UNITED in death, they have lain together under the earth undisturbed for more than 350 years, victims of the Civil War that tore England apart.
Now, centuries after they were buried and forgotten, their story has finally come to light – and given a new insight into the months-long siege of York in 1644.
For, although they were once part of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary army, they did not die in battle, but instead succumbed to disease that was rife among the besieging force.
Archaeologists uncovered the remains on the site of what, even during the Civil War, was a “lost” church – All Saints – just outside the city walls, where until recently the modern Barbican leisure centre stood.
There were ten mass graves, all varying in size.
The largest contained 18 skeletons, the smallest just four. In total there were 113 bodies.
The dead had all been stripped of clothing and belongings before they were buried – not even a button or buckle was found with them.
The vast majority were male – only six of the skeletons have been identified as female – and their ages ranged from teenagers to 50-year-olds.
The burials almost certainly date from 1644.
York, a Royalist stronghold, was besieged by 30,000 Parliamentarians from April to early July, when it fell following the Cavaliers’ defeat at the nearby battle of Marston Moor.
But while conditions within the city walls were bearable – the Royalists were well-provisioned – outside it was a very different story.
The Roundheads were under-supplied and suffered severe hardships, according to experts Lauren McIntyre and Graham Bruce, who revealed details of their excavation in the magazine Current Archaeology.
And examination of the remains has shown virtually no evidence of battle wounds that could have led to the deaths.
“It is highly unlikely that these men were killed in combat or as a result of violence,” said the archaeologists. “It is far more likely these mass graves contain the casualties of disease.”
The deprivation the besieging forces suffered would have made them susceptible to diseases such as typhus, dysentery and typhoid – which do not leave skeletal clues.
The archaeologists concluded: “Considering the length of the siege and the number of men involved, it is very likely this group of people were killed by highly infectious disease.”