Medieval London Was A Hotbed Of Violence And Brutality

London was a dangerous place during the Medieval period, particularly if you were young, male, and poor. Claude de Jongh/Wikimedia Commons

Following the collapse of the Roman City, London became a settlement racked by famine and disease, threatened by Nordic invaders, and destroyed by fire. But for those eking out a living in the dirty streets of the city, they may have had more immediate threats to worry about, as violence within the city walls was the highest in England at the time.

By looking at the remains of humans from a range of cemeteries throughout the old city, researchers have found that violence affected all aspects of Medieval London society. Rates of serious head trauma were twice as high in London than in other English cities, and young lower-class men were disproportionately affected by the brutality at the time. The results are published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.


To assess just how savage the streets of London were during the Medieval period, researchers analyzed just under 400 skulls dating between 1050 and 1550 CE. These skulls were unearthed from six London cemeteries, ranging from monastic ones that likely would have held richer folk to free parish sites where anyone could be interred from all strata’s of society.

Sharp force trauma on the skull of some unfortunate Medieval fellow. Museum of London/Krakowka 2017

They found that 6.8 percent of all skulls showed signs of trauma to the head, indicating that at some point in their life they had experienced significant violence and blows to the skull. Around 25 percent of the damage is thought to have occurred shortly before the people died, signifying that the injuries were probably sufficient to kill them.

Young men aged between 26 and 35 years old were more likely to be victims of the brutality, and the researchers suggest that sex and social status were the most common drivers for the ferity seen at the time. For those young men who were also of a lower class, the odds of them meeting a sticky end were higher still.

The cemeteries for the poorer residents were again much more likely to show signs of trauma than the skulls unearthed in the more wealthy monastic graveyards. Archaeologists suspect that this reflects the fact that the more moneyed people were more likely to have access to the developing justice system at the time.


In contrast to this, the lower class Londoners settled their disputes with fights and violence. This is backed up by coroners’ rolls from the period that show how homicides were far more likely to occur on a Sunday night and Monday morning, most probably after people had gone to the pub or tavern and had one too many drinks before getting in an argument.

[H/T: New Scientist]


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