Wadham's skeletons

23rd January 2013

News, Alumni news

When the discovery of a 'bullet-ridden' body at Wadham was trumpeted by The Oxford Student newspaper of 23 January, Wadham alumnus and lecturer, Allan Chapman went along to investigate.

  • Wadham's skeletons

Skeletons under Wadham's cupboards

The Oxford Student newspaper of 23 January 2013 carried a sensational headline announcing the discovery of a ‘bullet-riddled’ body in Wadham.  In fact, workmen digging in the area of the gate which gives access from the Back or King’s Arms quadrangle really had uncovered two human skeletons.  One, with smashed facial bones, lay at the corner of Staircase 9 and the large gate leading to Parks Road.  The other lay at his left-hand side, with only his right leg and arm bones visible.  The rest of this once quite tall second individual (judging from the length of his femur) was under the foundations of Staircase 9.  How could they have got there?  Who’d done it?  And what was the motive for this evil deed?

I first heard of the grizzly findings from my friend, our since-retired Head Porter Jim Doyle.  And once the scene of crime police cordon had been lifted, I was allowed to inspect the grave, for whenever anything medical, scientific, or historical comes to light in Oxford I am drawn to it like a bee to a honey-pot.

On 25 January 2013, I examined the skeletons as they lay in the ground, and the day following, after the archaeologists had carefully excavated everything from the five-foot-deep grave, I looked at the individual bones, now placed in a series of trays and plastic bags.  And one thing struck me from the first glance, entirely confirmed by the archaeologist: Don’t bother calling in Inspector Morse or his sidekick Sargent Lewis.  For if the poor chap with the smashed-in face had perished in a firearms crime, well, it could only have been in a hail of stones discharged from a medieval bombard cannon!  And I very much doubted that.  To give the Oxford Student its due, once you read beyond the hair-raising headline, the newspaper  expressed a commendable caution regarding the age of the remains, which, it suggested, were ‘thought to be many years old’.

But before returning to the condition of the skeleton and the pathology of the skull, let us first look at the early history of Wadham.

When our elderly founders Nicholas and Dorothy Wadham set in motion their plan to establish a college in Oxford, Dame Dorothy, who was younger than her husband and survived him, and was the real driving force behind the foundation, dispatched her ‘Mr Fix It’ agent, William Arnold, up from their Somerset estates, to look for a suitable site.  Now Arnold was an extremely astute man of business, clearly a gentleman, who would later correspond with the Warden on terms of equality, and who not only appears to have been responsible for acquiring the land, but also for the wider management of the whole enterprise.  And almost certainly, it was a relative of his, John Arnold, who was engaged as ‘Head Workman’.  It was most likely John Arnold who actually designed the College, laid out its ground plan, and brought up trusty craftsmen through his Somerset connexions to do the stonework, timbering, glazing, ‘plumbing’ or lead work (sealing roof and window fittings), and pretty well everything else.  It is he who seems to have been Dorothy’s and the College’s architect and site contractor, in fact; and he received the then very respectable professional salary of £1.00 per week for his services.  As always in practical matters such as building, so much depends on ‘knowing your workforce’, and this probably explains why other men named Arnold also appear in the building records, and why even reliable Somerset draught-animals were brought in to do the hauling!

Indeed, while no architectural plans for Wadham survive, we do have many bills from workmen – from the West Country and elsewhere – for work done.  And one can to some extent trace the remarkable speed with which the fabric went up from these bills – those of the masons, who erected the stone walls, the carpenters, the roofers, and on to the glaziers who did the completing.  Fortunately, from a historical point of view, the craftsmen were not paid through a total contract system, but for individual pieces of work, completed and docketed.  And all done within an incredible two and a half years.  I would like to find a modern firm of builders who could go from a bare site to the first intake of Fellows and students into a large stone fabric in that time!

But no plans, you may ask?  So how could William and John Arnold have thrown up a building so large, beautiful, solid, and enduring as Wadham?  Quite simply, they were accomplished West Country, and beyond, master builders – members of a breed who worked in an evolving, empirical building tradition.  Men who would know, for a specified size and height of the intended fabric, how deep the foundations must be, how thick the walls, how heavy the roofs, and how much stone, timber, lead, and glass you needed.  For Wadham is, in many ways, similar to a medieval great house or palace – based on a quadrangular design so you could shut the gates to keep out intruders, and with the staircases from the main quadrangle, not corridors, giving access to all parts of the institution.  Just think of the Base Court at Hampton Court Palace as Wadham on a slightly larger scale, and in brick.  Or Compton Wynyates, the c.1490 quadrangular manor house in Warwickshire.  Or, two or three generations before the Arnolds, a monastery, most of which institutions were built by lay professional contractors, and which were also walled, quadrangular buildings.

