Stirling Castle skeletons reveal the brutal reality of medieval warfare say experts

By Richard Moss | 27 May 2011 | Updated: 26 May 2011
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a woman holding a human skull with damage
Dr Jo Buckberry of Bradford University, who carried out research into the Stiling Castle skeletons.© Historic Scotland
Scientists researching a group of skeletons discovered beneath Stirling Castle in 1997 say their results have uncovered new and macabre insights into the brutality of medieval warfare. 

The skeletons, which are believed to be those of a knight, a lady and other high born members of medieval Scottish society, were discovered buried beneath a lost 12th-century royal chapel excavated as part of Historic Scotland’s refurbishment of the castle’s 16th century palace.

As the castle approaches its grand reopening on June 4 2011, the results of research on nine of the skeletons sent to the University of Bradford reveal a horrific litany of ferocious injuries, most likely sustained in battle.

“What we discovered is enormously exciting and has far-reaching implications for our understanding of medieval warfare,” says Dr Jo Buckberry of the University of Bradford’s Biological Anthropology Research Centre.

“At least five of these people had their bones broken with blunt and heavy objects, such as clubs, which is very different from soldiers that have been studied who died in open battle and were killed with swords or halberds.”

One man, aged between 26-35, endured some 44 skull fractures from repeated blows with a blunt object, and up to 60 more across the rest of his body.

Radio carbon dates indicate that most of the skeletons, which are thought to be of people from the Edinburgh and Stirling area, probably died in a series of incidents between the 13th century and around 1450.

a photo of a castle seen from its surrounding gardens
View of the James V Palace, Stirling Castle.© Historic Scotland
It is thought that some, or all, may have been killed in sieges, skirmishes or battles round Stirling during the Wars of Independence, which saw Stirling Castle change hands several times.

In eight violent skirmishes and sieges beginning with its capitulation to Edward I in 1296, Stirling Castle was repeatedly captured by the English and retaken by the Scots before eventually reverting to Scottish control in 1342.

Richard Strachan, Historic Scotland’s Senior Archaeologist said the new research, which will be revealed in a new exhibition at the castle, had brought some “quite incredible results”.

“It was unusual for people to be buried under the floor of a royal chapel and we suspected that they must have been pretty important people who died during periods of emergency – perhaps during the many sieges which took place.

“The fact that five of the skeletons suffered broken bones, consistent with beatings or battle trauma, suggests this could be what happened.” 

One of the skeletons is thought to that of the English Knight Sir John de Stricheley who died in 1341. Another is thought to be that of a high-born lady, whose skull had twice been pierced by a weapon. Ten fractures resulting from two heavy blows were also found to the right side of her skull.

Neat, square holes through the top of her skull suggest she may then have fallen and been killed with a weapon such as a war hammer.

a photo of a woman in a white lab coat holding a human skull
© Historic Scotland
Another set of remains, known as Skeleton 190, were from a young man of 16-20, who showed signs of having suffered a stab wound in the chest. Yet the major damage came when he was struck on the base of his skull, on the jaw, the collarbone and ribs.

Again, the stabbing points to death by violence, rather than an accidental fall from the castle walls.

The research builds on the findings of earlier investigations into two of the skeletons, the results of which were featured last year on BBC2’s History Cold Case series.

Facial reconstructions of two of the skeletons will be on display in the Queen Anne Casemates exhibition when the Castle re-opens on June 4 and 5. The exhibition tells the story of the castle - including its sieges during the Wars of Independence - from the earliest times to the 19th century.
  • Stirling Castle officially re-opens on the weekend of June 4 - 5 2011. For more details and to book tickets see the Stirling Castle website
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