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1569: Woman gives birth to cat and 'two wives apiece' in Cuckfield

Updated: Aug 30, 2021

Check out the Huff Post story at the end of this article - it's not just the Tudors!

This could be a headline written by a red top tabloid. But very strange things went on in Tudor times - some have been acted out in the amusing 'Horrible Histories' programmes. Cuckfield was no exception and it came to national attention at the time through a local scandal.

David Cressy's book, 'Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England' published in 2000 is of interest to historians, literary scholars, and historical anthropologists, otters readers fifteen distinct chapters, each telling a different set of stories from the reigns of Elizabeth. James I, and Charles I.

The author explores the contested cultural terrain of late Tudor and early Stuart England by giving vent to competing voices found in narratives drawn from a very wide variety of manuscript and printed sources.

More specifically, Cressy wants to assess English society's flexibility in coping with phenomena that crossed the boundaries of cultural norms: ''Monstrous' births, illegitimacy, infanticide, iconoclasm, cross-dressing, illegal burials, and public nudity, among others. One especially important source for these often conflicting accounts is court testimony, particularly before ecclesiastical tribunals…

… Three chapters are devoted to pregnant, single domestic servants whom the author encountered in his research into how midwives and communities dealt with bastardy. Cressy found, for example, a nest of conflicting stories concerning Agnes Bowker, who gave birth, many testified, to a cat. Originating in the court of the archdeacon of Leicester in 1569, the case eventually attracted the attention of the Privy Council as well as the bishop of London.

Cuckfield bitterly torn apart by controversy

A second chapter devotes itself to the 1578 birth of Mercy Gould's stillborn child, an event sparking conflicting testimony on paternity, abortion, and infanticide. The case bitterly divided the Sussex village of Cuckfield and led to the central government’s involvement and the downfall of the parish priest.

Yet a third chapter concerns Rose Arnold's unwanted pregnancy in early-seventeenth century Leicestershire, a case that led Cressy to a tangle of testimony before the diocesan conic involving seduction, attempted abortion or infanticide, attempted murder, bribery, and forgery.

Another figure from Birth, Marriage, and Death is the midwife Elizabeth Wyatt; Creasy's research in the archdeaconry court of London uncovered the detailed defense of Wyatts professional and personal reputation against accusations of carousing in taverns with a married man.

In the process of contextualizing the various depositions in this 1635 case, Cressy unveiled rich and rare information about midwife training and regulation as well as the real practices of the birthroom Finally, readers of Cressy's 1966 article on cross-dressing will recognize the story of Thomas Salmon, a servant caught in female dress in an Oxfordshire birthroom in 1633. The case provides Cressy with an opportunity to engage with literary scholar on the controversial issue of the social meaning of early modern transvestism.

Though skeptical of absolute historical truth - his one nod toward postmodernism David Cressy strongly advocates close reading of these many stories as an invaluable path into the mental world of early modem society, a world that historians have only recently begun to recover.

Michael Rogers, Northeastern State University


The Cuckfield ironmaster versus the vicar

Maisie Wright gives a full account of the vicarage dispute that tore the village apart in A Chronicle of Cuckfield (1991) as follows:

Henry Bowyer [Who was the powerful local ironmaster who built Cuckfield Park] seems to have been a hard man and things did not go smoothly in his new house. The State papers of Elizabeth record:

“Easter 1578: One Mercy Gold servant to Henry Bowyer of Cuckfield, ironmaster, was with child in the foresaid master's "house and being suspected thereof, the wife of the said Bowyer gave her a purgative and sent her away... she had a male child that was buried in a field. Later under pressure she said that the father was John — Mr. Bowyer’s man”.

The Vicar of Cuckfield, Edmund Curteys, a brother of the Bishop of Chichester, evidently held Henry Bowyer responsible in this affair and rebuked him for it. Henry Bowyer retaliated by denouncing the Vicar to the Privy Council for “insufficiency of knowledge and sundry misdemeanours“.

This started a bitter feud between them which lasted ten years and involved every Cuckfield family of note on one side or the other. Ninian Chaloner and Thomas Michel had to appear at Greenwich before the Lord Chancellor and the Earls of Warwick, Bedford and Leicester, who charged the two that “they should not deal any further in the matter of the vicarage of Cuckfield".

When the Chaloners, Michels, Burrells and several other Cuckfield men sent a petition to the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of “Mr Edmund Curteys” the Privy Council called up Ninan Chaloner and Thomas Michel on 16th July 1581 and put them in custody of the Night Marshall in the Marshalsea Prison* until the next meeting of the Privy Council. Edmund Curteys appealed to the Lord Chief Justice seeking for a commission to examine his case.

'Two wives apiece'

He alleged that Henry Bowyer hath linked himself in league with such parishioners as have found themselves aggrieved with him for my charitable admonishing them of dissolute life for the past six years”. He wrote to Walsingham: “The cause of all my trouble is that I have sought the punishment of certain wicked men who have two wives apiece”. Edmund Curteys was, nevertheless, deprived of his living in 1581, but he stayed on in the Vicarage house supported by “a wage of charity” from his parishioners and died in Cuckfield in 1605.


So you think it was just the Tudors who were deluded? Well here's a Huff Post story from 17 August 2018 on the same lines: 'Bizarrely Beautiful Photos Show Woman ‘Giving Birth’ To New Kitten'.

* The Marshalsea was a notorious prison in Southwark, just south of the River Thames. Although it housed a variety of prisoners, including men accused of crimes at sea and political figures charged with sedition, it became known, in particular, for its incarceration of the poorest of London's debtors.

Main source

From the Transgressions in Tudor and Stuart England by David Cressy, a review by: Michael Rogers in The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 868-869

Photo from Pinterest picture of kitten being nursed

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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