Tag Archives: Local History

Old Scarlett

Old Scarlett
(Robert Scarlett, 1496-1594)

Enter the cathedral. He is still there,
painted onto a wall, above a door.
A bizarre, intriguing figure,
Robert Scarlett – “Old Scarlett”,
immortal grave-digger.

What a story he could have told,
what a life he must have led,
enduring to be so old;
yet living with the dead.
Like a leech, or vampire,
perhaps, sucking their blood,
for sustenance, as food,
a hunger that must be fed.
Unsurprising, perhaps,
his surname means “red”.

He buried Mary, Queen of Scots,
and Katharine of Aragon,
with hundreds of others,
their stories long-gone.
He had an unquenchable
lust for life; aged eighty-nine,
he wed his second wife.

Look again at the painting;
a tiny detail, almost unseen,
gives an edge to the image
of this man who buried queens.
Stocky in build, stout, not lean,
fierce character, pugnacious mien;
a direct gaze, sturdy in the hip,
there dangles from his waist
a slightly sinister whip.

As followers of this blog will know, I live in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough happens to have a notable cathedral, which dates back to Norman times.  I constantly castigate myself for not visiting the cathedral as frequently as I should, but I do like to read about its history, and the local history of the area.  It was while I was reading a book about the history of Peterborough that I first came across Robert Scarlett, who was described as one of Peterborough’s most legendary residents.  Scarlett was born in 1496, worked as a gravedigger, and was employed as sexton by the cathedral.  His main claim to fame is that he buried both Katharine of Aragon and Mary, Queen of Scots after their funerals in the cathedral, but he is also notable for living to the age of 98, and for marrying his second wife – only a year after the death of his first wife – when he was 89 years old!  It is possible that Shakespeare based the character of the gravedigger in Hamlet upon Scarlett.

As soon as I read about him, I wanted to write a poem about “Old Scarlett”, but it wasn’t until I found out that there was a painting of him in the cathedral that I realized how I could actually do it. 

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