Lewes skeleton dates to Norman Conquest

Skeletal remains previously thought to date to the 13th century have been re-examined and found to date to the time of the Norman Conquest. The radiocarbon dating results and the evidence of his violent death makes this skeleton the only one ever documented that could have been killed in William the Conqueror’s invasion of England.

Skeleton 180 was unearthed in 1994 at the site of the cemetery of the medieval hospital of St. Nicholas. It was one of 103 skeletons excavated at the site, only a few which showed signs of a violent death. Those were of particular interest to archaeologists because the hospital was adjacent to the field where the Battle of Lewes was fought on May 14th, 1264. The Battle of Lewes saw the defeat of King Henry III by the baronial faction led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. Henry was forced to cede his power to a council led by Montfort, making Montfort de facto king of England for a year (he would be killed in battle with Prince Edward, the future King Edward I, in August 1265), a momentous year for parliamentary democracy since Monfort called the first parliament with elected representatives.

Last year, with the 750th anniversary of the battle coming, the Sussex Archaeological Society commissioned University of York battlefield expert Tim Sutherland and osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst to take a fresh look at the most notable of the St. Nicholas skeletons: skeleton 180. There have been significant advances in battlefield and forensic archaeology since 1994. The society’s hope was that new analysis would determine whether 180’s wounds were received in battle rather than as a result of, say, violent crime or a personal dispute.

As part of the re-examination, the University of Edinburgh radiocarbon dated the skeleton and found to everyone’s surprise that it dated to 1063 with a 28-year margin of error. If skeleton 180 did die in battle, therefore, it wasn’t the Battle of Lewes. The fatal blows are on the back of his skull, six sword injuries inflicted from behind.

Osteoarchaeologist Malin Holst from the University of York, who was commissioned by Sussex Archaeological Society to examine the skeleton, said: “The first injury was probably a cut to the right side of the ear and upper jaw. This was then followed by a series of sword cuts, all delivered from the left hand side behind the victim, in a downward and horizontal motion.”

However she has discovered much more which helps build up a picture of the individual. Malin said: “He ate a diet particularly rich in marine fish, and was at least 45 years old but may have been older. He had some spinal abnormalities and suffered from chronic infection of the sinuses. He showed age-related wear and tear of the joints of his spine, shoulders and left wrist, which might have been uncomfortable. He had lost a few teeth during life, possibly as a result of receding gums. He had two small tumours on his skull.”

His final injury wasn’t the first time he sustained a dangerous head wound. A wound to his left temple incurred up to two years before his death caused a blot clot. It was thoroughly healed by the time he died, however.

There’s still no confirmation that skeleton 180 was killed in battle. He could have been attacked by brigands who slashed at his head until he fell. Further research is necessary and it may not ever be possible to determine whether he was a victim of civilian violence or a battlefield fatality. At the very least it’s a window into the violent period the followed the Norman Conquest.

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