Indeed, highly-skilled master craftsmen don’t really change, and Wadham’s present-day Works Department would have clicked in with the Arnolds and their workforce in a trice.  And as a man who prides himself on being good with his hands, I have had many friends among Wadham’s craftsmen and learned much from them over forty years.  Master carpenters and builders such as Ernie Hounslow, Charlie Sherwood, and, currently, Bruce Mortimer, to name but a few.  Men who, power-tools notwithstanding, can still turn an oak tree into a beautiful door, a storm-destroyed beech tree into an exquisite chest in the ante-chapel, or a lump of Headington stone into a fine carving.

 And once Dame Dorothy had decided on the cash available and the intended size and capacity of her College, Head Workman John Arnold and a couple of assistants no doubt laid out the ground with a carefully knotted rope.  A rope that, when stretched between stout pegs driven into the earth, would have produced the exact right-angled triangles necessary to establish the proportions of the main quad.  From these lines and pegs, men would have excavated the foundation trenches, probably laid down a thick course of stabilising and drainage-facilitating gravel, then set upon it the squared supporting stones to form a base for the College walls.

As far as we can tell from surviving records, such as Aga’s map of Oxford, 1578, the site was largely derelict, except for a number of small buildings located approximately where the King’s Arms now stands.  Oxford City Council, into whose hands the site had passed by 1610, wanted £1,000 for it, but shrewd negotiation and – so it appears – a supportive letter from King James I enabled its purchase for £600.  A royal gesture which led to a loyal statue of His Majesty being erected, standing above those of Nicholas and Dorothy over the Hall steps.  And while Wadham is not a ‘Royal Foundation’, we might with some justification claim that we were a Royal supported foundation, in so far as King James’s letter probably saved our Foundress £400, which in 1610 was a very hefty sum of money!

Dorothy, however, was quite literally building an ‘extra-mural’ College, because the whole site which she purchased, bordered by Holywell Street and the road which we now call Parks Road, was outside the city walls.  For in 1610 Oxford was a walled and well-defended city.  The north-east medieval wall, parts of which still run through New College, ran thirty yards or so to the south of the new foundation, with a postern gate at the top of Catte Street between where the Clarendon Building and Hertford College Annexe now stand.

Before its suppression by King Henry VIII’s Reformation Commissioners in the 1530s, however, the site of the future Wadham College had been occupied since 1268 by the community of the Augustinian, or Austin, Friars.  Indeed, it was one of the many religious houses – such as St Bernard’s, the Benedictine Durham College (the future sites of St John’s and Trinity Colleges), Osney Abbey (whose bell would become Christ Church’s ‘Great Tom’), Rewley Abbey, and a good few others, which Henry’s sudden Protestant Reformation had destroyed.  It was said that the Austin Friars, only shortly before the suppression of their house, had erected a fine new chapel in the perpendicular style – a smaller version of King’s, Cambridge, no less – over part of what is now our Back Quad site running down by Holywell Street.

So what about our ‘bullet-riddled’ skeleton?  To make sense of his presence and that of his adjacent companion, we must remember that until the improvement of public health and the development of more reliable medicine in the nineteenth century, all schools, colleges, monasteries, and legal and ecclesiastical chapters routinely suffered death rates that would be unimaginable today.

Just think, if during your undergraduate career in Oxford, an epidemic of typhus fever, smallpox, enteric fever, sweating sickness, or bubonic plague had descended and suddenly killed off some of your friends!  Or just imagine losing a colleague to ‘phthisis’ (pulmonary tuberculosis), an acute gastric condition caused by a dirty kitchen or rotten food, a ‘wasting away’, a ‘great headache’ (perhaps meningitis), or septicaemia from a cut!  Yet all these things were part of ‘normal’ life 400 years ago.

And in the pre-railway age, moreover, it was not uncommon to ‘stay up’ for most of your degree course if you were a poor student, having tramped all the way to Oxford from Northumberland or Cornwall, and not fancying a 300- or 400-mile walk home each way  every vacation.  And what happened when you died ‘in residence’, be you an undergraduate, a don, or a monk?  Why, they gave you Christian burial within the precincts of your domus, or house or college.  In Wadham, we buried our dead either in the ante-chapel, or in the ‘cloister garden’, between the College Chapel and the kitchens.  (For more about one inhabitant of that ground, see my Footnote below.)

