Horrible Histories author reveals 10 ways to die in Elizabethan England

The danger, violence and misery experienced in Elizabethan England is charted in a book by Horrible Histories creator, Terry Deary.

This article was first published in November 2014

Mary, Queen of Scots prepares to be executed (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The third volume in his witty history series for adults, Dangerous Days in Elizabethan England explodes the myths that he believes permeate our understanding of the age of ‘Good Queen Bess’. Here, writing for History Extra, Deary reveals 10 of the gravest dangers faced by Elizabeth’s subjects:

Some historians have tried to portray Elizabethan England as a golden age. It must be rose-gold as these academics peer through rose-coloured spectacles. England in the late 1500s was every bit as dirty and dangerous, cruel and cutthroat as any other age with foul food and terrible toilets. Here are some of the gruesome ways you might have died…

 

1) Starvation

Without modern social welfare you could be left to rot in the gutter – a gutter that probably served as a sewer. If you fought against the Armada then don’t expect special treatment or gratitude.

Lord High Admiral Howard wrote to Elizabeth about her discharged sailors: "There is not any of them that hath one day's victuals, many sick men are ashore here, and not one penny to relieve them. It were too pitiful to have men starve after such a service."

 

2) Beheading

Elizabeth’s own mother, Anne Boleyn, had been treated generously by Henry VIII. He employed a swordsman from Calais to remove her head with one quick, clean blow. But when Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, went to her execution for plotting against Elizabeth, she faced a bungling axe-man.

The first blow missed the neck and cut into the back of her head. Her servants later said they heard her mutter, ‘Sweet Jesus’. The second chop was a better shot, but it still needed a bit of sawing with the axe to finish it off. Witness Robert Wynkfield said: "She endured two strokes of the axe: and so the executioner cut off her head, saving one little gristle."

He even picked the head up by the hair without realising Mary wore a wig. It bounced across the scaffold. Elizabeth had paid the man to do a clean job. You can bet she never got her money back.

 

3) Hanging

Poaching at night would get you hanged if you were caught. Poaching by day did not. Taking birds’ eggs was also a crime, in theory punishable by death. But there was no ‘humane’ trapdoor drop. The condemned man or woman climbed a ladder or stood on the back of the cart. The ladder was twisted away, hence the expression the criminal was ‘turned off’.

Death could be by strangulation up to five minutes … unless thoughtful friends pulled on your legs.

 

4) Burning

A wife who killed her husband did not commit murder – she committed the far worse crime of ‘petty treason’. The punishment wasn’t then a hanging, but being burned at the stake.

A foreign visitor to England summed up the punishment system in a book in 1578: "If a woman poison her husband, she is to be burned alive for petty treason; if a servant kill his master he is also to be executed for petty treason; he that poisons a man is to be boiled to death in water or lead, even if his victim does not die."

 

5) Tuberculosis

Elizabeth’s younger half-brother, Edward VI, died in his teens. Poison was suspected, but a modern doctor says the symptoms sound more like TB: "Tuberculosis (TB) is caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis. You generally catch it from the spit and snot of someone already infected, but can also get it from infected milk. The main symptoms are having a bloody cough, a sweaty fever and pains from where ever the infection spreads to. Over time you lose weight and become very tired. Gradually over several months, sometimes years, you deteriorate, fading away and dying." (Dr Peter Fox MB, ChB, FRCGP, DrCOG).

 

6) Hanged, drawn and quartered

If the authorities really wanted to make an example of you then you’d be hanged by the neck till you were half-strangled, but still alive. You’d have your genitals cut off and thrown into a brazier alongside you; your intestines would be thrown into the same fire, and your heart removed.

A beheading and quartering of the body followed, so your bits could be displayed around the provinces in order to compel others to obey.

 

7) Typhoid

The tortures and executions were pretty bad, but simply being incarcerated in a place like the Tower of London could be deadly in itself. If the damp, unheated cells didn’t get you then the water might, for foul water could be as deadly as prussic acid; slower-acting, but a filthier fate…

It starts with a week of fever, cough and generally feeling off colour. By the third week of illness comes the start of the diarrhoea. Classically green, like pea soup, you pass so much each day that dehydration occurs.

Low on fluids and your heart weakened by the infection, your bowel bursts. Peritonitis develops, followed by septicaemia as the infection spreads to the blood. Exhausted and with all your major organs shutting down, you die.

 

8) Malnutrition

A lack of food could be used as a weapon.

The Nine Years’ War in Ireland took place from 1594 to 1603. The English burned the Irish crops and stopped next year’s being planted. By 1602 Irish bodies lay in ditches, mouths stained green from trying to eat nettles. The Earl of Essex was sent to quell the rebellion once and for all – his failure set him on the road to his downfall and his decapitation.

As your fat and muscle are converted into energy, you gradually waste away. As your stomach shrinks you lose the feeling of hunger. Becoming weaker and weaker, even too weak to drink, dehydration sets in. Your skin becomes cracked, and any movement is painful – not that you have the energy to move. A bag of skin, bone, and wasted diet books, you die.

 

9) Cannon shot

The vast majority of the victims in the Armada defeat suffered from the storms that lashed the invaders. As the victors’ campaign medals said: "Jehovah blew with His winds, and they were scattered."

Those washed overboard drowned, while some who struggled ashore on the West Coast of Ireland were butchered by the natives. But a few went the Hollywood way – struck by cannon shot.

Cannon balls carry a lot of energy, so if hit by one a ‘soft’ person tends to come off worst. You could be ‘lucky’ and just have a glancing – a survivable hit to an arm or leg – but even that would tear said limb off instantaneously, and very painfully from your body.

A direct hit to your body turns the skin and muscle ahead of it to mush, before going onto rip through the underlying bone and organs. Death is as close to instantaneous as you’d wish.

 

10) Scurvy

The golden lads of the golden age were those who sailed the seven seas and arrived home laden with booty. But many never returned at all. In 1593, Richard Hawkins’ crew were struck by scurvy. "It is the plague of the sea and the spoil of mariners".

Scurvy is caused by not having enough vitamin C (ascorbic acid) in your diet, so unless you eat fresh fruit and vegetables containing it, you die. The repair system starts to fail, wounds heal slowly, you bruise easily and your gums bleed; from able seaman to disabled seaman in three months then.

"The crew lost their strength and could not stand on their feet. Then did their legs swell, their sinews shrink as black as any coal." (Jacques Cartier – French naval surgeon 1536).

To find out more about Terry's book, Dangerous Days in Elizabethan England: Thieves, Tricksters, Bards and Bawds, click here.

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