Please note that Evening Prayer will take place at St John's, Cathedral Square on 20th & 22nd May at 5.30pm due to a choir recording.

'Old Scarlett', Peterborough's Famous Sixteenth Century Gravedigger

Robert Scarlett, known locally as ‘Old Scarlett’, was born in 1496 and died on the 2nd of July 1594 at the unbelievable age of 98, his life spanning the reigns of Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I.

This year (2022) marks the 428th anniversary of his death. His longevity is thought to be due to his physical fitness as, even into his eighties, he was still digging graves in Peterborough. He has the distinction of having interred two queens in our Cathedral, Katharine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots, and after he buried his first wife Margaret he claimed he had buried three queens! Scarlett then went on to marry his second wife, Maud, by this time being well into his eighties.

He also buried scores of clergy and at least two generations of local people in and around Peterborough, often twice - once when they died and later to move bones or make space. Scarlett was Parish Clerk and Sexton of St. John’s parish church under three vicars where his duties included ringing the church bell, keeping the churchyard clean and burying townsfolk in the lay cemetery to the north of the abbey. 

When Old Scarlett died, the townsfolk took him to their hearts and insisted he be buried in the Cathedral where he now lies immediately below his fresco. Though the artist is unknown, the text beneath is believed to be by John Fletcher, a contemporary and associate of Shakespeare and son of Dean Richard Fletcher of Peterborough. The wall painting shows him with pick and shovel and the keys to vaults and chapels. His gravestone is testimony to the love and esteem in which he was held, as burial in the Cathedral was usually reserved only for the great and the good.

Although it is pure conjecture, it is thought that Robert Scarlett may have been the inspiration behind the grave digger scene in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

by Brian McDonnell


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