Just over 40 years ago, minds were blown upon the discovery of an almost perfectly preserved body of a medieval man laid to rest in a lead-coated wooden coffin. Known as St Bees Man, researchers now believe they have a fairly clear idea of who this prestigious person was.
The mysterious discovery was unearthed in 1981 from a vault found beneath the ruined chancel aisle of St Bees Priory in Cumbria, northern England. Beside the lead-lined coffin, archaeologists uncovered the skeleton of a woman whose soft tissues had completely degraded away over the centuries.
Owing to the age of the remains, archaeologists were expecting to crack open the coffin and find another skeleton. To their surprise, it contained an incredibly preserved body wrapped tightly in a shroud. The body was likely kept in immaculate conditions thanks to its lead-lined coffin, which is an age-old method of preserving deceased bodies.
Researchers have concluded that the man was likely buried sometime between 1290 and 1500 CE. He was around 40 years old, give or take five years, when he died from a grisly death. He was suffering from numerous cracked rips, a broken jaw, and a punctured lung at the time of his death, perhaps sustained in a battle or an act of violence. The ultimate cause of death was hemopneumothorax, the condition of having both air and blood in the chest cavity, almost certainly caused by some intense trauma.
The identity of the man was initially a mystery. His costly burial implied that he had a high social status, yet no written records could prove who he was nor why he was held in such esteem.
One leading theory is that he was a knight called Anthony de Lucy who died in 1368 in present-day Lithuania during the Nothern Crusades. From the 12th century onwards, the Christian monarchs of Western Europe launched a wave of military campaigns against pagan Baltic, Finnic, and West Slavic peoples with the aim of converting the regions to Christianity.
“There is some evidence that the English party was used to attack a fort that had been built at Kaunas and it is reported that ‘three of our men were killed from the walls.’ The injuries of Anthony de Lucy, a fractured jaw and punctured lung, fit with this. The three killed seem to be Anthony, John de Multon, and Roger Felbrigg with the most probable date being 16th September 1368,” Chris Robson writes on the St Bees Village History blog.
The identity of the accompanying woman is less clear. The wife of Anthony de Lucy later remarried and died in London in her seventies, so it's unlikely to be her. The most likely suspect is Maud de Lucy, his sister who inherited much of his wealth after his death and clearly had a close affiliation with her lost brother.