Tudor cats

Posted By on April 3, 2015

The cat from the statue of Cardinal Wolsey in Ipswich.

The cat from the statue of Cardinal Wolsey in Ipswich.

Thank you for all the kind words regarding the death of my elderly cat Poppy, they mean such a lot to me. Beth von Staats reminded me that Cardinal Wolsey had a cat so I thought I’d write a quick post on Tudor cats, based on a talk I did on Tudor pets for the Tudor Society last year.

Cats were not a popular Tudor pet due to their association with the Devil and witchcraft. In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII decreed in his bull against witches that cats were unholy creatures and were to be burned along with the witches that owned them, although I haven’t been able to find that instruction in the bull myself. When witches were burned at the stake it was often said that a black cat leapt out of the flames.

At the coronation of Elizabeth I in January 1559, a dozen or so cats were stuffed into a wickerwork effigy of the Pope and paraded through the streets of London before being burned on a bonfire. Their dying shrieks were said to be the devils inhabiting the Pope’s body. Horrible!

Another cat story is that of the imprisonment of Henry Wyatt, father of poet Thomas Wyatt. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London in Richard III’s reign. According to the story, he was saved from starvation by a cat bringing him a pigeon on a regular basis. After his release Sir Henry Wyatt, it is recorded, would ever make much of cats, as other men will of their spaniels or hounds.

The resident cat, used as a “mouser” today, in 10 Downing Street, the British Prime Minister’s residence in London, is thought to date back to the time when Cardinal Thomas Wolsey placed his pet cat by his side, on a cushioned chair, while undertaking his duties as Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor. A bronze statue of Wolsey in his hometown of Ipswich in Suffolk features a cat peering out from behind his chair and clinging to his robes. It’s a beautiful feature of his statue.

Thanks again for all your kindness. It’s hard to stay sad anyway when you have two energetic kittens, two mad dogs and three lively children zooming around the house!

Notes and Sources

  • van Vechten, Carl (1922, 2000) The Tiger in the House, New York – see http://www.bartleby.com/234/
  • Beadle, Muriel (1977) The Cat, Simon & Schuster
  • Mee, Arthur (1954) Kent (The King’s England), Hodder & Stoughton

23 thoughts on “Tudor cats”

  1. Christine says:

    Those poor cats being burned alive that’s something new iv learned, I know cats were associated with witchcraft and they used to burn them along with their unfortunate owners but also had the people used their wits they could well have rid England of the plague a lot quicker, after all they would have caught the rats that harboured the fleas that carried the Bubonic virus, I know the Black Death occurred about hundred years later but it was also around in the 1300s to, I hope you have a lovely Easter Claire.

  2. Christine says:

    That was a mistake about burning witches, they hang them in England but burnt them in Scotland, they used the ducking stool method to see if they were witches and I think when the victims drowned they threw their cats in to, they were called ‘familiars’ thank goodness we’ve come a long way since then.

    1. Dawn 1st says:

      I always thought ducking stools were used to punish gossips, scolds and bad-tempered women etc Christine, and that suspected witches were subjected to trial by water at times, where they were bound hand and foot and thrown in a water way of some kind, if they floated they were guilty, if they sunk they were innocent…a lose-lose situation either way there. But it looks as they did use it for interrogation of witches also, possibly ending with the poor women drowning. So thanks for that.

      James VI of Scotland became a little fired up about witches after his visit to Denmark where witch hunts were common, when his journey home was plagued by storms. He is meant to have said they were brought about by magic. He also attended the first major witch trials in North Berwick.
      From what I can find it seems the last women to be burned as a witch in Scotland was Janet Horne in 1727 at Dornach, Rosshire, theres a stone been placed to mark the place she died. It seems that witches to be executed by fire where actually strangled first, it was part of the Scottish law. But thats not to say all were shown this ‘mercy’ to begin with. Barbaric, superstitious times.

      1. Dawn 1st says:

        Just to add, in our small town of Forres there is an large stone imbedded into the side of a main pavement on the boundary of the park at the bottom of Cluny Hill. So local lore says this marks where a ‘witch’ was executed.

        On an iron plague it reads…
        ‘WITCHES STONE’…From Cluny Hill witches were rolled in stout barrels through which spikes were driven. where the barrels stopped they were burned with their mangled contents. This stone marks the spot of one such burning.

        She was meant to be one of three who were executed for trying to bring about the death of King Duff, son of Malcolm. The other 2 markers are no more. And apparently these ‘witches’ were the inspiration for those in Shakespeare’s MacBeth.
        I have to add Cluny Hill is huge…very, very high!!