Now without wishing to be grizzly, or give people nightmares, we have to realise that Oxford would have been a giant graveyard.  And all these centuries of dead people are still with us, just a few feet beneath our floors and pavements.  Not just the remains of monks, undergraduates, and dons, but also of townsfolk who shared Oxford – sometimes in a state of violent tension – with them.

When I was a D.Phil. student around 1974, I gave an afternoon per week to helping excavate the interior of the recently de-consecrated All Saints Church in the High Street.  This was to provide underground storage and study space for what is now Lincoln College Library.  The archaeologists discovered that maybe five churches had stood on that site, extending from Anglo-Saxon times to the current classical edifice of 1708.  And Lord, how many hundreds of skeletons were found on that one small site alone!

As the soil inside the church was, quite literally, bone dry, we ‘dug’ not with shovels, but with dustpans and brushes, carefully dusting away the powdery earth, to reveal skeletons packed like sardines in a tin, shoulder to shoulder, face to back of the head, to a depth of about fifteen feet, extending from folks buried in the days of King Alfred the Great to those interred in the reign of Queen Victoria!  And the first thing that emerged in each case was the bridge of the skeleton’s nose – the highest-standing part of the corpse when the body has decomposed and collapsed.  Brushing carefully, you began to uncover a grinning skull staring up at you, and on you brushed, until each bone in turn had been excavated and placed in a tray for expert pathological examination and subsequent re-burial.  One individual came up – c. 1400 – whom the pathologists said they felt they had got to know so well from her osteological details that they called her ‘Alizon’ – a popular medieval name, which also occurs in Chaucer.  And clearly, a ‘town’ girl.

Alizon had been eighteen or nineteen years old at death.  Her leg bones were slightly bowed, possibly from rickets due to a childhood vitamin D deficiency, her pelvis suggested that she had given birth to a child, while an appallingly-degraded upper molar, surrounded by an upper maxilla jawbone perforated with a profusion of tiny holes so as to resemble a pepper pot, suggested a cause of death.  A bad tooth had probably led to infection, then untreatable septicaemia or gangrene had developed in the jawbone, from which poor Alizon died after the infection became generalised around her body and her immune system gave way.

(I might also add, by the way, that one gloomy winter’s afternoon when I was helping to excavate the All Saints skeletons, men arrived to begin the dismantling of the fine organ that stood high in the gallery.  Being more in practice as a player than I am now, I asked permission to play for an hour before the instrument was taken away.  After popping over to Wadham for my music, I recall looking down from the organ bench to see my fellow-excavators uncovering their skeletons 25 feet below me.  It was a memorable experience on that dark winter’s afternoon, for while church organists regularly play for funerals, I suspect that I may be unique in having played for a mass exhumation!)

I would suggest, however, that we bring Alizon and her legions of long-deceased fellows to bear on our assessment of Wadham’s ‘bullet-riddled’ body.  For with routinely high death rates, poor transportation, major changes in land usage after the Reformation, and the local scale of life which was the norm before recent times, we come to realise that you don’t need to labour with a shovel too long in Oxford before you encounter the mortal remains of an individual whose soul has long gone to another place.  And while I have not yet seen an official report on our Wadham skeleton(s) from the Oxford Archaeological Unit, who took them into custody for examination, I suspect that our ‘bullet-riddled’ institutional forebear had been an Austin Friar or other medieval or early modern person.

But how did this man’s skull come to be so damaged?  I specify skull, for a careful examination of the rest of the skeleton displayed no particular osteological damage.  My suspicion is that he had been buried whole and intact, after dying most likely from natural causes, and that subsequent changes in site usage had caused the damage.  Had his facial bones come to be broken during the sinking of the strong foundations and the building of Staircase 9, around 1690?  Or perhaps by the constant passage of heavy lorries through the Parks Road–Back Quad gate during the building of the new Graduate Studies Centre or in the course of other building work over 2011-12?  Heavy lorries that would have daily passed only a few feet above his skull, exerting enormous downward soil pressure upon what is, after all, one of the most delicately-constructed parts of the human skeleton.

Let us start by remembering that the human skull is a wonderful piece of natural engineering.  Much of the bone structure is remarkably thin, and in life, it receives its great strength from the way in which it offsets massive pressures by directing those pressures away from the point of impact, and absorbing them throughout a series of often hollow curved structures encased in softer flesh and muscle.  Rather similar, in fact, to the way that a great Gothic cathedral, such as Salisbury, distributes the  constant downward pressure of many thousands of tons of roof stone, timber, and lead through the complex filigree of arches, hollow vaults, and buttresses of the spacious nave, to stabilise it in terra firma.

