Catherine is described by the DNB as ‘alleged highwaywoman’ and her biography (by Barbara White, one of the many brand new biogs in the new edition) is a fascinating mix of the known and the legendary. The history: she was an orphaned heiress of Caddington, Hertfordshire who became the ward of the royalist Fanshawe family in the early 1640s and was married off to Thomas Fanshawe (Viscount Fanshawe of Dromore) in 1648 (Ann Fanshawe, writer of a well-known memoir, attended the wedding). It seems that Catherine’s inheritance was mined to help pay off the family’s political debts; her husband had a ‘dissolute reputation’ and was at one point imprisoned in the Tower after being implicated in Booth’s Cheshire rising in 1659. She died, childless, in June 1660.
She became associated with ‘the legend of a gentlewoman or noblewoman who neglected by her spouse, led a double life and operated by night as a highwaywoman’ – the ‘wicked lady’. The story goes that she initially robbed in partnership with a farmer-highwayman, Ralph Chaplin (who taught her the art of highway robbery) – not for money but for ‘adventure’ and ‘the exercise of manly attributes’. Chaplin was killed during a hold-up, and she carried on alone, ‘her crimes increasing in brutality and violence. She became known as a ruthless killer, murdering both those who resisted and those who did not’.
Her final hold-up was in June 1660 near St Albans, in which she shot and killed the driver but was herself mortally wounded by a man whom her victim had given a lift. The legend continues that she was buried ‘at night, in secrecy and outside the Fanshawe vault’. But it doesn’t quite end there: her ghost continued to cause mayhem (including haunting and setting fire to her former home).
The biographer is sceptical of the identification of Catherine with the legend; there are flaws in the evidence, and other possible candidates (eg Martha Coppin). Nor is it known when Catherine’s name became associated with the story. Nonetheless, the legend thrived into the twentieth century, becoming the basis of popular novels and two film versions of The Wicked Lady. The first (1945), a huge British box office hit, starred Margaret Lockwood (and was at the time considered scandalous, not least for Lockwood’s amazing bosom – which had to be, um, edited for American audiences; I haven’t seen it yet but am told that it’s hammy but great fun); it was remade in 1983 with Faye Dunaway (panned).
Katherine Ferrers – legend of the lady highwayman
The Wicked Lady of Markyate Cell
Katherine Ferrars: The Wicked Lady
The real Wicked Lady
The real Wicked Lady update
Was Katherine Ferrers really the villain she’s made out to be?
A timeline that doesn’t even get the date right… (and this is a ‘professional’ museum site, for chrissakes)
Huzzah! The university has now got off-campus access to the DNB sorted out. Any special requests?