        1. Christine says:

          Hi Dawn I didn’t know that about ducking women if they were scolds, the fact that they did that means that were a lot of them around, but then maybe if their men were always in the taverns I should imagine they had good reason, no different today in fact, that’s awful putting women in barrels with spikes it makes you wonder how they could do that to other human beings, I’m descended from King Malcolm and yes I had heard the witches were the inspiration for Shakespeare’s play. King James was very intelligent unlike his madcap parents so I’m surprised he believed in witches but then black magic and the belief in it has been around since ancient times and superstition once there is very hard to shake off.

        2. Dawn 1st says:

          ‘Daemonologie, in Form of a Dialogie, Divided into three Bookes, by James Rx’, a book written and published by James VI 1599. In this book he is in favour and champions the practise of witch-hunting. You can get it on Amazon.

          I reckon most of the would-be scolds now-a-days would be in the taverns with the men, the kids in the play area with a bag of crisps and a fizzy drink, and the only time the woman ends up in the duck pond if she’s had one too many and topples in!! lol.

          Yes they had many, many unbelievable ways of torturing and executing people, it shows what depth of evil that the human mind can sink to possibly think them up. Very frightening.

  3. Renita says:

    Love this article!! Our sympathies on the loss of your cat! They are absolutely wonderful animals!

  4. Barbara Bower says:

    so sorry to hear about your cat. I know how much our pets mean to us. As I am writing this my black long haired, mitten paw is sitting on my lap. He is my second black cat. My other black lived to be 21 years old

  5. Kelley says:

    I am sorry to hear about the loss of your senior cat. My oldest cat is over 20 years old, but she is still feisty and generally impossible to please.

    I loved reading about Cardinal Wolsey and his cat and hated learning about those poor cats in the effigy. This era was a brutal time for man and beast both, so we should not be too surprised by this act of cruelty. It is still really awful to think about, though.

  6. Debbie says:

    I am sorry to hear about your cat I know how sad that can be… I did enjoy the article about Tudor cats I have never heard about the poor cats at Elizabeth’s coronation….

  7. Globerose says:

    A cat is a lovely companion for a priest. There’s the old Irish 9th c poem, transl. by Robin Flower, which says…

    `i and Pangur Ban my cat,
    Tis a like task we are at.
    Hunting mice is his delight.
    Hunting words I sit all night

    and so on. Nice tranquil image, the white cat Pangur Ban and the toiling priest together through the long nights. Wonder when cats became associated with evil?

    1. Christine says:

      In ancient Egypt they were revered and mummified when they died, different country’s have different beliefs don’t they, iv often wondered why and how they became associated with witchcraft even today in James Bond films the villain has often got a cat sitting on his lap.

  8. Alexandria says:

    May I add my commiserations? I lost two cats in fairly quick succession recently, one of bone cancer aged 15 and one of kidney failure aged 10. In both cases I felt like a murderer, not helped by having to decide quickly in the bone cancer case while he was under anaesthetic for scans and not even being able to say goodbye.
    I did know about cats being burned – a lot of animals were treated with great inhumanity (there’s an unsuitable word – animals would never behave as badly as many humans) in the past. I believe a similar event occurred when Elizabeth visitted Robert Dudley at his new house. One hates to think of it. I have been adopted by a little local cat who is a real darling, very friendly and beautiful, but is terrified of sticks – clearly someone has hit her with one in the past, so I have to be careful not to let her see me carrying a broom or a garden cane – even a bit of drainpipe! She has come from a multi-cat household where she is much loved but she obviously wants to be an only, and her previous family say as long as they still see her about and know she is OK they are not too upset at her choosing to move out!
    At least your kittens etc should be some help in having something else to give love to. Being left without any pets is horrible, but I suppose I will have to face it when I get too old to replace my last one.

  9. Banditqueen says:

    There was a custom I have heard of cats being burnt at New Year in France on a pyre of fireworks. This was mentioned in the Tudors to celebrate the New Year in the reign of Francis I. There are many representations of cats and illustrated illuminated paintings in books from the Medieval times of cats doing several human tasks. Cats were not pets in the traditional way, but seen as needed to get rid of pests, however, some people clearly did care for the cat and many tales of church cats exist. Paradoxically, during the Black Death, stories tell us that people killed cats who could have killed the rats which carried the fleas. However, many scholars believe this is a tale. In some cases it was true, in most it was not, the black rat brought the plague, not the domestic white or grey rat. The fleas could not be prevented, they came on the merchant ships from Constantinople, they could not be completely killed by cats due to their ability to remain deep underground and in our cities underground tunnels and water cisterns. Sources also refer to cats being attacked by black rats which are even more vicious that the grey rat.

