|The Bodies in the Library
||[Mar. 20th, 2016|04:56 pm]
Yesterday afternoon's talk by Richard Annis, senior archaeologist in the University, had the official title Durham and Dunbar and Palace Green (oh, my!). But since he was talking about the the discovery of the bodies of the Scottish soldiers taken prisoner after the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, and since these had come to light during excavations at Palace Green Library, I was not the only person to be reminded of the crime fiction cliché.
It isn't, in any sense, a mystery story. One thing that became clear from Richard Annis's lucid and fascinating account was just how few surprises there were in a story which has aroused so much interest locally: human remains mean human interest is apparently the archaeologists rule of thumb (alongside one body takes one archaeologist one day to excavate - if conditions are good, which they never are). When news emerged that some bodies had been found, there was all sorts of speculation, including that this was a medieval plague pit. But as far as the archaeologists were concerned, they were more or less certain from the first who they had found. (As was one of the builders working on the site, who greeted the emerging bones with "Ah, you've found those Scottish prisoners, then!")
The story is well known: the version of it I tell explains that the tombs in the cathedral's Neville Chantry are damaged not by time but because the Scots imprisoned in the Cathedral took the opportunity to revenge themselves on the family of border barons associated with the Scottish defeat at Neville's Cross. Richard Annis talked us through the historical record (Wikipedia has plenty of detail): the reasons why Cromwell was fighting a battle well within Scotland, and why he then felt unable to follow the usual practice of releasing any prisoners who swore not to fight against him in future, so that he was confronted with the logistical problem of what to do with this huge number of prisoners, and decided to march them the hundred miles south to Durham, where a large solid building stood conveniently empty to receive them (the Commonwealth having no use for cathedrals). A large number of those captured did not survive the journey, whether from injuries, starvation, exhaustion or illness. Dysentry was rife, and continued to kill large numbers daily while they were imprisoned in Durham. So that if there was a mystery, it was less who were these bodies and more, where were all the bodies buried? (And the answer to that was always likely to have been, somewhere near the Cathedral).
The identification of the bodies didn't rely on being the most likely explanation, and we had a run through of the evidence of place of origin, and date of death, plus what examination of the scanty remains could tell us about the dead themselves: mostly, as you'd expect, that they were all men, mostly young, and poor, mostly Scots (though a few were neither Scottish nor English, which I wasn't expecting). Not a single trace of clothing was found: not a pin, not a button, nothing.
The excavation had been very limited in scope: where the construction of the Library's new café would destroy what lay beneath, they dug: otherwise not. From one tiny corner they had excavated parts of somewhere between 17 and 28 bodies; bodies which did not have to be disturbed to make way for the building work, were not disturbed (and some bodies were incomplete because they lay in part under the wall).
It hadn't occurred to me before to wonder what had happened to those prisoners after they were locked in the Cathedral, but evidently there are more stories to be told about that. Some of them were sent to Ireland to fight in Cromwell's wars there; some were sent to Cambridgeshire, to help drain the fens; some to North America, to work in the iron industry, and eventually earn their freedom. But 1600 of them did not survive, and most of those must still lie underneath the old library.