And this town’s householders in his life’s space Twice over.
But at length his own turn came, What he for others did, for him the same Was done.
No doubt his soul doth live for aye In heaven: though here his body’s clad in clay. The mutilated remains of the original mural above the epitaph show Scarlett, complete with the tokens of his office – pick and shovel, a skull, and keys to the vaults and chapels.
This mural had been hidden for centuries by an oil painting of Old Scarlett on canvas, in wooden frame, which now hangs on the south side of the great west door.
The Cathedral account books state that £1.10s was paid in 1665 to the painter for Old Scarlett’s picture drawing.
The remains of the original mural were uncovered when a 1747 copy of that painting was removed for restoration in 1961. In 1643 Cromwell’s soldiery destroyed the ornaments and monuments in the Cathedral and also the emblems at the burial places of the two Queens.
It seems likely that they also scratched out as much as possible of what to them was a blasphemous portrait of the Old Sexton. Other corroborative details of his life are to be found in the registers and account books of St John’s Parish Church.
For example, these show that Robert Scarlett would have been responsible for tolling the bells for Queen Katharine’s funeral, and the accounts for 26th June 1536 include: paid for Ringers when my lady Latern was buried: 7s 6d for drink for the ringers 12d and in 1572 To Scarlett, being a poor old man, and rising oft in the night to toll the bell for sick persons, the weather being grievous, and in consideration of his good service, towards a gown to keep him warm: 8s 0d Clearly, then, Robert Scarlett was a person of importance and some reputation in his own lifetime.
He earned distinction and respect and he continues to be remembered.
For many years a column in a local newspaper was dedicated to his name and there was also a public house named after him. The early twentieth century poet Alfred Noyes used Old Scarlett’s nephew, Timothy, to tell the story of the funeral of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Old Scarlett had his place in the 1955 Cathedral Pageant and in the 1968 Son et Lumière presentation.
He featured in a 1977 play about the history of St John’s Parish and five years later a performance of a cantata entitled ‘Old Scarlett’ was given during the Cathedral Organ Festival.
On 2nd July 1944 to comemorate the 400th anniversary of his death special prayers were said at Evensong in the Cathedral and George Dixon laid a vase of fresh flowers on his tombstone. In the booklet the author asks if it is possible that the idea for Shakespeare’s famous lines in Hamlet “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” came from the Peterborough sexton. A local historian has suggested that the Elizabethan dramatist, John Fletcher, must have known Robert.
Fletcher, b1576, was the son of the Dean of Peterborough and was educatd at the Cathedral Grammar school and therefore spent his early years within the Cathedral precincts.
John must have known the old Sexton and may have talked to Scarlett as he re-interred bodies from the overfull graves in the nearby parish churchyard.
Could he have heard Scarlett mutter something like ‘Alas poor Yorick’ as he handled the skull of a poor fool he had known well? John, who may have been the author of the epitaph on the Cathedral wall, later went to Cambridge University.
From there he went to London where he became associated with Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare.
Could he, before dying of the plague in 1625, have told the immortal Bard the story of poor Yorick as they talked at the Mermaid Tavern? [A final question from the editor – Is it stretching credulity too far to suggest that the Bard may have been especially interested in the story because he had a Scarlett grandmother?]
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