It’s not often that ordinary individuals are given the recognition that is usually bequeathed to the likes of aristocrats or high-ranking religious officials. Such is the case for Robert Scarlett, or “Old Scarlett,” a Peterborough gravedigger. His nondescript grave marker is tucked away within Peterborough Cathedral, a most dignified burial place.
Old Scarlett died in 1594 at the ripe age of 98, which is no small feat considering his profession and the times he was living in. The gravedigger endured the Reformation, Civil War, and an era of pestilence.
It has been reported that Old Scarlett buried at least two people from every household in Peterborough. Take into consideration there was an outbreak of the plague in 1574, this feat seems plausible.
His impressive old age and burial record were not, however, what earned him the distinction of being buried in the confines of the cathedral. That honor goes to the fact that he laid to rest not one but two royals: Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, and Mary Queen of Scots. Both of their memorials lie on either side of the altar, in the main body of the cathedral, though Mary’s son James VI & I had her body exhumed and moved to Westminster Abbey.
Whether Old Scarlett was the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s gravedigger in Hamlet is still up for debate. Regardless, he is honored with having a poem written about him. There’s also a portrait of him hanging above his final resting place. It was recently discovered that the painting was a copy and was covering up the original. Today, you can see both works of art suspended over the cathedral’s entrance.