There have been studies of fatal accidents before. But surely no one else has discovered so many unusual, comical and grizzly ways of dying as Oxford University historian Dr Steven Gunn.

Take, for instance, 24-year old Christopher (surname unknown) who found himself one autumn day in a yard in Oxford, behind what is now the King’s Arms pub. He was killed by a bear, apparently bitten to death by the beast.

But it was not bad news for everyone. The bear was to escape punishment and was instead forfeited to Queen Elizabeth I as the cause of the fatal accident — presenting the Crown with a fairly valuable acquisition.

Back in 1565 bears, who both performed and were kept for the bloodthirsty attraction of bear-baiting, were a popular part of the Tudor entertainment scene.

“It was probably worth about 26s 8d,” explains Dr Gunn. “That’s the equivalent of about six months’ wages for a labourer.”

The Oxford bear attack is just one of the thousands of accidental deaths in Tudor England that Dr Gunn has uncovered in a four-year research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

It has involved the Merton College historian wading through mountains of coroners’ reports and deciphering spidery handwriting to present us with a new take on life and death in Tudor times.

“Although much of the material we are studying is tragic,” reflects Dr Gunn, “there are deaths which could well be material for Laurel and Hardy or Monty Python’s upper-class twit of the year.”

For example, there is the man who shot himself in the head while trying to remove the arrow stuck in his long bow, or the Cambridge baker who fell into a cesspit while relieving himself after a heavy drinking session — to be overcome by the stench of the contents.

Another death now lodged in Dr Gunn’s mind involved an unlucky man who was standing in a garden on the edge of Coventry when a maypole fell over. It missed him and hit the city wall, but his narrow escape turned to disaster when a stone fell off the wall, penetrating his brain.

But there is real gold in these surprisingly under-studied coroners’ records.

Medieval historians have previously used them but the Tudor records are far fuller.

The most exciting entry recorded the death of Jane Shaxspere, who fell into a mill pond and drowned while picking flowers called ‘yellow boddies’ or corn marigolds in Upton Warren, a village just 20 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon.

The year was 1569, William Shakespeare would have been five years old. It is quite possible they could have been related, a young cousin perhaps, believes Dr Gunn, bearing in mind almost every contemporary document seems to spell Shakespeare a different way.

But most fascinating of all are the parallels with the death of Ophelia in Hamlet, who in the great Shakespeare tragedy picked flowers and drowned when she fell into a river.

Dr Gunn says: “The enquiries into deaths were extensive and solemnly undertaken — the detail in which Jane Shaxspere’s death was reported suggests that children’s deaths merited careful consideration.”

Other young girls are similarly reported as drowning when picking flowers.

“It was quite a surprise to find Jane Shaxspere’s entry in the coroners’ reports. It might just be a coincidence, but the links to Ophelia are certainly tantalising.”

Oxford University English don Dr Emma Smith agrees. She says: “Even if Jane Shaxspere were not related to the playwright, the echo of their names might well have meant this story stuck in his mind.”

A coroner’s report uncovered by one of his former graduate students threw some light on one of English history’s greatest mysteries: how the wife of Elizabeth I’s favourite Robert Dudley met her death.

Amy, who is buried in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, broke her neck while falling down the stairs at the couple’s home in Cumnor.

Sadly the report did not provide conclusive evidence as to whether Amy was murdered, as long suspected, so her husband might marry the Queen.

Some of the records seem to ask more questions than they answer.

Dr Gunn estimates there are some 9,000 accidental deaths in the 16th century to investigate, all stored in the public records office in Kew.

With just one researcher to help him, it has understandably delayed his progress on another new book on Henry VII’s courtiers.

He reflects that the whole thing began when he decided to look into accidental deaths from archery, in an effort to gain new information about how widespread archery practice was in the 16th century.

Although he found some 56 people were killed in archery accidents, he soon noticed how handgun accidents began overtaking those relating to archery from the 1550s — and the project just grew.

The first fatal shooting accident dates from 1519, when a woman from near Hull was accidentally shot by a bookbinder from France.

The victim, not understanding the noisy gadget, apparently walked in front of the gun as it was being fired.

There are some striking differences to the frequency of modes of death today.

Deaths from house fires are rare, for instance, which is put down to the fact houses tended to be one-storey high, making escape easier.

On the other hand workmen, it seems, regularly drowned when they stripped off to bathe in rivers and ponds after work, suggesting 16th-century people had more sense of hygiene than previously thought.