The oldest man ever verified by Guinness World Records was a Japanese man named Jiroemon Kimura (1897–2013), who lived to be 116 years old.
And the oldest person ever, a woman named Jeanne Calment (1875–1997) from France, lived over half a decade longer than that, reaching the grand old age of 122.
However, there is one man who was once thought – and still is by some – to have been several decades older than both Jiroemon and Jeanne.
His name was Henry Jenkins, an Englishman who was buried on 9 December 1670 and claimed to have been born in 1501, meaning he would have been 169 years old at his death.
His birth date is undocumented as parish registers were not required to be maintained until 1538, but his burial date was recorded in the parish register of Bolton-on-Swale, North Riding of Yorkshire, in which he was described as "a very aged and poore man".
During his life, Henry worked as a farm labourer, roof thatcher, salmon fisherman, and also claimed to have been a butler when he was young, for Lord William Conyers (1468–1524) at Hornby Castle.
In addition to maintaining a high level of physical fitness as he aged – supposedly swimming across the River Swale when he was over 100 – Henry’s memory reportedly remained sharp too, and he was called to court on several occasions to give evidence.
He was said to have been a witness in a case in York in 1620, where he swore to be 120 years old, citing his employment at Hornby Castle as proof of his age. The judge, after reproving Henry for lying, had an old register of Lord Conyers’ servants brought from the castle – within the register was Henry’s name, corroborating his claim.
However, neither the register of servants nor any deposition documents from this case have been found, so the veracity of the story cannot be confirmed.
A document does exist from a case almost five decades later though, in 1667, when Henry appeared as a witness in a case between Reverend Charles Anthony and Calvert Smithson regarding payment of tithes. As recorded in a copy of his deposition, Henry – under oath – stated that he was “one hundreth fifty and seaven, or theirabouts”.
An inconsistency arises here though, as a few years prior, in 1662 or 63, he had claimed to be either 162 or 163. Henry had said this to a wealthy woman named Ann Saville, whom he met while begging for alms, which is how he earned money in his advanced age.
“I had a mind to examine him,” wrote Ann in a letter to a Dr Tancred Robinson soon after. She had been sceptical of Henry’s claimed longevity ever since being told about him some time prior to their meeting.
Upon questioning, Henry told Ann that the earliest king he remembered was Henry VIII, who reigned from 1509–1547, and the “publick thing he could longest remember” was the Battle of Flodden Field, which took place on 9 September 1513, when Henry said he was “between ten and twelve”.
Ann probed further, asking whether the king was present at the battle, to which Henry replied: “no, he was in France, and the Earl of Surrey was General.”
He added: “I was sent to Northallerton with a horse load of arrows, but they sent a bigger boy from thence to the army with them.”
Afterwards, Ann researched the details of Henry’s story and found them to be correct: the Battle of Flodden Field did in fact take place 152 years prior, the English Army was indeed commanded by the Earl of Surrey, and King Henry VIII did happen to be in Tournay, France, at the time.
As Henry was uneducated and couldn’t read or write, therefore could not feasibly know these facts unless he was present at the battle, Ann concluded that he really was as old as he claimed.
In the same letter, Ann also noted that there were four or five other centenarians in the parish, who all said that Henry had been an elderly man ever since they knew him.
However, this cannot be taken as hard evidence of Henry's age.
Ultimately, the only two surviving documents which mention Henry’s age – Ann Saville’s letter from 1662/63 and the copy of Henry’s deposition in 1667 – contain no real proof of his age beyond his own assertions, and even then, he claimed to be two different ages in those instances.
And, for someone who supposedly lived for 169 years, the fact that there is no veritable trace of his existence before 1662/63 casts major doubts over his claimed longevity.
As previously mentioned, Henry’s burial was recorded in the Bolton-on-Swale parish register. Written under the date 9 December 1670 is: “Henry Jenkins, a very aged and poore man, of Ellerton, buried.”
Based on the handwriting, the entry is thought to have been written by Reverend Charles Anthony, the same man whom Henry had testified in favour of in 1667.
The reverend, who has been described as a “strict, exact man”, did not mention Henry’s age in the register, perhaps indicating that he – someone who knew Henry well – had his doubts about Henry’s claimed age.
Regardless, in 1743, an obelisk dedicated to Henry’s memory was erected in St Mary’s Churchyard (where he was buried), along with a black marble plaque placed inside the church. The inscription, by Dr Thomas Chapman, then-master of Cambridge University’s Magdalene College, begins: “Blush not, marble, to rescue from oblivion the memory of Henry Jenkins,” and goes on to say that “he lived to the amazing age of 169.”
The memory of Henry Jenkins was also honoured in the 1700s by way of a pub being named after him in the village of Kirkby Malzeard, North Yorkshire, which operated for over 250 years before closing in 2011.
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