ord George Dacre, only seven years old, suddenly died on May 17, 1569. The death of the little lord had major consequences. His uncle, Leonard, claims the title of Lord as well as the lands but is sabotaged by the Duke of Norfolk, the child’s stepfather. Leonard joins the northern rebellion (of Catholic nobles who were to replace Elizabeth I with Mary, Queen of Scots) but unfortunately dies in exile in Brussels the same year. Norfolk, to Elizabeth’s joy, does not support the revolt. Instead, he marries Lord Dacre’s sisters with his sons, securing control over their lands.
It was long known that the little lord died in suspicious conditions due to a wooden horse used for exercises or for the swing that fell on him, according to the biography of his brother-in-law, Philip Howard. But further investigations give us further details on his death. It was around two in the afternoon when George, after having lunch with other nobles at his residence in Thetford, wanted to cool off a little.
So he went into a sort of gallery on the upper floors, where the gym horse was mounted, about five feet high, and fixed on four wooden feet. It was too tall for the child, who tried to adjust it by removing one of the iron bolts that supported one leg. The horse crumbled over him, crushing his head and killing him instantly.
It was just one of the many cases in which children die from crushing toys or killing games. Between 1551 and 1560, 1031 deaths are reported, of which 140 are children under the age of 13. At least 37 were played when accidents occurred. Sure they were having fun, but the fun seemed to be very dangerous. Lord George’s horse was worth 10 shillings more than a live horse, but many children had much cheaper toys available.
Nature is not so safe
A child from Lincolnshire, Christiana Jeylan, just three years old, dies while playing in the mud, modeling various figurines, a common occupation of Tudor-era children. Unfortunately, she slipped into a ditch. Many children who gather flowers from the banks of the rivers die drowned. We have a case of a child, Nicholas Branche, who was playing with a table knife, stumbled over his brother’s bed, fell, and stabbed himself in the throat.
A little girl playing with her pony dies after being hit with a forehead. Another child dies after chasing a goose behind the yard and drowns in the pond. Amusement with animals also had its price.
Seven-year-old John Watson sneaks into the stables one morning, where there are a mare and a foal. The calf knocks him to the side, leaving him to agonize for five hours. Robert Craneford, of this age, had a similar fate after hitting a stallion with a branch. Other children choose less dangerous games but inadequate places. Joan Middleton and Richard Stone were playing near a city wall in Chichester when a hail erupted over stone blocks above them. Robert Alcock is playing with other children in his father’s workshop when a massive hammer and a seam fall on him.
Children trying to replicate adult behavior
When playing with carts, they had a good chance of falling and getting under their wheels. When they were playing on the road, it was not uncommon for them to be trampled by horses. And when they played by the water, they usually fell into pits, ponds, and wells. Moreover, they also found their end in pots or pails left full for laundry or dragging. Investigators even reported a case of a child who drowned by looking at his own reflection.
Observing adults at work again involves risks. William Gregory’s father was repairing a wagon when one of the wheels fell and struck the child in the head. William Russhe was accompanying his sisters with grazing cows when he stumbled and fell into a mower. Adults tried to protect their babies by tying them to chairs but could reach the stove fire if the chair overturned. Some fell asleep on the riverbank or through bushes on carriage roads. George Nicholson sleeps near a burning oven in Newcastle and suffocates with smoke. Catherine Else sneaks beneath the Marlow Bridge and takes a wave when crossing some boats on the river.
As the children grew older, work-related injuries appeared. After the age of seven, about one in four children finds their end in dealing with the house. The girls carried water or washed sheets, and the boys kept animals, drove carts, or collected hay. Sometimes the border between work and play was uncertain. When Jane Nune fell into the Loughton spring in Buckinghamshire stretching out after a goosebump, she was looking for a toy or gathering pillow material.
Thomas Hubbard was sent to Brunish, Suffolk, with plowing food. He also tries to work with the plow, but he stumbles over a stone and accidentally hits a whip. The horse gives him the hoof, and the ten-year-old dies four hours later. Thomas Cockerell was driving a wagon in the fields of Reymerston, Norfolk, when, without asking his father, he accelerated and overturned it.
Nor was participation in games played by adults very secure. In 1552, spectators between the ages of eight and ten found their end during an archery competition in Louth, Lincolnshire, as well as at a hamstring competition in Corfe, Dorset. Adolescence allowed for greater participation in various activities, but again the risks seem not to diminish. John Tyler and Thomas Wilson, respectively, 15 and 16, died during a football game, one after being stabbed by a mop and the other when accidentally stabbed by the belt knife of another player they hit.
The pleasures and dangers of childhood were thus combined, and often the latter was successful. The sad fate of hundreds of children far less famous than Lord Dacre brings to our attention the cruel reality of the road to adulthood in 16th-century England. Games and toys that were supposed to bring joy in a dark world proved fatal.