Mysterious Mass Graves Contained Oliver Cromwell’s Prisoners

In November 2013 archaeologists from the University of Durham in northern England found two mass graves near Durham Cathedral. At first the archaeologists thought the bodies belonged to the Cathedral’s cemetery and had just been buried a bit beyond the boundaries of the present-day burial site, but then they noticed features that indicated these were not regular burials. The discovery presented a tantalizing mystery which would eventually become a reminder of one of the bloodiest battles of the 17th century English civil wars.

These were Not Regular Burials

The archaeologists thought it was strange that the bodies were packed closely together in an unorthodox layout, and some were buried in a North to South alignment rather than an East to West alignment, which is typical for conventional medieval burials. “The bodies have been tipped into the earth without elaborate ceremony and they are tightly packed together and jumbled,” said Richard Annis, a senior archaeologist of the Archaeological Services at Durham University, in 2013.

The researchers were puzzled by what they found and the circumstances in which the individuals died. They wondered if the mass graves were the result of an infectious disease leading to a hasty burial, or if perhaps something more sinister had taken place.

The Brutal Battle Behind the Mass Graves

After more than 18 months of research, the mystery of the jumbled skeletons revealed that there were between 17-28 people buried in the graves. All of them were males and they died between the ages of 13-25 years old. When the bones were dated, it became apparent that they were in the ground for more than 350 years.

The researchers conducted scientific tests including statistical andisotope analysis of strontium, oxygen, and lead from tooth enamel samples, alongside radiocarbon dating and morphological examinations. Their results led them to conclude that the skeletons were the remains of Scottish soldiers who had been taken prisoner after the English parliamentarian army’s victory at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650.

‘Cromwell at Dunbar.’ 1886 painting by Andrew Carrick Gow.

The 1650 Battle of Dunbar saw the Scottish Covenanting army, who supported Charles II’s claim to the Scottish throne, face the English Parliamentarian army under Oliver Cromwell’s command. Cromwell’s army outflanked then defeated the Scottish Covenanting army in a battle that lasted less than an hour. The battle was not long, but it resulted in the death of 1000-2000 Scottish soldiers as well as the capture of 4000-6000 Scottish prisoners.

Records suggest that about 1,700 of the prisoners died of malnutrition, disease, and the cold on their 100-mile march from Scotland to Durham. Professor Chris Gerrard, of Durham University’s Department of Archaeology, said that the soldiers who made it to Durham were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral and Castle.

A 365-Year-Old Mystery is Solved

No one knew what had happened to those prisoners until the mass graves were discovered. Annis told The Guardian :

“This is an extremely significant find, particularly because it sheds new light on a 365-year-old mystery of what happened to the bodies of the soldiers who died. Their burial was a military operation: the dead bodies were tipped into two pits, possibly over a period of days. They were at the far end of what would have been the Durham castle grounds, as far from the castle itself – they were out of sight, out of mind.”

In 2018 the University of Durham told the story of the Scottish soldiers in an exhibition in the Palace Green Library. It included a facial reconstruction of one of the soldiers by researchers at Face Lab, part of Liverpool John Moores University.

The researchers haven’t ruled out the possibility that more mass graves could be found in the area, but some may be underneath university buildings today. The soldiers that were discovered in the mass graves have been reburied in Durham and the University of Durham displays a plaque in commemoration.

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