I love the weird and wonderful and this story is definitely that. I have taken most of the information from, Agnes Bowkers’ Cat; Travesties and Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England, by David Cressy.
Agnes Bowker, aged 27, daughter of Henry Bowker of Market Harborough, appeared before the archdeacon’s court on 22 January 1569 and testified: ‘that she was delivered of this monster (for so she called it) the 16th day of January between the hours of six and seven at night.’ Agnes also mentioned a certain Randal Dowley, servant to Edward Griffin, ‘had to do with her at Braybrooke over the porter’s ward at Michaelmas’ and that wasn’t the only occasion. There were further encounters with Randal in the porter’s ward, in the maltmill and upon the grange leas as she was gathering sticks one month before pease harvest last past. This would lead you to believe that Randal was the father of the ‘monster’ but you would be wrong because Agnes continued her testimony: ‘that a cat had to do with her six or seven times betwixt Michaelmas was twelthmonth and a month before Harborough fair last past’. Agnes testimony also included an attempted suicide when Randal would not help her and ‘who utterly forsook her’.
Agnes returned to Harborough where she was examined by Mrs Roos, a local midwife. Agnes returned to her a few days later in labour and Mrs Roos told the court, ‘she did feel a thing but whether it were child or water she could not tell’. Mrs Roos also stated that Agnes already ‘hath had a child of late, and this is the afterbirth’. Apparently the labour stopped but started again eight days later when Agnes was attended to by a different midwife, Elizabeth Harrison, from Great Bowden. This is Elizabeth’s testimony:
‘That on Tuesday the 11th of this January she (Elizabeth Harrison) was sent for by the wives of Harborough, Margery Slater being the messenger, to come to Agnes Bowker being in labour. She saith that she asked this Agnes who was the father of her child…who answered it is one Randal Dowley, for he had had many times the use of her body carnally; and further (she) saith that the said Agnes told her these tales following. There came to (Agnes) divers and sundry times a thing in the likeness of a bear, sometimes like a dog, sometimes like a man, and had the knowledge carnal of her body in every such shape. Also she saith that Agnes Bowker told her that…as she walked abroad the country (she) met with an outlandish woman, a Dutch woman, and the stranger asked her the cause of her sadness. Agnes answered, I have good cause for I am with child; then the stranger said, Nay thou art not with child, but what wilt thou give me, I will tell thee what thou art withal. Then Agnes said I will give thee a penny, and so did, and the woman stranger said Thou art neither with man child nor woman child, but with a Mooncalf. And that thou shall know shortly, for thou hast gone forty weeks already, and thou shalt go eleven weeks longer, and then at the same hour the moon changeth or thereabout, get thee women about thee, for it shall fall from thee.’
In Agnes’ later testimony she mentioned a Mr Hugh Brady who she said dwelt in Harborough and ‘was schoolmaster there’. Agnes accused him of being vicious and sleeping with his maids and when she told his wife, Brady ‘entreated her evil and there the falling sickness took her. Agnes encountered Brady again at Braybrooke where he told her to go the grange yard.
‘She saith she went there and he came to her and cast her on the ground, and had his carnal pleasure upon her and bad her be merry, and he would get her a boy, and would send for her where she would live in better state all the days of her life.’ Brady asked her if her disease had gone and when Agnes relied no, he said she must be ruled by him, and have a child and then it would go. Also, she must forsake God and all of his works and give herself wholly to the Devil.
So did Agnes give birth to a cat or monster? The men of Harborough seem to have been a little less fanciful. The curate Christopher Pollard, along with George Walker, innholder, William Jenkinson and Edmund Goodyear of Harborough, baker, all testified that they saw bacon in the stomach of the cat and were convinced they were looking at a real cat – not some monster that Agnes had given birth to. They further testified that Agnes had tried to borrow a neighbour’s cat which was now missing and they had no doubt as to where that cat had gone.
Ecclesiastical courts dealt with the ‘moral’ crimes of its parishioners, including adultery, witchcraft, prostitution and sex outside of marriage etc. and because of the nature of these cases these courts were also known as ‘the Bawdy Courts’. Ecclesiastical courts were also responsible for the licensing of midwives who were expected to gain details of any illegitimate births and also to try and find out who the father was. As this story shows, these court records can provide a fascinating window into the lives of your ancestors.