Games And Toys During The Tudor Era That Were To Die For… Literally

Games And Toys During The Tudor Era That Were To Die For… Literally

Shaina Lucas - September 16, 2018

When you think of playing a game or toy in today’s time period, you don’t expect anything to happen. A Red Ryder BB Gun may shoot your eye out, or you may get a broken bone from falling off a jungle gym, but today’s toys and games are relatively safe. This wasn’t the case during the Tudor Dynasty in England. Steven Gunn and Tomasz Gromelski examined 9,000 coroner inquest reports from the 16th century, and death by fun was common for these children. 1,031 deaths were registered between 1551 and 1560, and of those deaths at least 140 were 13 years old and under. The total rises if the mention of a child, or son or daughter, is mentioned to 170. At least 37 of them were playing when they died. A variety of instances killed these children, and we are going to take a look at a number of dangerous games and toys during the 16th century.

George Lord Dacre was seven years old when he died on May 17th, 1569. The boy’s death held some dire consequences since his Uncle Leonard inherited his estate and title, but he was pushed over by the Duke of Norfolk, the guardian, and step-father to George and his sisters. Leonard had joined the Northern Rebellion (when rebels tried to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I with Mary, Queen of Scots) late in 1569 and died in exile in Brussels. Luckily for Queen Elizabeth, Norfolk did not back the rebellion and decided to marry off George’s sisters to his sons to secure his dynasty and hold on the Dacre lands. But what killed Lord George causing all of this to happen? What game was he playing that caused his untimely death?

Games And Toys During The Tudor Era That Were To Die For… Literally
Children playing during the Renaissance. Wikimedia Commons.

George met his untimely death “slain casually at Thetford by the fall of a vaulting Hors upon him.” as his brother-in-law, the Earl of Arundel Philip Howard, explained. There are some details missing though that the coroner’s inquest report sheds light on. At about two in the afternoon, George had eaten with other gentlemen and gentlewomen in a “dynyng chamber” at the Duke’s house in Thetford. George decided to go off by himself to play. A gallery in the upper part of the home had a “vawtnyge horse” that was four and a half feet high and six foot three inches long. It stood on four wooden feet.

Games And Toys During The Tudor Era That Were To Die For… Literally
Medieval/Renaissance toys.

George couldn’t hop on it himself, so he decided to adjust it using a “pynne of iron” that was supporting one of the back legs. The horse then collapsed on top of him, instantly crushing his head. Seven-year-olds and giant heavy horses don’t mix. His vaulting horse was worth 10 shillings, more than many real working horses. Poor George wasn’t the only horrid death during the Tudor dynasty; many others died untimely deaths due to playing in the wrong place at the wrong time and certain toys.

Games And Toys During The Tudor Era That Were To Die For… Literally
Children playing portrait. World

Christiana Jelyan died at three-years-old playing a simple game we all have as a child. She was making mud-pies when she fell backward into a ditch. The fall killed her instantly. Children picking flowers often drowned if they were near water. So Ophelia’s drowning in Hamlet isn’t that uncommon during this time period. Nicholas Braunche was five-years-old when he picked up a knife off the table to play with it. He tripped over his younger sibling’s cradle and fell on the knife, stabbing himself in the neck. No wonder our parents always told us not to play with sharp objects or run with scissors.

During this time children were often around animals. Peasants tended to farms, and nobility also had many pets. An unnamed two-year-old girl was playing with a two-month-old fowl when it kicked her in the head. A boy, even younger than the girl, followed a gosling into a pond in his backyard and drowned. Exploring near animals is also dangerous for older children. John Watson was seven-years-old when he slipped past a colt and a mare in a barn. The colt kicked him in the ribs, and he died five hours later. Robert Craneford died after hitting a grey horse tied to a post with a small twig. The horse decided to kick him in the head.

