Founded in the 11th century, England’s Exeter Cathedral is famed for its stunning features — including its medieval astronomical clock, a working replica of the solar system as it was understood at the time. But the building also boasts another ancient wonder: a cat door that may be among the world’s oldest.

Cut into the bottom of the door to the clock room is a small, cat-sized hole, and records show it was put there with a purpose. In 1598, Queen Elizabeth I nominated William Cotton for the role of Exeter Cathedral bishop. When he started his post, he also seems to have recruited a helper. 

“It is from Bishop Cotton’s time that we have the record, ‘Paid ye carpenters 8 pence for cutting ye hole in ye north transept door for ye Bishop’s cat,’” cathedral historian Diane Walker told Nice News. It’s likely the hole served less to assist the kitty in catching mice and rats.

“Although there’s no evidence of a specific association with Exeter Cathedral, the nursery rhyme ‘Hickory, dickory, dock’ with its reference to ‘the mouse ran up the clock’ is most likely to have its origins in mice climbing parts of clock mechanisms after being attracted to animal-based lubricants, rather than climbing the outside of a longcase clock as normally illustrated,” Walker explained.


Courtesy of Diane Walker/Exeter Cathedral

Cotton’s kitty wasn’t the first feline to call the cathedral home, though. Even before the hole was cut into the door, cats were employed by the church to keep the vermin population in check. Records from the 14th and 15th century indicate payments made to cats — or more likely, their owners — in the amount of 13 old pence per week. And another form of record also memorializes that arrangement: a medieval carving in the cathedral that depicts a cat attacking two rodents.

The payments seem to have ceased by the time Cotton and his cat arrived — though the jury is out on whether the feline was paid under the table. “We do not know whether Bishop Cotton’s cat received any payment for its services,” Walker said.

But the cathedral’s feline history doesn’t end there. A post-World War II chapel carving depicts a one-eyed stray cat named Tom who became “quite a cathedral celebrity” after he was adopted by the head virger.

“He would sit in the bishop’s throne but never attempted to jump on an altar. One year he enjoyed settling into the Christmas manger tableau to the delight of visitors,” Walker shared.

 “While he would spend much time wandering in the grounds surrounding the cathedral, he is also reported to have been particularly attentive in the cathedral during sermons when he would sit still and upright!”


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Fast forward to today, and kitties can still occasionally be seen using the medieval cat door — thankfully, the rodents are no longer an issue that requires feline attention.