Katherine Ferrers – the Wicked Lady
Lady by day – Highwayman by night
It’s 1652. A waggon trundles out of St Albans, carrying supplies for an inn at Gustard Wood, near Wheathampstead. The driver rides alone, despite the risk of hold-up by highwaymen, a not-uncommon occurrence on dark nights over territory perfect for ambush – the remote and lonely Nomansland Common. True, the stage to and from London provides a more lucrative target for robbers, its passengers carrying money and jewellery. But humble waggons and carts could also provide booty – whisky and gin, or ornaments and fancy clothing.
What drivers and passengers thought about crossing Nomansland one can only imagine. They must have known, surely, of the risks of attack. The common was disputed land belonging to the abbeys of St Albans and Westminster, hence ‘no man’s land’. It was never developed, a situation prevailing to this day. As on other open heaths, the highwayman could strike at any time. Armed and dangerous, the penalty they would pay if caught was death; they would shoot to kill in the furtherance of their crime or to escape capture.
The driver of the waggon that night was alone, but not for long. Somewhere along the way he gave a lift to two men who secreted themselves among the baggage. They may have been his friends, or two persons cadging a lift, or secretly smuggled aboard with no-one’s knowledge to provide a ‘surprise package’ in the event of a hold-up. Whatever the reason, at least one was armed with a gun, and when out of the darkness a lone horserider approached and shot the driver, the armed passenger returned fire, mortally wounding the highwayman who rode off into the night.
And kept on riding, all the way to Markyate, where the ‘highwayman’ was found dead the next day at the stately home of the Ferrers family, Markyate Cell, by servants, and where a strange and bloodied black horse was discovered wandering the grounds. All along the highwayman was a woman, Lady Katherine Ferrers, an 18-year old member of the aristocracy. Lady by day, outlaw by night. But why should she turn to crime? Possibly because, despite her title and, on the face of things, her privileged position, Katherine Ferrers was on loser before she was born, when her father died, and afterwards, due to circumstances beyond her control.
To comprehend this strange situation – Lady-cum-outlaw – we should consider events which, ultimately, led to Lady Ferrers’ life of crime.
Markyate ‘Cell’ was part of a Benedictine Priory, founded on the site of the present-day house in 1145 (a ‘cell, being a small room within a monastery). Following the Dissolution (1539), when monasteries and abbeys the length and breadth of the land were sacked at the command of Henry VIII, the grounds were leased by Henry himself to one Humphrey Bourchier. In 1558, after the death of Sir Humphrey, his widow married Sir George Ferrers, and the building and land became Markyate manor, although successive houses on the site were destroyed by fire, the last in 1840.
Katherine’s father was Knighton Ferrers, Sir George’s only surviving son. Sir Knighton married Lady Katherine Walters of Hertingford, but he died just two weeks before Katherine was born. Lady Katherine took baby Katherine back to her Hertingford home. Soon after, old Sir George died, leaving Katherine sole heir to the Ferrers’ fortune. As for her mother, Lady Katherine, her own fortune was purloined by Sir Simon Fanshawe who married her for her money, which he put to his own use, namely the good life.
The good life came to an end with the Civil Wars, when Sir Simon, along with his family, who supported the Royalist cause, ran into serious financial difficulties and had to go into hiding abroad. They needed money, but to return to England was too dangerous. A plan was conceived, whereby Thomas Fanshawe, aged just 16, would marry young Lady Katherine, herself still just twelve years old.
Running the risk of capture by Parliamentary forces, the Fanshawes returned to England and the wedding took place, giving the Fanshawe’s access to Katherine’s fortune, whereupon they disappeared with most of her money. One can only surmise that Katherine’s mother believed the marriage was in her daughter’s best interests. In any event, soon afterwards, she too died.
Katherine, a child, was left with the house at Markyate Cell, a few servants and little else. Still a lot, in days when most people had nothing at all, but little in comparison to what she had lost to the Fanshawe family. This may have been why, as a teenager, she evidently turned into a recluse. According to legend, it was during this time she met one Ralph Chaplin, an honest farmer who lived near Markyate.
Chaplin may have been an honest farmer, but his nocturnal activities were anything but honest, for Chaplin was a highwayman. It is believed that Lady Katherine may have been influenced by him, or possibly fallen under his control in some way. Or maybe she was a young woman who enjoyed the thrill, or perhaps sought to wreak revenge on the world for what she perceived as being treated so harshly. Whatever the reason, Katherine Ferrers became ‘highwayman’, and was every bit of notorious, if not moreso, than her male peers. Ralph Chaplin was definitely ‘at it’, for he was caught one night committing a robbery on Finchley Common and executed on the spot.
Whatever liaison Lady Katherine Ferrers had with Ralph Chaplin, his death did not quell her nocturnal activities. Stories abound of her dressing in highwayman’s garb: a 3-cornered hat, a black mask, black riding cloak and scarf, and breeches, and riding a black horse with white flashes on its forelegs. It is said she would change at dusk into her ‘highwayman’s’ clothes in a secret room in her house, accessed through a concealed staircase, before riding off to rob and murder. No ‘stand and deliver’ by this outlaw. Instead, she emerged from the darkness to ruthlessly attack coachmen and passengers alike. Yet no-one, not even her servants, knew of Katherine’s misdeeds.
Her highwayman’s activities aside, it seems Katherine was responsible for much else besides. Until the time of her death, there had been many outrages committed in the area. Houses had been set ablaze, their occupants asleep inside. Cattle were shot in the fields. A policeman was shot dead on his own doorstep. This ‘reign of terror’, by a person or persons unknown, had been put down to marauding bands of outlaws, yet strangely, these mysterious and incomprehensible events ended abruptly when Lady Katherine died. Was it her, as the circumstances tend to show? Or was the end of this reign of terror, at the same time as her death, coincidence?
Katherine Ferrers was buried, fittingly at night, at St Mary’s church, Ware, not, as might be expected, in the Ferrers’ family tomb. The shame she would have brought to the family name would have barred her from such privilege.
Ever since her life of crime, Lady Katherine has been caricatured as a pretty young woman wearing a black mask over her eyes, perhaps with a roguish smile, or simply as a stereotyped masked highwayman, indistinguishable from her male peers. Always there is the gun, the three-cornered hat. The Wicked Lady can be seen today, on the sign at the public house that bears her name, at Nomansland, near the spot where she attacked the waggon from St Albans.
Today’s house at Markyate Cell was built in the 19th century, long after Katherine’s death. It is said to be haunted by a ghostly woman, who is seen on occasion on the stairs, whilst another ghost is said to gallop on a black horse – at night – across Nomansland Common. Could Lady Katherine be riding still?