In researching my Friday 13th article on superstitions for The Anne Boleyn Files, I came across the tale of Agnes Bowker who went in to labour on the night of the 16th January 1569 and gave birth to a cat on the 17th.
In his book, “Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension”, David Cressy writes of this extraordinary tale which came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I and her Privy Council and was investigated. According to the midwife, Elizabeth Harrison, Agnes Cowper from Market Harborough in Leicestershire had told her of how “the likeness of a bear, sometimes like a dog, sometimes like a man” had had carnal knowledge of her in its various guises.
Harrison went on to describe how Agnes gave birth to the cat, “the hinder part coming first”. The other six women who were present at the birth were questioned and Cressy writes of how “none could tell for certain what had happened”. Margaret Harrison said “that she was at the birth of the monster with her child in her arms, and the wives willed her to fetch a candle for they had not light… and when she came in with the candle she saw the monster lie on the earth and she thinketh it came out of Agnes Bowker’s womb.” Another woman spoke of seeing the monster but none of them had actually seen it born.
Testimonies from the local men were also taken. They had examined the cat and even dissected it, finding bacon in its digestive system. This convinced them that the “monster” was nothing but a real cat who had been enjoying a piece of bacon in the last few hours rather than being carried in the womb of young Agnes. They also spoke of how Agnes had recently tried to borrow a cat and that a neighbour’s cat had gone missing. Their testimonies, and those of the women present at the birth, were heard at a special ecclesiastical court in front of the archdeacon of Leicester. A secular hearing was also set up to examine the evidence and to see if a crime, such as infanticide, had been committed.
Agnes herself was obviously examined and she told some rather tall tales involving being seduced by a schoolmaster who gave her “falling sickness” (epilepsy) and who told her that she could be cured by having a child. According to Agnes, Mr Brady, the schoolmaster, sent “a thing” to her “in the likeness of a man” and she slept with him. When questioned about her pregnancy and its outcome, she went from saying that she had given birth to a child who was being nursed at Guilsborough, to saying that she had given birth before Christmas to a dead child which was buried in Little Bowden and then to saying that she didn’t know what had happened when she gave birth in January but that the midwife told her that the monster had come out of her body.
The case was referred to Henry Hastings, the Earl of Huntingdon, on the 18th February 1569 and Anthony Anderson, the archdeacon’s commissary, passed on a drawing of the cat, the results of the examination of the cat and another cat as comparison, and full transcripts of testimonies. This package of information was then passed to William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s Secretary of State, who shared it with Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London in August 1569. Grindal concluded “for the monster, it appeareth plainly to be a counterfeit matter; but yet we cannot extort confessions of the manner of doings”, in other words he could not establish what exactly had happened. As Cressy points out, “it mattered little Cecil whether Agnes gave birth to a bastard or to a beast, or whether she had murdered her baby; but it became a matter of public concern when people saw threatening portents in this apparent violation of nature, and when credulous Catholics gained ground by exploiting a dubious story” and in a superstitious age time when such portents “assumed political dimensions, as augeries of ‘alterations of kingdoms’ and portents of ‘destruction of princes'” Cressy concludes that “it should come as no surprise, then, to find the government attempting to control or neutralize such reports in 1569”.
Although the Elizabethans obviously didn’t have Twitter and Facebook, the tale of Agnes Cowper’s cat still went viral through a now lost pamphlet. The story is also mentioned by characters in William Bullein’s “A dialogue against the fever pestilence” from 1573:-
“Roger: Thei would destroie all the Commonwealth; but we see what mischief thei haue dooen. And also, maister, what a worlde is this? How is it chaunged ! it is marueilous, it is monstrous ! I heare saie there is a yong woman, borne in the toune of Harborough, one Booker, a Butchers doughter, whiche of late, God wote, is brought to bed of a cat, or haue deliured a catte ; or, if you will, she is the mother of a catt. Oh God ! how is nature repugnant to her self. That a woman should bryng forthe a verie catte or a very Dogge, &c., wantyng nothyng, neither hauyng more then other Dogges or Cattes haue ! Takyng nothyng of the mother but onely as I gesse her Cattishe condition.
Ciuis: It is a lie, Roger, beleue it not ; it was but a Catte : it had Baken founde in the bealie, ahd a strawe. It was an old Catte, and she a yong Quene ; it was a pleasaunt practise of papistrie to bring the people to newe wonders. If it had been a monster, then it should haue had somewhat more or els lesse ; But an other Catte was flaied in the same sorte, and in all poinctes like, or, as it were, the self same ; thus can drabbes do somtime when thei haue
murthered their owne bastardes, with the helpe of an olde “Witch bryng a Catte in place. A toye to mocke an Ape withall. Roger, it should haue been a kitlyng first, and so growne to a Catt ; but it was a Catte at the first.”
Such a story being gossipped about and spread really needed dealing with, however silly it sounds to us today, and that is why it was fully investigated.
Notes and Sources
- Travesties and transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: tales of discord, David Cressy, p9-22
- A dialogue against the feuer pestilence, William Bullein, 1573, p73 – Read online at archive.org