Does Size Matter? How Tall was Byrhtnoth?

I meant to write this post earlier, but preparation for the publication of Bright Helm has occupied most of my time – did I say I had a new book out?

In a previous post I mentioned that Byrhtnoth’s body was taken to Ely to be buried. Much later, in 1769, the bones were moved and a group of gentlemen attended and measured the bones and his height was calculated as 6ft 9in (2.0574m) and this is how I imagined him, although in the books I never specified exactly how tall he was – just taller than most people.

How was this figure calculated? Was there any record of the measurements? In May 2019 I was at the National Archives at Kew. I had some time to spare, Could I find anything there? There was nothing in the index, but the building also houses an extensive library; books on a whole range of historical subjects, complete runs of magazines and journals, directories etc. Many of the books are arranged in geographical sections so I search through those for Cambridgeshire. There were a lot about Ely Cathedral and finally I struck gold.


Historical Memorials Of Ely Cathedral: In Two Lectures Delivered In Cambridge In The Summer Of 1896, was written by Charles William Stubbs. Now I know what the book is, I could have ordered it on Amazon; there is even an online copy here. However I photographed the relevant pages and carried on with researching the documents I had come to see.
Stubbs quotes an extract of a letter written by Mr Bentham (James Bentham (1709? – 1794) was an English clergyman, antiquarian and historian of Ely Cathedral) to the Dean of Exeter, and read to the Society of Antiquaries, Fen. 6, 1772, describing “the discovery of the bones of these old Saxon worthies immured in the North Choir wall.”

“When it became necessary, on account of removing the choir to the east end of the Church, to take down that wall, I thought it proper to attend, and also give notice of it to several gentlemen, who were desirous of being present when the wall was demolished. There were the traces of their several effigies on the wall and over each of them an inscription of their names. Whether their relics were still to be found was uncertain; but I apprised those who attended on that occasion, May 18, 1769, that if my surmises were well founded no head would be found in the cell which contained the Bones of Brithnoth, Duke of Northumberland… The event corresponded to my expectation. The bones were found inclosed, in seven distinct cells or cavities, each twenty-two inches in length, seven broad, and eighteen deep, made within the wall under their painted effigies; but under Duke Brithnoth there were no remains of the head, though we searched diligently, and found most, if not all his other bones almost entire, and those remarkable for their length, and proportionally strong; which also agrees with what is recorded by that same historian in regard to the Duke’s person, viz., that he was ‘viribus Robustus, corpore maximus.’ This will more clearly appear by an exact measurement I have taken, and annexed thereto, of so many of the principal bones of those persons as are remaining entire. From these measurements, os femoris 20½ inches, tibia 16¾, os humeri 14¼, ulna 11 4/6, clavicula 6½, it was estimated by Dr Hunter that the Duke must have been 6 foot 9 inches in stature. It was observed that the collar bone had been nearly cut through, as by a battle axe or two-handed sword.”

So, it was Dr Hunter who calculated Byrhtnoth’s height. This must have been Dr John Hunter (1728 – 1793) the eminent Scottish surgeon, fellow of the Royal Society etc. But were his calculations correct? Time passes, knowledge increases, would a modern scientist agree? We’ve all watched TV programmes where archaeologists take a few bones and produce an accurate version of the original person. If only I knew someone like that!

Then I remembered. The Rugby Archaeological Society had had a talk by Dr Anna Williams, a Forensic Anthropologist. The talk had been about setting up a British “Body Farm” – very interesting. We had even had a brief conversation about my books (I must have been promoting one of them at the time!). I took a deep breath and contacted her. She was happy to help, and, after converting inches to centimeters then back to feet, soon produced a result for me.

All the measurements suggested a stature of between 5’9″ and 6’2″, not 6’9″. I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed. My hero had shrunk. But then I realised, “My” Byrhtnoth is a character in my books – his real height probably made him taller than a lot of men at the time anyway, and I don’t suppose he had blond hair and blue eyes either. Although they are doing clever things with DNA nowadays.

I wonder if Ely Cathedral would consider digging him up again? Although I don’t think a facial reconstruction is possible – unless anyone has found a skull without a body, somewhere in Norway, or Denmark – depending on who it was who chopped it off!

Anyone got a crowbar?