In 1569 during Elizabethan England, a young servant by the name of Agnes Bowker claimed in court that she gave birth to a cat or some form of a monster. She even produced a cat-like creature. Amazingly, credible witnesses testified in support of Agnes’ story during the many hours of testimonies. Numerous individuals painstakingly investigated the ordeal. Meanwhile, officials and aristocrats tried to figure out what to do. The story of Agnes Bowker’s cat was spreading like wildfire and became a huge sensation all way the up to the privy council of Queen Elizabeth. Why did Agnes claim to have had a cat-monster as a baby, and why did people take it so seriously that it required investigation and court hearings?
Who Was Agnes Bowker?
Agnes Bowker was the daughter of a butcher named Henry Bowker, who lived in Harborough. Although Mr. Bowker had passed away, her mother was still alive. Agnes was 27 years old and worked as a house servant in Leicestershire, England. In 1598, she became pregnant out of wedlock, which, at that time, was a shameful and scandalous situation. On January 22, 1569, Agnes testified in archdeacon’s court that she gave birth to a cat or monster.
Interestingly, this was not so outlandish, as in the late 1500s, superstitions ran rampant, and many people believed in things like black magic and witchcraft. Some of the countryfolks theorized that Agnes’s “child” may have been a sign or warning about terrible things to come.
Agnes’ Bizarre Story
Indeed, Agnes made many wild and incoherent claims. Her story changed often. She admitted to having had sexual relations on multiple occasions with a servant boy, Randal Dowley. However, she insisted that it was something else that fathered the creature. At one point, she claimed that a cat came to her and had sex with her six or seven times. Then another one of her tales reported that it was a bear or a dog or something that changed shapes.
She now said ‘that a thing came unto her as she was in bed and lay the first night very heavy upon her bed but touched her not. The next night she saw it and it was in the likeness of a black cat. By the moonlight it came into her bed and had knowledge of her body’ on several occasions.David Cressy
Agnes added to her story that she once worked for a schoolmaster, Hugh Brady. Supposedly, he sexually abused and raped her a number of times. In the course of their “relations”, he told her that she needed to marry the devil and give herself wholly to him. She said that Brady told her he would send something to her that, indeed, came to her in the form of a man who later appeared to her as a ‘greyhound and a cat.’
The midwives and other mothers of the town who were supposedly present at the birth gave testimonies that suggested some truth about Agnes Bowker’s cat. Her first midwife, Margaret Roos, testified that when she examined Agnes, she noticed something in her body, “[…]besides the natural course thereof.” She claimed that she couldn’t tell what it was inside Agnes, but, nonetheless, it “pricked her.”
The second midwife, Elizabeth Harrison, tended to Agnes at the time of her labor. She claimed that a creature came to Agnes sometimes in the form of a bear, sometimes as a dog, and sometimes as a man. Harrison also indicated that Agnes had told her that she met a Dutch woman while she walked the countryside, and the woman told Agnes that she would give birth to a Mooncalf (some monstrous creature or aborted calf).
None of the wives present for Agnes’ birth actually saw the ‘monster’ come out of her body.
Townsmen Investigate Agnes Bowker’s Cat
The situation was unusual enough that a group of local men took Agnes Bowker’s cat and performed a rough autopsy. They cut the cat’s body open and found bacon and straw in the gut of the cat but nothing unusual or monstrous. The men reported to the townsfolk that instead of being a supernatural entity, it was a normal cat, albeit skinned and dead.
The men also presented evidence that Agnes had attempted to borrow a cat from a neighbor. Unfortunately, that neighbor’s cat mysteriously went missing.
Later, the tale had spread by word of mouth, and eventually, the Archdeacon’s Commissary, Anthony Anderson, decided to conduct a full investigation. This was probably partially out of curiosity. But it also could have been an attempt to stop the spread of the story, which was blanketing the surrounding areas. After questioning witnesses and Agnes herself and analyzing the rapidly decaying cat, he declared the animal to be a normal cat. He wrote that the cat, “…containeth the full length, thickness, and bigness of the same . . . measured by a pair of compasses.”
He even went so far as to do a post-mortem procedure on another cat and outlined the stark similarities to Agnes’s cat. Others were also not fooled. In February 1569, he “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.” Anderson also passed on his opinion of the situation. “It appeareth plainly to be a counterfeit matter; but yet we cannot extort confessions of the manner of doings.” (The Tudor Society).
Culture and the Cat-Monster Story
Elizabethan England was highly religious and conservative. The community was divided between Catholics and Protestants and there were strong beliefs that the devil was very much at work amongst them. Bad things happened to women who became pregnant out of wedlock. During court testimonies, Agnes revealed that she had tried to kill herself. This is not surprising, for a woman in her circumstance did not have many options.
Thus, people speculate that Agnes fabulated stories to try to cover up the truth. Her tales did have a common thread. In each, she was almost always the victim of someone or something else. Perhaps this allowed her to avoid the shame and to receive the care and attention that she did. Had she told the truth, she probably would have lost her employment and found it difficult to ever obtain another job.
Although her stories were inconsistent at best, they were not all that far-fetched for an ultra superstitious society. This is likely the reason officials gave Agnes Bowker’s cat story a great deal of attention, court time, and investigative manpower.
What Happened to Agnes’ Baby?
Agnes undoubtedly was pregnant. Testimonies indicated that Agnes lied to Joan Dunmow when she told her that she had her baby and that her baby was in the care of a nurse. She also claimed that she gave birth to a stillborn baby. So, what really happened to her real baby? There are two lines of thought. Some people think she committed infanticide. The others believed Agnes really did have a monster cat baby as a portent – something terrible to come as a result of the evil sins the Tudors had committed.
Nobody knows whatever happened to Agnes. Either she was very simple-minded and gave a genuinely confounding story or she played herself off as a victim so convincingly that she suffered few consequences. Nonetheless, her curious story, so bizarre and remarkable in nature, has survived 450 years.
The Tudor Society. “17 January 1569 – Leicestershire Woman Gives Birth to a Cat?” January 15, 2016. Accessed January 16, 2019.
Cressy, David. Agnes Bowker’s Cat: Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.
Co-author: Kimberly Lin