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On 15 November 1635, Thomas Parr was laid to rest at a grave in old Westminster Abbey. Tradition insist that this man was born around the year 1482 or 1483, and that he had reached the ripe old age of 152 years. Parr’s unusual longevity made him a sensation, and when he went to London to visit the King towards the end of his life, Parr was practically smothered by the crowd attempting to touch him and hear him speak. Although any rational person would refuse to believe the human life is capable of such lifespan, some credence was lent to Parr’s life because his body was dissected upon his death by the famed physician William Harvey, who, like others of the time, accepted Parr’s age.

Portrait of Thomas Parr by John Condé, circa 1793.

Most of what historians know about the life of Tom Parr comes from John Taylor’s pamphlet, published in the year of Parr’s death, entitled “The old, old, very old man or the age and very long life of Thomas Parr.”  According to the pamphlet, which is a biography of Parr in the form of a long poem, Parr was born in the parish of Alberbury, in Shropshire, England. At the age of 17, he went to work as a farmer, and eighteen years later, leased his own farm. This farm he leased from three generations of owners, until the age of 102, when he leased it for life, which turned out to be a sour deal for the landlords, since he lived for fifty years more. Tarr remained a bachelor until the age of 80 when he married his first wife, Jane Taylor. Together they had two children but they died in infancy.

While still married, Parr had an affair with a women named Katherine Milton, who bore him a child. At that time, Parr was 105 years old. When his transgression was discovered, he was forced to do penance at the parish church for being unfaithful to his wife. Ten years after his first wife’s death, Parr married a second time. Parr was then 122 years old.

In 1635, when Parr was 152 years old, Thomas Howard, the 21st Earl of Arundel, went to visit Parr at his Shropshire home. By then, Parr’s fame had spread the length and breadth of England. He was an old withered man, with gray beard, blind for twenty years and unable to walk on his own. The well-meaning Earl of Arundel took Parr to London to meet King Charles I. When he was presented at court and on seeing the old man Charles I supposedly asked him, “You have lived longer than other men. What have you done more than other men?”, to which Parr replied: “Sire, I did penance when I was a hundred years old”.

Old Tom Parr became an overnight celebrity among the nobles in London. He had his portrait painted by Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, and he dined on the finest foods and wines. The gastronomic overindulgence and the change in environment eventually took its toll and Parr became gravely ill a couple of weeks after his arrival. When he died on 13 November 1635, King Charles I had his personal physician, Dr. William Harvey perform an autopsy on Parr.

The genius doctor who discovered the circulation of blood cut open Parr and reported that all his internal organs were healthy, except for some signs of pneumonia in his lungs and a left heart failure. Harvey concluded that Parr died of suffocation caused by pneumonia. He also maintained that had Parr never left Shropshire and its quiet pure air and simple diet, he would have lived longer.

William Harvey dissecting the body of Thomas Parr. Photo: Wellcome Images

The fact that Harvey accepted Parr’s longevity gave undeserved credence to what is essentially a fable. In Human Longevity, published in 1837, author W.J. Thoms made the first critical examination of Parr’s case and found no evidence to support any of the reputed facts on Parr’s life. Thoms reasoned that some documentary trace of the man’s existence should be found if the legends are true. Yet, Thoms found no birth register, or baptismal register documents to establish the date of birth. He also didn’t find no mention of Parr in the diocesan records in Shropshire, especially in Alberbury where the famous penance was supposed to have taken place.

Many modern historians believe that Tom Parr was less than one hundred years old when he died. Some suggest that Parr’s records were confused with those of his grandfather, putting Parr’s death at a more reasonable age between 70 and 100 years.

Nevertheless, Parr’s legend has been etched in stone at Westminster Abbey, where his gravestone could be found. The inscription of his gravestone reads:

THO: PARR OF YE COUNTY OF SALLOP, BORNE.
IN AD: 1483. HE LIVED IN YE REIGNES OF TEN
PRINCES VIZ: K.ED.4. K.ED.5. K.RICH.3.
K.HEN.7. K.HEN.8. K.EDW.6. Q.MA. Q.ELIZ.
K.JA. & K. CHARLES. AGED 152 YEARS.
& WAS BURYED HERE NOVEMB. 15. 1635.

There is also a brand of Scotch in his name, and a place called Old Parr in Britain.

References:
# Thomas Parr,
Westminster Abbey
# William J. Ford, “Old Parr”, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

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