Sisters of mercy: the Biddenden Maids

Every Easter Monday, a Kent village celebrates the story of the Biddenden Maids, medieval sisters who were reputedly joined at the hip and shoulder. Jan Bondeson investigates the truth behind this curious custom

Biddenden Maids Cake. (Public Domain)

This article was first published in the April 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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On Easter Monday morning, the Kentish village of Biddenden is the scene of a curious old custom called the Biddenden Maids’ Charity. Through the window of the Old Workhouse, tea, cheese and loaves of bread are given to the local widows and pensioners. Large amounts of Biddenden Cakes, baked of flour and water, are distributed among the crowd of tourists and spectators. The cakes bear the effigy of the Biddenden Maids, two women whose bodies appear to be joined together. A tradition of obscure and ancient origins tells that these maids were conjoined twins, born in 1100, who lived joined together for 34 years.
According to tradition, the Biddenden Maids, Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst, were born to fairly wealthy parents in the year 1100. Their bodies were joined at the hips and shoulders. They were naturally very close friends, although one source states that they sometimes disagreed in minor matters, and had “frequent quarrels, which sometimes terminated in blows”. In 1134, Mary was suddenly taken ill and died. It was proposed that Eliza should be separated from her sister’s corpse by means of a surgical operation, but she refused with the words, “As we came together we will also go together”, and herself died six hours later.
In their joint will, the two Biddenden Maids left 20 acres of land to the churchwardens; the rent from these Bread and Cheese Lands was to provide an annual dole to the deserving poor. When Biddenden Church was visited by the Archdeacon of Canterbury on Easter Day 1605, the custom that “on that day our parson giveth unto the parishioners bread, cheese, cakes and divers barrels of beer, brought in there and drawn” was not observed, because it was usually accompanied by “much disorder by reason of some unruly ones, which at such a time we cannot restrain with any ease”.

Feeding the hungry masses

In 1645, the Rector William Horner brought a lawsuit to claim that the Bread and Cheese Lands were glebe land, but he lost the case. In the 18th century, the charity was distributed directly after afternoon service, and the church was filled with a large and hungry congregation. Those who did not gain an entrance into the crowded church had to be content with the hard Biddenden Cakes with the maids’ effigy, which were thrown out among the populace from the church roof; already in the 18th century, these cakes were much sought after as curiosities. A gravestone marked with a diagonal line, situated near the rector’s pew, was shown to visitors as the Biddenden Maids’ place of interment.
The 18th-century sources on the Biddenden Maids agree that the charity had existed for a very long time and that it had been given by two conjoined twin sisters. An anonymous article in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1770 states that the maids were conjoined from the waist down to the hips, and thus not joined at two separate anatomical sites. They were not known by any particular name. In spite of the high antiquity of the tradition, the writer did not doubt its authenticity. But Edward Hasted’s History of Kent stated that the legend of the Biddenden Maids was merely a vulgar tradition. The charity had been initiated by two maidens by the name of Preston; the picture of the women on the cakes was the likeness of two poor widows, the most likely recipients of the Biddenden charity. But the charity can be traced back into the first years of the 17th century, and in the legal documents from Parson Horner’s lawsuit, it is said to have existed for many years. Furthermore, the depositions of witnesses among these documents inform us that these lands had originally been given by “two Maidens that grew together in their bodies”.
This shows that already in the 1650s, tradition stated that Biddenden Maids were conjoined twins, and Edward Hasted’s claim to the contrary can be disproved. It is remarkable that these depositions of witnesses do not contain the names of the benefactors, neither Chulkhurst nor Preston. Because the twin sisters’ name was stated to be unknown also in the reliable 18th-century accounts of the tradition, the names Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst must be suspected to be a later invention.

The medical possibility

 Another difficulty in accepting the tradition of the Biddenden Maids is the nature of their malformation: on the available cakes and drawings, they are depicted as being conjoined both at the shoulders and at the hips. It is extremely rare for siamese twins to have two separate parts of conjunction, and few modern teratologists (those who study malformations in foetuses) would accept the possibility of a fusion at the hips and shoulders in a pair of viable twins.
It is more likely, however, that they were only conjoined at the hips and thus belonged to the teratological type pygopagus. Such conjoined twins each have two arms and legs, and it has often been noted that in order to walk without difficulty, they put their arms around each other’s shoulders; this might have led to the Biddenden Maids being depicted in the way described above.
A fair proportion of the pygopagus twins are perfectly viable at birth, and several of the historical cases have reached maturity. The Hungarian Sisters, Helena and Judith, were a celebrated pair of 18th-century pygopagus twins; the sisters travelled extensively through Europe and were examined by many eminent anatomists and naturalists. They died in 1723 aged 22. Millie and Christine, pygopagus conjoined twin girls born in Columbus County, North Carolina, in 1851, were on tour as human curiosities for the larger part of their adult lives, and travelled to Europe several times. In the early 1900s, they retired from show business, but Millie became ill with tuberculosis and died in 1912, Christine following her eight hours later. In the light of these three case histories, it is not unlikely that the Biddenden Maids may have lived as long as 34 years. Nor it is impossible that one sister survived the other for six hours.
The Biddenden Maids are not mentioned in any of the major teratological works of the 16th and 17th centuries. In contrast, there is a remarkable accumulation of reports of conjoined twins in the beginning of the 12th century. Lycosthenes’ Chronicon Prodigorum et Ostentorum stated that there were conjoined twin brothers born in England in 1112, and that their bodies were joined at the hips and upper body, as in the popular descriptions of the Biddenden Maids. The Chronicon Scotorum tells us that in 1099, a woman gave birth to “two children together, in this year, and they had but one body from the breast to the navel, and they were two girls.” The Annals of the Four Masters has an almost identical description, although the conjoined twin girls are stated to have been born in 1103; in the Annals of Clonmacnoise their year of birth is given as 1100.
These ancient descriptions add credibility to the old tradition that the Biddenden Maids were really born in 1100. It should be added that in this year, King William Rufus was found dead in the New Forest with an arrow either of a hunter or an assassin in his breast. Several prodigies were said to have preceded the death of this monarch. The birth of conjoined twins might well be regarded as another strange happening foreboding the king’s death, and thus be noticed both in the chronicles and in folk tradition.
Jan Bondeson is a senior lecturer at Cardiff University. This is a revised extract from her book The Pig-faced Lady of Manchester Square and other London Medical Marvels (Tempus Publishing, 2004)