Dead Pious: Mishaps, Masonry, Maintenance and Tudor England

August 28, 2015 in General

Steven Gunn and Tomasz Gromelski have written an intriguing piece based on their ongoing research into Tudor mortality and morbidity statistics. This latest refers to mishaps, mortality and falling masonry due to poor maintenance in early Tudor England and is discussed in BBC History (July 2015).  The unfortunate events could have been included in Blackadder II, given their darkly comic aspects.

People could meet their Maker sooner than they might have imagined for several reasons. They could be crushed beneath loose battlement stonework (1507, 1592); killed by shrapnel from exploding firearm ordinance in the pews (1519); crushed beneath loose woodwork due to excessive bellringing ardour (1516); choose to pray on unstable ground near cliffs or precipices (1531)- a problem for the nearsighted, sadly; unwisely get carried away about the extent of supernatural protection, as did one unfortunate gentleman who claimed divine protection from severe flames, only to die later from grievous burns (1530); demolishing old monasteries could lead to fatal footing errors (1537), immolation below dislodged heavy masonry (1538) or collapsing walls or chimneys (1541, 1542). Children also ended up drowning in the moats of former monasteries (1554, 1599).

Bellringing was a particularly hazardous activity. It could lead to death from broken bell fragments, loose ringing equipment, belfry plank dislodgement, bell tower falls, entanglement in bell pullropes which led to headlong fatalities when the force of gravity reasserted itself.  Religious enthusiasm meant people could be crushed trying to get near a popular preacher, as occurred with Walter Knyght, an unfortunate Cornishman who died after being run over by a startled horse after travelling to hear Gervase Babington, Anglican Bishop of Exeter, in September 1595.

Objecting to long and onerous sermons could prove fatal, if the church custodians got carried away trying to restrain recalcitrant parties, sometimes with fatal results (1596). Or they could be hit by loose religious volumes with abrasive sharp edges (1598).   Thus, as we can see, concern about occupational health and safety is nothing new. Here endeth the lesson!


Steven Gunn and Tomasz Gromelski: “The perils of piety in Tudor England” BBC History: July 2015: 51-54.

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