Every Easter Monday the village of Biddenden, not far from Staplehurst in Kent, is the scene of old custom, called the Biddenden Maids’ Charity. Tea, cheese and bread are given to local widows and pensioners at the Old Workhouse, while the celebrated Biddenden Cakes, baked from flour and water, are distributed among the spectators. These cakes, so hard as to be almost inedible, make good souvenirs however, the more as they bear the most curious effigy: two female figures whose bodies appear to be joined together at the hips and shoulders. These are called the Biddenden Maids.
What Tradition Tells Us
According to local tradition the Bidden Maids were conjoined (or Siamese) twins born in 1100. Their names were Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst and they came from an affluent family. They lived until the year 1134, when Mary fell ill and died. Eliza was asked if she wanted to be separated from her twin but she said “As we came together we will also go together”. She died six hours later. In their joint will the Maids left certain parcels of land in Biddenden to the churchwardens and their successors in perpetuity. The rent from these fields (sometimes called “Bread and Cheese Lands”) was to be used to provide for the deserving poor. When the current tradition started is not entirely clear, but it’s well known that in 1605 the Archdeacon of Canterbury, after visiting the Biddenden parish on Easter, wrote to his superiors to complain about the unruly mob which crowded the church eagerly awaiting the distribution of bread, cheese, cakes and beer. In 1808 the first broadsheet on the Chulkhurst twins was printed and sold outside the church on Easter for two pence. In 1820 a “new and enlarged” account was printed, stating that the twins’ gravestone was to be seen in church, though it was worn by time to the point of being unrecognizable. The church has since been renewed and if the aforementioned gravestone has ever existed in the first place it has probably been lost or destroyed. As we have already seen the Biddenden Maids’ Charity was already considered a “tourist attraction” at the beginning of the XVII century but as the fame of the event grew the crowds grew larger and more unruly. In the XIX century the event got out of hand more than once and as a result the handout was first moved from the church to the poorhouse and later still to the Old Workhouse. Both police and local volunteers were employed to contain the unruly crowd, often to no avail. In 1882 the Archbishop of Canterbury decreed that beer was not to be handed out anymore to contain excesses, though this proved to be a completely insufficient measure. Since then the Chulhurst Charity has been consolidated with several other local charities, allowing to extend charitable activities considerably, yet the Easter ceremony has been kept as a curiosity and is today a very popular tourist attraction.
What History Tells Us
The aforementioned 1605 account merely states that in Biddenden sundries were handed out to the crowd on Easter and that the event attracted large, hungry crowds. No mention was made of the Chulhurst twins. The first such accounts come from the XVIII century; though an obscure XII century poem by Bernard of Morlaix (an Anglo-Saxon monk at Cluny) called De Contempu Mundi contains a passing reference to two conjoined twins born in the English countryside in the first half of that century. All of these accounts took the tradition of the conjoined twins born in 1100 and dying in 1134 leaving their lands to the parish to provide for poor as a matter of fact. The first antiquarian to doubt this tradition (declaring it “a vulgar tradition”) was Edward Hasted, author of a monumental History of Kent published between 1778 and 1799. He stated that the charity was actually initiated by two sisters named Preston and that the effigy on the cake was that of two poor widows. Mr Hasted has always been regarded as a knowledgeable genealogist and topologist, but he was not a pleasant character and his work has often been criticized, both by personal enemies and later antiquarians. In 1900 George Clinch published a new, extensive study in The Reliquary and Illustrated Archaeologist. Mr Clich had obtained plaster casts of the moulds for the Biddenden Cakes and studied them thoroughly.
There are three moulds, differing in details, though it appears that the general outline is always the same. The twins are dressed in clothes which has been dated to the reign of Queen Mary I and the year of birth (1100) and the age of death (34) are always the same, as well as the names given (Eliza and Mary).
The two first moulds were probably modeled on older originals, while the third one was much more recent. Of the older moulds one was probably over 150 years old and the other one probably dated to the 1810s. Today only one mould, of recent manufacture is used and none of the older moulds has been kept for posterity. Clinch examined as much evidence as possible and concluded that the twins were really born in the XVI century, discrediting both the popular tradition and Mr Hasted’s study.
What Science Tells Us
No remain of the Biddenden Maids has ever been studied by a pathologist or teratologist, nor is their grave known, nor we know if they ever existed in the first place. Yet the case is almost universally accepted as authentic in medical literature. The main problem is the nature of their malformation: the maids have usually been represented as being conjoined both at the shoulder and at the hip and are depicted as such on all known moulds. It is extremely rare for conjoined twins to have to separate points of conjunction and even when this happens the points of conjunction are usually very closely related. In 1895 the celebrated surgeon J.W. Ballantyne was the first to analyze the case from a modern teratological point of view and concluded that the twins most likely belonged to the type pygopagus, i.e. conjoined at the hips. He concluded that since most pygopagi twins usually put the arms around each other’s shoulders when walking this is probably how they were originally depicted. This opinion has been accepted by most teratologists and medical researchers, including Jan Bondeson. While roughly 60% of conjoined twins are delivered stillborn this condition has been shown not to be incompatible with relatively long lifespans. Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins, for example lived sixty-three years together, while Millie and Christine, the celebrated “Two Headed Nightingale” of the second half of the XIX century, lived to be sixty-one. Even the surgeons’ offer to separate the surviving twin from her dead sister’s body is not a medical and historical impossibility. We know from fairly good sources that two conjoined twins were brought from Armenia to Constantinople in 945 to be shown as curiosities. During the reign of Constantine VIII (960-1028) one of them died and surgeons separated the surviving twin who, sadly, passed away after only three days.
As fascinating and controversial the topic is there is no solid basis for either wholly accepting or wholly refusing the Chulkhurst sisters tradition. Form a strictly medical point of view there’s absolutely nothing against pygopagi conjoined twins living to be thirty-four years old. Sadly we lack accurate historical and physical evidence to prove this point. The Bidden Easter charity dates at very least to the beginning of the XVII century, as proven by the Archdeacon of Canterbury’s letter. Even the name of Chulkhurst has been proven to have existed in the area: a family of that unusual name lived in Biddenden until the XVIII century, though nobody has proven capable of demonstrating any tie with that parish’s most famous residents. All in all we have no elements to dismiss the tradition of two conjoined twins being born in 1100, living to be thirty-four years of age and starting a long-lasting charity.
Jan Bondeson Freaks Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2006
The Story of Biddenden Biddenden Local History Society, 1973