Category Archives: 17th century

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

Cat-burning was less common in Britain, though 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 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1637: Church elders complain of dung-hurling

Norwich cathedral

In 1637, an order from Charles I required members of the Norwich municipal corporation to attend cathedral services, if they weren’t doing so already.

This order posed problems for the mayor and aldermen, who petitioned the king for an exemption from attending services in the city’s cathedral. Their “Humble Petition” cited “inconveniences thereof [that were] many and intolerable”. According to members of the corporation, their low seats in the cathedral were subject to gusts of freezing wind.

Not only that, the ordinary folk of Norwich, who were none too fond of the corporation, occupied the seats in the upper galleries. This gave them a vantage point for pelting city officials with anything they could find, from shoes to excreta:

“There be many seats over our heads and are oftentimes exposed to much danger… In the mayoralty of Mr Christopher Barrett a great Bible was let fall from above and hitting him upon the head, broke his spectacles… Some made water in the gallery on the aldermen’s heads and it dropped down into their wives’ seats… In October last Alderman Shipdham, somebody most beastly did conspurcate and shit upon his gown from the galleries above… some from the galleries let fall a shoe which narrowly missed the mayor’s head… another time one from the gallery did spit upon Alderman Barrett’s head…”

The king denied their request for exemption. It is not known if the Norwich elders followed the order and braved the masses in the cathedral.

Source: Tanner manuscripts, Bodleian Library; v.220, f.147. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1625: English invasion thwarted by a booze up

Edward Cecil’s failed Cadiz expedition… well it seemed a good idea at the time.

In 1625, two English military commanders – George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and Sir Edward Cecil – sought royal approval for a war against Spain. A successful campaign, they told Charles I, would weaken the Spanish Empire and revive the glory of 1588, when the English repelled the Armada. Villiers and Cecil also hoped to line their pockets by plundering Spanish ships returning from the Americas laden with cash and cargo. Their plan was backed by Charles I but not parliament, which was unwilling and probably unable to provide financial support.

In the summer of 1625, Cecil moved to Devon to assemble his invasion force but was plagued by a shortage of funds and other difficulties. He secured almost 120 English and Dutch ships but many were poorly maintained. Cecil’s land force consisted of 15,000 men, most of whom were pressed into service in and around Plymouth. Cecil’s expedition was also poorly stocked: he was able to obtain provisions for scarcely a fortnight abroad.

The fleet sailed on October 5th 1625 but returned the following day after striking bad weather. It sailed again two days later but suffered damage in heavy weather off the Spanish coast. The English encountered several Spanish ships filled with cargo but dithering, allowed them to escape.

The expedition landed near Cadiz on October 24th but Cecil, having noticed the city’s fortifications, abandoned his plans to attack it. Instead, Cecil marched his men in the opposite direction. With night approaching he allowed his invasion to stop at village in the wine-producing region of Andalusia. Unfortunately for Cecil, this village housed a large quantity of the local product. His ‘army’ quickly fell apart, thanks to:

“…the misgovernment of the soldiers who, by the avarice or negligence of their commanders, were permitted to fill themselves so much with the wine they found in the cellars and other places they plundered, that they became more like beasts than men… if the Spaniards had had good intelligence they might have all been cut off.”

Cecil’s men were so hopelessly drunk that their officers abandoned plans for capturing major cities – or indeed smaller ones. The soldiers were herded back onto the ships. For a time they sailed aimlessly along the Spanish coast, looking for treasure ships to plunder. But poor hygiene and lack of supplies soon took their toll on the men, who began to die, “many each hour”.

In mid-November, the expedition was abandoned and the ships, scattered at sea, began to limp back to England. Cecil was the last to return: his own ship was blown off course and became lost, landing on the south coast of Ireland in mid December. His return ended one of the worst executed military campaigns in English history.

Source: Sir Richard Baker, A Chronicle of the Kings of England &c., 1684. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1691: Amusingly-shaped vegetable proves wife not impotent

In 1691, Joseph de Arostegui of Calahorra from northern Spain petitioned for divorce from his wife, Antonia Garrido, based on her alleged impotence. According to his testimony, there had been no consummation of their four-year marriage because his wife “does not have her parts like other women”.

