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The Wicked Lady: folklore, fiction – fact?

The Gentleman’s Magazine, Monday, 24 November 1735:

Margaret Lockwood as the Wicked Lady, 1945 Gainsborough Pictures

Margaret Lockwood as the Wicked Lady, 1945 Gainsborough Pictures.

“A Butcher was Robb’d in a very Gallant Manner by a Woman well mounted on a Side Saddle, &c. near Rumford in Essex. She presented a Pistol to him, and demanded his Money; he being amaz’d 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 wou’d Shoot him thro’ the Head; so he gave her his Watch and 6 Guineas.”†

The term Highway Man entered the English Language in 1617, courtesy of one William Fennor in his work ‘The Counter’s Commonwealth’ and it did not take long for the female highway man to follow.

One of the most colourful and persistent legends of the female highwayman is that of The Wicked Lady.  Her tale has entered both the local folk-lore of the Hertfordshire area and become well-known to the public at large through the 1944 novel by Magdalen King Hall and the 1945 Gainsborough film starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason.  A later more frolicsome version was also produced by Michael Winner in 1983 and starring Faye Dunaway (although it is not to be forgotten that the 1945 version was considered extremely daring in its day because of the low decolletage of the ladies gowns).

The legend of the Wicked Lady

Both book and film contain most of the salient points of the legend, although they clearly embellish the account.  King Hall names her protagonist Lady Barbara Skelton of Maryiott Cells (rather than Markyate Cell), her lover the notorious highwayman Captain Jackson.    These versions of the tale have taken on an authority of their own in imparting the legend to a contemporary audience.

The main elements of the traditional tale are that a beautiful, young and bored noblewoman takes to dressing as a man and riding the countryside between Markyate Cells, Watling Street, Nomansland Common and Gustard Wood holding up travellers at gun point and stealing their goods.  Her antics are unknown to her husband and retainers as she is able to exit Markyate Cells via a secret passageway.

She falls in love with a local farmer Ralph Chaplin and together they continue their reign of terror.  Eventually Chaplin is hanged during a failed robbery on Finchley Common and in her grief the wicked lady terrorises the villagers around  Markyate Cells burning their cottages as they sleep, killing livestock and even going as far as to kill the Constable of Caddington.

Faye Dunaway - the death of the Wicked Lady, from the Michale Winner film 1983

Faye Dunaway – the death of the Wicked Lady, from the Michael Winner film 1983

Despite her grief she continues to rob and plunder travellers until one night she attacks a lone waggoner on the remote and chillingly named Nomansland Common.  Unbeknownst to her, he has comrades hidden in the waggon and she is shot and fatally wounded.  Riding back to Markyate Cells she dies before she can reach her home and is found, in her highwayman’s garb, in the grounds by servants who under the cover of darkness convey her body for burial.

Spectral Sightings

It might be supposed that the death of The Wicked Lady would see the end of her antics.  However, there was more to come, as Magdalen King Hall well knew.  At least one-third of her novel deals with a fictionalised history of the sightings of the female highwayman’s ghost particularly in and around ‘Maryiott Cells’.

“Slow dragging footsteps could be heard across the floors and lights seen in windows of unoccupied rooms; where mysterious rappings, sighs and whispering disturbed the stillness of the night house.”

A trembling bishop at a garden party describes seeing a comely female form in male attire that chilled him to the bone:

“The expression on the face was malign, predatory, doleful and all together most disquieting”

Nomansland Common, image by Hogweard

Nomansland Common, image by Hogweard

Not so fanciful it would seem, as there are many real life accounts of the spectre of the Wicked Lady.  The accounts seem to begin in the nineteenth century and include the somewhat surprising manifestation of the lady swinging from the branches of an old Sycamore tree in the grounds of Markyate Cell, terrifying a gang of workmen away from the location of her hidden treasure.

In 1840 Markyate Cell burned down and this was said to have been caused by the wicked lady – those fighting the fire are said to have felt very uneasy and many thought that their efforts were being watched from the woods by her baleful spirit.

In the late 19th Century the journal of August Hare records her presence at Markyate Cell – he apparently was not phased by sharing his home with a phantom and often bid her good night when he passed her on the staircase.  One comical entry states he found her shade standing in a doorway. Calling to his wife, who was on the other side, they both ran forward arms outstretched to capture her but – of course – she was not there. I don’t believe Mr Hare’s journal notes whether he and his wife bumped noses as a result of this encounter!

In the early twentieth century one George Wood was travelling the road from Markyate to Kensworth and saw a female figure dressed as a man about half a mile away.  The figure jumped into a ditch and when he reached the spot she was gone.  Mr Wood was unaware of the legend, but a local woman interpreted his vision for him and decided it was clearly the famous highway woman herself.

In 1970, Doug Payne, owner of The Wicked Lady Pub in Wheathampstead, claimed that whilst dog walking on Nomansland Common one night he was startled by the sounds of hoof-beats fast approaching him – yet he saw no rider.  The Wicked Lady pub was an inn in the seventeenth century and was thought to be one of her haunts.

More recently still, a woman returning to St Alban’s and stuck in a traffic jam was amazed to see a rider galloping in front of her car, pursued by a figure on foot who leaned on the car bonnet!  The vision dissolved in front of her eyes.

Local legend has it that horses left out in the fields near Markyate Cell at night, have been found in the mornings foam-flecked and exhausted, as thought they had been ridden hard all night….

Who was the Wicked Lady?

Katherine Fanshawe - the wicked lady?

Katherine Fanshawe – the wicked lady? Portrait currently in Valence House Museum

Such a rich legend has to be true, doesn’t it?  There has to be a real woman behind this legend – right?  Well many people have tried to identify the real historical woman behind the legend and by far the most popular candidate is Lady Katherine Ferrers (1634 – 1660).

