THIS weekend marks the 350th anniversary of the death of the oldest ever Yorkshireman: on December 6, 1670, Henry Jenkins passed away in Ellerton-on-Swale at the remarkable age of 169.

Or thereabouts.

Indeed, this modern Methuselah could be the longest lived person ever to walk on the planet – he certainly smashes, as the 21st Century parlance would have it, the record of the oldest verified person who was Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 aged 122.

When Henry was laid to rest in St Mary’s churchyard in Bolton-on-Swale, near Scorton, he was described in the parish registers as “a very aged and poor man”. He was so poor that he didn’t leave enough money for a headstone but so convincing was the evidence that proved beyond all reasonable doubt his improbable longevity that the people of Richmondshire later paid for an impressive obelisk to be erected in the churchyard to ensure he was never forgotten. Henry was probably born in 1501 in Ellerton – it did not become a legal requirement on a parish to keep a register until 1538, so his birth went unrecorded.

He came from a humble background, and never learned to read or write. He worked most of his life as a salmon fisherman in the Swale and as a thatcher. He put his longevity down to his simple diet of bread, cheese, raw onion and cold meat, and drinking plenty of nettle soup and tar water.

Tar water was made from a thick, sticky gloop extracted from pine wood. It was foul tasting, but apparently drove “strong spirits” from the body.

Plus, Henry always wore underwear made of flannel.

This made him into a remarkable physical specimen. Aged 100, he could easily swim across the Swale, even when it was in spate, and into his 168th year, his eyesight was so good he could still tie fishing flies. His memory was also very good, and he was regularly called to court to give evidence to help settle land ownership disputes.

In 1620, he was a witness in a case about a road at York. When Henry claimed to have a living memory of the road being made, the judge censured him as it meant he was an impossible 120 years old. However, the opposition had three 100-year-old witnesses who all agreed that throughout their lives Henry was known as an old man.

To further convince the judge, Henry said that when the road was made, he was employed as a butler to Lord Conyers at Hornby Castle, between Bedale and Catterick. The judge had an old register of Lord Conyers’ servants brought from the castle and in it appeared Henry’s name, just as he had claimed.

In a Chancery Court record of 1667, Henry stated on oath that he was “one hundreth fifty and seaven or theirabouts”.

Unable to physically labour at such an advanced age, Henry was reduced to calling at big houses in the neighbourhood and asking for money in return for telling the inhabitants curious old stories. One day, he called at Bolton Old Hall, which is a 14th Century mansion in the shadow of Bolton-on-Swale – indeed, not only is the old hall haunted by a ghostly grey lady but it is connected by a secret tunnel to a corner of the churchyard where John and Kit Wright, who were put to death for their parts in the 1603 Gunpowder Plot, had had a house.

Ann Saville, an educated lady, came to the door and became intrigued by the aged creature. Sceptical about his claims, she decided to investigate them.

She asked Henry what his first memory of a major event was, and he replied the Battle of Flodden, which had taken place in Northumberland on September 9, 1513. Henry claimed to have been between ten and 12. “I was sent to Northallerton with a horseload of arrows, but they sent a bigger boy from thence to the army with them,” Henry replied. Ann asked him whether King Henry VIII had been present, and he replied: “No, he was in France, and the Earl of Surrey was general.”

She investigated, discovered that the king had indeed been over the channel and that archers had been crucial in defeating the invading king of Scotland. Uneducated Henry Jenkins could not possibly have known such details unless he had been present, she concluded, and she became convinced that he really was as old as he claimed to be.

In 1743, nearly 75 years after Henry’s death, Dr Thomas Chapman, a former pupil of Richmond Grammar School who had become the Master of Magdalene College at Cambridge University, started a fund-raising campaign to have the world record setter remembered in his home village. The campaign resulted in Henry’s grave being marked by the large obelisk, and Dr Chapman composed the convoluted words for a large plaque which can still be found inside St Mary’s.

His words begin: “Blush not, marble, to rescue from oblivion the memory of Henry Jenkins, a person obscure in birth, but of a life truly memorable… blessed with a patriarch’s health and length of days…”

Exactly 350 years after Henry’s death, he is still remembered – although perhaps at least partly for the outlandishness of his claim. Officially today, Charlotte Hughes is the oldest British person ever as she was 115 when she died in 1993, and the oldest British man is Henry Allingham, who was 113 when he died in 2009. Henry’s 167 years leaves those spring chickens in the shade.

A FORTNIGHT ago, we told the remarkable story of Willance’s Leap. One foggy November night in 1606, the horse ridden by Richmond draper Robert Willance spooked on the top of Whitcliffe Scar overlooking Swaledale. It took two enormous leaps and then launched itself off the edge of the cliff.

It plunged 212ft to its death, and Robert smashed a leg in the fall.

He knew he would not be rescued on such a terrible night and feared gangrene would set into his wound, so he sliced open the belly of his beast and slipped his leg inside. And it did indeed keep nice and toasty until he was found. Unfortunately, it was so badly damaged that surgeons decided to amputate it.

Robert, though, survived the desperately painful operation and joyfully lived for a further ten years, becoming alderman (the equivalent of mayor today) in 1608.

To commemorate his salvation, he gave a fine silver chalice, made in London in 1595, to be used by future aldermen and burgesses. He inscribed it with the legend: “Given as a thank offering for his great escape from death in a riding accident.” It is now part of Richmond Town Council’s silver collection and on display in the Green Howards Museum. On the scartop, Robert placed three stones which marked the last hoofprints of his horse and which also had the story of his escape carved on them. Over the centuries, the stones became weathered and they were replaced in 1743, 1815 and 1843.

Mike Wood has kindly sent in a photograph of the 1843 stone.

“I used to play up there when I was young and the local farmer, Mr Carter, told me that the army trained there before the First World War and broke the stones while abseiling down the cliff,” says Mike. “This is probably correct because I found several .303 bullets up there!”

To commemorate the 300th anniversary of Willance’s Leap, the army-damaged stones were replaced once more and a splendid monument, with a terrific view, was erected.

When Robert died, he was buried on February 12, 1616, in St Mary’s churchyard, where he was reunited with his leg which had been buried there after the amputation.

A fragment of the 1843 stone from the scartop can be seen on top of the large gravestone beneath which all of Robert’s body lies.

In his will, Robert left money to be distributed among the poor of Richmond and for “the needy at Winster, Crook and Croft”.

Jane Hatcher explains: “I believe Robert was born somewhere in the area of Winster, Crooke and Crosthwaite which is between Lake Windermere and Kendal.

“Richmond would be an attractive place to move to, a relatively large town with an established market for trading in a wide area, so offering opportunities to make money – which he clearly did!”