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Ferrers [married name Fanshawe], Catherinelocked

  • Barbara White

Ferrers [married name Fanshawe], Catherine (1634–1660), alleged highwaywoman, was born on 4 May 1634, reputedly (although there is no evidence for this) at Markyate Cell in the parish of Caddington, near Dunstable, Hertfordshire, the only surviving daughter of Knighton Ferrers (bap. 1607, d. 1640) of Brayfordbury, Hertfordshire, and his wife, Catherine (bap. 1610, d. 1643), daughter of Sir William Walter (or Walters). Following the death of her two brothers in 1639 Catherine became the sole heir, first of her father and then of her grandfather Sir John Ferrers (d. 1640) of Markyate and of Pulesborne, Hertfordshire. After five months of widowhood, on 21 September 1640 Catherine's mother married Simon (from February 1641 Sir Simon) Fanshawe (d. 1680) but she in turn died, at Oxford, in February 1643. Catherine's wardship then seems to have passed to members of the Fanshawe family. Prominent royalists, as the 1640s progressed the Fanshawes ran into sequestration and general financial difficulties, and it may have been these that lay behind Catherine's marriage, on 1 or 3 April 1648, at the age of thirteen, to Simon Fanshawe's nephew Thomas Fanshawe (1632–1674) [see under Fanshawe, first Viscount Fanshawe of Dromore (1596–1665)]. Ann Fanshawe, wife of Sir Simon's other brother, Richard, attended the wedding and remarked in her memoirs that the bride had 'a very great fortune and [was] a most excellent woman' (Memoirs, ed. Loftis, 121).

Details of Catherine's married life are uncertain. She and her husband held a manorial court for the manor of Parkbury in Kimpton, Hertfordshire, on 5 April 1649 but, given her age, it is likely that she did not initially live with her husband; it is possible that she lodged instead with her husband's aunt Alice Bedell at Hamerton, Huntingdonshire. When her husband came of age the Ware Park estate was made over to him in exchange for the sale of Catherine's inheritance, the proceeds of which were to go towards discharging the elder Thomas Fanshawe's debts; property including the manor of Markyate was duly sold in 1655. Since the younger Thomas Fanshawe was admitted to the Middle Temple in 1657 and was imprisoned in the Tower, following his implication in Booth's rising in 1659, Catherine may well have spent periods of time alone in the country, probably at Ware.

This possibility, together with her early marriage, the Fanshawes' exploitation of her inheritance, and her husband's dissolute reputation, appears to have contributed to the association of Catherine Ferrers—at a date which is unclear—with the legend of a gentlewoman or noblewoman who, neglected by her spouse, led a double life and operated by night as a highwaywoman. Neither Alexander Smith, in Complete History of the Lives of the most Notorious Highwaymen (1714), nor The Newgate Calendar, nor Richard Clutterbuck, in The History and Antiquities of the County of Hertford (1815–27), mentions the story but J. E. Cussans notes it in his History of Hertfordshire (1870–81), observing that there may have been confusion with Laurence Shirley, fourth Earl Ferrers, hanged for murder in 1760. None the less the identification of Catherine Ferrers with 'the wicked lady' and the legend itself endured into the twentieth century.

The story generally goes that Catherine met a farmer and highwayman, Ralph Chaplin, who taught her the art of highway robbery. Money does not seem to have been her motive; rather, she robbed for 'the sheer love of adventure and the exercise of manly attributes' (Puttick, 40). After Chaplin was shot dead during a hold-up on Finchley Common she robbed 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. She is alleged to have shot and killed a parish constable at Caddington, on his doorstep as he answered a call, and was also held responsible for arson attacks and cattle slaughter in the area. Her last hold-up took place in June 1660 on Nomansland Common, near Wheathampstead, St Albans, when she ambushed a wagoner. Catherine shot the driver without compunction but was unprepared for two other men who had been given a lift by the driver and who were obscured by bales at the back of the cart. One returned her fire and she was mortally wounded. According to legend she fled back to Markyate Cell, where she died.

There is no doubt that Catherine Ferrers died childless in June 1660. However, there is no evidence that she was at Markyate Cell, which had been sold five years earlier. Ann Fanshawe's memoir suggests that she may have been staying in the Strand, London, at the end of May and beginning of June, during the celebrations surrounding the restoration of Charles II. She died a few days later and was buried on 13 June at St Mary's, Ware. The popular story places this event at night, in secrecy and outside the Fanshawe vault. Thomas Fanshawe, who was knighted on 23 April 1661 and who succeeded his father as second Viscount Fanshawe on 26 March 1665, married on 2 April 1665 Sarah, daughter of Sir John Evelyn and widow of Sir John Wray. He sold Ware Park in 1668.

The legend of ‘Lady’ Catherine Ferrers continues to flourish despite its flaws and despite the existence of alternative candidates for the role of 'wicked lady'—such as Martha Coppin (bap. 1640, d. 1681), whose family bought Markyate Manor in 1657. Numerous books on haunted Britain tell stories of Catherine's ghost accosting workmen, swinging from the branch of an old tree, disrupting village fêtes, and haunting and setting fire to her former home. Two popular novels, The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (1944) and Bright Tapestry (1956), were loosely based on Catherine's life; a film version of the former, The Wicked Lady (1945), with Margaret Lockwood in the lead (remade in 1983 with Faye Dunaway), broke all British box office records.


  • The memoirs of Anne, Lady Halkett and Ann, Lady Fanshawe, ed. J. Loftis (1979)
  • C. W. Field, The wicked lady of Markyate: studies and documents (1979)
  • V. W. Lea, ‘The wicked lady of Markyate: secrets of the life and death of Katherine Ferrers’, Northamptonshire Countryside (Dec 1967)
  • B. Puttick, Ghosts of Hertfordshire (1994)
  • W. B. Gerish, The ‘wicked Lady Ferrers’ a legend of Markyate Cell in Flamstead: an attempt to solve the mystery of ‘the lady highwayman’ (1911)
  • M. King-Hall, The life and death of the wicked Lady Skelton (1944)
  • M. Pearson, Bright tapestry (1956)
  • G. Hampson and E. Cruickshanks, ‘Fanshawe, Sir Thomas II’, HoP, Commons, 1660–90, 2.302–3
  • ‘Fanshawe, Sir Richard’, DNB
  • W. C. Metcalfe, ed., The visitations of Hertfordshire, Harleian Society, 22 (1886), 114, 141–2


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