1677: Londoners burn live cats in wicker pope

Our European ancestors really had it in for cats, chiefly because of their association with the devil or witchcraft. Many cats have paid the ultimate price for this superstition. Documents from medieval and early modern Europe describe dozens of cases of cats being burned alive, either for entertainment or religious point scoring. Cat burning was particularly common in France, where a dozen live cats were routinely torched in Paris every Midsummer’s Day (late June). English courtier Philip Sidney attended one of these feline infernos in 1572. In his chronicle Sidney noted that King Charles IX also threw a live fox onto the fire, for added interest. In 1648 France’s King Louis XIV, then aged just 10, lit the tinder on a large bonfire in central Paris, then watched and danced with glee as a basket of stray cats was lowered into the flames. Live cats were frequently burned alive elsewhere in Europe, particularly at Easter or the period around Halloween.

medieval cat burning
Like witches, heretics, sodomites and Jews, many cats were burned alive in medieval Europe

Cat burning was less common in Britain, however a few examples are recorded. One comes from the letters of Englishman Charles Hatton. In November 1677 Hatton wrote to his brother, chiefly about who might be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. He closed his letter by describing a recent celebration to mark the 119th anniversary of Elizabeth I taking the throne. At the centre of this pageantry, Hatton wrote, was a large wickerwork figure of Pope Innocent XI, an effigy that reportedly cost £40 to make. The wicker pope was paraded through London, then erected in Smithfield and set alight. Inside its baskety innards was a number of live cats:

“Last Saturday the coronation of Queen Elizabeth was solemnised in the city with mighty bonfires and the burning of a most costly pope, carried by four persons in diverse clothing, and the effigies of devils whispering in his ears, his belly filled full of live cats, who squawled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire. The common saying all the while was [the cats’ screeching] was the language of the Pope and the Devil in a dialogue between them.”

According to Charles Hatton, these perverse celebrations were concluded with the opening and distribution of a free barrel of claret.

Source: Letter from Charles Hatton to Christopher Hatton, November 22nd 1677. From Correspondence of the Family of Hatton, vol. 1, 1878. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1905: An unfortunate sailor is flogged “up and under”

In 1891 English social reformer Henry Salt and several friends set up the Humanitarian League. Active for almost 30 years, the League waged energetic campaigns against animal cruelty, including vivisection, slaughterhouse practices, the fur trade, and blood sports like fox-hunting and deer-stalking. Salt and his collaborators also lobbied for an end to inhuman practices and conditions like war and militarism, police brutality and corporal punishment in schools, prisons and the military. In the first years of the 20th century the League demanded an end to corporal punishment in the Royal Navy, particularly its use of “birchings” or “the cuts” (whippings with bundles of twigs). The Navy conducted hundreds of birchings every year, mostly on young cadets and junior sailors. It was a punishment that combined intense pain and blood letting with public humiliation and an awkward sexual undertone:

“The offender is strapped hand and foot… over the breech of a small gun, his trousers are allowed to fall below the knees. A broad canvas is passed around the middle of his body, and his clothing is strapped up, leaving thighs and buttocks perfectly nude… The strokes are deliberately delivered on the bare flesh, not in rapid succession but with a slight pause between each stroke, making the torture and agony of as lengthy a duration as possible. With each stroke the flesh is seen to turn red, blue and black with bruising. After six or eight strokes the skin usually breaks and copious streams of blood trickle down the unhappy victim’s legs… Splinters of broken birch, wet with blood, whizz and fly in all directions – and not infrequently the exuding excrement of the sufferer…”

sailor birching

Between 1900 and 1905 newspaper correspondents argued ad nauseum over the merits of corporal punishment. In a letter to The Times one flag officer, Vice Admiral Penrose Fitzgerald, described the anti-birching campaign as “nonsense”. “British youths have been birched and caned from time immemorial,” said the admiral, “and yet the race has not turned out badly on the whole”. On the other hand, the public was frequently shocked by graphic accounts of naval birchings and canings. In January 1905 Salt’s journal, The Humanitarian, published an eye-witness account of a Royal Navy birching ‘gone wrong’. When one bircher failed to incite his victim to screams, he became overzealous, aimed ‘up and under’, and landed his birch on a particularly delicate part of the anatomy:

“Towards the completion of the number of strokes, the corporal [carrying out the birching] began to be anxious for his reputation, so he resorted to the unfair and terrible ‘upward’ stroke, but his aim was not true. The poor fellow gave a yell which I shall never forget and fainted at once… Until he had been surgically examined there was no anxiety, but when it was known that no permanent injury had been inflicted, the matter became one for jest among those sufficiently lost to all sense of decency.”

Fortunately, the Humanitarian League’s campaign did have some effect. In 1906 the Royal Navy outlawed the use of the birch, replacing it with a single cane. Under new regulations, canings could only be distributed after a formal hearing and were no longer carried out in public. By the 1930s there were few canings carried out on seagoing ships. Caning continued to be used on young naval trainees until 1967, when it was abolished altogether.

Sources: The Humanitarian, January 1905 and March 1905. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.