Some children chose much safer games to play, but in the wrong place. Richard Sone and Joan Middleton were playing by Chichester’s city walls when a gale blew part of the 60-foot wall down on top of them and buried them. Robert Alcocke was playing in his father’s smithy when a scythe and large hammer fell on his head. Several boys and girls also played in carts. If they fell out of a cart, it would either fall on top of them crushing them or ran over them. Children playing on roads often were trampled by horses, run over carts, or smashed between roadside posts and traffic. Playing in an urban area often wasn’t safe for children, not that playing on rural farms was any better.

Games And Toys During The Tudor Era That Were To Die For… Literally
Ophelia drowning painting by Paul Albert Steck. Fine Art America.

Water was also the enemy of children. Children playing around water often fell in ditches, streams, lakes, rivers, and wells. Toddlers often drowned in full vats of water, brewing vessels, or tubs of water left out for laundry or salt fish. One such child was looking at her reflection when she fell in. Watching adults or siblings while at work is interesting, since many of us want to help or be just like them. This wasn’t always a good idea during the 16th century since it caused the deaths of some children. William Gregory’s father was repairing a cart in his barn when one wheel fell off. The wheel fell on William’s head and killed him. William Rushe followed his sister and some other children that were driving cattle to water when he tripped and fell on a knife. Adults were able to keep small children out of the way by strapping them to chairs, but sometimes the chairs would fall over into the fireplace and burned them alive.

Games And Toys During The Tudor Era That Were To Die For… Literally
The White King as a child playing with other children. Wikimedia Commons.

Older children were not immune to death by playing. Some fell asleep on the edge of ponds or roads traveled by carts. George Nycolson of Newcastle Sandgate died from smoke inhalation from sleeping in a lime kiln. Catherine Else slept under Marlow Bridge and was hit with a wave when boats came through the lock. The wave caused her to fall into the river and drown. As children began to grow though, they became exposed to the working world. During this time they started working at a much younger age than today, as young as six. In the 1550s, out of 61 children aged six or younger who died in accidents, only one died from working. The one child that died was herding pigs. 79 children aged between seven and 13, about one in four were working when they passed. Girls often fetched water or washed linen while boys drove carts, forked hay, or herded animals.

One of the dangers of the deaths of children was the fine line between work and play. Jane Nune fell into Loughton Brook in Buckinghamshire reaching out for a goose feather in the water. Was she playing, or collecting feathers for the down in pillows? Thomas Hubbard was ten-years-old when he became too eager for work. He was sent into the fields of Brundish, Suffolk with refreshments for the ploughmen. He decided to try his hand at ploughing but tripped over either a stone or clod of dirt which sent him into a passing colt. This caused him to accidentally hit the colt with the whip for controlling the plough horse, and the horse kicked him in the back of the head. He died hours later.

Games And Toys During The Tudor Era That Were To Die For… Literally
St. Anne painting.

Thomas Cokerell was nine-years-old driving a cart in the fields of Reymerston, Norfolk under his father’s supervision. Without consulting his father, he ran and jumped into the cart as it was moving. The horse became startled and knocked the cart over, hitting Thomas in the head. There seems to be a lot of head-related injuries causing the deaths of 16th-century children. Watching adults play wasn’t a good idea either at the time since they could be very dangerous even for the people playing them. In 1552, spectators from eight to ten years of age were killed during archery practice in Louth, Lincolnshire and at a hammer-throwing contest in Corfe, Dorset.

When adolescence came about, they allowed their participation, but it was no safer. John Tyler (15), and Thomas Wylson (16) died playing football (or soccer for you American folks) after one fell heavily on a molehill and the other stabbed in the thigh by a knife from another player’s belt. Sadly, the farther along in life a person got didn’t make avoiding death any easier. Many children died playing games and with toys, and most were not as famous or well-to-do as Lord George Dacre. But their stories reveal the horrid dangers of games during the 16th century and how easy it was for a child to lose their life.


Where did we find this stuff? Here’s our sources:

Gunn, Stephen, and Tomasz Gromelski. “Toys and games that killed in Tudor England.” History Extra.