WHEN a battle-scarred skeleton was discovered buried beneath one of the nation’s most strategically important castles, archaeologists could only guess at the nature of his life and death.
Now, a decade on, a reconstructed face with decidedly thuggish features points to the possible identity of a medieval knight, whose remains were discovered at Stirling Castle.
But there is a drawback for patriotic Scots intrigued by the riddle of Stirling Castle’s unknown soldier – it turns out he was almost certainly a leading light in the English army.
Painstaking research has revealed that, not only was the knight likely to have come from the south of England, but he was almost certainly at the centre of efforts to repel sieges of the castle when Scots were trying to reclaim it in the 14th century.
Forensic experts, archaeologists and historians have joined forces on a project that has unearthed a likely name for the warrior – Sir John De Stricheley – after records showed an English knight of that name died in the castle in October 1341. The remains were found with nine other skeletons under a paved floor in a lost royal chapel in 1997, but their identities were shrouded in mystery until recently, when new scientific tests were carried out.
A BBC TV documentary, to be shown on Thursday, will lift the lid on how researchers were able to analyse the knight’s geographical background, build, injuries and even diet. Analysis of his skeleton has revealed that the man, in his twenties, was about 5ft 7in and “very strong and fit, with the physique of a professional rugby player”.
Although he suffered several serious wounds – including an arrowhead lodged in his chest and a blow to the head from a sword or axe – it is not known how the knight died.
Richard Strachan, senior archaeologist at Historic Scotland, said: “We know that the head wound had healed, so that wasn’t what killed him.
“The research has moved on so much from 1997 so that it allowed us to narrow the time the skeleton dated from to between 1290 and 1340. This was a period when the castle was changing hands between the Scots and the English, so we didn’t know whether the knight was Scottish, French or English.”
Natalie Humphreys, at Shine TV, which produces the show History Cold Cases for the BBC, said: “You are able to rule certain parts of the country in or out through various scientific techniques. We knew the rough time the skeleton dated from and our research found out there had actually been an English knight buried at the castle in 1341, the year before the Scots seized it.
“No-one can be sure it’s definitely him, but it seems there is a pretty good chance.”
Detailed work is set to get under way on the remaining nine skeletons. Evidence even suggests one female skeleton may also have been a warrior who met a grisly fate. She has several neat, square holes punched through her head by some form of weapon.
Dr Jo Buckberry, a biological anthropologist at Bradford University, who also took part in the research, said: “We can now tell much more from skeletons about where people came from, their lifestyles and causes of death. This group is highly unusual, because of where and when the people were buried, suggesting that they might have been socially important and have died during extreme events such as sieges.”
Stirling Man is being shown as part of History Cold Case on 20 May at 9pm on BBC 2.
How archaeologists fleshed out the bones of castle mystery
IT HAS taken experts more than 13 years to unravel the mystery of the battle-scarred warrior secretly buried inside one of Scotland’s best-known landmarks.
Archaeologists stumbled across his remains in 1997 when they were uncovered during preparatory work on a restoration of the 16th-century Royal Palace at Stirling Castle.
One initial theory was that the bones may have belonged to a priest in whose arms King James IV wept as he made his confession about plotting his father’s death in 1488.
The body had been given a Christian burial, with the feet carefully laid out to the east to await the resurrection. The bones were found under flagstones in an extension once used as kitchens by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
However, further digging work carried out later that year unearthed another nine skeletons, two of them babies, and the remains what was thought to be a second, secret royal chapel inside the castle.
It is thought highly unlikely any burials would have been carried out in a building not consecrated for worship.
However, only limited information was gleaned at the time and historians could only guess that the remains were about 500 years old. Last year, it emerged that new analytical techniques had dated the skeleton to the 14th century and that it was almost certainly the remains of a medieval knight.
They also revealed he had previously survived both an axe wound to the forehead and a large arrowhead being embedded in his chest.
An exhibition about the skeletons will have pride of place when the restored Royal Palace, widely recognised as the finest Renaissance building in Scotland, opens to the public next summer.