Cumbria’s oldest cat

I’ve been a bit remiss in keeping you updated recently, so I thought I’d dash in and offer this picture.

Dessicated cat from Keswick Museum

Dessicated cat from Keswick Museum

This dessicated cat, now in Keswick museum, was found in the rafters of St. Cuthbert’s Church in Clifton, near Penrith, in 1842. I’m afraid you will often see it described as a 666-year-old cat1, because the media has decided that this number suits an animal associated with witchcraft. Fortunately, I can assure you that they’ve been saying that for several years now, we don’t actually know the cat’s birth date and hence it’s probably just a poor old cat with a bad reputation.

There are a good hundred or so examples of dessicated cats recorded across the country. They’re usually found in buildings pre-dating 1800, and whilst some have been found between the ceiling plaster and rafters, like our Cumbrian cat, most are found up chimneys, beneath window sills and under hearths – in other words, at openings into the building. We’ve also found a lot of shoes hidden in similar places. They’re never new shoes, but old, tatty ones, and always singles, not a pair.

You’d think that someone at some point would have written down why they did this, but I’m afraid they didn’t. The earliest examples of concealed cats and shoes date back to the 1300s – as does our Cumbrian cat.

It’s certainly the case that cats were strongly associated with witchcraft by the 1500s, and a witches’ cat, or familiar, was believed to be a demon in cat form.  To quote Reginald Scot2, who, to be fair, was trying to say that the whole thing was bonkers, ‘some say (witches) can keepe divils and spirits in the likenesse of… cats’.

The habit of hiding shoes has befuddled folklorists for a couple of centuries, but I think the clue lies in another item sometimes found concealed in houses – the witch bottle. These bottles start appearing in the 1500s and are filled with urine, hair, fingernails and iron nails. Their purpose – warding away witches – has come down in tradition, but we don’t understand the detail. Some witch bottles were certainly used in spells against specific witches; the bottle was either buried, in which case the target witch died of slow suffocation, or thrown on the fire until it exploded, with the expectation of a similar affect on the witch. The hair, urine and so on was a representation of the householder, and it’s easy to imagine that an old, well-worn shoe achieved the same objective in previous centuries – and rather more hygienically, too.

And the cat? Good question. Did it represent its owners in the otherworld, keeping witchy spirits at bay? Did it keep the witches’ familiar at bay, perhaps? Or is it just scaring off rats? We just don’t know. But I am sure it’s time to lose the ‘666’ tag.

© Diane McIlmoyle 24.04.12

Note: I was reminded of the Keswick cat by Elizabeth Ashworth, who saw one recently and mentioned it on her blog. She has written three books on Lancashire history which you can buy here and a historical novel, The De Lacy Inheritance.

  1. The first reference I have to this is in Geoff Holder’s The Guide to the Mysterious Lake District (2009). He points out that Keswick Museum’s label (at the time – they now say 667 years!) said that the cat was 500 years old, but given that it was found in 1842, it must have been 666 years old in the year that he was writing. That line was picked up rather fruitily by the press in the book’s publicity, and has been passed on ever since. This is how myths are born…
  2. Reginald Scot, who didn’t believe in witchcraft, wrote The Discoverie of Witchcraft in 1584. It was then used by amateur witches as a ‘how to’ guide for the next three hundred years. I’m sure he’d be cross.

Further reading

Witch Bottles and Magical Jugs by Ralph Merrifield, Folklore Magazine, vol 66, Mar 1955, pp 195-207.

Shoes concealed in Buildings by June Swann, Costume Magazine, no. 30, 1996, pp56-69.

The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic by Ralph Merrifield (1987).

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12 thoughts on “Cumbria’s oldest cat

  1. I have a big black cat and one of my daughters actually said she was my “familiar”. Isn’t it funny how all these ancient superstitions survive even in this modern age?

    • Ha! Isn’t it just, Yolanda! Although I’d hope most of us wouldn’t ‘bury’ our deceased moggies under the hearth or the rafters these days – even if they were our bestest pals 🙂

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  3. I’m ashamed of myself. All the times I go to Keswick and I’ve never yet been into the museum! I’ve been to quite a few of the talks the ‘Friends’ give, if that lets me off. Slapped wrist, I will go in next time I’m there.

    • Hello Carol! Well, I’ve never been to the talks so you’re one up on me.

      The Museum is very interesting in a very Victorian way – they have a very strange selection of exhibits! It’s due to close at the end of summer for a refit that will take about a year. Shame, in a way, but if it gives us another good place to show local stuff in the Lakes, it’ll be worth it.

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

    • Brilliants links there, Jonathan – thank you very much! I’m glad Dr Beachcombing hasn’t found an explanation, either. Or am I? It is bizarre that there seem to be plenty of them about but no one really knows why.

      This post did trigger a couple of responses on Twitter from people who’d found both shoes and cats in their old houses when they were renovating them. In both cases, the items ended up in the skip – probably the fate of plenty of other examples, too.

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