On 17th January 1569, Agnes Bowker of Market Harborough, Leicestershire, allegedly gave birth to a cat. Events like this were seen as portents and so news of them spread like wildfire through pamphlets. William Bullein mentions it in the 1573 edition of his book A dialogue against the feuer pestilence, with his character Roger saying, "I heare saie there is a yong woman, borne in the toune of Harborough, one Booker, a Butchers dougbter, 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", although the other character Ciuis points out "It is a lie, Roger, beleue it not; it was but a Catte: it had Baken [bacon] founde in the bealie [belly], and a strawe. It was an old Catte, and she a yong Quene."
It was imperative for the local authorities to to put a stop to the gossip, so an investigation was launched and witnesses were questioned.
According to the midwife, Elizabeth Harrison, Agnes had told her of how "the likeness of a bear, sometimes like a dog, sometimes like a man" 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, but none seemed very sure of what had happened. One 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 were present when it was actually 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. Then she changed her mind and said 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 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. However, as David Cressy points out in his book Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England: Tales of Discord and Dissension, "it mattered little to 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. Abnormal births and bestial instrusions were shocking reminders of the unpredictability of the universe and of the power of hidden forces to subvert everyday routines. At times of crisis they 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".
You can see the picture that was drawn of the cat back in 1569 on the British Library website - click here.
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
- The Remains of Edmund Grindal: Successively Bishop of London andArchbishop of York and Canterbury, Letter LVII, To Sir W. Cecil, Aug 15, 1569, p306