Seven-year-old George Lord Dacre died on 17 May 1569. The little lord’s death had large consequences. His uncle Leonard claimed the Dacre title and lands, but was outmanoeuvred by the Duke of Norfolk, step-father and guardian to George and his sisters.
Leonard joined the Northern Rebellion (in which Catholic nobles attempted to replace Elizabeth I with Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne) later that year and died in exile in Brussels. Norfolk, fortunately for Queen Elizabeth, did not back the rebellion. Instead he married the Dacre girls to his sons and secured their lands for his dynasty.
It has long been known that George met his death in an unusual way, “slain casually at Thetford by the fall of a vaulting Hors upon him”, as the contemporary life of his brother-in-law, Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel, put it.
But the coroner’s inquest report into his death, one of some 9,000 we are studying to shed light on everyday life in 16th-century England, adds remarkable detail. It was about two in the afternoon when George, having eaten with other gentlemen and gentlewomen in “a dynyng chamber” in the duke’s house in Thetford, went off by himself for some recreation.
In a gallery in the upper part of the house stood the wooden “vawtynge horse”, four and a half feet high, more than six feet three inches long, and set on four wooden feet. It was too high for George to jump onto its back, so he tried to adjust it by extracting “a pynne of iron” supporting one of the back legs. The horse collapsed on top of him, crushing his head and killing him instantly.
Fun and danger
The inquests we are studying tell us about the demise of many less celebrated children. Of the 1,031 deaths registered between 1551 and 1560 that we have examined, at least 140 were those of children aged 13 or under.
The total rises to 170 or so if we include those described merely as a child or as someone’s son or daughter. At least 37 of them were playing when they died. Children clearly had fun, but as in any age it had its dangers.
Lord George’s vaulting horse was worth 10 shillings, more than many real-life working horses, but most had to make do with cheaper playthings. Three-year-old Christiana Jelyan of Wrangle in Lincolnshire was engaged in the classic toddler’s pastime of “making out of mud certain wastell [bread] called cakes” when she fell backwards into a ditch.
Girls, and sometimes boys, drowned picking flowers near water. Five-year-old Nicholas Braunche played with a knife he had picked up from a table. He tripped over the cradle of a younger sibling, fell and stabbed himself in the throat.
Animals were all around and children often played with them. One two-year-old girl was playing with a two-month-old foal when it kicked her in the forehead. A boy even younger followed a gosling into a pond in the back yard of his house.
Exploring near animals could be dangerous for older children too.
An illustration depicting a group of boys playing sports, c17th century.(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Seven-year-old John Watson slipped into a barn one morning past a mare and a colt. The colt kicked him in the side and he died five hours later. Robert Cranefold, the same age, got more than he bargained for when he hit a grey horse tied to a post with a small twig, and was kicked in the head.
Other children enjoyed safer games but picked bad places to play them. Joan Middleton and Richard Sone were playing by Chichester’s city wall when a November gale blew down a 60-foot section and buried them. Robert Alcocke was playing with other children in his father’s smithy when a scythe and a large hammer fell on his head.
Several boys and girls played in carts that tipped up on top of them or ran over them when they fell off. Children playing on roads were trampled by horses, run over by carts or squashed between traffic and roadside posts.
Children playing by water fell into ponds, wells, ditches, streams and rivers. Toddlers could come to grief even in vats full of water, brewing vessels or buckets left out for soaking linen, bran or salt fish. One, said the inquest jurors, was looking at her reflection in the water when she fell.
Watching adults or siblings at work was interesting but dangerous. William Gregorys’ father was repairing a cart in his barn when one wheel fell off and hit William on the head. William Russhe followed his sister and other children when they drove some cattle to water, but tripped and fell on a knife.
Adults kept very small children out of harm’s way by strapping them into chairs, but they could fall into the fire if the chair toppled over.
Older children fell asleep on the edge of ponds or under hedges in fields traversed by carts. George Nycolson slept by a lime kiln in Newcastle’s Sandgate and was suffocated by smoke. Catherine Else slept under Marlow Bridge and was swamped by a wave when several boats came through the lock.
As children grew, they began to be exposed to the hazards of work. Of 61 aged 6 or under who died in accidents in the 1550s, only one was working – herding pigs. Of the 79 aged between 7 and 13, about one in four was working when they met their fate. Girls fetched water or washed linen, boys drove carts, forked hay or herded animals.
Sometimes the boundaries between work and play are unclear. When seven-year-old Jane Nune fell into Loughton Brook in Buckinghamshire reaching out for a goose feather in the water, was she looking for a plaything, or collecting down for pillows?
Ten-year-old Thomas Hubbard was too keen to enter the world of grown men’s work. He was sent out to the fields in Brundish, Suffolk with food and drink for the ploughmen. He tried his hand at ploughing, but tripped on a stone or clod of earth and accidentally hit a passing colt with the whip with which he was controlling the plough-horse. The horse kicked him in the back of the head and he died four hours later.
Nine-year-old Thomas Cokerell was driving a cart in the fields of Reymerston, Norfolk under his father’s guidance. Then, rashly and without consulting his father, as the report put it, he ran and jumped into the cart as it was moving. The startled horses turned the cart over and he was hit on the head.
Watching adults play was dangerous too. In 1552, spectators aged eight and 10 were killed in archery practice in Louth, Lincolnshire, and at a hammer-throwing contest in Corfe, Dorset.
Adolescence brought participation, but that was no safer. John Tyler and Thomas Wylson, aged 15 and 16, died playing football, one falling heavily after tripping on a mole hill, the other accidentally stabbed in the thigh by the knife in the belt of the player he tackled.
The pleasures and perils of life were not peculiar to childhood. But the sad fates of hundreds of youngsters less famous than little Lord Dacre reveal much about the realities of growing up in 16th-century England.
Steven Gunn of Merton College, Oxford and Tomasz Gromelski of Wolfson College, Oxford were working on a project funded by the Economic and Social Research Council on accidental death and everyday life in 16th-century England.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine