Drowning in Tudor England: why was water so dangerous?

Coroners' reports are revealing that as many as half of all accidental deaths in the 16th century were drownings. Steven Gunn and Tomasz Gromelski reveal why water was such a prolific killer in Tudor England...

An illustration from ‘A Short History of the English People’ by John Richard Green. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Sixteenth-century England was a dangerous place. There were plagues and wars, childbirth was perilous and infant mortality high. But what risks did people face in going about their everyday lives? And what does that tell us about what they did all day, when they weren’t busy with the grand events of Tudor history?

Our new research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, is aiming to find out, using some 9,000 coroners’ inquest reports of accidental deaths preserved in the National Archives. Coroners had to investigate any sudden or violent death, principally to establish whether it might be a case of murder or suicide. They summoned a jury of local men to view the body and reported on the circumstances of the death, handing in the reports to the assize judges as they toured around the kingdom.

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