Help me with a historical murder mystery (warning - gruesome!)

I’m a teacher and have already devised and run some all day projects for pupils at my school.
Our History department have now asked me to come up with a project which:

  • should be interesting
  • should be historically accurate
  • should include four medieval areas (manuscripts, weapons, apothecaries and torture)
  • is aimed at 10-12 year olds

So I intend to have the pupils solve a murder, using clues in the above areas.
Basically a Baron gets knocked out by a drug, then killed the way Richard II was (involving a red hot poker and Richard grasping his ankles :confused: :eek: .) But later another violent person comes across the ‘recumbent’ Baron and stabs him with a dagger. The body is not discovered for a few days…

OK, don’t worry too much about the plot. (You can probably tell I like CSI, Ellis Peters and Agatha Christie!)

For the sake of accuracy, please can you help with the following?

  1. Was Richard II really murdered with a red hot poker?
    Does this leave obvious marks? (apart from the look on his face! :smack: )
    Will this upset 10-12 year olds?

  2. What medieval drug (obtainable by a noble) could be used to knock a man out? (It would be great if it left some signs of its presence, such as stains on the lips, or a pungent odour.)

  3. If a dead man is stabbed, is there a lack of bleeding? How long must he be dead before this applies?
    Can you tell by simple inspection approximately what sort of blade was used? (no microscopes!)

  4. Do any English insects lay eggs in dead bodies? If so, is there a regular time cycle for the eggs to hatch? In other words, could we say approximately when time of death occurred from the state of maturity of the insects?

  5. In English medieval times, could a woman inherit if there was a younger male heir?

  6. Did medieval nobles keep diaries? (I guess it depends on my time period - I know Samuel Pepys did, but that was around the 1600’s.)

Assume I am initially looking for sometime between 1200 - 1400.

Richard II was probaably starved to death. He had abdicated to Henry IV, and been placed into custody, and then they “forgot” to feed him.

You’re probably thinking about Edward II, who was supposedly murdered in the way you described.

Possibly Mandrake, Monks Hood or Henbane.

A variety of flies such as bluebottles and blowflies, but you may also with to consider involving rats.

You might also find this useful.

Thanks - it’s good to know precisely which King got the poker treatment!

Thanks for this - now I can be historically accurate!

More on the poker treatment story.

Will this upset 10-12 year olds?

I just asked my wife (UK ex-teacher for this age group). She advises strongly that you don’t include the red-hot poker bit, and also thinks a fly-blown and/or rat-gnawed corpse might be a little over the top. It’s irrelevant whether the children would be upset; it’s your department you have to worry about (imagine the potential for irate parents turning up: “Mr/Ms Glee has been telling my child about killing people by sticking pokers up their bottoms”). Get an opinion from your department head as to the limits on gruesomeness before developing this idea too far.

I agree with raygirvan’s wife. This seems OTT to me.

Well, the only question I can answer with any degree of confidence is your last one: Medieval nobles didn’t keep diaries, but there’s no particular reason why one couldn’t – provided, of course, that he or she were both literate and eccentric enough to waste valuable writing materials in a pursuit that most contemporaries would consider utterly pointless.

If you want to make the thing look probable, rather than merely possible, I’d suggest turning the diary into some other form of writing that would serve your purpose – maybe a book of household records kept by the steward or a series of personal letters. If the personal, confessional aspect of a diary is important, it’s conceivable that a devout noble might keep a private book of devotional writing and more earthly affairs might creep in, particularly if they involved something as dramatic as a murder.

No. The male offspring always took precedence, no matter what the order of birth.

As an example, King Henry VIII’s son, Edward, who was still just a child, inherited the throne first because he was the only male. After his death, Mary, who was in her thirties, became Queen.

When it came to estates, if there was no male heir the wealth/title sometimes went to the nearest male relative, skipping over daughters entirely.

Very few women achieved the status of *femme sole. *

Didn’t many monasteries also keep records of events? Maybe you could have the family priest sending letters to the monastery describing what’s been happening, so it could be included in the chronicles.

I’d third the opinion that the poker murder might be a bit much for 10-12 year olds. Even if it weren’t, their parents would most likely think it was. How about a “hunting accident”? That even has historical precedence, since William Rufus was killed in one.

If you want medieval, you might want to check out Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books – murder mysteries set in Shrewsbury, England in the 12th century. There ought to be something in there you could use.

I think at 10-12, the kids would think it’s really cool-but it would be way out of their league.

Maybe the Princes in the Tower? Is that too much?

Glee, does your school have any of the Terry Deary “Horrible Histories” series from Scholastic? Those are children’s books, National Curriculum approved, so would give you some sort of baseline for what’d be acceptable, as well as various nasty historical events for inspiration. There is one - “Dark Knights and Dingy Castles” - covering the era you want.

I’m acting as ideas man for the History department, so I’m covered there.
The corpse would certainly not be realistic. I think we may well do it by manuscripts describing the body rather than a prop.
The last murder mystery I ran featured a simple cardboard cut-out as the body. A small boy (approx 10 years old) said he didn’t like it. I started to apologise, then he continued “There’s no blood!”
I will ask some parents what they think.

(And I am taking this seriously, but the idea of the Headmaster calling me in to complain that ‘Mr Glee has been telling my child about killing people by sticking pokers up their bottoms’ is somehow amusing!)

Thanks - this is good advice.
I will try to use household records to provide information, especially as we have the Domesday Book as a feature of History courses.
Is it possible that a noble would write personal confessions to a priest? (i.e. sending them by hand to a nearby monastery)

Excellent, because there is a motive for a historical female of mine to commit murder.

Yes, priests were more literate than the population, plus the Church might be interested in the lands. So there could be clues in that correspondence.

I realise the poker may be too hot an issue :smack: , but I wanted a concealed cause of death.
I am already briefed on medieval poisons (thanks, Mangetout!), but other suggestions of how a cunning murderer would dispatch his victim are welcomed.

The ‘hunting accident’ is certainly interesting (I’ve just read a Sharyn McCrumb novel which mentioned it), but I was going for an ‘Agatha Christie’ type of approach where a second murderer unknowingly has a go at the body, not realising the victim is dead (not ‘resting on its perch’, so to speak!)

Yes, that’s exactly the setting I want.
(Psst - I did mention Ellis already! :o )