medieval knight arrows

These days, it’s pretty rare to die from work-related injuries, but for a knight whose job it was to knock opponents off a charging horse or die trying, well, at some point one of them was bound to die trying.

When archaeologists from Headland Archaeology announced they’d found the remains of a medieval knight who’d died while jousting, the news spread through the press like wildfire. But how did they know he was a knight, or that his injuries were from jousting? It certainly wasn’t by finding a mighty big splinter.

The skeleton was found, along with 700 other burials, in the graveyard of Hereford Cathedral. What’s surprising is not the number of burials (it is after all a graveyard), but the number of unusual burials that are turning up, and which may challenge many people’s preconceptions about Hereford’s past inhabitants, including a lady with a severed hand (was she a thief?) and the burial of a leper (one of the Bishops of Hereford was also a leper).

medieval knight broken ribs b

Broken ribs on the skeleton’s right hand side. Credit: Andy Boucher.

The bodies were recovered on excavations between 2009 and 2011, and osteological investigations into these burials (which date from the Norman conquest right up to the 19th century) are still ongoing, but among them is that of the man who the researchers believed to have been a knight.

He was taller than average, and buried some time between 1100-1300 AD in a partially stone-lined grave (which implies some degree of status). Recent osteological analysis has shown that the man’s skeleton bore numerous fractures. All of them were to the ribs and the shoulder on his right hand side. He also had an unusual twisting break to his left lower leg.

Obviously we can never be sure how people came about their wounds, but in this case it looks like the result violent activity. The pattern of wounds sustained between real and mock battles differs, and the location of his injuries are consistent with what you’d expect from someone who has taken a hit (or several hits) while jousting.

Some of these fractures had healed, but others had not, showing that the man had received them on different occasions, but that he had clearly not recovered from his latest wounds.

Moreover, analysis of his teeth suggests that he was old (about 45) and was probably brought up in Normandy, before moving to Hereford in later life.

Together, the injuries, the stone lining of the grave, the fact that he was taller than average and probably came from Normandy all support the suggestion that he was a knight. The fact that he was still jousting well into his 40s suggests he was a pretty tough one at that.

Thanks to Andy Boucher at Headland Archaeology, who managed the post-excavation work on this Heritage Lottery-funded project at Hereford Cathedral. You can get updates on the finds over the coming months from @HeadlandArchUK, or in their upcoming book “Death in the Close – A Medieval Mystery” which will be available from Hereford Cathedral (we highly recommend a visit!).

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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