How Agnes Bowker Gave Birth to a Cat and the Wild Trial
On January 17 th, 1569, the simple, unwed house servant Agnes Bowker of Market Harborough, England, was in the throes of giving birth to a secret child. By her side were the midwives Margaret Roose and Elizabeth Harrison, who helped her through her painful pregnancy. After several hours of labor, her child finally crowned, but to the horror of Roose and Harrison, what emerged was not of a child but the bloodied body of a cat. Agnes Bowker's obscene miracle birth titled her “the mother of monsters” among the very superstitious townsfolk.
As described in the Scotsman, others believed that the “birth of the monster” signified the “alteration of kingdoms” and the “destruction of princes.” Her story soon gained the attention of the Archdeacon's commissary Anthony Anderson, the Earl of Huntingdon Henry Hastings, the Bishop of London Edmund Grindle, the secretary of state William Cecil, and finally, Queen Elizabeth I herself.
This intrigue from the land's highest people led to Agnes Bowker being summoned to the archdeacon's court on February 18 th, 1569. Although the trial would bring forth endless discrediting accusations, her midwives stood as her legitimate witnesses stating that this was all true.
But why would such a supernatural case gain the attention of so many high-ranking officials? Why was Agnes Bowker's story so pressing that an entire court case and trial had to occur? The answers have to do with the context within the period itself and how early science, witchcraft, and magic were viewed.
Agnes Bowker (born 1540) was a British domestic servant and the alleged mother of a cat in 1569. Her trial was a sensation all over England. The original picture was by Anthony Anderson and the cat was red. (Anthony Anderson in 1569 / Public domain)
Agnes Bowker’s World: The History of Witchcraft in the 1500s
The infamy of witchcraft has historically charted a complicated relationship with beliefs in medieval Europe. Although it was considered blasphemous to be associated with the practice, it still carried some respect to the ancient superstitions associated with it. Witchcraft and superstition were set in place to be the evil reasons why unfortunate and unexplainable phenomena occurred. It was even associated with outside religions and customs of other countries due to the exotic notions of carrying the knowledge of the unknown.
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Scholars Scare and Callow et al. revealed that most learned men believed knowledge of hermetic tradition, Arabic literature, and Jewish texts regarding the Kabbalah were prime sources for individuals practicing the dark arts. However, if they were women, the persecution regarding their reading abilities or even being associated with those who “had” mysterious knowledge suffered a much worse fate.
Between 1484 and 1750, it is believed that over 200,000 people accused of witchcraft were persecuted, hunted down, lynched, burned at the stake, beheaded by an executioner, or drowned. In other cases, townsfolk would take it upon themselves to shame, harass, and publicly ostracize those suspected of witchcraft.
Oftentimes, during the pursuit of alleged witches, many women fell victim to excruciating torture to force their confessions. From the medieval age onwards, witchcraft was viewed as disreputable, so much so that in 1563, Britain made the practice a capital offense.
One of the main prejudices used to hunt witches was in observing poor old women with crooked teeth, whiskers, and strong emotional attachments to cats. These supposed clues acted as proof of an old woman's connection to witchcraft and her unholy marriage with the Devil himself.
This fact is one of the reasons why Agnes Bowker's animal birth was viewed as horror itself. During the 16 th century, fears of witchcraft, prophecy, and magic were rampant across England, as continual persecution of heathens took hold in all communities.
The researcher MacGowan mentions that most believed Bowker's birth to be a sign of the end of the royal family, if not all of England. Because of these facts, Bowker's story becomes far more interesting since she not only received a fair trial but support. What made her different from the many others who were put to death?
The infamous North Berwick Witches on trial before King James in 1591. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)
Agnes Bowker's Testimony
Many of the original researchers' opinions mentioned in connection with this old case all derive from Agnes Bowker's Cat: Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England, by David Cressy. In their interpretations, however, it appears that each researcher mentions something slightly different from what actually occurred with Agnes Bowker. What consistently remains in every version is that Bowker was called to stand trial due to the supernatural phenomenon of her bizarre and unnatural birthing of a cat.
According to MacGowan, Agnes Bowker was 27 years old at the time of the incident. She was the daughter of Henry Bowker, who was by trade a butcher. Agnes worked as a house servant in Leicestershire, England.
