|A view of Exeter Cathedral.|
Photo by Pengannel.
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Medieval churches were often infiltrated by rats and mice, as well as by birds in the high-up places. All those infiltrators needed controlling, and a cat was a useful creature to have around for the job. And it was a job: for many years in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, England’s Exeter Cathedral actually kept a cat on the payroll, and for a while the cathedral employed two cats.
Cathedral history—extremely abridged
The construction of a cathedral at Exeter began in the early twelfth century but was not complete until nearly 300 years later, in about 1400. Styles changed during those centuries, and the original Norman cathedral got a Gothic makeover halfway through. Today, the two Norman towers stand as a reminder of the building’s origins. Jumping ahead by 500 years, we come to 1942, when the cathedral was hit during a German air raid and its chapel of St. James was destroyed. The chapel’s reconstruction will become important to our cat story later.
The cathedral’s cats
|The cat door in the North Tower of Exeter Cathedral. |
By Richard Gillin. CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr.
There is physical evidence from long ago of a working cat in the cathedral: see the cat hole in the door of the North Tower that allowed a cat access to the staircase inside. But we also have documentary evidence of Exeter Cathedral’s cats, in some records that survive from the years 1305 to 1467. These records are filled with interesting bits, including certain quarterly payments of 13 pence “to the custors and the cat” (custoribus et cato, if you’re doing it in Latin). Sometimes the phrasing indicated that payments were made to the custors “for the cat” (pro cato) rather than “and the cat.”
You will be wondering what on earth a “custor” is. Well, the custors worked in the cathedral and were in charge of things like “ringing for services, keeping visitors in order, and looking after vestments” (Cathedral Cat). They worked under the treasurer, who was responsible for the cathedral’s interior and furnishings and who got half of what was in the cathedral’s collecting boxes. Out of those funds, the treasurer had to pay people like the grave digger, the custors, the seamstress, and the cat.
It seems that the cathedral may have had a worsening rodent problem in the mid-fourteenth century. For a time between 1363 and 1366, the quarterly cat payment doubled to 26 pence, possibly indicating the addition of a second cat to the payroll.
In a later record, from 1547, there is a payment for the custors, but no mention of the cat. This doesn’t necessarily mean there was no cat or that the cat wasn’t getting his or her payment. Maybe they just didn’t write the pro cato part down.
What could a cat do with 13 pence?
It seems that the whole amount of 13 pence per quarter was meant for the cathedral’s cat. This amounted to a penny a week, but don’t imagine a cat stashing coins in some hidden corner. The money was more likely meant to be spent by the custor on meat to feed the cat. Hunting vermin is not an easy way to make a living, you know.
Tom, the rat, and the owl
During and just after World War II, there was a certain cat named Tom who wasn’t on the cathedral’s payroll but who nevertheless hunted rodents there. One day, Tom got into a scuffle with an owl over a rat. We haven’t learned for sure who won that fight, but since Tom lost an eye in the altercation, we can guess it probably wasn’t him.
You will recall now that the chapel of St. James was destroyed during World War II. Well, when it was rebuilt after the war, a cat’s head (with only one eye) was added to the stonework as a memorial to Tom. The rat is also memorialized in stonework.
There is no longer a cat officially employed by the cathedral, though we understand that several pet cats are known to patrol the grounds.
Orme, Nicholas. The Cathedral Cat: Stories from Exeter Cathedral. Kindle edition. Exeter: Impress Books, 2008.