Sunday, March 04, 2007

London Air, Killed by – Old Parr

There is a corner of Westmister Abbey which holds the tombstone of Thomas Parr, buried there in November 1635, at the age of 152. Yes, 152. Thomas Parr, or Old Parr as he was better known, apparently lived from 1483 to 1635, when he was brought to London to meet Charles I. The experience killed him.

Old Parr ascribed his longevity to his vegetarian diet and strict morals. His strict morals didn't stop him having an affair at the age of 100. He was apparently bored with his wife, whom he had married at the age of 80. As penance for his affair he was made to stand in the parish church, draped in a white sheet.

He lived in Winnington, near Shrewsbury, on the estates of the Earl of Arundel. Westminster Abbey says: “A diet of green cheese, onions, coarse bread, buttermilk or mild ale (cider on special occasions) and no smoking kept Thomas healthy.” Considering that commercial tobacco production did not start in Virginia until 1609 he couldn't have taken up smoking until he was 126. If I'm still alive at 126, I'm going to smoke for all I'm worth. Sod the coarse bread and buttermilk.

Most of the information we have about Old Parr comes from John Taylor's 1635 pamphlet: The Old, Old, Very Old Man or the Age and Long Life of Thomas Parr. Which is a boring, boring, very boring read.

Not content with outliving one wife, Old Parr married again, when he was 122. He lived through the reigns of ten kings, from Edward IV to Charles I. He was born before Columbus sailed, and yet, when he died, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was already exiling people (who would go on to found Rhode Island).

The Earl of Arundel was told about him as he was on his estates in 1635. He decided that the best thing to do would be to take Old Parr to London, to show him off like the freak he was. So, he dragged the blind 152-year old (he'd already been married to his second wife for 30 years) up to Court to show him off, and generally hold him up to ridicule.

He met Charles I, who asked him witty questions like: "You have lived longer than other men. What have you done more than other men?" Old Parr refrained from answering “Shat.” but referred to his penance instead. He quickly became a favourite object to coo over and patronise at court, and had his portrait painted.

Unfortunately, the change in atmosphere and diet (and possibly having to meet Charles I) led to Old Parr's dropping dead within a few weeks of arriving in London. The post-mortem was carried by Dr William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood, but could find none circulating in Old Parr. Apparently, the fine wines and London air did for him.

Old Parr's advice for living a 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 keep your eyes open and your mouth shut". This all sounds very boring, but probably an ideal way to get to 152.

If, however, you prefer carousing with courtiers into the small hours, life at Court, enormous meals and having your portrait painted all the time, you're just asking for it.

Poor old Old Parr. He was done for by not following his own advice, and being seduced by life at Charles I's Court, having lived to 152. Either that or his birth records got mixed up with his grandfather's.

(PS – This is one explanation of his great longevity, but it would still mean that Old Parr was over 100, no mean feat in the 17th century.)

More of these can be found over at How To Die.