Ruth Whyte, osteo-archaologist for York Archaeological Trust, with one of the skeletons. Photographs: Richard McDougall. Click to see a bigger image
He had a brutal life which was probably cut short on the Tyburn gallows. But now, more than 500 years after his death, this young man is belatedly being celebrated as an amazing historical discovery.
Dating from the time of Richard III, this skeleton of a man aged between 25 and 39 was buried close to York’s place of execution at Knavesmire.
He was one of 12 men whose remains were found together in a pit within 1.5m of the surface.
Injuries to the skeletons – this man had a three-week-old break to one arm at the time of his death – and their proximity to Tyburn lead experts to speculate they might have been executed there after fighting in the Wars of the Roses, as Richard III sought power for the Yorkist cause.
An amazing discovery… Archaeologists working on the excavation at Knavesmire. Click to see a bigger image
Carbon dating puts their date of death around 1469 – but it was a 21st century upgrade of York’s electricity supply that rediscovered them.
Regional distribution company Northern Powergrid and its contractor Interserve made the discovery in 2013 as they replaced four miles of 1950s cables under the city at a cost of £7 million.
They worked in partnership with York Archaeological Trust and York council to recover and preserve the remains. One skeleton will soon go on display at the Richard III Experience at Monk Bar.
Possibly professional soldiers
All the skeletons were male and mostly aged between 25 and 40 at the time of their deaths. Two had significant bone fractures which could be evidence of fighting, perhaps associated with professional soldiers.
So how certain can we be that they were executed?
“When you were hanged in this period it wasn’t a drop that broke your neck, it was strangulation,” said John Oxley, city archaeologist. “That doesn’t leave any signs on the skeleton.
“We know for certain that these individuals were all buried right next to Tyburn on Knavesmire, where executions were carried out from the 14th century to 1801.
“It’s a reasonable inference to suggest they were executed and buried at the site.”
Another clue is the fact that they weren’t buried in accordance with Christian ritual. They were interred together, and facing north to south – rather than east-west in accordance with 15th century religious practice.
Dave Aspden, of York Archaeological Trust, described it as a fascinating find.
They may have been captured in battle and brought to York for execution, possibly in the aftermath of the Battle of Towton during the Wars of the Roses, and their remains hastily buried near the gallows.
A close-up of the foot bones; L-R: Dave Smith, Northern Powergrid’s project engineer; Cllr Sonja Crisp, cabinet member for culture; Andrew Robinson, senior quantity surveyor at Interserve; and Ruth Whyte, osteo-archaologist for York Archaeological Trust. Click to see a bigger image
The excavation to recover the remains only took a couple of weeks, funded by £13,000 from Northern Powergrid. Since then experts at the trust have been working to find out more about the men.
One of the most complete skeletons will go on temporary display at the Richard III Experience. The other remains will go to the research collection at the Yorkshire Museum.
Meanwhile, the new section of Northern Powergrid’s 33,000 volt underground cabling – which spans from Melrosegate across the city to Campleshon Road and Gale Lane – was switched on earlier this month and is now keeping our lights on.