Medieval priest uncovered at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire England died 700 years ago

Medieval priest uncovered at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire England died 700 years ago
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  • Medieval priest uncovered at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire died 700 years ago.
  • Research shows he could have been a victim of the Great Famine.
Richard skull uncovered at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire died 700 years ago
Richard’s skull uncovered at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire died 700 years ago

The remains of Richard de W’Peton, a medieval priest who died 700 years ago – on 17 April 1317 – have been uncovered in an elaborate grave.

Archaeologists from the University of Sheffield revealed the rare find at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire, which was established as a monastery in 1139 and went onto become one of the richest religious houses in England.

The priest’s gravestone was found close to the altar of a former hospital chapel.

Unusually for the period, it showed an inscription of the deceased’s name, Richard de W’Peton – abbreviated from ‘Wispeton’, a medieval incarnation of modern Wispington in Lincolnshire – and his date of death, 17 April 1317.

The unusually well-preserved and detailed grave slab of Richard de Wispeton buried at Thornton Abbey – photo courtesy University of Sheffield
The unusually well-preserved and detailed grave slab of Richard de Wispeton buried at Thornton Abbey

The slab also contained an extract from the Bible, particularly Philippians 2:10, which reads; “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth.”

The discovery of Richard’s grave was made by University of Sheffield PhD student Emma Hook, who discovered his skeletal remains surrounded by the decayed fragments of a wooden coffin.

“After taking Richard’s skeleton back to the research center, despite poor preservation, we were able to establish Richard was around 35-45 years-age at the time of his death and that he had stood around 5ft 4ins tall,” said Emma.

“Although he ended his days in the priesthood, there is additionally some suggestion that he might have had humbler origins in more worldly work; his bones show the marks of robust muscle attachments, showing that strenuous physical labour had been a regular part of his life at some stage.

“Nor had his childhood been easy; his teeth demonstrate distinctive lines known as dental enamel hypoplasia, indicating that his initial years had been marked by a period of malnutrition or illness.”

In order to further investigate Richards health, analysts in the Department of Archaeology produced a 3D scan of his skull.

The model produced enables detailed features of the skull to be seen with much more ease than with the naked eye.

This uncovered a potentially violent episode in the priest’s past: a slight depression in the back of his skull shows proof of an extremely well-healed blunt force trauma suffered many years before Richard’s death.

None of the examinations shed light on the cause of his demise at a relatively young age, But there is one possibility that researchers are exploring.

Dr Hugh Willmott from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology, who has been working on the excavation site at Thornton Abbey since 2011, said: “2017 marks not only the 700th anniversary of Richards death, as well as that of a catastrophic event that is now largely forgotten, but caused years of suffering for the whole of Europe: the Great Famine of 1315-1317.

“Triggered by a whole spring and summer of relentlessly heavy rain that caused widespread crop failures – which vastly drained the availability of grain for humans and hay or straw for animals – this was a time of mass starvation.

“Although not on the same scale as the Black Death, which crushed Europe from 1346-1353 and which also left its mark at Thornton Abbey, these hungry times struck rich and poor alike, killing millions across the mainland.”

He added: “By spring 1317, when Richard died, the crisis was at its peak and its events would undoubtedly have affected medieval hospitals like Thornton Abbey, and the priests who served there.

“These institutions traditionally cared for the poor people and hungry as well as the sick, so during the Great Famine sites like Thornton would have found themselves on the bleeding edge.

Richard would have ministered to the starving, working in the face of desperately limited resources – and perhaps despite these efforts, he too surrendered to the natural disaster that was unfolding around him.

“For now, such a story can only be a matter of speculation, but it does seem clear that – whatever caused his death – at the end of his days Richard was held in high respect, afforded an elaborate burial in the most prestigious part of the hospital chapel, in the very place he would have spent his last years working among the poor and dying.”

This is the most recent significant archaeological find at Thornton Abbey in Lincolnshire. A total of 48 skeletons, many of which were children, were discovered by the excavation team including PhD and undergraduate archaeology students.

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P. Natasha Covers Classical Archaeology news and has been with Histecho since 2017. She has a Master's degree in MA Archaeology from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting program. A California native, she also holds a Bachelor of science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego.