Tragedy in Thetford

Steven Gunn | November 20, 2013

One of the things I have enjoyed about working on this project is the unexpected way it connects with other areas of my research. One sad link relates to events in the fourth duke of Norfolk’s house in Thetford on 17 May 1569. His seven-year-old ward, George Lord Dacre, suffered a fatal accident about which we discovered new evidence as part of our project on accidental death and everyday life in sixteenth-century England. It had long been known that he died in an unusual way, ‘slain casually at Thetford by the fall of a vaulting Hors upon him’. But the coroner’s inquest report we found amongst the 9,000 or so we are examining at the National Archives tells us some fascinating extra details. It was about two in the afternoon when George, having dined with other gentlemen and gentlewomen in ‘a dynyng chamber’, went off by himself for some recreation. In a gallery in the upper part of the house stood the wooden ‘vawtynge horse’, four and a half feet high, more than six feet three inches long, and set on four wooden feet. It was too high for him to jump onto its back, so he tried to adjust it by extracting ‘a pynne of iron’ supporting one of the back legs. The horse collapsed on top of him, crushing his head and killing him instantly. George’s death was unusual. His vaulting horse was worth ten shillings, more than many live horses. Many children died at play in the sixteenth century, as we explored in a recent article in BBC History Magazine, but their recreations were cheaper. They picked flowers near deep water, played too near lively animals or walls that collapsed, played in horse-mills where they got caught in the machinery or smithies where hammers fell on them. Their deaths were of less political significance than little Lord Dacre’s, but equally tragic for their families and equally instructive for us in investigating sixteenth-century life.  It’s a reminder that looking at the dukes of Norfolk and their world of aristocratic privilege can resonate with many other areas of the Tudor past.

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