As yesterday was International Women’s Day, I couldn’t resist writing a female-related post, and for this one I drew inspiration from a local legend in my area of the ‘Wicked Lady’. If you happen to pass through Wheathampstead, Hertfordshire, you will probably notice a pub with the same name, and may hear the legend of the female highwayman who terrorised the area 400 years ago.
It couldn’t be a post on highwaymen without an appearance from Adam Ant…
According to legend, the Wicked Lady was a local noblewoman named Katherine Ferrers who, under the cover of night, dressed as a man and robbed and terrorised locals. Katherine was born in 1634 to a family of fervent Protestants who had profited from the favour of Henry VIII and Edward VI. The family was granted extensive properties in Hertfordshire, including several manor houses. However, Katherine’s father, Knighton Ferrers, died in 1640, shortly followed by her grandfather. Katherine was the sole heir to her family’s fortune, as her only brother had died young. This meant that at the age of 6, Katherine became an heiress to a great fortune. Whilst her mother quickly remarried, she also died two years later after the family joined King Charles I at his base in Oxford upon the outbreak of the Civil War. Several years into the Civil War, her stepfather was taken prisoner, resulting in Katherine being made a ward of the court. She was sent to live with her stepfather’s sister. The Fanshawe family who took her into their care were also committed royalists, and under Parliamentary rule they had their assets cut – assets which were already drained by contributing to the Royalist cause.
This meant that Katherine was in a precarious position – with no family of her own around her, she was married at the age of 14 to her stepfather’s nephew, who was only 16 himself, in a bid to combine the two families’ fortunes. It didn’t take long for her husband, who was now in control of her assets under the laws of the time, to sell off many of her properties. One such property was Markyate Cell, an old priory which had been converted into a house in the sixteenth century.
The only known portrait of Katherine Ferrers, believed to be from when she was 14 years old. WikiCommons
Under the legend of the Wicked Lady, it is sometime during this period that Katherine decided to take up the mantle of highway robber – perhaps as a way to rebuild her family’s lost fortune, or as a way to regain some autonomy after years of being passed around for her wealth. As her husband was absent a lot, it was easy for her to lead her double life. It wasn’t unusual during this period for Royalist supporters to turn to highway robbery, as many had been left destitute after the Civil War just as Katherine and the Fanshawes were. It wasn’t just highway robbery that has been attributed to Katherine, with the burning of houses, slaughtering of livestock, and even the killing of a constable being blamed on her.
Katherine died early, at the age of 26, in 1660. As we have no records for the cause of Katherine’s death, the legend has seized the opportunity to create a dramatic end for her. The persistent explanation for her death is that she was shot during a robbery gone wrong whilst she was on Nomansland Common in Wheathampstead (right next to where the modern-day pub bearing her name stands). The legend said that she died of her wounds whilst she was trying to ride back to her old family’s property at Markyate Cell which had a secret staircase entry. Her body was found by her servants, still wearing her male highwayman clothes, and they carried her home and buried her.
The pub sign at the Wicked Lady, and Nomansland with a road believed to be named after Katherine.
In reality, whilst an excellent story, there is not much evidence to prove its truth. The upheaval of robbery and damage to property in the area at the time could be blamed on bands of brigands or the unrest during the Civil War, and there is no contemporary reference to Katherine’s misdeeds. However, the legend persisted in local memory, and it was fuelled further in the 1800s when a secret chamber was discovered by workmen at Markyate Cell behind a false wall next to a chimney stack. The unknown circumstances of Katherine’s death further lends questions to how she died, particularly as she was buried at St Mary’s Church in Ware, and not in the Fanshawe family vault as may have been expected. Scepticism arises when looking at the geography of her supposed death; Nomansland is not actually particularly close to the Markyate Cell manor, and the property had been sold by her husband’s family 5 years prior to her death.
There were some confirmed female highway robbers during the seventeenth century, and many who worked as ordinary robbers – often paired with a man, the woman would lure men into alleys with the promise of sex, where their male partner would knock-out the man and they would rob him. This was known as ‘buttock-and-file’.
A film poster for the 1945 film of The Wicked Lady.
