St. Bees Man

by Ben Best

In mid-Summer 1996 I attended an APL computer-language conference at the University of Lancaster, in Britain. After the conference I rented a car and drove to the city of St. Bees in search of more information about "the most perfectly preserved medieval man in modern times". I have recorded my experience in detail for the benefit of others who may wish to investigate for themselves. But I will begin by quoting from THE BOGMAN by Don Brothwell, which is how I learned of St. Bees Man in the first place:

"Within a well-constructed vault was a 'lead coffin', placed inside an iron-bound wooden coffin and packed with grey clay. In fact, the 'lead coffin' was nothing more than a sheet of lead wrapped around the body. When the lead was opened up, a shrouded figure was revealed. The body was eventually unwrapped and studied in detail before being reburied. When the outer and inner shrouds and the waxy embalming material were removed, a remarkably well-preserved body appeared to view, naked but for two pieces of string around the neck and penis (part of the 'laying-out' practice of the day)...

"Dr. Eddie Tapp, who undertook the autopsy, was careful to note how the body looked when first unwrapped. The skin had a fresh pink appearance, which quickly faded. The eyes were in good condition, and the mucosa of the mouth looked fresh at first. Internal tissues were similarly well preserved, indeed the blood vessels even appeared to contain 'fresh' blood. A haemorrhage into the right plural (chest) cavity from a lung injury still appeared as dark red fluid (although the microscopic cellular structure had changed). Heart and intestines were intact, and when the liver was cut open, its surface was bright pink, although this faded quickly to brown. Such a degree of preservation had clearly depended on rapid embalming and the body's enclosure within lead, clay packing and wooden coffin. There was also evidence of adipocere development, whereby fatty acids are deposited post mortem within the tissues, leading to their dehydration and acidification with a consequent deterrence of microbial activity which would otherwise cause putrefaction."

St. Bees is a somewhat touristy town by virtue of the fact that it has a beach and because it is the beginning of a trail that allows hikers to walk from the West Coast of Britain to the East Coast (it is also the end of the trail when you start from the East). St. Bees has a long history as a small town, dating from the time of the Vikings.

I arrived at St. Bees not long after daybreak on the morning of Friday, August 2nd. I parked my car and explored the small town. I noted that Friday is one of the days when the small town library is open, but I was doubtful that I would still be in town at the 2 pm opening. I entered a convenience store and when I asked about "St. Bees Man", the shopkeeper spoke enthusiastically about his discovery in the nearby churchyard. She had seen a video of the autopsy, and was fascinated by how lifelike the flesh & blood were. She commented that they could even see what he had eaten shortly before he was slain. She said that he was a nobleman who had died in the Crusades, and that someone had evidently made arrangements to preserve him and ship him home in the event he was slain.

I walked to The Priory of St. Bees (also known as "The Priory Church St. Mary & St. Bega) at the foot of the hill that contains the main street of St. Bees. I decided I would attend the posted 8 am daily prayer service and I explored the ancient graveyard while I was waiting. 8 am came and went -- while I continued to walk about. I was standing near the elaborate archway of the West Door when an elderly woman came along to unlock it. The church is unlocked in the daytime, but a tourist would have to be pretty savvy to get into the church, because you must turn the ring on the West Door to get in. There is a St. Bees Man exhibit in the church, but the woman did not stay. She told me that there is more information about St. Bees Man at the tourist museum known as "The Beacon" in the nearby city of Whitehaven.

I spent a while in the large church looking at the exhibit, and during the entire time I was completely alone. (They are very trusting in the small towns of Britain.) I copied the text from the exhibit, which I reproduce below. I also visited The Beacon in Whitehaven. They had plans to set-up a VCR to show the St. Bees Man autopsy video to tourists, but they would not be ready to do so for a month. They claimed to have the only video of the autopsy, and they regarded it as a valuable asset of the museum. They did not want its value eroded by allowing it to be copied.

The exhumation and autopsy was conducted under Deirdre O'Sullivan (a Lecturer in Archeology at Leicester University), with the assistance of a Dr. Eddie Tapp (presented by E. Tapp and D.M. O'Sullivan at the Fourth European Members Meeting of the Paleopathology Association, Middleburg-Antwerpen, 16-19 September 1982). I have written to many (including Deirdre O'Sullivan) for a copy of the autopsy report -- and have even sent money -- but without reply.

The following text (accompanying photos and physical artifacts) was copied from the exhibits at The Priory St. Bees:

"In August 1981, archeological excavations at St. Bees Priory revealed an unrecorded burial vault in the former chancel building, which had remained disused and roofless for a considerable time.

"The vault contained the remarkably well preserved corpse of a man, wrapped in two beeswax-coated shrouds and sealed in a lead container. Traces of a wooden outer coffin were also detected. Alongside this burial was the skeleton of a woman -- presumably his wife.

"After completion of the post mortem the body was re-interred in the grounds of this church, but the shrouds were preserved for further research. One of them is displayed in the adjacent case, along with a fragment of the lead coffin and other items from the burial.

"The efforts made to preserve the body and return it for burial indicate that he was a man of some eminence in West Cumbria, but his identity is not known. The most likely candidate is Antony de Lucy, who is known to have died 'abroad' in 1368. An effigy of Antony de Lucy may be seen to the left of this display, together with a detailed drawing.

"A post mortem examination of the body showed that a deep chest-wound had penetrated the lung, filling it with blood and causing his death. A videotape recording of the autopsy was made, along with many photographs, some of which are included in this display.

"The top of the coffin, also of lead, had been soldered-down to form an airtight seal. The lead coffin was originally encased with wood, but this had rotted away, leaving only rusty marks, of the iron bindings.

"Removing the bitumen-soaked shroud from the body: The body was wrapped in these two shrouds, one of which is shown, after cleaning and conservation, in this case. The shrouds were retained for scientific investigation but the body was re-interred in St. Bees Priory.

"This piece of lead was cut from the coffin for metallurgical examination, and if required further tests can be carried out on this specimen. This sample consists of two butt-jointed sheets overlapped by a third to make an air-tight seal.

"Samples of the bituminous substance which coated the shroud have been recovered from this portion of the lead coffin; these too are available for further investigation.

"You are looking at the inner surface, with traces of the bitumen still adhering.

"'Tow' wadding: Impregnated with preservative, this was used to pack the orifices of the body.

"Human hair: This hair has been cut and laid over the chest of the corpse. The strange thing is that it is a woman's hair ..."

The photographs accompanying the exhibits are quite striking. It is absolutely astounding to see such evidence of flesh and blood from a man who has been buried for over 600 years. Since there no perfusion with preservative, that I know of, this impresses me profoundly with the value of an air-tight seal. When there is no oxygen to cause oxidation, decay is evidently very slow. I doubt that electron micrographs were made of his brain.


A somewhat related discovery was made of a medieval infant whose brain had been somewhat preserved. Sulci, gyri, grey & white matter, and even neuronal remains & Nissl bodies were observed because of mummification due to adipocere formation [NEUROIMAGE; Papageorgopolou,C; 50(3):893-901 (2010)].