Friday, July 27, 2007

Biddenden Twins

An Excerpt from Extraordinary Places…Close to London.
(Photo: Biddenden Village and church in Kent).

The surviving twin said, “As we came together, we will also go together.” Mary and Eliza Chulkhurst were conjoined twins born in the village of Biddenden in 1100 and there they died 34 years later. On their death, they bequeathed 20 acres of land to the poor of the village and began an unusual custom that is still recognized today.

There is no grave for the Biddenden Maids in All Saints’ churchyard and little is known about the twins except their legacy. They were joined at the shoulder and hips, a rare occurrence in conjoined twins. It would have been a difficult existence for both the girls and their parents, dealing with the everyday duties and responsibilities of life. However, the family must have been financially secure because on the death of the girls, they allowed their daughters to donate 20 acres of land to the churchwardens and their successors. The acreage was used to graze cattle and raise crops, the money from which would be distributed at the discretion of the churchwardens to the poor in the village. When one of the maids died, the surviving twin appeared resolute in that her time had come as well; she lived only six hours without her beloved sister.

The ancient custom of baking “Biddenden Maids” cakes began after their death but the actual date is unknown. In 1646 and again in 1747, molds for the cakes were found in the village. These molds show the twins’ shoulders linked almost as though they are embracing each other. They are dressed in the fashion of the day with wasp waist lines and crinoline skirts, obviously with many petticoats. On the front of one of the twins’ skirts is their birth date of 1100; the other skirt has the date of their death, 1134. The depiction from the mold became the symbol that is on the village sign today.

By all accounts, the churchwardens managed the bequeathed land well and provided enough money for the ingredients necessary to bake the cakes. The original cakes were made from a simple recipe of flour and water, which must have yielded a bread-like product. They were approximately four inches long and two inches wide with an effigy of the girls imprinted on the top. The cakes and a serving of cheese were given away after the church service on Easter Monday at the discretion of the churchwardens. As word spread about the curious custom, hundreds of people visited the village at Easter time causing such a disruption in the church that “…the conduct in the church was so reprehensible that the church wardens had to use their wands for other purposes than symbols of office…”