Think of the lower, or facial, part of the human skull as structurally similar to the vaulting of a Gothic cathedral, but in reverse.  For where the cathedral’s compression force is downwards due to gravity, that of the skull is upwards, due to muscle action.  When we chew, the heavy, solid, and strong mandible, or jawbone, is repeatedly driven into sudden and repeated mechanical contact with the maxilla, or upper jaw, by the powerful massetter, buccinator, and several other muscles running down each side of the face and into the neck.  Just think of the pressure you might exert on your upper jaw by chewing through a tough (or raw) steak, cracking a tough nut, or crunching a boiled sweet! And even more extreme, think of the upward bite pressure generated when circus acrobats suspend themselves by the teeth, as part of a performance.  Our jaws, after all, evolved to tear raw meat from the bones of our prey, not to eat potatoes and ice cream.  So in many respects, one could argues that our skulls are ‘over-engineered’ for modern human needs.

But while the lower jawbone is heavy and solid, the upper jawbone is part of  the frontal maxillary bone, which runs up from the cushioned teeth sockets to the lower eye sockets: our ‘middle face’, in fact.  Yet behind the outer casing of this part of the skull, the interior consists very largely of a series of empty chambers constituting the upper mouth, the nasal cavity, and the sinuses.  There is the thin bony vault of the mouth roof or palate arch, then the ‘empty’ chambers carrying those soft organs through which we breathe and smell, framed and partitioned by the three thin turbinated, then ethmoidal, and other bones.  The best part of  two inches of interior empty space, in fact, enclosed by a beautifully-arched set of thin bones which, as my 1869 edition of Henry Gray’s celebrated Anatomy (p. 72) puts it, are ‘separated from each other by a thin vertical septum’.  A load-bearing structure as delicate as any Gothic arch or flying buttress, yet just as strong, relatively speaking.  An osteological filigree, no less, capable of absorbing and evenly distributing across the cranium the upward compression force generated by the lower jaw when eating, without cracking or shattering, making our skulls structurally lightweight (and capable of housing our massive brains) in much the same way as a great cathedral’s vaults stabilise the immense weight of the roof by directing it into the earth.

Yet the facial bone structure is only capable of distributing forces acting upon it when they are exerted in the upwards direction that nature intended.  If you apply frontal pressure to the skull of the nose and lower face, it can break.  And if the human being has long since been a skeleton by the time that the facial pressure is applied from very heavy objects moving directly above, and has lost the shock-absorbing layers of muscle and flesh, then the lower skull can well shatter, while possibly leaving the cranium vault and lower jawbone still intact.

And this, I would argue, is what happened to our long-deceased, probably Austin Friar, friend, whose mortal remains came to light in mid-January 2013.  For when I took the upper jaw fragments, they fitted together nicely, without any of that pulverisation which would have accompanied a gunshot injury to the face.  His teeth, moreover, were good and complete, lacking the worn-down look not uncommon in the teeth of medieval people whose bread had probably been ground on soft millstones, thus producing loaves with a high grit content.  What is more, those teeth which had come out of the jaw, and lay loose in the grave, displayed all the signs of have fallen out post mortem, probably due to the same soil pressure that had cracked the skull in the first place.  For our skeleton was almost certainly that of a young man upon whose earthly remains the wear and tear of aging had not yet had a chance to leave its mark.

So sadly, for the sensation mongers, there was not a smoking gun in sight!  And I wonder how many other monks, students, and townsfolk who have long since become skeletons are sleeping peacefully beneath our cupboards?

I only hope that when the archaeologists have finished examining and learning what they can from him, our ossiferous ancestor is given proper Christian re-burial in a new grave.  But not under a cupboard in Wadham!  Requiescat in pace.

This was Samuel Mashbourne, a Wadham undergraduate who was killed by a bolt of lightning on 10 May 1666, while boating with friends on the river.  Prior to burial, he was dissected and his skull ‘opened’ by Sir Christopher Wren’s friend, Dr Thomas Willis, the eminent Christ Church anatomist.  Because the top of poor Mashbourne’s skull was sawn off to give Willis access to his brain – as specifically mentioned in the report to the Royal Society – his remains, if ever accidentally uncovered during building work, will be instantly identifiable.  See A. Chapman, ‘The Scholar, the Thunderbolt, and the Anatomist’, Wadham College Gazette (1993), pp.  59-62.