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London mysteries: a grave mix-up

Posted at 4:00 pm, August 29, 2012 in Fun London, News
Westminster Abbey

Each week we solve one of London’s great mysteries (as submitted by you, the thoughtful reader). This week, Tony Richard from Norfolk ponders the secret to long life.
Q: ‘On a recent visit to Westminster Abbey (above) I noticed a gravestone commemorating Thomas Parr, born in 1483. He then seems to have lived to the age of 152. Is this true and, if so, what was his secret?’

Well Tony…

Get married at 80, drink mild ale and mix up your birth records! This seems to be the secret behind Thomas Parr’s longevity. His white marble gravestone stands in the centre of the south transept of Westminster Abbey, and states that he lived through the reigns of ten monarchs, from Edward IV to Charles I. ‘The Old, Old, Very Old Man’, a pamphlet written by John Taylor in 1635, chronicles the life of ‘Old Parr’. It tells us that he lived in Shropshire and that he married his first wife, Jane Taylor, at the age of 80. He did penance, aged 100, for fathering an illegitimate child by Katherine Milton, and subsequently spent ten years as a widower, before marrying one Jane Lloyd. On hearing about Parr, the Earl of Arundel took him to visit King Charles I in London, where the elderly celebrity had his portrait painted. That picture now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery – depicting him with an unkempt grey beard and a walking stick. Unfortunately for Parr, he died within a few weeks of arriving in the capital. Bizarrely, royal physician William Harvey could find no cause for his death other than a change in food and environment, as his organs were all in good order. His fame continued into the nineteenth century, when his secret to longevity was sold in capsule form – Parr’s Life Pills (pictured) became bestsellers. Sadly, it seems we will never know the truth behind the tale. It has been suggested that Thomas Parr’s birth date may have been confused with his grandfather’s. However, if you believe the stories then perhaps you should take note of the formula Parr lived by, as outlined in Taylor’s pamphlet: ‘Keep your head cool by temperance and your feet warm by exercise. Rise early, go soon to bed and if you want to grow [prosperous] keep your eyes open and your mouth shut!’ Josie Gurney-Read

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