Based on an account by Leila Kozma, a present-day writer, Agnes Bowker was viewed to be mentally ill and had an overactive imagination. After her allegations of being repeatedly raped by a beast and then becoming pregnant with a cat, her fantastic stories became a national warning against the evils of witches and warlocks.
During the court testimonials, Agnes told several stories containing no end of incoherent instances and inconsistencies. Although many would assume, she was a liar with an overactive imagination, several factors gave her the benefit of the doubt.
The first was that that Bowker was known to be mentally disabled, came from poverty, and needed assistance. Another reason was the fear of potential witchcraft and apocalyptic prophecies possibly at play, and Bowker's unfortunate involvement. Because of these facts, there was a dire need to get to the truth behind her strange claims.
Unravelling the Fur Ball
In MacGowan’s account, Bowker's first story discussed her relationship with a servant boy named Randal Dowley. In this story, a demon cat appeared and raped her continually until she was pregnant. Further questioning led Bowker to tell of her abusive employment with schoolmaster Hugh Brady. She was a maidservant in Brady's household, and Brady continually raped her.
In another account discussed by Kozma, Bowker claimed that the schoolmaster not only raped her but also infected her with modern-day epilepsy, once known as the “falling sickness” and that the cure was Bowker’s conception and pregnancy. In this second account, Brady is said to have summoned a demon to perform this action. In both versions, Bowker revealed that Brady's intentions were far more sinister as he hoped to make her a bride for the devil and summon a demon that could take the form of both beast and man to inseminate her.
Although it appeared that Brady was a prime suspect in these allegations, the court was more fascinated by how she was able to give birth to a cat. However, when questioned further, Bowker began to change the story of what she actually gave birth to. In one instance, she claimed that it was a bear. In other instances, it was the skinned cat and even a greyhound.
With Bowker's stories continually changing regarding the birth, the court proceeded to investigate the testimonials from the midwives Margaret Roose and Elizabeth Harrison for further clarification.
Medieval midwives like the two in the Agnes Bowker story got as close as possible to what she gave birth to but even their observations differed. (Lunstream / Adobe Stock)
The Midwives' Testimonies in the Agnes Bowker Trial
Even though Bowker appeared confused regarding how she gave birth to a cat, Harborough's townsfolk stood by her claims and confirmed that it was indeed the case. Of her defenders, the midwives Roose and Harrison were the most adamant to these claims.
As mentioned in MacGowan's research, Roose was the first midwife to examine Bowker while she was in labor. While she probed to feel the child, she felt a claw scratching her hand. This shocking detail was all the proof required to show that it was indeed a cat that emerged from Bowker's womb.
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The account from the midwife Harrison, however, leaned more towards the supernatural than first-hand accounts. In Harrison's testimonial, she claimed that a shape-shifting beast continually raped Bowker and that a Dutch witch prophesized to Bowker that she would give birth to a mooncalf, or a calf of a creature that would eventually become massive.
In this discussion, the court soon discovered, at least according to MacGowan's accounts, that even though Roose and Harrison's testimonies defended Bowker's claim of birthing a beast, neither ever stated that they were present during the actual birth.
Once again, the court investigation appeared unable to present a consistent story for the claims made in the three stories: Bowker’s and the statements of the midwives.
In the end, the only evidence that the court accepted was that the dead body of a skinned cat was found in Bowker's possession.
Even the cat body was subjected to an autopsy in the Agnes Bowker trial. (Evgeniy Kalinovskiy / Adobe Stock)
Next Came the Autopsy of the Cat Itself
What made Bowker's dead cat so significant pertained to how it was conceived and how cats were perceived in medieval Europe. Although cats were useful household pets, cats were also seen as creatures of Satan. Many believed that cats’ solitary nature was due their anxiety when being around the souls of Christians.
Because of the superstitions surrounding cats' demonic nature, it was of dire necessity that Bowker's dead cat needed to be thoroughly examined. For if she really gave birth to the dead feline, then Bowker was in league with the devil.
According to several research accounts, the archdeacon's commissary Anthony Anderson ordered an autopsy of the cat in question. Anderson produced several detailed sketches to accompany the notes and testimonials that would be passed on for review by William Cicil, the secretary of state. During the dissection, Anderson ordered that a second dead cat be dissected as reference to the autopsy results from Bowker's “cat.”
