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Unlocking the identity of the Stirling Knight

Facial reconstruction of the Stirling Knight. Facial reconstruction of the Stirling Knight.

IN 1997, a crypt of skeletons was unearthed during an excavation of Stirling Castle in Scotland.

What was originally believed to have been part of the Governor’s Kitchens was revealed to be the ‘lost’ private chapel believed to have been built in the early 1100s. The little chapel of St. Michael fell into disuse after the grander Chapel Royal was built by James IV, perhaps as penance for plotting his father’s death. The crypt contained the skeletons of at least six males, one female, and two infants, all of whom received Christian burials. In the tumultuous Middle Ages, when wars raged between England and Scotland, only the elite were buried indoors. Although it has been over 700 years since these bodies were buried, the team of forensic archeologists at BBC Two’s “History Cold Cases” were confident that they could identify at least one of the souls: the largest and best preserved male.

The team, led by Professor Sue Black, worked backwards from information derived from the bones and then from knowledge of the era in order to construct a likely identity to the large male, the rugby player as they affectionately called him. The man had been an exceptionally strong nobleman (lower classes would not have been buried in the chapel). His skeleton suggests that he was 5 feet, 7 inches (1.7 meters) tall with a hardy physique. Deep grooves in his shoulder bones suggest he had developed large muscles even while he was still growing, perhaps starting from his early teens.

Between his special status as buried in the chapel and his powerful build, Professor Black concludes that the man was most likely a knight. Training for a young noble’s son would have begun in earnest around the age of 15. At this time, even while his body was still growing, the boy would be expected to wear heavy chainmail armor while wielding heavy swords and shields. Further skeletal evidence suggests that this knight spent much of his time on horseback. While his upper body, particularly the back and shoulders, were exceptionally muscular, his lower body does not appear especially strong. The suggestion that he was a knight on horseback is further supported by signs of repeated trauma in his anklebones. In the show, Professor Black meets with men who still joust in real life in order to keep the tradition alive. They explain how jousting is a perilous sport and it is not uncommon for participants to be knocked from their horses. If the foot is caught in the stirrup, it can lead to a nasty ankle injury. The constant horseback riding of knighthood and occasional falls of jousting damage the spine over time. The knight’s skeleton reflects these in its obvious signs of wear and tear.

The man’s body showed signs of serious wounds from earlier fights. Most strikingly was a dent in the front of his skull where he was presumably struck by an ax or sword. This blow did not kill him, however, it most likely caused him a serious concussion. Rather, the researchers believed that the man was killed by an arrow wound.
   
One of the aspects the team was most interested in uncovering was whether the man was Scottish or English. Radiocarbon dating put the man’s existence around 1290 to 1350 A.D. Within even this narrow window of time, Stirling Castle (located on the frontlines between the England and Scotland) changed hands several times. In addition, French forces were known to have played a role in the conflict, often fighting with the Scottish against the English.
   
“Techniques have advanced a long way since the skeletons were discovered in 1997 and we can now tell much more about where people came from, their lifestyles and causes of death,” said Dr. Jo Buckberry, a biological anthropologist. “As the castle changed hands a number of times, these are people who could have come from Scotland, England or even France and one of my hopes is that we will be able to find out where at least some of them originated.”
   
Analysis of minerals in the teeth and bones revealed a diet that contained a great deal of salted fish -- strange given how far Stirling is from the sea. Preserved fish was, however, the primary means of feeding English troops fighting away from home. Further mineral analysis suggests the man grew up in a region in southern England or western France. Finally, Professor Black meets with historians who are experts on this time period. Based on the given time parameters, the historians rule out the possibility of the man being French because French troops were not near Stirling Castle at that point in time. Thus, the team concludes that the man was an English knight, killed by a Scottish arrow, while the English held Stirling Castle.
   
The BBC may have even found out the man’s name. Records indicate that, while occupying the castle, a Sir John de Stricheley died in 1341. This would be in keeping with everything else Professor Black uncovered. However, more evidence is needed to confirm whether Sir John is indeed the Stirling Knight.