca Thorne.

Rats: Controlling pests with deadly results

Rats famously caused fatalities by spreading disease, but efforts to control them could result in more deaths still. “Take heede how thou laiest the bane for the rats / For poisoning servant, thy selfe and thy brats,” warned Thomas Tusser in his Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry of 1573.

Taking care with ratsbane – arsenic trioxide – was easier said than done. One housewife, 50-year-old Barbara Gilbert of Syston, Leicestershire, mistook it for flour and added it to the “floure meate” she was making with milk, poisoning herself. Another, Margaret Morlande of South Elmham in Suffolk, used it to make a lotion to kill lice, which she drank by mistake, instead of the pot of beer standing next to it, when she got up in the dark to help her lame husband.

Several servants or labourers ate poisoned food prepared for rats or birds. The pieces of bread soaked in sweet milk that the servant William Keme found in a skillet in his master’s house at Whateley in Warwickshire in July 1552 sound particularly tempting. It took William nine days to die after eating them.

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


Illustrations by Becca Thorne for BBC History Magazine