Antonia contested her husband’s claim for divorce, her lawyer asserting that Antonia’s genitals were fully functional but had been affected by “evil spells and witchcraft”.

As was usual in early modern trials where impotence was alleged, Antonia was ordered to submit to at least two examinations by doctors and midwives. At the second of these examinations:

“…the [surgeon] Francisco Velez inserted into the said parts of the said Antonia Garrido a stem of cabbage in a shape similar to a virile member… and seeing that it entered with liberty…”

The examiners, content that penetration had been achieved, ruled that Antonia was capable of intercourse, and the church court turned down Joseph’s petition for divorce. The fate of their marriage after this is unknown.

Source: Testimony of Dr Juan Munoz, Archives of the Diocese of Calahorra, folio 1. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1649: Scottish women smell of pottage, piss, pig turds

No many bonnie wee lassies in Scotland, a 1649 pamphlet claims

A Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland was first published in London in 1649 and reappeared in various forms over the next decade. Its authorship is open to question. Some historians attribute it to Oxford graduate and minor writer James Howell, better known for coining the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Others believe it was written by Anthony Weldon, a scheming courtier to Charles I.

Whoever was responsible for its creation, A Perfect Description is unabashed propaganda, filled with anti-Scottish jibes and stereotypes. The people of Scotland, it claims, are lazy and incompetent farmers; they would “rather go to taverns” than cultivate the land around them. They are also coarse and uncultured and will “stop their ears if you speak of a play”. They fornicate as a “pastime”, laugh at blasphemy and wink at murder.

The writer reserves particular acrimony for Scottish women, of whom it claims “there are none greater [fatter] in the whole world”. Further, they have appalling personal hygiene and make terrible wives:

“Their flesh abhors cleanliness, their breath commonly stinks of pottage, their linen of piss, their hands of pigs’ turds, their body of sweat [while] their splay feet never offend socks. To be chained in marriage with one of them [is] to be tied to a dead carcass and cast into a stinking ditch.”

Source: Source: Author unknown, A Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland, 1649. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1666: Snow-packed codpiece saves post boy’s life

An early modern codpiece (insert snow here)

Philip Skippon (1641-91) was an English naturalist, traveller and parliamentarian. Skippon was born in Norfolk, the son of a respected Cromwellian general who had retained his position during the Interregnum. Skippon the Younger studied botany at Cambridge and, after graduation, became a member of the Royal Society.

In 1663, Skippon embarked on a three-year tour of the continent, accompanied by a group of fellow naturalists including John Ray, Martin Lister and Nathaniel Bacon (later the leader of Bacon’s Rebellion in colonial Virginia). Skippon kept a journal of their travels, which took in the Low Countries, Malta, the Mediterranean coast, Italy, Switzerland, France and the German states. This journal was eventually published by London printer John Churchill in 1732, four decades after Skippon’s death.

Much of Skippon’s journal is taken up with observations about the natural environment, agriculture, human industry and activity. But there are also frequent anecdotes and the occasional xenophobic judgement. Skippon wrote that the average Frenchman is fond of “shirking”, “stingy with his purse” and “strangely impatient at all games, especially at cards, which transports those that lose into a rage”. French women are “generally bad housewives”, prone to loose morals and “spotting and painting their faces”.

One unusual anecdote recalls the exploits of a Dr Moulins, a Scottish physician resident in Nimes. At a time of considerable political and religious tension in France, Moulins volunteered to travel to London as an envoy. On the way he struck foul weather – and utilised his medical ‘skills’ on a travelling companion:

“Dr Moulins immediately and privately rode away for Lyons in bitter snowy weather, and in eight days arrived in England… On this journey Dr Moulins rode post with a Frenchman. Seeing the boy fall down dead with the extremity of cold, [Moulins] opened his codpiece and rubbed his member virile with snow, till he recovered, which he did in a little time, and the boy was able again to ride post.”

Skippon left Paris in 1666 and continued his travels on the British isles. In 1679 he entered parliament, representing the Suffolk constituency of Dunwich. Skippon was later knighted by James I. He died of fever in Hackney.

