Tombland skeletons may be brothers killed in Kett's Rebellion

Tombland skeletons

Two of the skeletons uncovered at Tombland showed traumatic injuries to the skulls. - Credit: Wardell Armstrong

Analysis of two skeletons discovered during construction work in Norwich city centre suggests they could have been brothers who were executed - possibly during Kett's Rebellion.

The pair were among a dozen skeletons uncovered a year ago during the £2.5m revamp of Tombland - one of the most historic parts of the city.

Archaeologists have been studying the skeletons and have used radiocarbon dating to establish how old the remains are.

While 10 of the skeletons date back to Anglo-Saxon times - and may give a clue as to the location of a long-lost city church - archaeologists were surprised to find two were more recent and had met an unpleasant end.

Those remains were dated between 1528 to 1795, which could place them anywhere from the Tudor era to the Georgian period.

Tombland skeletons

One of the skulls, showing cut marks and a flake removed by trauma. - Credit: Sue Anderson / Wardell Armstrong

Studies showed they were related - possibly brothers or cousins - and had died due to traumatic head injuries, suggesting they may have been executed.

The experts believe the pair may have been involved in Kett's Rebellion, the 1549 revolt against local landowners which saw a rebel force capture the city before being defeated by an army sent by the government.

Andy Peachey

Andy Peachey, associate director of Wardell Armstrong. - Credit: Wardell Armstrong

Andy Peachey, head of post excavation archaeology at Wardell Armstrong, which carried out the archaeological work on behalf of Norfolk County Council, said: "Unlike the Saxon burials, these two had quite a traumatic end, with severe head injuries.

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"Whether part of execution or punishment, death had followed quickly after those injuries were inflicted."

Tombland skeletons

Archaeologists believe two of the skeletons found at Tombland in Norwich were of related men who were executed. - Credit: Wardell Armstrong

Mr Peachey,  said it was difficult to establish if it had been an attempt to behead them.

But he said: "Beheading was for people who committed crimes such as treason, but it could equally have been a fight or summary justice.

"Beheading had been replaced by hanging by the 17th century, but it does fit the idea that these deaths occurred during a period when there were fairly major disturbances in Norwich.

"Those included Kett's Rebellion, later Tudor rebellions and the English Civil Wars, which had very high impacts on Norwich.

"That fits in with people who have been subject to summary justice and deposited on what would have been common land."

Tombland skeletons

The two post medieval or Tudor skeletons found at Tombland in Norwich. - Credit: Wardell Armstrong

John Percival, senior historic environment officer at Norfolk County Council, said: "There is some evidence that they might have been related - possibly brothers or cousins. One was in his late teens and the other was in his early twenties."

John Percival

John Percival. - Credit: John Percival

Mr Percival said the council was seeking partners, including from universities, to carry out further DNA studies on those remains and to dig deeper into Kett's Rebellion and the Civil War to see if it might be possible to connect names to the skeletons.

He said: "There are detailed records related to Kett's Rebellion, so information about two closely related people would be the sort of thing which would be recorded.

"It would be very good to be able to put names to these skeletons and, if we could do that, then it opens up the potential of seeing if they have living successors.

"There were also hundreds of people executed during the Civil War, so somebody needs to have a really strategic dig into the records to see if anything about brothers or cousins is turned up."

The bones of the other skeletons, while not meeting such a grisly end as the later ones, also gave a tantalising insight into where one of Norwich's lost churches might have once stood.

While it was difficult to establish the gender of all the skeletons, analysis suggests about 60pc were male and 40pc were female.

They were dated between 772AD and 941AD. A couple of them were teenagers, but most were aged 40 to 50.

Tombland skeletons

One of the late Saxon skeletons found at Tombland in Norwich. - Credit: Wardell Armstrong

Apart from osteoporosis, the bodies showed the people had been in pretty good health and there were no signs they had been killed.

And archaeologists believe they would have been buried in what was once the churchyard of St Michael's - a church which was known to have been demolished at the turn of the 12th century, but which has never been located.

The skeletons were all laid out in an east/west direction - typical of Christian burials at that time.

Archaeologists found no trace of the church itself. It is possible it was within what is now the environs of the cathedral, the construction of which probably led to the decline of St Michael's.

The skeletons have been carefully stored and after a period where investigations continue, they will be reburied.

The new-look Tombland in Norwich as people enjoy being out and about as the Covid restrictions are e

The skeletons were uncovered during revamp work in Tombland. - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

The first of the skeletons were discovered in December 2020 during the £2.5m Transport for Norwich work in Tombland.

Tombland

Tombland was once the main market area of Norwich, before the Normans established a new market area by the castle.

The name comes not from any connotations with graves or tombs, but from an Old English word derived from Danish meaning 'empty space'.

It was also the site of a popular annual fair. Medieval fairs could get rowdy and they often led to tensions between the monks of Norwich Priory and the townsfolk.

In 1272 with a growing disagreement between religious men and the citizens of Norwich over rights, duties and boundaries – a number of citizens were killed by the monks.

More violence followed and a mob burned down St Ethelbert's church. They also damaged the cathedral and the cloisters during three days of rioting.

The citizens were subsequently ordered to build a new entrance into the monastery area  - St Ethelbert's Gate.

Tombland by CJ Sansom. Photo: Courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Tombland by CJ Sansom. Photo: Courtesy of Pan Macmillan - Credit: Courtesy of Pan Macmillan

In 2018,  author CJ Sansom used Tombland as the title of the latest novel in his series of books about hunchbacked Tudor times lawyer Matthew Shardlake.

Kett's Rebellion

The Battle of Dussin's Dale

The Battle of Dussin's Dale Picture taken from "An Unlikely Rebel" Robert Kett and the Norfolk Rising 1549 by Adrian Hoare. - Credit: Archant

The 1540s saw a crisis in agriculture in England, with the main grievance the issue of enclosure – the fencing-off of common land by landlords for their own use, which left peasants with nowhere to graze their animals.

The rebellion began in July 1549 in Wymondham, when a group of people set off to Morley St Botolph and Hethersett to tear down hedges and fences.

Landowner Sir John Flowerdew bribed rioters to leave his enclosure alone and instead attack those of Robert Kett.

Having listened to the rioters' grievances, Kett, joined by brother William, decided to join their cause, helping them tear down his own fences and then destroying Sir John's.

Kett became leader of the group and designated an oak tree, now known as Kett's Oak, on the road between Hethersett and Norwich as their meeting point.

The rebels marched through Norwich to reach Mousehold Heath, where they set up their camp for the next six-and-a-half weeks. They drew up a list of 29 grievances, signed by Kett.

Some 15,000 rebels eventually gathered there and they battled against government forces in Norwich, until an army of 13,000 men commanded by the Earl of Warwick forced the rebels back to the Heath.

The rebels then retreated further to an area outside the city called Dussindale but were caught up by the army of Warwick and a battle was fought. Hundreds of peasants were killed.

Kett himself was imprisoned and hanged from the battlements of Norwich Castle on December 7, the same day his brother was hanged from Wymondham Abbey.

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