Old Tom Parr — Outliving a Dynasty

Most people in today’s age would hope to live to around the age of 80. In the west, someone who dies at the age of 60, or perhaps even 70, would be considered to have died fairly young. In contrast, life expectancy in the 1500s was much lower. It is, however, easy to see a statistic such as “life expectancy in the 1500s was 35” and assume that anyone aged 40 or 50 is, therefore, a very old man. However, this is not true. Life expectancy was largely low due to high infant mortality rates. A man alive in the 16th century who lived to the age of 30 and maintained good health could be expected to live well into his 50s or 60s. For someone in the upper class, a lifespan of 80 years was not unheard of, with figures such as John Morton, Henry VII’s Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, achieving this feat.

It might, however, surprise you to hear of a man in the Middle Ages who was able to survive for over 150 years, despite leading a rural, quiet life. You may even suspect that there is some deception at play or some trickery present.

Parr’s cottage in Winnington, Shropshire

His name is “Old Tom Parr”. We know he existed and we know when he died. According to Parr himself, and even paperwork at the time, his birth occurred in 1483, during the reign of Edward IV, but this is — I’m sure unsurprisingly — unlikely to have been the case. It’s more likely that his records were confused with his grandfather’s than that a man was able to survive one and half centuries as a poor farmer.

Despite the seemingly obvious flaws to Parr’s claim, such as being unable to recall events from the 15th century or early 16th century, the lack of scientific knowledge at the time in addition to a widespread desire for supernatural happenings ensured that Parr became somewhat of a celebrity amongst the people of England. In fact, so much so that in 1635, Thomas Howard, the 21st Earl of Arundel, visited Parr and took him to meet King Charles I in London. This dream would, however, be shortlived as Parr died at the dinner table after choking on food. Or so it is claimed, the reality is that this is likely an embellished recollection of the real cause of death — likely just the sudden change in his diet in combination with his old age. Parr was, after all, determined to be 70 years old upon his death, if the autopsy of William Harvey is to be believed.

William Harvey, the physician who carried out Tom Parr’s autopsy

Parr had, as his gravestone exclaims, allegedly lived through the reigns of ten monarchs — Edward IV, Edward V, Richard III, Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I. It’s easy to see the number “152” and compare it to today’s ages, where people can live to 80. To put it into perspective, it’s worth observing who would have been alive during Parr’s supposed birth.

Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel, is a good point of comparison. At the time of Parr’s birth, he was — of course — not yet alive. Nor was his father, or grandfather. In fact, at the time of Parr’s birth, his great-great-great-great-grandfather, John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk, was still alive.

Thomas Parr’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery

Needless to say, Parr’s strange case has not gone forgotten throughout history. Contemporary fascination consisted of paintings by Van Dyck and Peter Rubens. The National Portrait Gallery in London contains Parr’s portrait. Even Bram Stoker couldn’t resist mentioning him in his famous novel, Dracula, as an example of an unexplainable phenomenon.

During his (supposed) lifetime, Parr had been able to outlive 10 monarchs, including an entire (Tudor) dynasty, experiencing both the end of the Wars of the Roses and the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot.

To conclude, here is the alleged advice of Old Tom Parr in regards to living a long life: “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 (prosperous) keep your eyes open and your mouth shut.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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