The Myth, the Legend and the Truth
Katherine Ferrers is the subject of a popular Hertfordshire legend told briefly below.
Near the cell, there is a well
Near the well there is a tree
And under the tree the treasure be
This well-known rhyme concerns the whereabouts of treasure stolen by the ‘Wicked Lady’, Katherine Ferrers.
Katherine Ferrers, heiress to a fortune was married against her will at the age of fourteen to Thomas Fanshawe. Bored with married life and an absent husband she took to highway robbery in the company of Ralph Chaplin, a local farmer. Chaplin was caught and hanged on the spot as all highwaymen of that time were.
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 St Mary’s Church, Ware.
Her ghost still haunts the neighbourhood and to this day she is known as the ‘Wicked Lady’.
This book covers the story of Katherine’s life; her family and also the Fanshawe’s into which she married. Both families were on the point of extinction. 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.
Katherine Ferrers was born on 4 May 1634. 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, she was appointed sole heir to her grandfather’s estates.
She was just 6 years old and made a ward of court for a payment of £1200 was sent to live with Lady Bedell in Huntingdonshire.
Simon Fanshawe 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.
The teenagers were married in April 1648 and went to live at Markyate. Soon after the marriage was finalised property vested in the Ferrers family was slowly turned into cash to support Charles II as both families were committed royalists.
Markyate Cell itself was sold in 1657. If this is so, then Katherine was not living at Markyate in 1660 when she was supposed to have been terrorising the countryside using the old Priory as a base.
In 1658 Sir George Booth initiated a Presbyterian uprising in the north; the younger Thomas Fanshawe was implicated and imprisoned in 1659; although released in February 1660. In May Charles II entered London.
This helps to determine Thomas’ whereabouts in 1660; but where was Katherine?
In 2003 I was contacted by the current Fanshawe family who forwarded me the copy of Katherine’s portrait. They also referred me to a family history written by Herbert Fanshawe in 1927.
He states that ‘she died at the age of 26 in June,1660 immediately after Lady Fanshawe had been with her at her lodging in the Strand on the occasion of the celebration of the return of King Charles II to his capital on the 29 of May.’
Thomas Fanshawe, Katherine’s husband was released in February 1660. At the most, four months is a short pregnancy for a child to have survived in those times. Legend says she was shot and died from loss of blood at Markyate Cell. Possibly not. Possibly from a miscarriage whilst in London.
Katherine Ferrers was buried on 13 June 1660.
There is nothing to connect Katherine with the crime of highway robbery.
It is said that her ghost walks far and wide over Nomansland Common; it haunts the hidden staircase at Markyate Cell and she can be heard riding through the Hertfordshire countryside. Her horse is black with white blazes, or in other versions, ghostly white. She has been seen swinging from the sycamore tree at Markyate Cell below which lies the treasure she stole. It is the stuff of folklore.
This book recounts the life, times and legend of Katherine Ferrers with all research and photos. This may help you decide if Katherine was the ‘Wicked Lady’ or her entire life misrepresented for the sake of a local legend.