William Thoms, in addition to bringing Notes and Queries into being and coining the word ‘Folklore’, was also an author of some interesting, if characteristically strange, books. Take his Human Longevity, Its Facts and Its Fictions, of 1873, for example. In it, Thoms examines those claims of extreme longevity that are a constant of folk memories.
|William Thoms - Human Longevity - 1873|
Personally, I blame the Old Testament for putting ideas into people’s heads in the first place – you know, all those patriarchs and prophets who lived for donkeys’ years. Take Methuselah, who was Noah’s grandfather, and was reckoned to have lived to be 969 years old. Or Noah himself, who didn’t peg it until he was 950. Or even Adam, who popped his clogs when he was a mere stripling of 930. Now, people will tell you that the reason for this is because the Bronze Age shepherds responsible for writing this stuff were using a different sort of a calendar and by year they meant month, or one of their year is equal to ten of ours, or they were related to dogs and you need to divide it by seven or something like that.
Anyway, I think that bored rustics heard all this blather when they were sitting in a cold pew of a Sunday morning, listening to a preacher giving it his best from the pulpit and it crossed their fertile minds that they could pass themselves, or their parents, or their grandparents, off as potential rivals to these biblical examples and who knows, there could be a couple of shillings to be had, if the curious tourists come looking for the latest marvel.
Which is, in my opinion, the reason for folks like Henry Jenkins, a pauper from Ellerton-on-Swale, North Yorkshire, who was said to have lived to be 169 years of age. His story was recorded by one Anne Saville, of Bolton, North Yorks, written in about 1662 or 1663, who had seen Jenkins around the place when she moved into the area, and had heard tales of his advanced years. One day, she spotted him approaching, begging alms, so she stopped him and asked him to tell her his life story. He was then, he said, either 162 or 163 years old, so Saville asked him about which kings he remembered, to which he replied he recalled the reign of Henry VIII.
So Saville asked him what was the oldest memorable thing he could remember, and Jenkins took a minute and said that when he was a boy of about twelve, he had been sent to Northallerton to deliver a wagon filled with arrow-heads for the English troops on their way to the battle of Flodden, which had taken place in 1513, but an older boy had actually delivered the arrowheads from Northallerton to the army. When asked if the King was there, he replied that the King was then at Tournay in France and that the Earl of Surrey had been in command. There were other elderly folk in the village, all said to be centenarians, who said that they remembered Jenkins from their youth and, even then, he had been an old man. He had been, so the story went, a butler to Lord Conyers, and he remembered well the abbot of Fountains Abbey, long before the dissolution on the monasteries by Henry VIII. He had then gone on to be a fisherman and had ended his days as a beggar.
There existed a legal bill, sworn in a legal case of 1665, taken at Kettering, between Anthony Clarke and Smirkson, where a labourer, Henry Jenkins, then aged 157 years, had been produced and sworn as a witness. And there’s the rub. If he was 157 in 1665, then when Flodden was fought, in 1513, he would only have been 7 or 8 years old, not 12, and unlikely to have been entrusted with a wagonload of arrowheads.
However, in 1522, the Scots had invaded the north of England near Carlisle, and the Earl of Surrey had engaged them, and it is possible that Jenkin’s father might have been a boy who remembered a story about arrowheads and his son, in his dotage, was merely conflating a story that his father had told him about when he was a boy.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. When I was a child, my grandmother would tell me that if I wasn’t a good boy, then Old Boney would come and get me. Old Boney was, to me, a skeleton, just another bogey, like Jenny Greenteeth or the Boggart, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realised that my grandmother was threatening me with a figure that had been used by her grandmother to threaten her when she was a child. Old Boney was, I later realised, Napoleon Bonaparte. Maybe, just maybe, I am the last man in Europe who has been threatened with Bonaparte’s wrath.