I’m starting to wonder: every time a shovel digs down into English soil, does it hit treasure or skeletons? Three years ago, the University of Durham in northeast UK planned a new extension to the library but came up instead with a huge archaeological find: two mass graves appearing to date back to 1650.

They are believed to be the final resting place of Scottish soldiers who’d fought against Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Dunbar. Afterward, many of the Scots fell ill and died, and more along the way as Cromwell marched the prisoners to the former monastery at Durham, which later became the University. The story of the 3000 able-bodied young men was well documented but the actual gravesites were unknown.

Durham Castle and Cathedral Photo available via Wikimedia Commons
Durham Castle and Cathedral
Photo available via Wikimedia Commons

The relatively small mass graves hold skeletons piled one on top of another. If the historical estimate is accurate, the number could reach sixteen hundred. Foreign bodies within the graves have already been discovered, likely a few Dutchmen who had fought alongside the Scots.

Imprisoning large groups was rare in medieval days. Lords captured were often ransomed, but usually the vanquished were either executed or enslaved. It was much more common for whole towns and villages to be enslaved to the conquering army. But in this case, Cromwell could not allow the Scots to continue to fight against him for their choice to the throne, King Charles II. Yet, Cromwell agonized over their suffering and demise, explaining in a letter to his peers that everything was being done for the soldiers. The officers fared better, as did the Highlanders, but they still succumbed up to 100 a day. Scientists now believe that the Scots were suffering not from dysentery but refeeding syndrome. They had gone without food for 3 days prior to the battle, and by the time they reached Durham, they had not eaten properly for 8 days.

One hundred and fifty Scottish soldiers who survived this ordeal were put on a ship bound for the English Colonies. Fulfilling Cromwell’s original intent, they were sent to work in the lumber industry and iron works in support of English ship-building. Eventually, the Scots earned their freedom and many chose to remain in New England.

For more info on the dig:



King Richard died in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire, England, ending the 200 year rule of the Plantegents. He was killed by Henry Tudor thus ending the wars for the throne known as the Wars of the Roses. The Tudors reigned for the next 100 years.

Facial reconstruction of King Richard III Photo ©Getty Images
Facial reconstruction of King Richard III
Photo © Getty Images

In the Fall of 2012, King Richard’s remains were discovered buried under a parking lot in Leicester in the foundation of Grey Friars Church. Now that scientists and experts have had time to study his remains, some startling facts have emerged. Scientists extracted DNA from his teeth while historians tracked down a modern day descendant. The mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down through the female line, continued 17 generations and led to 2 descendants. Their DNA samples proved the connection and identified King Richard; only 1-2% of the population carries this close of a match.

Now King Richard is about to get the works, that is, have his entire genome sequenced. While it may prove interesting to learn more about his physical characteristics such as eye and hair color, there is a much bigger prospect afoot. It was obvious even at the dig site that he had scoliosis: a three-dimensional twisting of the spine. Studies of his bones revealed that he was not born with it but developed it between the ages of 10 and 13. There is no known cure for scoliosis but it is believed that genetics play a role.

One more startling fact is that the remains were found on the first day exactly where they started digging. It almost seems as if the king was meant to be found. Now computers and technology will allow sequencing of his DNA before he is finally laid to rest.

Controversy has surrounded him in both life and death, but perhaps his scurrilous legacy will be replaced by a more positive one, a cure for scoliosis.

For more: Visit The Richard III Society at http://www.richardiii.net

Modern rendition of a 15th C. war hammer

Also known as the horseman’s hammer since it was often wielded by a knight on horseback, the war hammer was first documented in the late 14th century as a response to the ever-increasing use of plate armor.

Painting by Paolo Uccello, 1438. Image made available by the Yorck Project.
Painting by Paolo Uccello, 1438.
Image made available by the Yorck Project.

