A Remarkable Birthday Present: The Corpse of Thomas Parr (1483 – 1635)

On 16 November 1635, William Harvey presented Queen Henrietta Maria with an unusual birthday present: the body of Thomas Parr, aged 152.

The famous anatomist had procured the centenarian’s body after Thomas Howard, 14th earl of Arundel, brought the old man from Shropshire to London to meet Charles I. Parr, who claimed to be born in 1483, had spent most of his life working as a husbandman in Winnington. At the age of 80, he married Jane Taylor and had two children by her, both of whom died in infancy.  But Parr’s young wife could not keep his affections, and at the age of 105 he did penance for cheating on Jane with one Katherine Milton. Seven years later, Jane died leaving Parr a widower for a decade before he again remarried, this time at the alleged age of 122. [1]

When Parr died on the 14th/15th November 1635, he was blind and had only one tooth left in his mouth. At the request of Charles I, Harvey dissected the old man’s corpse in the presence of the court and in honour of the Queen’s birthday.

Harvey—who uncritically accepted Parr’s age—determined that the old man had died after being exposed to the polluted air of London. At the autopsy, he reported:

The cause of death seemed fairly referrible [sic] to a sudden change in the non-naturals, the chief mischief being connected with the change of air, which through the whole course of life had been inhaled of perfect purity – light, cool, and mobile, whereby the praecordia and lungs were more freely ventilated and cooled. [2]

Upon arriving in London, however, Parr was exposed to that ‘destitute’ city where ‘ditches abound, and filth and offal lie scattered about’ to say nothing of ‘the smoke engendered by the general use of sulphureous coal as fuel’. Harvey concluded that ‘[s]uch an atmosphere could not have been found otherwise than insalubrious to one coming from the open, sunny, and healthy region’ of England, and was the direct cause of Parr’s death. [3]

It is unlikely that Parr died from a sudden ‘change in the air’; however, Harvey was not wrong about the filthy conditions in London during the 17th century. Without a proper sewage system in place, the city was a breeding ground for waste and disease. In 1660, Samuel Pepys complained that he had ‘stepped into a great heap of turds’ due to his neighbours outhouse overflowing into his cellar. A year after Parr’s death, London would experience an outbreak of bubonic plague which would end up killing thousands.

Parr became a legend in his own right. Several publications about his life—including two broadsheets—appeared shortly after his death. In 1841, The Extraordinary Life and Times of Thomas Parr was published to promote an all-purpose herbal medicine called ‘Parr’s Life Pills’ [see advertisement]. In 1906—65 years after they first appeared in Parr’s biography, and 271 years after Parr’s death—these pills were still being advertised in Old Moore’s Almanack, a testament perhaps not to the efficacy of the pills but to the endurance of Parr’s legend.

After Harvey had finished anatomizing Parr, he was buried in Westminster Abbey. His burial plaque states that he lived through the reigns of 10 monarchs, and marks his birth and death dates as 1483 and 1635.

So what was Parr’s secret to a long life? According to the old man: ‘[k]eep your head cool by temperance and your feet warm by exercise. Rise early, go soon to bed, and if you want to grow fat [prosperous] keep your eyes open and your mouth shut’. [4]

Wise words, indeed!

1. Keith Thomas, ‘Parr, Thomas (d. 1635)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004).
2. W. Harvey, ‘Anatomia Thomae Parri … cum Guliellmi Harvae … observationibus’, in J. Betts, De ortu et natura sanguinis (1669), 319–25; trans. in G. Keynes, The life of William Harvey (1966), repr. (1978), 220–25.
3. Ibid.
4. J. Taylor, The old, old, very old man (1635).

8 comments on “A Remarkable Birthday Present: The Corpse of Thomas Parr (1483 – 1635)

  1. Auggiedoggy says:

    Its a myth. His actual age wasn’t properly documented so … nice story.

    • Sir Kevin Parr Bt says:

      Holy Church records record Tom Parrs birth and no Earl would have risked a fraud when dealing with such a king as Charles

  2. […] of the most famous examples is Parr’s Life Pills—named after a man who reputedly lived to 152 in the 16th century. These ‘remarkable’ pills […]

  3. P. says:

    WoW!! He actually lived 2 lifetimes. 152, thats crazy!

  4. Mallory says:

    This is fascinating to me; mainly because one has to wonder how old he really was, and what actually caused his eventual demise. To have our modern forensic detectives analyze him would, of course, mean the unnecessary disruption of his eternal rest, but a part of me is madly curious to see what they would discover. To attain such a great age in that time required consistently good health (obviously) as well as luck…and perhaps, from what his life story tells us, maybe a few marriages to keep things interesting after you turn 100! What a true medical curiosity from the pages of history.

    • Sir Kevin Parr Bt says:

      Thomas Parr was born in the reign of his kinsman King Richard 111 in 1483.He died in 1635. In England at his birth it was law that his father John Parr paid his baby sons christening and funeral expenses to the Holy Catholic Church. Records record this transaction. The earl did not want an incident of fraud when the King was introduced to this man. All stops had to be pulled out to disprove the age of Tom Parr. No one could and so we know he was the oldest living relative in England. In Europe a few have lived longer but we are dealing with Britain only here. We did have a single great aunt who topped 120 years of age and died of cancer in her sleep 1952.

    • Sir Kevin Parr Bt says:

      He had to be tested by the Earl who went to Rome for Toms birth records. In those days his father John Parr had to pay to the Catholic Church both his sons Christening costs and his funeral at the same time.It was to keep the City free from so many fortune hunters and jobs hunters away from London. You can bet that the earl would not dare to announce a fraud unto his kings company. We had a maiden great aunt who was 112 years old in 1951 she died. Europe has two older than Tom Parr but he is the British champ until someone lives longer.

    • Sir Kevin Parr Bt says:

      See the Winnington Church records. When Tom was born his father had to not only pay the boys christian baptismal but towards his burial also.This keep the youth from invading London and leaving the land. We also know he carried on farming at his fathers demise. The land freehold tells us that Tom was a free man and houses and land owner so paid dues on rates to the Earls agents. Records show he paid regularly. We also have his marriages recorded. When the Earl took old man Parr to show the Queen he signed Parrs death warrant. Fully researched by Lord Howard or his head would have rolled for fraud in order to gain the favour of Royalty.

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