Old Scarlett: The extraordinary gravedigger who buried two medieval Queens

Cathedrals are usually the burial places of powerful monarchs or pious priests.

And there are certainly those at Peterborough Cathedral, in East Anglia.

But one tomb is given a prominent position at the entrance to the magnificent building, which began under the Anglo-Saxons, was hugely remodelled under the Normans and was added to by subsequent dynasties.

And this burial place is reserved for a man who occupied what you’d think would be a lowly position – that of gravedigger.

But Robert Scarlett, or Old Scarlett as he is remembered, was no ordinary gravedigger.

Scarlett, who served as Sexton at the Cathedral, had an impressive career burying two Queens at the historic site.

He also lived for 98 years, until his death in 1594, a prodigious lifespan in those times – and still now.

Old Scarlett has a portrait, in fact two, placed in a lofty position above the main doors.

Next to one of these there is a rhyme, which reads:

“You see old Scarlitt’s picture stand on hie,

But at your feete here doth his body lye.

His office by thes tokens you may know.

His gravestone doth his age and Death time show,

Second to none for strength and sturdye limm,

A Scarebabe mighty voice with visage grim.

Hee had interd two Queenes within this place

And this townes Householders in his lives space

Twice over: But at length his own time came;

What for others did for him the same

Was done: No doubt his soule doth live for aye

In heaven: Tho here his body clad in clay.”

As well as the two famous Queens, more on which soon, according to local legend, Old Scarlett was said to have interred two people from every Peterborough household during his impressive lifetime.

This is estimated to total 1,500 souls laid to rest by the overachieving undertaker.

Old Scarlett’s first royal funeral duty came in 1536, when he buried the hugely-significant Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife.

Katherine’s inability to provide Henry with a male heir led to the break with Rome and establishment of the Church of England, after Pope Clement VII refused to annul the marriage.

Henry’s claim that the marriage was illegitimate since Katherine was previously married to his brother, Prince Arthur, who died aged 15, in 1502, cut no ice with the Pontiff.

Likewise, Katherine, mother to the future Queen Mary I, never recognized Henry’s divorce, and was exiled from the Royal Court in 1534.

She died just two years later at Kimbolton Castle, and was brought to the abbey at nearby Peterborough for burial.

Her remains still lie in the cathedral’s North Aisle.

Were it not for Katherine, the history of Peterborough and its cathedral may have followed a very different path, for it is widely believed that the church was spared Henry’s vandalism in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, because it was her final resting place.

Scarlett was, as his sobriquet suggests, indeed old when he was next called upon to bury a Queen.

After years of suspicion and alleged plots, Queen Elizabeth I, another daughter of Henry VIII, finally lost patience with her Catholic rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.

After being implicated in a plot to murder Elizabeth Mary was tried for treason and executed at nearby Fotheringay Castle, in 1587.

She was buried in the South Choir Aisle of Peterborough Cathedral.

However, her remains were later moved to Westminster Abbey by her son, James I of England.

The site of her original grave is still marked in the cathedral where Scarlett himself is buried, although his grave remains.

Peterborough Cathedral is a magnificent building, marked in positive and negative ways throughout centuries of tumultuous history.

As well as the story of Old Scarlett every nook and cranny of this incredible construction tells a story.

It is well worth a visit.

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