The body of a medieval priest with a mysterious head injury has been discovered, 700 years after he died, in a grave at Thornton Abbey.
Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield uncovered the coffin and skeleton at the abbey, which was founded as a monastery in 1139 and went onto become one of the richest religious houses in England.
The stone coffin, which depicted a priest in robes, bears the name of Richard de W’Peton, and the Biblical inscription ‘that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth,’ as well as the date of his death in April 17 1317.
But the skeleton has intrigued experts because although it is clear that W’Peton was an important man, his teeth bore the signs of malnutrition in childhood, while there was a healed indentation in his skull suggesting he had suffered a violent trauma. The team could also find no evidence pointing to how he died, although one suggestion is he starved to death in the Great Famine.
“Although he ended his days in the priesthood, there is also some suggestion that he might have had humbler origins in more worldly work; his bones show the marks of robust muscle attachments, indicating that strenuous physical labour had been a regular part of his life at some stage,” said University of Sheffield PhD student Emma Hook who discovered the grave.
“Nor had his childhood been easy; his teeth show distinctive lines known as dental enamel hypoplasia, indicating that his early years had been marked by a period of malnutrition or illness.”
After taking the skeleton back to the laboratory, despite poor preservation, the team were able to establish W’Peton was around 35-45 years-old at the time of his death and that he had stood around 5ft 4ins tall.
A 3D scan of his skull also revealed a slight depression in the back of his skull shows evidence of an extremely well-healed blunt force trauma suffered many years before his death.
Dr Hugh Willmott from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, who has been working on the excavation site at Thornton Abbey since 2011, said W’Peton could have succumb to the Great Famine, which hit Europe between 1315 and 1317.
“By spring 1317, when Richard died, the crisis was at its peak and its events would undoubtedly have affected medieval hospitals like Thornton Abbey, and the priests who served there,” said Dr Willmott.
“These institutions traditionally cared for the poor and hungry as well as the sick, so during the Great Famine sites like Thornton would have found themselves on the front line. Richard would have ministered to the starving, working in the face of desperately limited resources – and perhaps despite these efforts, he too succumbed to the natural disaster that was unfolding around him."
The Great Famine was triggered by a whole spring and summer of relentlessly heavy rain that caused widespread crop failures, which vastly depleted the availability of grain for humans and hay or straw for animals, and led to a period of mass starvation,
“For now, such a narrative can only be a matter of speculation, but it does seem clear that – whatever caused his death – at the end of his days Richard was held in high regard, afforded an elaborate burial in the most prestigious part of the hospital chapel, in the very place he would have spent his final years working among the poor and dying.”