Katherine Ferrers - the Wicked Lady
Part One - the legend and early years
Near the cell, there is a well
Near the well there is a tree
And under the tree the treasure be
This is the well known Hertfordshire rhyme regarding the whereabouts of treasure
stolen by the ' Wicked Lady', Katherine Ferrers. She is the subject of a popular
legend and for those who may not know the story, it is retold briefly below.
Katherine Ferrers, heiress to a fortune was married against her will at the age of
fourteen to Thomas Handshake. Bored with married life and an absent husband she took
to highway robbery in the company of Ralph Chaplin, a local farmer. Chaplin was hanged
for his crimes.
Katherine continued alone until she was fatally wounded one night and died outside
her home at Markyate Cell, near Wheathampstead. Her body was discovered by servants
and carried across the county to be buried in Ware church. Her ghost still haunts
the neighbourhood and to this day she is known as the 'Wicked Lady Ferrers'.
I will not dwell on this legend but concentrate on the background of the families
involved and later stories that have embroidered and coloured the story. I hope to
redress the balance and restore Katherine's reputation. Katherine Ferrers was born
on 4 May 1634 into difficult times. Civil War had divided the nation and a few months
after the death of her father Knighton Ferrers in April 1640, her grandfather Sir
George Ferrers also passed away. A brother had died young and by a decision of the
courts in October of that year, was appointed sole heir to her grandfathers estates.
She was just 6 years old.Her mother Catherine died two years later in 1642 having
married Simon Fanshawe in September 1640. Katherine was made a ward of court for
a payment of £1200 by Simon's brother Richard Fanshawe and his wife Ann. Katherine
was sent to live with Lady Bedell in Huntingdonshire.
Both the Ferrers and the Fanshawes were rich landowners with property in Hertfordshire.
George Ferrers, Katherine's great-great-grandfather had been granted extensive lands
including Bayford, Ponsbourne, Flamstead, Agnells and Markyate Cell by Edward V1.
The family, strong protestants were great favourites of both Henry VIII and Edward
The Fanshawe's had lands in Derbyshire and Essex but a Thomas Fanshawe bought the
manor of Ware in June 1570 from the widow of the Earl of Huntingdon. They became
the owners of Ware Park. Thomas' son Henry had six boys; Thomas, Richard and Simon
were the three brothers who feature most prominently in the family history, and in
this mystery also.
The Fanshawe's were committed royalists, as were the families of their spouses. There
is little written evidence but it is safe to assume that given the above, the Ferrers
would also have declared for King Charles. However by the time real hostilities had
commenced the only surviving member of the family was Katherine.
Thomas and Richard Fanshawe both fought for the King. Richard spent much time abroad
and it is from the writings of his wife Ann, that much of the family history is known.
At various times both Richard and Simon were imprisoned.
In 1643 the Sequestration Act was passed by which estates of known royalists were
placed in the hands of local commissioners and their rents and other income kept
by Parliament. Ware Park was one such property. Unlike Parliament the royalist party
had to rely upon voluntary contributions, involuntary fines and any other means of
raising cash, such as looting. The Fanshawe's contributed heavily to King Charles.
This was the situation at the time of Katherine's marriage. The Ferrers and Fanshawes
were close neighbours; Katherine Ferrers was heir to large parcels of land and the
Fanshawes were slowly realising assets to support the King. It would seem a marriage
made in heaven for the families to combine. Simon appears to have arranged the marriage
between his step-daughter Katherine and Thomas, his nephew. Katherine was a month
short of her fourteenth birthday and Thomas just 16.
Both families were on the point of extinction. Three other brothers of Simon had
already died young or in battle. Thomas Fanshawe snr had one other daughter, Ann.
It was important for landowners to secure a son and heir, and pressure was exerted
on young men to marry young and to marry well. Although mercenary marriages had declined
by the middle of the seventeenth century they still existed and there were still
many reluctant brides.
Part One - the legend and early years
Part Two - the English Civil War
Part Three - the Wicked Lady in English myth
Part Four - the evidence re-assessed