By Hannah McCann
It is said that the death of King William II was foretold. His untimely death occurred in 1100 CE when he was struck by an arrow in the New Forest. That year strange events were afoot in England, events which bore bad tidings. One such event was the birth of conjoined twin girls in the small village of Biddenden in Kent. These twins would establish a charitable tradition which continues to this day. While the true life of the twins remains murky, their legacy’s impact on the village is crystal clear.
The tale goes that Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst were born into a wealthy family in 1100. There are a range of sources that place their birth around that year. The Annals of Clonmacnoise tells of conjoined twin girls being born in 1100 while The Annals of the Four Masters suggests 1103. The Chronicon Scotorum says that “two children together” were born in 1099 and “they had but one body from the breast to the navel, and they were two girls.”
Tradition also says that the two women were joined at the hip and shoulders. Yet historians now agree that they were only joined at the hip as having two points of fusion is very rare. It is more likely that they walked with their arms around each other’s waists to help their balance. That is why they are often depicted with one arm each.
Another version of the tradition suggests that the twins were actually born to the Chalker family in 1500, with 1100 being a misreading of that year. This could explain why the twins are often depicted in 16th century dress, with a three-foot tall sculpture on the village’s high street showing them in red Tudor dresses.
Despite their century of birth being unclear, the tradition of their death remains constant. Understandably, the twins were very close friends although some records do note that they had their “quarrels” which sometimes led to “blows”. Despite their arguments, when Mary died at the age of 34, the tradition states that Eliza was given the choice to be surgically removed from her dead sister. She refused. Eliza is quoted as saying “As we came together, we will also go together”. She died six hours after Mary.
In their will, the women left 20 acres of land to Biddenden’s church. The rent from these lands – around £2,900 in today’s money – was used to buy bread, cheese, and beer for the poor every Easter. The Easter festivities often caused “disorder” and in 1681 the Archbishop of Canterbury threatened to intervene. In 1882 the archbishop abolished the charity’s giving of free beer due to the commotion it caused.
The Biddenden Cakes, which were handed out alongside the bread and cheese, were an 18th century development. These biscuits were made from flour and water and moulded to show the twins’ image. This ‘memorial food item’ allowed the patrons of the charity to be remembered every Easter. The biscuit depicts the twins joined at the hip and shoulders and records their year of birth as 1100, which has popularised this version of the tradition.
These cakes were thrown to the gathering crowds from the church roof. One broadsheet from 1808 says that the charity handed out 1000 Biddenden Cakes every Easter. Cakes made from the 1906 mould are still handed out today to Biddenden’s pensioners and widows. One 18th century biscuit sold in January 2021 for £100 at auction. Other examples are held at the University of Oxford’s archaeology and anthropology museum.
Biddenden’s village sign was erected in 1922 and copies the biscuits’ depiction of the twins. On the sign their birth year is recorded as 1100 but they are dressed in Tudor-era clothes to accommodate both versions of the tradition.
This is the sign that first sparked my interest in these women. I grew up near Biddenden and was always intrigued by the image of the two women, side-by-side. Perhaps it was my early interest in history that drew me to them, perhaps it is because I am a twin, perhaps because there was an air of mystery around them, but I always look up at the sign as I pass through the village.
Their image holds power in every form. While the stained-glass window that commemorated the twins no longer exists, it is recorded in this poem:
“The moon on the east side oriel shone,
Through slender shafts of shapely stone,
The silver light, so pale and faint,
Shewed the twin sisters and many a saint
Whose images on the glass were dyed;
Mysterious maidens side by side.
The moon beam kissed the holy pane
and threw on the pavement a mystic stain.”
It is rare to see women commemorated like this, normally the history of women in English villages is intertwined with witchcraft, torture and execution. It is remarkable that the memory of these two women has been preserved for hundreds of years. Despite being wealthy, these women would have had to live with the ramifications of their gender and their physical differences, regardless of the century they were born in. Yet their memory has survived through the hands of other women, working in the bakery to provide food for Biddenden’s poor and widows. It may be a romantic ideal, but it brings me joy to think that we remember these sisters through baking, linking women through time.
While Mary and Eliza’s life has been distorted by tradition, their charitable impact is still evident even to this day. They have been called a “wonderful Phenomena of Nature”. On that we can be certain.