The Cat in the Cradle: Conspiracy Theories and Credible News, 1688 – and Now

By Laura Doak

On 10 June 1688 a new Prince of Wales was born at St. James’s Palace, London, and whispers swept across Europe. Some claimed that the baby, born to King James VII & II and his queen, Mary of Modena, was a fake. Stories circulated that it was a plot to engineer counter-Reformation in the British Isles, and that the boy was a changeling planted to dislodge the King’s Protestant daughters, Mary and Anne, from the line of succession. Coarse ballads and satirical poems sneered that Mary had been unfaithful, and that her son was fathered by either the Jesuit Father Petre or papal nuncio Count d’Adda.[1] Fuelled by latent anti-Catholic sentiment, stories soon grew that the boy had been born to a local miller and smuggled into the Queen’s room using a warming pan.[2] One printed broadside, O Rare Show, even satirically suggested that the new heir in the cradle was – in fact – a cat.[3]

Rumour haunted Mary and her baby bump from the start. Many claimed signs of discrepancy in the medical symptoms of her pregnancy. Even Princess Anne expressed (private) concerns that her stepmother’s “great bely” was “a little suspitious” and that the King and Queen’s inner circle seemed too confident she would deliver a boy, signalling “some cause to fear there may be foul play intended”.[4] Although historians often dispute the direct impact the Prince’s birth had on political events, just weeks later seven English dignitaries addressed a letter to James’s son-in-law William of Orange inviting him to liberate them from “the false imposing” of the prince “upon the princess and the nation”.[5] Then, when answering their call, William issued two Declarations of Reasons, explaining his appearance in the kingdoms of both England and Scotland, which similarly noted “the Queen’s pretended Bigness”.[6]  Even though it remains quite tempting to write off the impact of such improbable anecdotes, they clearly held a relationship to both domestic politics and foreign affairs in ways that – well, you’d think – could never happen today.

Recently, I revisited these outlandish rumours, inspired by a recent twitter thread on swaddled, spoon-fed cats in pre-modern paintings. I guess, like many, I was surprised to learn the extent to which ‘the cat in the cradle’ was a pre-existent trope. I was aware of the phrase’s somewhat rare but relatively current colloquial use (as in the 1974 Harry Chaplin song), but definitely not the extent to which the idea would have been widespread in seventeenth-century Europe. The sheer variety and repetition of cats in baby-like guises shows how the imagery was embedded within contemporary culture. The “indefinable je ne sais quoi about cats”, of course, became an obvious window into this kind of thing following Robert Darnton’s Great Cat Massacre (1984) and “when we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem,” wrote Darnton, “we know we are on to something.”[7]

Figure 1. A Dutch Proverb – A women feeding a bound cat, surrounded by men.
Haarlem School, date unknown. Available through Creative Commons.

So, maybe, in this case, although we only partially get the joke, we can still re-trace its original purpose? I was also intrigued how, in the mixed-up world of modern social media, these early modern, coddled cats were now placed alongside the conspiracy theories we ourselves have been living with in recent years: that Covid-19 was engineered in a laboratory; Covid-19 is a hoax; there is no vaccine – its only water; the vaccine contains a microchip; the vaccine will – in fact – make you magnetic. I was amused to find an entire feast of implausible claims fed by medical misunderstandings, science fictions, and cultural motifs of our own time. Before I knew it, I had transgressed far away from cats and microchips and found myself confronted by fabricated statistics and ‘scientific’ data – still groundless, yes, but potentially more convincing nonetheless.

There was (perhaps thankfully) no Twitter in 1688. Songs, ballads, letters, newspapers, and gossip shared in public spaces functioned as the social media of the day. It was here that murky tales of cats and cuckoldry would have circulated alongside supposed medical ‘facts’ designed to raise doubts about Mary’s conception and delivery. Dissecting the “warming-pan” myth in detail, John McTague has shown how such details offered “political and discursive opportunities”; the seemingly ludicrous flourishes functioning as conduits for other, more plausible political and religious arguments.[8] This princely cat too, then, would have provoked bigger conversations about monarchy and religion, enabling the exchange and dissemination of more concrete, ideology-based arguments against the monarch or a Catholic heir. Even loyal or disinterested listeners could remember a song or joke detailing such a common yet incredulous, comical detail. They might then be drawn into conversations where deeper persuasion could take place, just as we might find ourselves falling for the ‘clickbait’ of laughable tales about magnetic vaccines and then accidentally digesting far tamer, more suggestible ‘evidence’.

The cat in the St James’s cradle of 1688 was a myth; a satirical animal bred by old jokes and anti-Catholic tropes. But regardless of time or topic, the more scandalous the joke, the funnier and more memorable it becomes. The easier it is to repeat and recycle its punchline elsewhere. And, the more incredulous news becomes, the more likely it renders related, less whacky conspiracies. In a paradox still evident within the tales surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, without the cat in the cradle the other rumours surrounding the prince, capable of real political impact, would have seemed far less credible.

Based at the University of Dundee, Laura Doak is a Research Fellow on the Scottish Privy Council Project, which is funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Her research mainly focuses on political culture and popular politics in late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth century Scotland. Laura served as History’s Editorial intern during 2020-2021 and currently sits on the journal’s ECR Editorial Board.


[1] For examples, see: Pieter Schenk (attrib.) [The unexpected birth of a son] (1688): https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1868-0808-3314; Gisling Geneve [Romeyn de Hooghel], Arlequin Deodat (1688): https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1873-0510-2717.

[2] Thalpolectrum parturiens: or the Wonderfull product of the Court Warming-Pan (c.1719) https://www.rct.uk/collection/603552/thalpolectrum-parturiens-or-the-wonderfull-product-of-the-court-warming-pan.

[3] O Rare Show: Or, The Fumblers Club (1688)

[4] GB-Lbl Add. MS 75384, fol. 173r quoted in James Anderson Winn, Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) p.130.

[5] Andrew Browning, ed., English Historical Documents, 1660-1714 (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1953), pp.120-122.

[6] The Prince of Orange His Declaration [Scotland] (1688), p.7. See also: The Prince of Orange his declaration shewing the Reasons Why he Invades England (1688), pp.26-27.

[7] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre(London: Allen Lane, 1984),pp. 5, 89.

[8] John McTague, ‘Anti-Catholicism, Incorrigibility, and Credulity in the Warming Pan Scandal of 1688-1689’, Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies 36:3 (2013) p.435.


Cover Image. Queen Mary of Modena and Prince James. Benedetto Gennari III, 1690s. Available through Wiki Commons at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:James_III_and_Mary_of_Modena.JPG.

Figure 1. A Dutch Proverb – A women feeding a bound cat, surrounded by men. Haarlem School, date unknown. Available through Creative Commons at https://www.meisterdrucke.it/stampe-d-arte/Haarlem-School/832874/Un-proverbio-olandese—Una-donna-che-allatta-un-gatto-legato,-circondato-da-uomini,.html.

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