Source: Philip Skippon Esq., “An Account of a Journey made thro part of the Low Countries, Germany, Italy and France” in John Churchill (ed.), Collection of Voyages and Travels, 1732. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1687: Duke dispatched by gangrene in his privities

George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham

George Villiers (1628-1687) was an English courtier, politician, writer and, later, the second Duke of Buckingham. His father, also George Villiers, was a favourite (and according to some, a bisexual lover) of King James I. Villiers Senior was stabbed to death shortly after the birth of his son, who was then raised in the royal court alongside the future Charles II.

Young George was sent to study at Cambridge but was bored by lectures, being spotted by Thomas Hobbes “at mastrupation, his hand in his codpiece”. Villiers later sided with the Royalists during the English Civil War, joining Charles II in exile. He returned to England in 1657 and participated in the Restoration, serving in Charles’ court and on the Privy Council.

Villiers’ political career was marked by scandals, intrigues and feuds. Two notable incidents were a hair-pulling brawl with the Marquess of Dorchester on the floor of the House of Lords, and a 1668 duel where Villiers shot dead the Earl of Shrewsbury. Villiers had been having an affair with the Countess of Shrewsbury; he later caused public outrage by moving the countess into his own home and living in a virtual menage a trios.

Villiers retired from public life in the late 1670s and retreated to his Yorkshire estate. He died in April 1687. The official cause of death was a pneumonia contracted while hunting in cold weather – however a letter written by Lord Arran, the future Duke of Hamilton, suggests a more colourful end. According to Arran he called on Villiers and found him dying of gangrenous private parts:

“He told me he was on horseback but two days before… He told me he had a mighty descent [and had] fallen upon his privities, with an inflammation and great swelling. He thought by applying warm medicines the swelling would fall and then he would be at ease. But it proved otherwise, for a mortification came on those parts, which ran up his belly and so mounted, which was the occasion of his death…. I found him there in a most miserable condition.”

Even though he remained conscious and alert, Villiers’ doctors gave him but a day or two to live. They asked Arran to break the news to Villiers, who received it stoically. He deteriorated rapidly and passed away at 11 o’clock the following night.

Villiers was interred in Westminster Abbey, his funeral a somewhat grandiose and overblown affair, given his tumultuous and controversial political career. Having expired without a legitimate heir, Villiers’ title died with him and his estate was broken up and sold. His wife Mary died in 1704 and was interred alongside him in the Abbey. Their graves are presently unmarked.

Source: Letter from Lord Arran to the Bishop of Rochester, April 17th 1687. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1696: Salmon’s anti-nymphomania lemonade

William Salmon

William Salmon (1644-1713) was an English apothecary, quack physician and author. Salmon was born in London but little is known of his upbringing. In his late teens, Salmon set up a medical practice in Smithfield, treating all manner of illnesses and injuries for a low fee. He had no formal education but was a busy autodidact, accumulating and digesting a large collection of medical texts.

In time, Salmon became part-physician, part-showman and part-salesman, flogging his own brand of cure-all pills and draughts. In 1671 the self-declared ‘Professor of Physic’ published his first medical book, Synopsis Medicinae. It was the first of more 25 books published by Salmon during his lifetime, almost all of which were copies, translations or adaptations of earlier works.

In 1696 Salmon released The Family Dictionary, a simple medical guide for household use. One instalment provides a cure for ‘trembling members’:

“If the members tremble and shake, that you cannot at certain times hold them still… anoint the parts where you find the trepidation with powers of lavender and drink two drams of water made with man’s or swine’s blood, brought to putrefaction… This must be frequently repeated for a month’s time.”

For gout, Salmon suggests a poultice of hot kite’s dung, camphor and soap. Freckles can be removed by mixing blackbird droppings with lemon juice and smearing on the affected areas. One of Salmon’s more interesting ‘cures’ is his recipe for anti-nymphomaniac lemonade:

“Lemonade: Scrape lemon peel, as much as you think fit, into water and sugar, and add a few drops of the oil of sulphur, with some slices of lemon, observing always to put half a pound of sugar to a pint of water. This is very wholesome for the stomach, creates appetite and good digestion… And in the case of the distemper called furor uterinus [‘uterine fury’ or nymphomania] take the feathers of a partridge, burn them for a considerable time under the party’s nose, so that the fume may ascend the nostrils, and drink a quarter of a pint of this lemonade after it.”

