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St Bees Man - the discovery and first theories
During 1981, the third year of a series of archaeological investigations at St Bees by Leicester university, attention was turned to to the ruined chancel aisle on the south west corner of St Bees Priory. The previous digs had been in the Priory Paddock, but this third dig hoped to find out more about the early church buildings.
The chancel aisle is a ruin today and probably collapsed before the dissolution of the Benedictine monastery due to unstable ground. (See diagram at bottom of page). The evidence for this is the blocked up arches in the Buck's engraving of 1739. If the ruin had been created after the dissolution, the arches would not have been filled up.
The view on the right shows the south end of the dig between the remaining ruined wall and the Old College Hall.
The night stairs of the Benedictine Priory leading from the monks' dormitory can be seen at the top left, The sites of several burials are being investigated in the centre. The large pipes date from 1930 and carry the air to the organ.
Within a short time a number of discoveries were made; the floor level of the chancel aisle, various pottery pieces from the 14th century, and burials from before and after the aisle was built, in disturbed areas of soil below the aisle floor. All these burials, with one exception were skeletons.
After removal, the coffin was carefully cut around the edge and opened up to reveal a shroud obviously wrapped round a human body. This was to be a unique find in modern times.
There followed a period of feverish activity during which emergency funds were raised from the Department of the Environment to engage the services of Dr Eddie Tapp. Dr Tapp was a paleopathologist from Preston who had done much work on Egyptian mummies.
The examination of the body
The examination which took place over the next two days made some remarkable discoveries, all linked to the amazing degree of preservation of the body.
The Body had been wrapped in linen impregnated with some resinous substance and this, plus other factors, had resulted in adipocere, a natural process which occurs under certain conditions of cold and dampness; though rarely to this extent. This had preserved the body organs and tissues in such detail that it was possible to determine not only his cause of death, but also his state of general health prior to the injuries that killed him. Details of the findings are described in Dr Todd's historical paper on this site.
How did he die?
So what did our St Bees Man die of? Clearly he died a violent death, but whether it was in battle or in a tournament of some sort cannot be known. Also, given the trouble that had been taken to preserve the body, it is likely that he died away from St Bees and was transported back here for burial. The immediate cause of death was almost certainly a haemo-pneumothorax due to fractured ribs. Basically this means that one of his lungs had collapsed due to them being punctured by the broken ribs. This led to air and blood getting into the chest cavity and compressing the lung so that it couldn't expand. He also had a fractured right jaw, fracture of the hyod (a small bone in the larynx or voice box). Incidental health problems were a severe dental abscess due to a botched tooth removal, and a very large hydrocoele.
Who was he?
So who was he? That unfortunately we did not not definitely know then, though John & Mary Todd conducted extensive research into trying to establish his identity, and arrived at several candidates.
The latest discoveries
In the intervening 30 years there have been considerable advances in science, and combined with other historical evidence that has come to light, he is thought to be almost certainly Anthony de Lucy, who died on a teutonic crusade in 1368.
There is an update on the latest historical discoveries here
In the media
St Bees Man has been the subject of two TV documentaries.
A second documentary has been made, which also includes a segment on St Bees Man. This is by Film Garden Entertainment in Hollywood for the Learning Channel.
Currently filming is taking place in 2014 on a further documentary.
Images of the dig
Location of the vault
Click here for conjectural map of the Medieval Priory.
General view of the History area, with the shroud display case in the right foreground. The chalice slab, dug up during the St. Bees Man excavations, can be seen at the right on the back wall behind the white case.
A printed booklet is available about the St. Bees Man; on sale in the Priory Church.
Text of this page updated August 2014