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Project Number: 356

Project Nickname: "Henry"

Burial Site: Hospital of St. John

Feature/Burial Number: 985

Born between: 1190 and 1230

Died between: 1221 and 1289

An older, working man.

A reconstruction image of a man in medieval Cambridge

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

Reconstruction image: Mark Gridley

“Henry” was born early in the thirteenth century, in or around Cambridge. As a child, he probably had a fairly typical diet and was well-nourished, though, like most medieval people, he had a few growth interruptions, probably due to childhood illnesses. He grew to slightly above average height, robustly built with strong arms and shoulders, a gracile forehead and a strongly defined jawline.


In late adolescence and early adulthood, his arms developed strong asymmetry, which may imply that as a young man, he was set to a specialised trade rather than performing general labour. This trade probably involved heavy stresses such as regularly carrying heavy weights; “Henry” suffered damage to almost all the intervertebral disks in his back. We don’t know what this trade was. His feet show facets at the base of his toes which may be related to habitual kneeling, though in a slightly different posture than the friars sometimes display. His diet was notably different in his later years compared to his childhood; compared to most others in town, he may have consumed a diet containing more animal proteins. Most people in this period subsisted largely upon grain (as bread and ale), vegetables and dairy products; “Henry” may have had consistent access to meats, dairy and fish in a way typical of wealthier people and members of monastic orders. He also may have had incipient gout, a malady sometimes related to rich food and wine.

Does this picture of “Henry” as a well-fed craftsman square with the fact that he appears to have spent the end of his life in the Hospital of St. John, a charitable institution whose role was to give shelter and food to the poor and needy? There are multiple possible explanations. One possibility is that he was a working man in some occupation which gave him access to food, perhaps a butcher, fisherman, or supplier of meat or fish; towards the end of his life, he fell upon hard times, was given a charitable home in the Hospital and died there. Alternatively, perhaps he was a working member of Hospital staff, such as a steward collecting produce from properties the Hospital owned, so that he dined at the relatively rich table for Hospital staff and was buried in the Hospital cemetery when he died. A third possibility is that he was a well-off tradesman, perhaps in a food-related trade, who donated his goods to the Hospital in return for lodging, food and clothing for his final years; with this kind of arrangement (known as a corrody) it was not uncommon to specify exactly what diet the institution was obliged to provide, and it could be richer than the standard board given to inmates. Whatever his route into the Hospital cemetery, he is typical of many of the Hospital burials, particularly older males, who do not look very different from other townspeople.


“Henry” lived to the older end of middle age, dying between 45 and 60 years old sometime between 1221 and 1289. As an adult, “Henry” suffered the risks and insults of medieval life. After several decades of adult life, like most people of his age, his teeth were starting to have serious problems, with caries, tooth loss and abscesses. He fractured a rib and a vertebra in his lower back, probably in separate accidents, and suffered a blow which left a small depression in his skull; all of these healed well. He suffered from an ongoing unidentified general inflammation in his legs. What he died from is not known.

“Henry” was buried in the deepest grave in the Hospital cemetery, significantly deeper than any other. For some reason, he was buried face down, which is rare and puzzling. It probably did not have any particular theological significance. It may have been an intentional gesture, a final, unseen slight by the gravediggers towards someone they disliked. Or it may mean simply that he was buried wrapped tightly in a shroud, accidentally landed wrong way up in an unusually deep grave, and they did not notice or could not be bothered to straighten him out in the brief interval before the earth began to cover him.

Facial reconstruction of PSN 356

Facial reconstruction: Dr Chris Rynn, University of Dundee.

Notes on interpretation/open questions

  • Since PSN 356 is a remarkably well-preserved skeleton with interesting features which we studied early in the project, a facial reconstruction was created by forensic artist Dr. Chris Rynn. This was written up widely in the press as “the face of medieval Cambridge.” It attracted an interesting range of online comments. A Daily Mail reader commented “he looks like a friendly bloke. You could imagine him fixing your car”; a Guardian reader commented “he looks like someone who voted for Brexit.”

  • One issue with biographical reconstruction is how detailed and definite to be. Here, we have tried to avoid being too concrete about his occupation; an early version of the picture showed him carrying a basket full of fish, but that seemed too specific and so we cut the fish out. However, we have gone with the likelihood of his being a working man in a food-related trade, rather than (say) a monk, friar or student. The latter might explain his nutrition, and there were religious professionals who did manual labour, but he is too early for most such people, and they would have been buried elsewhere. It’s all about probabilities.

  • Like many of our other biographees, PSN 356 both is an individual and reflects a general type, who were probably not the lifelong, desperate poor, but ordinary townspeople who were pushed across the border into need from some combination of circumstances – most likely, loss of family or other networks who could support them when they couldn’t work.

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