Roughly 2 feet (61 cm) in length, the typical war hammer resembles a carpenter’s hammer with a blunt head at one end, and a solid spike instead of a claw on the other. Models from the 1400s began to feature another spike added to the top, creating a tri-pronged weapon. The haft, constructed of wood and iron, or full iron or steel, provided the strength necessary to inflict serious damage. Similar to a mace, the blunt end could stun an opponent, dent plate (or shatter poorly-forged plate) or fracture bones beneath any type of armor. The added benefit? The broad-based spikes delivered blows that penetrated and pierced armor. The top spike provided the coup de grace, allowing for a quick, two-fisted end.


The medieval flail – does any other weapon conjure up gruesome battle the way it does? Who can forget that scene in Return of the King when the Witch King swings his heavy flanged-headed flail and smashes Eowyn’s shield to bits? He chose wisely in picking a weapon of intimidation – flails just look nasty.

Modern rendition of medieval flail
Modern rendition of medieval flail

The flail was a wooden handle with a spiked ball or balls attached on the end by either a flange or chain. A single-balled flail was known as a morning star, and while other models featured more balls, they were all rare weapons, only appearing in art in the very late 15th century. Hence, they were likely never used in medieval battles.

The more common type of flail came from the peasantry, namely from harvesters of grain. Used for threshing, the long wooden stick had a flange at the tip which connected to a smaller wooden club. The peasants would beat the grain on the threshing floor to separate the useable wheat from the chaff. When it came time to fight, the peasants would grab whatever weapons they had; hence the flail developed its second purpose. Often, spikes were added to the club end.

The ball-and-chain flails proved just as dangerous to the wielder as to the enemy; due to the chain that could go slack, these weapons were unwieldy (as anyone who’s ever messed with nunchucks can attest). The pole versions were not much better in the hands of a novice, but the peasants who used them day in and day out brought their experience to wielding them as a weapon, and proved formidable indeed.

Peasants threshing wheat with flails
Peasants threshing wheat with flails
Book print, c. 1545-1547  Photo credit: britishmuseum.org © The Trustees of the British Museum
Book print, c. 1545-1547
Photo credit: britishmuseum.org
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Crossbows could shoot bolts just as far as longbows, but were impossible to reload as quickly. The concentration necessary, as well as the odd position the wielder had to bend into in order to draw back the bowstring (foot in the stirrup at the end, engaging a lever or crank, or using a claw strapped to the waist) left the crossbowmen open to attack. Hence the pavise, a large curved shield placed on the ground and able to stand on its own via props, provided a barrier that the crossbowmen could hide behind while reloading.

These shields ranged in size from 16 to 20 inches (42 to 45 cm) wide, and 22 to 42 inches (57 to 107 cm) high. The larger size weighed roughly 17 pounds (7569 g).

Pavise: Bohemian (now Czech Republic) ca. 1450
Photo credit: metmuseum.org

Pavises were first employed by the Genoese crossbowmen, the highly experienced professional soldiers from Genoa, Italy. Knights despised crossbows, as the bolts could pierce even the finest armor. So deadly were crossbows in fact, the Pope outlawed them at one time. Popular in the 14th and 15th centuries, pavises were carried on the backs of the crossbowmen, set down, then moved closer as the battle progressed. Often times, a second man, called a paviser, moved the shield, freeing the crossbowman of the burden. Thus, these shields were large enough to protect one to three men, protecting them as they took turns hiding and firing. An ingenious invention, provided that the pavises were not stuck on the baggage wagons like they were at the Battle of Crecy (1346), where, unprotected, the Genoese crossbowmen took a beating first from the opposing English army, and then from the French nobles who had recruited them.


Most popular from the mid-14th through the early 16th century but used beyond this range, the buckler was a small metal shield fitted with a central metal boss and held by a strap in the fist. Wielded in combination with a sword, its small size of 16 inches (35.5 cm) or less posed little to no defense against arrows or bolts, but provided several other uses for the common soldier and knight.

