Folk-tales about a king of the cats have been recorded from across the British Isles. This type of folk-tale has an Aarne–Thompson–Uther (ATU) type of 113A: Death of an elf (or cat).
The earliest version to describe a society of talking cats – although it does not refer specifically to a king – appears in the playwright and printer William Baldwin’s Beware the Cat, written in 1553 but not published until 1570, the first novel written in English, summarised below:
A man is walking through Kankwood in Staffordshire when he meets a cat, who tells him to inform his kitten that Grimalkin[a]Malkin is an old English name for a cat, particularly an old cat, as in grimalkin or grey malkin, is dead. Upon arriving home he relates the extraordinary event to his wife. The kitten, who is sitting close by, overhears and says “And is Grimalkin dead? Then farewell dame”, following which the cat leaves the house never to be seen again.
In a Herefordshire version of the tale, a young man in Scotland out hunting alone gets lost in the fog, and on seeing a light approaches it, to find a funeral taking place in the trunk of a tree, attended only by cats. On the coffin is a crown and sceptre. After returning safely to his lodge, the young man relates the strange story to his companion. Their housekeeper’s cat listens very attentively, before shouting excitedly “By Jove! Old Peter’s dead! And I’m the King o’ the Cats!”, at which point the cat jumps up the chimney never to be seen again. In a widely told version, a deputation of cats visit a sexton busy at work in a graveyard. Their leader tells the sexton to “Tell Tom Tildrum that Tom Toldrum is dead”. As before, when the sexton relates the story to his wife, the listening cat says “Now I am King of the Cats”, and dashes out.
Association with witches
The unnaturalness of a talking cat led to some speculation among the protagonists in Baldwin’s Beware the Cat that it may actually have been a witch. It was commonly believed that witches could taken on the form of a cat: “A Cat hath nine lives, that is to say, a witch may take on her a Cat’s body nine times”.