Source: William Salmon, The Family Dictionary, London, 1696. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1699: Scottish baronet dies after “pissing hair”

George August Eliott, later Lord Heathfield, who had no trouble with hair-pissing

The Eliotts were Scottish landowners who fielded several British parliamentarians during the 17th and 18th centuries. Initially Royalist, the clan Eliott retained its holdings and influence after the Civil War. One of their number was Sir William Eliott, who became the family patriarch and second baronet when his father Sir Gilbert died in 1677.

Sir William lived a full life, marrying twice and fathering seven children (eight according to some records). When Sir William himself died on February 19th 1699, he was in the care of two prominent Scottish physicians, Sir Archibald Stevenson and Dr Archibald Pitcairne.

According to their report, given to Dr John Wallace, Sir William died from an enlarged bladder stone. His last weeks were spent “pissing hairs”, followed by the torturous ritual of having them tugged out of his urethra:

“The hairs he pissed… which were a great many, and some of extraordinary length, did grow out of that [bladder] stone, because when the hairs would hang out at his penis, as they did frequently, to his great torment, [the physicians] were obliged to pull them out, which was always with that resistance as if plucked out by the root.”

The source of these miscreant urethral hairs was revealed after Sir William’s death, when Stevenson and Pitcairne performed an autopsy. They reported that:

“The stone… taken out of his bladder was about the bigness of a goose egg. The stone was hard and heavy, and for the most part covered over with a scurf [scaly texture], not unlike the lime mortar of walls, and in the chinks of the scurf there were some hairs grown out.”

Sir William’s grandson, George Augustus Eliott, joined the army and became one of the more successful commanders of his age, fighting with distinction during the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolutionary War and the Siege of Gibraltar. Sir William’s descendants still occupy the Eliott baronetcy, now onto its 12th incarnation, and the ancestral home of Stobs Castle.

Source: Letter from Dr J. Wallace FRS, October 25th 1700. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1675: Tuscan man’s bulletproof buttocks bet backfires

Margin art from a medical manuscript showing an archer shooting a merman in the buttocks, as you do.

Francesco Redi (1626-97) was a Tuscan-born physician, biologist and writer. Redi is best known for shattering several medieval medical myths. He debunked the theory of spontaneous reproduction by proving that maggots grow from fly eggs, rather than from the cells of rotting meat. He conducted several other ground-breaking experiments involving parasites, insects and animal toxins.

In his 1675 manuscript Experimenta Naturalia, Redi also challenged the medieval belief that humans could use natural compounds to render themselves impervious to bullets, swords and other weapons. He cites a local example, the story of a successful clockmaker who took up residence in Florence and became a regular at the Duke of Tuscany’s court.

One day, the clockmaker boasted that men from his home village used charms, herbs and stones to harden the skin and render themselves bulletproof. After being laughed out of court, the clockmaker returned some time later with a native of his mountain home. He urged sceptics at court to test the theory by firing a pistol or musket at his guest:

“…To give them satisfaction, he [the clockmaker’s guest] opened his breast and bade any of the courtiers to shoot at him and spare not. Charles Costa, one of the Duke’s officers, was just going to make the experiment when the Duke, out of pity to the poor fellow, bade Costa to shoot him only into the buttocks. And so he did, that the bullet went quite through and the fellow ran out, ashamed and bleeding. This did put the clockmaker out of countenance…”

Undaunted, the clockmaker returned in “a week or two” with a soldier he also claimed to be ‘bulletproofed’. The soldier exposed his thigh to reveal “five blue spots”, allegedly the mark of bullets that did not penetrate the skin. When one courtier wagered 25 crowns that the soldier could not withstand a shot to the rear end, the clockmaker accepted the bet:

“…Immediately they shot the fellow through the buttocks, as they had shot the other. While the company was laughing and the fellow feeling his backside, the [clockmaker] was… laid hold on and threatened to be severely punished… [He revealed that] the secret lay in the charging of the pistol, so as the greatest part of the powder should lay before the bullet and only a little behind it. By that means the report [noise] and fire would be great, but the bullet would come weak to the place and fall without hurting the person.”

His ruse having failed, the clockmaker lost the bet. Redi does not record any other punishment, though he was probably expelled from the ducal court.

Source: Francesco Redi, Experimenta Naturalia, 1675. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.