Monday, February 28, 2011

Old Parr: From Cottage to Palace - Lawrence

A number of years ago my aunt gave me a package of photocopies relating to my grandfather, Edwin Davies. At that time, I had no interest in my ancestors and I filed the documents away. Twenty years later, heavily into my genealogy, I regretted the lost opportunity to have my many questions answered.

The drawing of Old Parr’s Cottage in Shropshire, England, where my grandfather was born, began to hold great fascination for me as I searched for my ancestors’ lost lives. Who was Old Parr? Had he really lived to 152 ½ years? Which of Edwin Davies’ sons had written the caption at the bottom of the drawing? What was cousin Bert’s last name?

I set out to do some research on the Internet but the words “Old Parr” in the search engines brought no results. I e-mailed the genealogical society for the area and by coincidence they had just received information on a Thomas Parr from Shropshire who had lived to a great age. The surprise to me was that his life was five centuries ago—I had assumed that Old Parr was living at the time of my grandfather’s birth.

Having gone this far on my search for Old Parr I couldn’t let it go. I now knew that his first name was Thomas and that he was indeed buried in Westminster Abbey. I went to their web-site. His burial there, I found, was by order of King Charles 1st, and the inscription on the white marble gravestone gave his birth as AD 1483, his burial as November 15, 1635, and his age as 152 years. The gravestone also told us that he lived through the reigns of ten monarchs: Edward 4th, Edward 5th, Richard 3rd, Henry 7th, Henry 8th, Edward 6th, Mary, Elizabeth, James, and Charles.

What would make Thomas Parr uproot himself and go to London at his great age? A change from his simple Shropshire life would surely be hard on him. It is recorded that he did not smoke and that his diet consisted of green cheese, onions, coarse bread, buttermilk, and mild ale. He gave his recipe for long life as, “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.” (Quoted from John Taylor’s pamphlet of 1635, The Old, Old, Very Old Man.)

He did not leave his home of his own volition. The Earl of Arundel, Thomas Howard, while visiting one of his Shropshire estates in 1635 heard about the great age of this man and decided to take him to London to see King Charles. Thomas Parr, I suppose, had no say in the matter. The journey was made in easy stages and the Earl provided a jester for Old Parr’s entertainment along the way. But the venture would have brought him little joy given his old age and his blindness of some 20 years.

When they at last came to Court, King Charles asked him what he had done differently from other men in his long life. Old Parr answered that he had done penance when he was 100 years old. Parr’s penance entailed standing draped in a white sheet in the parish church, according to Taylor’s pamphlet, and was a result of his unfaithfulness to his wife and the fathering of an illegitimate child by Katherine Milton. His first marriage, from which he had two children both of whom died in infancy, was when he was aged 80. Ten years after his wife’s death he married again, but there were no children by this second marriage.

The alteration from his country lifestyle and plain diet caused Parr’s demise according to a post mortem carried out by Dr. William Harvey, who cited a diet change, rich wines and London’s pollution as the cause of death. Though he might just have succumbed to old age! After all, he was 152 years of age!

The point of interest for me, of course, is my grandfather’s connection to Old Parr. Why was he born in Thomas Parr’s cottage some 225 years after his death? Was it just coincidence that my great-grandmother went into labour while she was visiting there? Was she a descendant through Parr’s illegitimate child and calling on a relative? Was there some superstition that anyone born in this cottage would live to as great an age as Thomas Parr?

Apart from the fact that the caption under the drawing tells me that Edwin Davies was born in Old Parr’s cottage in 1859, I have found nothing to suggest that there is any relationship between Parr and my ancestors. By continued research, I hope to get answers to the mysterious connection of my family to Old Parr.
Meanwhile, Thomas Parr is certainly worthy of note and provides us with an interesting tale.


Peter Black said...

What an amazing and fascinating story, Judith! Given your grandfather's birth in Old Parr's cottage and the obscure background to Parr's illegitimate offspring, this makes for intense intrigue and possibly a titillating story line.
Hmm, could be a book, play, or film there, eh? (Or at least a Lawrencian poem, maybe! :))

Judith Lawrence said...

What fun to think of some intriguing tale to tell on Old Parr!

Thanks, Judith

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