Agnes Bowker

AGNES Bowker (born 1541/2), servant and alleged mother of a cat, was the daughter of Henry Bowker, a yeoman or butcher of Market Harborough, Leicestershire.

Concluding her labour at Harborough on the night of 16 January 1569, the 27-year-old Agnes allegedly gave birth to a cat, prompting the midwife, Elizabeth Harrison, to cry out "What have we here?" The women attending the birth accepted that the creature had come from Agnes's body, crediting it as an unusual, though not impossible, occurrence. Some of their male neighbours were more sceptical, and performed tests to determine that the cat had formerly been alive and had food in its gullet. Rumours flew concerning the incident, encouraging some to believe that the birth of the cat conveyed auguries of "alteration of kingdoms" and portents of "destruction of princes". Others suspected that the whole business was a cover-up for infanticide. A printed pamphlet, now lost, related a version of the story.

Six days later the affair came into the court of the archdeacon of Leicester. Baffled but suspicious, and also angered by inaccuracies in the pamphlet, Anthony Anderson, the archdeacon's commissary, sent transcripts of the case to Henry Hastings, third earl of Huntingdon, along with a life-size, blood-red depiction of the cat. An annotation to the illustration observes "there is nothing so secret that shall not be made open", but though two JPs (one of them Randal Dowley's employer) also looked into the business, certainty proved impossible. Huntingdon relayed the package to the queen's principal secretary, Sir William Cecil, who referred it to Edmund Grindal, bishop of London, for further advice. Grindal reported in August 1569, "for the monster, it appeareth plainly to be a counterfeit matter; but yet we cannot extort confessions of the manner of doings". Eventually the documents were filed among Cecil's papers in the British Library in London.

Nothing more is known of Agnes Bowker after 1569, but characters in the London physician William Bullein's Dialogue . . . against the Fever Pestilence (1573 edition) recall her story:

Roger: "What a world is this? How is it changed. It is marvelous, it is monstrous. I hear say there is a young woman, born in the town of Harborough, one Bowker, a butcher's daughter, which of late, God wot, is brought to bed of a cat, or have delivered a cat, or, if you will, she is the mother of a cat..."

Civis: "It is a lie, Roger, believe it not; it was but a cat. It had bacon found in the belly, and a straw. It was an old cat, and she a young quean; it was a pleasant practice of papistry, to bring the people to new wonders."