Bucklers - From the Royal Armouries Ms I.33 c. 1300
Bucklers – From the Royal Armouries Ms I.33 c. 1300

The buckler’s main function was to protect the sword hand in close hand-to-hand fighting. Lightweight and versatile, the buckler proved a quick defense to block and deflect blows via the curved central boss. On the offense, it acted as a “metal fist”; its wielder could punch with it straight on or with the rim. In addition, the buckler could be used to bind the opponent’s weapon or grapple his arm, creating an opening to do further damage. And unlike wooden shields, the opponent’s sword would not get stuck in the metal.

While octagon, square, and trapezoid bucklers existed, round seems to have been the most popular shape. Some models featured a central spike, making the punch even more deadly, while others possessed hooks for snaring swords. Other small hooks at the edges are believed to have held lanterns, to light the bearer’s way at night.

Sword and buckler training was an established tradition in Europe. For example, English longbowmen carried bucklers and swords into battle just in case the fighting drew near. Yet, bucklers are a topic not generally documented, perhaps because the larger wooden shields carried the heraldry and thus got all the glory.

For an excellent source see http://www.thearma.org/essays/SwordandBuckler.htm

The base of the skull showing the two potentially fatal injuries. A section of the skull has been sliced off.
The base of the skull showing the two potentially fatal injuries. A section of the skull has been sliced off. All images credit University of Leicester

This week, DNA test results confirmed skeletal remains discovered last Fall to be King Richard III. Investigators stated that the bones show he suffered 8 to 10 wounds, 2 inflicted to the head – either of which could have been fatal – and some “humiliation injuries” that likely occurred after he died and was stripped of his armor. (Armor, expensive as it was, was usually removed and given to the victor). While researching my book, I never once came across the term “humiliation injuries”, and recent searches of my resources came up empty. I believe this is a modern term, and here is why.

Medieval people were masters of torture and humiliation. These punishments were inflicted upon criminals, who were regarded as deserving scorn, derision, and mistreatment. All one need do is look up “hanged, drawn and quartered” – but I give WARNING – it’s not for the squeamish. The people would gather to witness these events as well as beheadings, stake burnings, and mocking parades of the guilty. It should be noted that kings were also paraded about so that the people witnessed and accepted their deaths, and succession could take place without uprising. The point is that in medieval times, death was a public event.

A likely scenario in King Richard III’s case is that the public saw him as a criminal, perhaps due to the missing princes, and mistreated his dead body. These humiliating injuries were never documented as such; the medieval people saw them as justified.

But were they? There is still debate over whether Richard was involved in killing the missing princes. Could it have been a smear campaign started by the Tudors to discredit Richard and his legitimacy to the throne? After defeating Richard on the battlefield, Henry Tudor became king, thus ending the War of the Roses and ushering in 118 years of reigning Tudor monarchs. But the mystery remains: who inflicted those wounds on King Richard and why?

I hope one day we find out.

Portrait of Richard III of England, painted c. 1520
Portrait of Richard III of England, painted c. 1520

A dead body discovered in digging up a modern day parking lot. Ancient records show the burial was beneath an old friary. The skull, severely fractured, and a metal arrowhead still embedded in the spine. But these are not just any skeletal remains, but possibly those of a king.

Sounds like the latest BBC Mystery, but this is a real life one. And the remains are being tested to determine if it is the body of King Richard III, who ruled for only 2 short years and died at the age of 32 in the Battle of Bosworth on August, 22 1485. Historic accounts state he died from a violent blow to the head by a poleaxe or halberd, driving his helmet into his skull. His body was carried to a local friary and, by one account, buried beneath the choir floor.

Whether that part is true or not, it begs the question – did the good friars fear people might desecrate the grave? Absolutely. Historical accounts tell of how two young princes mysteriously disappeared from the Tower of London (the Royal residence at the time) following their being declared illegitimate heirs, thus making Richard III king of England. Many believed Richard had the boys executed, although there is considerable debate about their fate. But if many people at the time believed Richard of foul play, the friars placed his body where no one would have an easy time finding it. And thus it remained, until now.

King Richard III was the last English king to be killed in battle.


For the rest of the story: National Geographic: Body Under British Parking Lot May Be King Richard III.