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An arm from a body in the cemetery of Ipswich friary

Mutilated remains may be 14th century mob-attack victim, Richard de Holebrok

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In February 1327, 84 angry people assaulted Richard de Holebrok of Tattingstone, tied him to a tree and cut off his right hand. Holebrok complained to the English authorities, but what he did to provoke such an attack, if anything, is unknown. It may have been a blood feud between local gentry, of which the Holebrok family were members.

A researcher has identified what he believes is Holebrok's body, exhumed from a medieval burial ground. The right hand is missing and a scientific examination revealed the severed arm had healed, and the person used the arm before he died.

Holebrok's case is recorded in the Patent Rolls, a written record of legal matters affecting English citizens from the time of King John, beginning in 1201.

Scans of a typeset document titled ‘Calendar of the Patent Rolls’ are available online; the section with Holebrok's case is available on PDF here on Google Books . The introduction says “there is scarcely a subject connected with the history or government of this country, or with the most distinguished personages of the thirteenth, fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, which is not illustrated by the Patent Rolls.”

The Patent Rolls record various royal and governmental pardons, grants, office appointments and knightoods, safe conduct letters, pensions, elections of clerics, letters of protection, licenses and other matters. Some of the pardons are for serious matters, including deaths and holding castles against the king.

In the early 1980s, researchers excavated Blackfriar's friary and its cemetery in Ipswich and exhumed 250 bodies. One was a man in his 30s when he died, with a healed right arm whose hand had been severed. Not far from the friary is the Holebrok family seat in Tattingstone. The Holebroks were local gentry, and excavations at the friary revealed the Holebrok family crest on floor tiles.

The remnants of the Blackfriar's friary in Ipwich

The remnants of the Blackfriar's friary in Ipwich (Photo by Stuart Shepherd/Wikimedia Commons)

Bioarchaeologist Simon Mays, in an article in the International Journal of Paleopathology, writes that he believes the body is that of Holebrok. The evidence is circumstantial that the remains are Holebrok's, but Mays wrote that healed amputations “are rarely seen in Medieval burials, only a handful of examples being known in over 50,000 burials excavated from Medieval sites in England.”

There were three usual reasons for amputations in medieval England: as surgery for disease or injury, as punishment meted out by courts, or from malicious wounding with a sharp object, says an article on Forbes.com .

17th century illustration of an amputation scene

17th century illustration of an amputation scene ( Wikimedia Commons )

Mays ruled out surgery on the corpse in question because Ipswich friary cemetery was not associated with a hospital. Mays wrote that amputation as punishment in England in the Middle Ages was rare and was meted out on those who interfered with matters of the royal court.

When limbs were severed, Mays is uncertain how the amputations were done. He found historical records that refer to a knife being hammered into the limb with a mallet, and subsequent cauterization of blood vessels with a hot iron. “In the days before anesthesia, this would indeed have been painful punishment,” the Forbes article says. “'In England, Mays writes, men carried arms routinely: the lower classes knives, the gentry swords. Given the names listed in the Patent Rolls as parties to the attack on Holebrok, Mays speculates that 'the affair sounds like a result of a blood feud between members of the upper classes and their followers; this type of feuding bedeviled Medieval England.”

The severed hand was not the only injury the exhumed person suffered. He had fractures that healed in the shoulder socket and arm bone, another fracture on the right side, to his shoulder blades and a fracture of a left rib. Mays speculates all injuries, except possibly the fractured rib, happened during the mob attack because they were all well-healed.

The location of the injuries on the upper part of the body and shoulders indicates an attack with blunt force from above and behind the victim, Mays wrote. The rib was probably broken with a blow to the back, but Mays is unsure if it happened during the attack.

Featured image: An arm from a body in the cemetery of Ipswich friary, showing an amputation—possibly Richard de Holebrok's. (Photo by Simon Mays)

By Mark Miller

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