    Unlike the dog, the poor cat has been seriously victimized. In Ancient Egypt the cat was the guardian of the dead, an honoured symbol and a god. Everyone had cats as pets, along with baboons and they were taken to the grave with their owners and mummified. It was a capital offense to harm a cat, one papyrus talks about a Roman official almost being torn apart when he accidentally killed a cat with his chariot. But down the ages we have treated the puss less favourable. There are sources of cats being seen as a witch familiar, along with many other animals, especially birds, but most are from the fifteenth century onwards.

    The Bull of 1484, included in the Malleus Malfacarim…Hammer of the Witches is believed to be a forgery, others a copy of a general bull against witchcraft that was harmful, placed in the Malleus to

    1. Banditqueen says:

      give it the official status that it never received. During the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cats have been made use of as employees to get rid of rats and mice in brewing, and industry, and breweries keep official cats today for the same purpose. In the 1990s a cat at a whiskey distillery won an award from the Guinness Book of Records for the most mice killed. The number was in excess of 24,000, but before you all say poor mice, the mice eat the grain used in a distillery and get into the brew itself, they are a nightmare, so they need to be controlled. The cats are well provided for and well cared for. Today of course we have a good attitude towards cats, making them much more domesticated and part of the family. Cats are the number one pet today.

  10. Jane says:

    Claire I am sorry I hadn’t seen before how you lost your senior cat, as I have been ill. Those kitties do have a habit of getting into your heart don’t they? I have a very pretty and spoilt tabby and white nine year old called Abbie, I took in her when her previous Mum died, and I love her to bits. I often tell her when she sits on my lap and I am reading or watching something historical about how lucky she is to be a 21st century puddytat, as cats were indeed singled out for some dreadful treatment in times gone by. She gives me her regal stare which reminds me of a quote that I saw somewhere on the web;-
    “Thousands of years ago cats were worshipped as gods. Cats have never forgotten this.”

    1. Christine says:

      Yes and don’t forget the saying ‘A cat may look at a King!’.

  11. Dawn 1st says:

    Cats were put into the walls of houses to ward off evil, and to bring good luck centuries ago too, quite a widespread practice across Europe. And because they naturally mummify rather than rot away they are still recognisable when found, as in the case on a Mr Parsons, a funeral director strangely enough, in 2009. One was found while his house in Devon was being renovated. It was thought to be 400 year old. He had it put back there after the work was finished, his wife wasn’t too happy about that!!

    1. Christine says:

      I don’t like the idea of renovation you can stir up spirits, a lot of hauntings allegedly start after people have started building work on their houses

      1. Dawn 1st says:

        I have read about such things. But without renovation a lot of our historic building would fall down…I live in an old house parts 200 years plus in parts, with Victorian additions. We had to renovate ours to a degree, nothing major, just undoing what was done to it in the 60’s where they ripped out original features, covered beautiful old 6 panel interior doors will hardboard etc so we reversed all that as much as we could. Can’t say we stirred up anything than a load of dust, muck and tempers at times, lol. But who knows who could have been watching us….found a few ‘funny’ little bits and bobs, but thankfully no mummified cats.

        1. Christine says:

          Ha ha I did that also with my doors as they had panels covering, they look so much better now, my friend lives in a new house but the area it stands on was once part of an old mental asylum and she swears she’s heard strange noises sometimes, children talking and laughing and things being moved, yes you do have to renovate sometimes it’s understandable when you live in an old house.

  12. Marilyn Crowther says:

    I ca me to your splendid website looking for verification of the fact that Q.Elizabeth 1 had an effigy of the Pope stuffed with cats and burnt – and I found it! What fascinated mealso was Claire’s mention of the Papal Bull where Pope Innocent decreed against witches and said cats were unholy and to be burned. My book ‘Poor Puss, A Social History of the Cat in Art, Books and Ephemera is under contract to be published through my agent. When my husband and I were collaborating on it a few years ago, he wrote to the Vatican to get verification of this point and he had a reply from those exalted people to say they had no evidence at all regarding this ‘edict’ regarding cats. But then perhaps ‘they would say that’ wouldn’t they? Marilyn Crowther.

  13. glenn richardson says:

    What is the evidence, please, that Cardinal Wolsey had a cat? What is the source for the belief. I know it is a common assumption, but where and how did it begin?

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