Henry Wyatt, the Duke of Norfolk, after having been committed to the Tower by Queen Elizabeth I for plotting to take over her throne, was regularly visited by his favorite cat that entered his cell through a chimney.
“He was imprisoned often; once in a cold narrow tower, where he had neither a bed to lie on, nor cloaths sufficient to warm him, nor meat for his mouth; he starved there had not God, who sent a Crow to feed his prophet; sent this his country’s master, a Cat, both to feed him and to warm him —- it was his own relation from whom I had it —- A cat came one day down into the dungeon unto him, and, as it were, offered herself unto him, he was glad of her, laid her in his bosome to warm him, and making much of her, won her love. After this she would come every day unto him in diverse times, and when she could get him one, bring him a pigeon; he complained to the keeper of his cold and short fare; the answer was, he durst not better it; but said Sir Henry, ‘If I can provide any, will you promise to dress it for me?’. ‘I may well enough’ said the Keeper, ‘are you safe for that matter’ and for him from time to time such pigeons as his Acater (caterer) the cat, provided for him. Sir Henry in his prosperity would ever make much of a cat, and perhaps you will never find a picture of him anywhere, but with a cat beside him.”
AGNES BOWKER’S CAT
In 1569, a servant, Agnes Bowker, claimed in court that she had had sexual relations with a cat six or seven times, and that she had, consequently, given birth to a stillborn cat†. The claim was so contentious that it even reached the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth I. Bowker’s midwife even supported her story by swearing that she had received a stillborn skinned cat. It was not a coincidence that Agnes’s neighbors reported days earlier that she had wanted to borrow their cat for some reason. And even though they had refused to give her their cat, it mysteriously vanished and was never seen again. The court also found that the so called still born cat had meat and straw in its gut; thus, proving that it was no monster at all. In reality, Agnes most probably murdered an ill conceived child and hid it with the aid of her midwife and tried to confuse the authorities with this fantastic story of giving birth to a cat (Cressy, 2000).
The curse of witchcraft even infiltrated the upper classes, and in 1590, after accusing Mother Samuel of witchcraft, Lady Cromwell dreamt of a cat that threatened to tear off her skin and flesh. Little over a year later the Lady fell ill and soon afterwards died. Mother Samuel, accused of bewitching the Lady and causing her death, was executed. The poem, The Old Woman and Her Cats written by Thomas Gray could have been written for poor Mother Samuel.
“A wrinkled hag of wicked fame,
Beside a little smoky flame
Sat hovering, pinch’d with age and frost;
Her shrivell’d hands, with veins emboss’d,
Upon her knee her weight sustains,
While palsy shook her crazy brains:
She mumbles forth her backward prayers,
An untamed scold of four score years:
About her swarmed a numerous brood,
Of cats, who lank with hunger mewed.
Teased with cries, her choler grew,
And thus she sputter’d, ‘Hence ye crew!’
Fool that I was, to entertain
Such imps, such fiends, a hellish train!
Had ye been never housed and nursed,
I for a witch had ne’er been cursed.
To you I owe that crowds of boys
Wory me with eternal noise;
Straws laid across my pace retard,
The horseshoe’s nail’d (each threshold’s guard)
The stunted broom the wenches hide,
For fear that I should up and ride;
They stick with pins my bleeding seat,
And bid me show my secret teat.’
‘To hear you prate would vex a saint;
Who hath most reason of complaint?
(Replies a cat) Let’s come to proof.
Had we ne’er starved beneath your roof,
We had, like others of our race,
In credit lived as beasts of chase.
‘Tis infamy to serve a hag;
Cats are thought imps, her broom a nag!
And boys against our lives combine,
Because, ‘tis said, your cats have nine.” (Gray, 1822, pp.58-59)
The next year, 1591, saw John Fian become Scotland’s most famous warlock. He and his coven attempted to sink King James I’s ship on its way to Denmark by tying a cat to a dismembered corpse which they then threw into the sea while chanting incantations. Invoked from the spell, a storm arose and forced the ship to return to its harbor. As a result, Fian was tried for high treason and witchcraft for the attempted murder of King James and Queen Anne and was subsequently executed.
† Stories of women giving birth to monsters were quite common in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. (Paré and Pallister, 1995)