Katherine Ferrers (sometimes spelled Catherine) was the daughter of Knighton Ferrers and his wife.  Early in life she suffered the tragedy of losing her father and grandfather and brother which meant that by the age of 6 she was heiress to a vast fortune and extensive property and land.  Her mother remarried in 1640 Simon Fanshawe (later Sir Simon) but died only two years later leaving the young Katherine to the mercenary mercies of her step-father.

The Fanshawes were another wealthy landowning family, and a match between the Ferrers and the Fanshawes would seem practical – both families needed to ensure an heir or die out, their lands were adjoining and both were of the same religion.  Katherine was betrothed to Simon Fanshawe’s nephew Thomas.  In 1648 when she was 14 and he was 16 they were married and their fortunes were united.

One cloud on the horizon for the young couple was the Civil War.  It is likely that both families were royalist, but the Fanshawe’s were very actively so, and had suffered as a consequence.  The Sequestration Act took one of their properties and unlike parliamentarians, royalists had to obtain funds for their cause through contributions (from willing contributors such as the Fanshawe’s and less willing contributors who were looted or taxed unfairly).  Many of the Fanshawe’s fled abroad and others were often away fighting or in prison.  All of this made the family short of ready money.  Katherine’s inheritance was fair game and bit by bit her lands and properties were sold off for the cause.  Even Markyate Cell, so integral to the legend was sold by her husband in 1655 to ‘3 Londoners’ then again in 1657 to Mr Coppins.

Did this sudden pressure on the Ferrers/Fanshawe coffers lead Katherine to a life of highway robbery?  It was not unheard of – the Civil War left may noble and dashing young royalist without funds and a number of noble men (and even some noble women) were credited with taking to the highways and byways to replenish their wealth.  Did the bored and beautiful young wife, neglected by her husband take up with the handsome Ralph Chaplin and seek a life of adventure and peril on the open road?

She certainly died young – only 26 years of age.  She was not recorded as having any issue and was buried by night not in the Fanshawe family vault as might be expected, but at St Mary’s Church, Ware.  With her early death, the Ferrers line died out.

Katherine Ferrers – Guilty or Innocent?

Putting aside any thought for what the real Katherine may have thought about her posthumous fame/infamy, I would love her to be the prototype for the Wicked Lady.  A modern minx or proto feminist who just wouldn’t sit back and be the passive wife while her inheritance was frittered away by her neglectful husband, someone who took destiny by the throat, and even though she eventually lost, someone who died trying!  I would like to think she had an exciting, if short, life.  But I just don’t think the evidence holds up.

Markyate Cell, from Gentleman's Magazine, 1805

Markyate Cell, from The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1805

Yes, she was in the right place at the right time, and circumstances could have led her to seek her fortune on the road and her early death may hint at some violent end….but.

The legend sets her base as Markyate Cell, her ancestral home, yet it has never been proven that she actually lived there and in any-case the manor was sold well before her death.  In addition to this, Markyate Cell would seem too far away from her alleged stomping ground on Nomansland Common to be practical (although Gustards Wood has been mooted as an alternative HQ).

The handsome Ralph Chaplin, who swept the bored young girl off her feet, appears no where in local records and seems as much a phantom as the unseen rider.  Finchley Common, the site of his death, is also just a bit too far away to be likely.

Her early death, and burial by night can hardly be seen as uncommon in the seventeenth century.  Insanitary conditions, even for the wealthy, and poor understanding of medicine would have led to many an untimely death.  Burial in the evening was also a common practice at that time.  Her choice to be buried in the Church at Ware may have been out of respect to her Ferrers heritage rather than a sign of disgrace.

A case of mistaken identity or folk-lore gone wild?

The female highwayman/soldier/sailor is a common folk motif in English tradition. And treasure – what good folk-tale or legend is repleat without lost treasure to keep the story alive!

“Near the Cell, there is a wellNear the well there is a tree And under the tree the treasure be”

Ballads and folktales abound on this subject of cross-dressing highwaymen and lost treasure; and perhaps at a time of civil war when there was so much turmoil and unrest a female highwayman entering the local cannon of folk-lore might be expected.  That Katherine Ferrers name has become associated with this local legend may be down to misidentification and coincidence.

In the 1820’s builders discovered a secret passage way at Markyate Cell.  It ran from the Kitchen to a chamber above.  The discovery excited local gossip about the legendary highway woman.  In 1833 a poem called ‘Maude of Allinghame’ told of the exploits of a female highwayman.  Coincidentally Katherine’s mother was related to a family called Allinghame.

Add to this the muddled memory of the Wicked Lord Ferrers, hanged at Tyburn in 1760 for murdering a faithful servant and it’s not to big a step to create a Wicked Lady Ferrers – the film versions have the wicked lady murdering a faithful old retainer so incorporate this element.

Overall, I am with John Barber and Marianne Gilchrist on this one and I believe that on balance, Katherine Ferrers probably wasn’t the Wicked Lady of folk legend; but that the strength of this legend in the popular consciousness was such that it appropriated a real person to validate it.

Certainly Anne Fanshawe writing the family history in the 1920’s had little to say of Katherine, and gossip at the time of her death did not attribute any scandal to her name.

She was, perhaps best described thus (despite the unfortunate emphasis on her fortune):

“A very great fortune and most excellent woman”§

Katherine Fanshawe

Katherine Fanshawe


Sources,,,, part 1-4 /the_wicked_lady_of_markyate.html King-Hall, Magdalen, ‘The Wicked Lady’, 1944, reprinted 1976.,, Wikipedia,

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