In the records, it appeared that Bowker's cat carried traces of bacon and straw in its entrails and appeared no different than the cat it was compared to. In Anderson's drawings and notes, the cat did not appear new-born, supernatural, or extraordinary in any way.
In February 1569, Anderson's autopsy revealed that Bowker definitely did not give birth to a cat. It was then revealed that Bowker's dead cat very much resembled the cat of her neighbours. A cat that suspiciously disappeared in the months leading up to Bowker's alleged pregnancy.
In one sense, religious authorities, the royal family, and the archdeacon's court were relieved that no supernatural powers were at play. But the question remained, what actually happened to Bowker, and why did the entire town of Harborough, Leicestershire conspire to claim that Bowker gave birth to a cat?
Ancient statue of the rape of Polyxena, Signoria, in Florence, Italy. Ultimately, the truth behind Agnes Bowker’s story was that she was the victim of abuse. (neurobite / Adobe Stock)
The Motive For Behind Agnes’ Entire Story Changes
Eventually, Bowker confessed to giving birth to a child that died. However, even in her confession, she was unclear whether the child was being cared for or had died during labor. She claimed the baby was buried at Little Bowden. Although Bowker was proven to be lying, the actual truth appeared to be far more sinister. She also lied about being married and having given birth.
According to Kozma's article, Bowker mentioned several stories that consisted of her being mounted by beasts, raped, and continually abused.
However, the sad truth of her story was that she had been sexually abused and taken advantage of due to her mental illness and lowly working-class status. She may have indeed been pregnant and feared social shaming and ostracization for something out of her control. If found out and ostracized she would have been unable to find work, nor be able to receive help from her family or the town community.
From Leila Kozma's perspective, if an entire town aided Bowker in her supernatural fantasy this would alleviate the repercussions that she would have faced if she was a victim of sexual assault and unwanted pregnancy. To claim mental illness and succumbing to the powers of witchcraft would at least allow her to maintain some standing within her community. During that era, all of England would prefer a woman be the victim of supernatural pregnancy than be the victim of unwanted pregnancy, let alone a perpetrator of infanticide.
According to Kozma, up to 3% of children born during the Elizabethan era were, unfortunately, the result of the sexual abuse and rape of maidservants. What made the issues worse was that during this era, it was a common belief that for conception to take hold, both the man and the woman needed to attain orgasm. This resulted in categorizing rape pregnancies as minor offenses and crimes of mutual passion.
In other instances, mentioned by Kozma, women who were involuntarily inseminated sometimes used herbal medicines designed to end their pregnancies. Sometimes they would carry the unwanted child until labor only to secretly sell it to wealthier families who had fertility issues.
Mary Toft, another famous "witch" in medieval England, apparently gave birth to rabbits. (William Hogarth / Public domain)
Lessons to Be Learned From the Agnes Bowker Case
Bowker's story, though bizarre, is one of many familiar stories that existed within that time period.
One case that comes to mind is the story of Mary Toft, who, in 1726, had allegedly given birth to a litter of rabbits. Although Toft's story was two hundred years later, it was also proven to be a hoax.
It seemed that for several hundred years, the fear of being shamed among abused women called for a magical whimsy to hide the tragic truth of rape, abuse, and miscarriages outside of wedlock. This possibility is further supported by historical information regarding the birth of illegitimate children in medieval Europe.
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Perhaps a new perspective can be taken when it comes to the study of medieval women, witchcraft, and the illegitimate birth of alleged beasts. Instead of seeing them as folktales, superstitious warnings, and hoaxes, one should see cases such as Agnes Bowker’s as the early awareness of the tragedies of sexual abuse and manipulation among impoverished young women.
The supernatural nature of the stories these victims told could be a cover story that hides something far more fearful: the fear of abandonment, judgment, and ostracization just for being victims of rape and unwanted pregnancy. A crime they are powerless to prevent and a traumatic consequence only they suffer from.
Top image: Agnes Bower’s story is one of the most famous witchcraft cases ever and she received much support and sympathy for her troubles. Source: Yarkovoy / Adobe Stock
By B.B. Wagner
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