Female highwaymen do appear frequently in literature of the following century, but these accounts are often sexualised and demonstrate male discomfort at the idea of powerful, independent women. In the literature, the women are either emphatically un-womanly, or ultimately are brought back under control by a man. Moll Cutpurse, featured in the second volume of Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714), is written in a fashion that constantly highlights her lack of feminine qualities – she “would fight with boys and courageously beat them” and, worst of all, “She had a natural abhorrence to the tending of children, to whom she ever had an averseness in her mind equal to the sterility and barrenness in her womb, never (to our best information) being made a mother.” Other women who appear in ballads include one featured in “The Female Frollick” – she would rob members of unpopular groups such as Quakers, thus satirising these men’s lack of masculinity and symbolic impotence against a woman. Ultimately, though, the female highway robber comes up against a ‘real’ man, when she accidentally attempts to rob a fellow highwayman; he overpowers her and rapes her, and thus she is brought back to her station as submissive woman.
Whilst female highwaymen did appear in popular literature, in reality there are very few confirmed cases of actual cases. In 1735, a man named Beattie published a piece in The Gentleman’s Magazine on female highwaymen, but even he only cites one case:
“A Butcher was Robb’d in a very Gallant Manner by a Woman well mounted on Side Saddle, &c. near Rumford in Essex. She presented a Pistol to him, and demanded his Money; he being amazed at her Behaviour told her, he did not know what she meant; when a Gentleman coming up, told him he was a Brute to deny the Lady’s request, and if he did not gratify her Desire immediately, he would Shoot him thro’ the Head; so he gave her his Watch and 6 Guineas.”
Even in this case, it appears that the woman may have been acting as a partner to a male highwayman, who threatens the gentleman.
One case of a female highwayman who did meet a grisly end in the seventeenth century was a woman named Joan Bracey. Her story is told in the Newgate Calendar, a biographical book about criminals whose executions had been announced in the original Newgate Calendar, a bulletin of executions.
The Calendar tells us that Joan was the daughter of a wealthy farmer in Northamptonshire who met a man named Edward Bracey around 1680. Edward’s initial plan was to seduce Joan and then extract a large sum of money from her father for a marriage portion (as marriage was a common consequence of sex outside of wedlock during this time) before abandoning both Joan and her father. However, Joan was wily herself, and she agreed to rob her own father with Edward – the pair then travelled together, passing as husband and wife, and frequently robbed together on the highway. They were successful for four years and amassed a good fortune but the fear of retribution made them decide to quit highway robbery and try to build a legitimate business as a way to live the rest of their lives in comfort. However, the inn they purchased quickly became a centre of scandal after they continually robbed patrons and so they had to abandon it and return to their old ways.
An imagining of Katherine Ferrers from Look and Learn 423 (21 February 1970).
One rich young gentleman who had spent lots of money at their inn was the heir to an estate of around a hundred pounds a year (a significant sum of money at the time), and so they decided to extort the young man for the debts he still owed their inn. They blackmailed the young man to join Edward in robbing a rich tradesman who they knew was coming to Bristol with a large sum of money. The men were successful, and managed to steal more than a hundred pounds. After further extortion of the young gentlemen, the pair made off with £1400, and continued to rob people on the highway, with Joan dressing in men’s clothes. Unfortunately for the couple, one robbery on the highway went wrong and Joan was caught and sent to Nottingham Jail. In 1685, she was executed at the age of 29. Edward managed to escape when Joan got caught, and hid for a while, but one day whilst visiting an inn he was recognised by someone he had previously robbed. He was chased out of the inn by armed men where he managed to grab a horse from the stable to try and escape. Nonetheless, a few days later he was caught by some men and shot when he tried to escape by horse again.
So, whilst female highwaymen may not have been very prevalent, they certainly captured popular imagination both at the time and still today; the story of Katherine Ferrers was made into a film in 1945, which elaborated upon her legend. Whilst some exist in literature, some in legend, there certainly were some around, although most – if not all – probably acted as partners to male robbers. It is easy to see how they still capture our attention today with the idea of women who led double lives, as meek, repressed women of their time during the day, but at night reclaim their independence to assert their power over defenceless men.
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Some sources used: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Ferrers