Today (November 15) in London History – he committed adultery when he was 105

Old Parr died on November 15th, 1635. He was said to be 152 years old. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Helluva day, November 15th. If you were in London at any rate. This was one special day in London History. You lived through it you wouldn’t be forgetting it any time soon.

Which November 15th was that, you say? 

Yes, let’s pin the tail of the day on the donkey of the year. It was November 15th, 1635. 

The day you’d be writing home about.

The day that saw the tide of tides and the death of deaths.

The tide of tides first.

Archbishop Laud – yes, the Archbishop of Canterbury – said, “at afternoon the greatest Tide that hath been seen. It came within my gates, walks, cloisters and stables at Lambeth.” Set me wondering, what passed for a drainage specialist 500 years ago? What did the Archbishop do? Was it buckets and brooms? Must have been. This is the kind of thing you never think about unless you’ve had some dealings with a plumber but apparently ground drainage – roads, aeroport runways, playgrounds, plazas, etc. – is a bigger deal than household plumbing. Though it doesn’t feel that way of course if you’re the householder with the blocked sewer.

Anyway, the Archbishop will have had better days. And not too many years ahead of him, a worse day. Ten years down the line he’s got a date with the executioner at Tower Hill. He was beheaded on January 10th, 1645.

Poor Laud. He oversaw the rebuilding of the front of the mediaeval St Paul’s. He got the best in the business for that job. Inigo Jones. And apparently it was magnificent. People told the Archbishop it would be his memorial. But of course the Great Fire of London did for it. Did for the whole cathedral. Let alone 80 per cent of London.

It’s that other death though that’s the real show-stopper here. The death of deaths. The gentleman in question is buried in Westminster Abbey. And he’s got an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

He was a husbandman from Shropshire.

Husbandman. Lovely old word. A husbandman is somebody who cultivates the land. A farmer.

So we got a farmer from Shropshire dying in London on November 15th, 1635. He’d only been in London about six weeks when he succumbed. When he came to the Big Smoke he evinced zero interest in London attractions. And the great public events he’d lived through, zero interest in those as well. What he was interested in was the price of corn, hay, cattle, and sheep.

Pretty much a blank agricultural canvas, as rural personalities go. Or if not blank at least predictable. But – this bears repeating – he’s buried in Westminster Abbey. And has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Go figure, right.

What is it about this husbandman for Shropshire who died on November 15th, 1635? Did I mention that he was born in 1483? Or so it was said. Could that have anything to do with it? I think so.

His name was Thomas Parr. He was known as Old Parr. And, yes, it was believed that he was nearly 153 years old when he died.

If he was in fact born in 1483, well, he would have been nine years old when Columbus discovered the new world. He would have lived through the reigns of ten monarchs. And indeed it was by King Charles I’s order that he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

So in this one respect Old Parr – as he was known – wasn’t par for the course. Sorry, couldn’t resist that.

What else do we know about him? Well, if the stories are true, he remained a bachelor until he was 80.  He married one Jane Taylor. They had two children, both of whom died in infancy. When he was 105 he did penance in a sheet in Alberbury church for committing adultery with Katherine Milton. And indeed siring a child out of wedlock. His wife Jane died after they’d been married for 32 years. Parr remained a widower for ten years and then at the age of 122 he got himself another Jane to marry. Parr’s second wife said she Parr had regular sexual intercourse until he was 140. 

By 1635 – at the ripe old age of 152 – he was blind. He only had one tooth. But his beard was neat and his hearing and digestion were good. And he slept well. 

Enter, into Old Parr’s life, Thomas Howard, the 14th Earl of Arundel. The Earl was visiting his estates in Shropshire. He got wind of “this remarkable piece of antiquity” and decided to add him to his collection.

He had Parr brought to London on a litter. The journey was made in easy stages. Enroute crowds turned out to see the 152-year-old man. 

When they got the old boy to London they put him on show.

He met Charles I, who asked Parr: “Master Parr, you have lived longer than other men. What have you done more than other men?” He replied that he had performed penance for an affair with Catherine Milton, a village maiden. The King rebuked him. He said, “Fie, fie old man. Can you remember nothing but your vices?”

And then, KABOOM, on November 14th or 15th – six weeks after he got to London – Old Parr was no more. He went to meet his maker. The royal physician was the great William Harvey, the discoverer of the circulation of the blood. King Charles I had Harvey perform an autopsy on Old Parr. Harvey noted that the old boy’s organs of generation were in a healthy state. That seemed consistent with the story of his adultery and his second wife’s claim that they were regularly at it until he was 140.

It was believed that Parr’s diet had played an important role in his longevity. A century and a half of eating green cheese, onions, coarse bread, buttermilk or mild ale (cider on special occasions) and not smoking had kept him hale and hearty for fifteen decades. Parr’s own recipe for long life was: “Keep your head cool by temperance and your feet warm by exercise. Rise early, go soon to bed, and if you want to grow fat [in other words, prosperous] keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.”

William Harvey said it was his opinion that London had done for Old Parr. He said the main cause was the effect of London’s atmosphere, polluted by people, animals, and the smoke of coal fires upon someone accustomed to the healthy air of Shropshire. He added that the secondary cause was the sudden exposure to rich food and strong drink after a lifetime’s diet of cheese, buttermilk, and coarse bread.

Yes, that den of iniquity London was the culprit. Old Parr’s sudden demise on arrival in London proved it was intemperate living which explained why people could no longer emulate the longevity of the biblical patriarchs.

Well, who’s to say about any of this? Let’s just say that if it was true that Old Parr lived to be 152 that’s certainly impressive. Though I have my doubts. And impressive as a ripe old age of 152 is, it’s important to keep these things in perspective. 

Still going strong in 1635 was Henry Jenkins. Born in 1501 Henry Jenkins had 35 more years to live. I’ll do the maths for you. Henry Jenkins, if the claims are true, lived to be 169. And then there was the man in Persia who was believed by credible persons to be aged 400.

And on those jolly upbeat notes, for a Today in London recommendation, let’s go to an old folks home.

No, seriously, how about going to see something at the not-for-profit Donmar Warehouse Theatre in Covent Garden. This government has just defunded – a 100 per cent cut in their Arts Council Grant – the Donmar. They need your support. Suddenly, going to see a show at the Donmar isn’t just a night’s theatre-going – it’s a political act. It’s standing up for the good guys, flipping the bird to this rotten to the core government. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *