Katherine Ferrers the Wicked Lady -the myth, the legend and the truth

Katherine Ferrers the Wicked Lady -the myth, the legend and the truth


The only extant portrait of Katherine Fanshawe aged 14
The only extant portrait of Katherine Fanshawe aged 14

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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 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 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 St Mary’s Church, Ware.

Her ghost still haunts the neighbourhood and to this day she is known as the ‘Wicked Lady Ferrers’.

It has held a firm grip on the imagination of lovers of old folk tales. The Wicked Lady was made into a film in 1945 starring Margaret Lockwood in the title role and had one of the top audiences ever for a film of its period, 18.4 million.

I will not dwell on this legend for now 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, she 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 IV.

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 Anne, 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.

Katherine Ferrers and the English Civil War

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. Bayford had already been mortgaged by Knighton Ferrers and although much royalist property had been sequestered, Markyate Cell appears to have been spared.

However, the liquidation of assets continued apace. Ponsbourne was conveyed by Katherine to Thomas Fanshawe jnr who sold it to Stephen Twee of Watford in 1653 for £5000. Markyate Cell itself was sold in 1657 to Thomas Coppin – John Edwin Cussan’s History of Hertfordshire says ‘and they joined in selling it to Thomas, son of Sir George Coppin of Kent.‘ Although Cussans makes no mention of the date 1657 is given in other records.

CADDINGTON, Bed, Markyate Cell
Coppin – Pittman – Howell – Adey med-Bought by Thomas Coppin 1657. Originally Markyate Priory. John R. Coppin died 1781; passed to Rev John Pittman [= Coppin] (d. 1794). Sold ca. 1795 to Joseph Howell; 1825 to Daniel G. Adey. Adey family to 20 cent. VCH Bedfordshire. J.B. Burke, Visitation, I, 1852, 122

If this is so, then Katherine was not living at Markyate at the time when she was supposed to have been terrorising the countryside using the old Priory as a base. In 1661 her husband disposed of other properties, Flamstead, Agnells and Bayford; and eventually in 1669 was forced to sell Ware Park itself to recover the family fortunes.

In 1658 Sir George Booth initiated a Presbyterian uprising in the north; the younger Thomas Fanshawe was implicated and imprisoned in 1659; although released the next year in February 1660. In May Charles II entered London.

This helps to determine Thomas’ whereabouts in 1660; but where was Katherine?

Anne Fanshawe (wife of Richard) lived abroad for much of the Civil War but frequently returned and mentioned in her memoirs that she and her husband were forced to return to England in 1648 for the marriage of her nephew. (Thomas to Katherine). However she was also pregnant and gave birth to her son Richard in June of that year. The latter would seem to be a more pressing reason to return although the importance of the joining of the two families in marriage should not be understated.

The Manor of Ware also included properties in Bengeo, Thundridge and Wadesmill and it was in Bengeo that Richard and Ann Fanshawe were living in 1651 (when their daughter Elizabeth was born) against a surety of £4000 from Thomas Fanshawe.

In 1648 Ware Park was worth £800 but by 1650 its contents and furniture had been sold to fill Parliament ‘s coffers and much of the surrounding woodland had been chopped down. In 1650 Thomas snr requested the release of his properties, both in Hertfordshire and Essex. They were returned but financially he was ruined. According to Ware church records he was residing at Ware Park on July 12 1655. At this time the Fanshawes still owed £600 of the £1200 for making Katherine a ward of court.

It appears that just like the rest of his family Thomas jnr was still active in the royalist cause. The Ferrers family home at Markyate had been sold and Katherine could well have been living with her in-laws at Ware.

Katherine Ferrers was buried on 13 June 1660. The Fanshawe family vault, according to Ann Fanshawe was in the village church of Dronfield, Derbyshire. My original notes have been lost so I cannot speculate on this but Lady Ann did have a family vault specially built at St Mary’s Ware and had her husband’s remains transferred from All Hallows (now All Saints) Hertford to there. Her memoirs state that the family was buried at Ware. Many of the Fanshawe’s are buried here. If this was her final resting place then Katherine was given the same respect as other members of the family, including at a later time her husband Thomas and much later a monument was erected to the memory as he was by then, of Sir Richard Fanshawe.

However searches by various authorities can find no trace of Katherine’s grave or stone in Ware.

The nature of Katherine’s death is unknown. At the age of 26 she was still childless. As seen above this would have given a family of landowners such as the Fanshawe’s good cause for worry. With Katherine’s death, the Ferrers line died out and a year after her death her husband had disposed of the bulk of the property. Would this alone have been enough cause for local people to have nicknamed her ‘wicked ‘ for having disposed of property granted to her ancestors by Edward VI.

Anne Fanshawe found little to write about Katherine other than she was the heiress of George and Knighton Ferrers and married the son of her brother-in-law. How then did she become the highwayman of legend?

The Wicked Lady in English folklore

I was set upon this trail by Dr Marianne Gilchrist of Fife who had already completed some background research but could not identify Chaplin. Ralph Chaplin appears nowhere but within the legend. There is no mention of him in the Parish Register Indices and a thorough search at the Hertfordshire County Archives at County Hall found no Chaplins at all. He was supposedly captured red-handed on Finchley Common and as with all of his type he was hanged on the spot. So much for the partner in crime!

During the middle of the seventeenth century highway robbery was still an activity pursued by gentlemen. Many were royalist supporters left without home or income and struggling for a living. This is the time of honourable thieves, romantic figures of high born families and always well mannered – ‘Stand and deliver. Your money or your life’.

English literature thrives on this romantic, almost glamorous figure. It is the stuff of novels by Walter Scott and melodramatic English films of the nineteen fifties – there have been at least two films based on the Wicked Lady legend.

Every English county has its moonlit riders, headless figures on horseback (and headless horses!), ghostly coach and four, spirit figures haunting hanging trees at crossroads. Why has this tradition attached itself to Katherine? The Fanshawes had raised much needed funds; other royalist supporters may well have stooped to looting and highway robbery to secure the cash for their armies. Tales of underhand methods may well have been attributed to the Fanshawes who were well known as royalist supporters but lately struck for cash having their lands confiscated and members of family in hiding abroad.

One of the pointers to Katherine has been a nineteenth century ballad ‘Maude of Allinghame’ (c1833). It tells the story of the daughter of a great and wealthy noble who is courted by all manner of eligible bachelors but she rejects them. She robs one such young lord on his way home and later the Mayor of Redbourne. She is hunted down, chased and shot but reaches home where she dies.

Another English folk song is ‘Sovay’ about a young girl who disguises herself as a highwayman in order to test her lover. The highwayman and stories of ladies in disguise are strong themes in English folklore.

The final piece in the puzzle concerns another Ferrers family. In 1760 Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl of Ferrers was hanged at Tyburn for murdering an old and faithful servant. He was known afterwards as ‘Wicked Lord Ferrers’.

In 1611 his ancestor George Shirley was created a baronet by James 1. He was a defiant royalist as was his grandson Sir Robert Shirley who built a church in 1653. Cromwell suspected him of being a monarchist and imprisoned him in the Tower on the grounds that if he had enough money for a church he had enough for an army. These Ferrers were also considered to be firm Roman Catholics.

All the high born ladies marrying into the Fanshawes have thereafter been called Fanshawe; only Katherine has been called by her hereditary title – Lady Ferrers. It is a simple slip of the tongue from Wicked Lord to Wicked Lady. Add in the stories of lady highwayman, ladies disguised to tempt lovers and royalists with no army, home or cash wandering the countryside robbing all and sundry and you have the making of a modern myth.

The evidence for and against Katherine Ferrers

There is certainly a mystery surrounding Katherine’s death.

The only extant portrait portrays a very young girl. Possibly at the time of her marriage to Thomas Fanshawe. Understandably during the Civil War years of 1643 to 1660 archive material is patchy. In the mid seventeenth century premature and early death was not uncommon; there was little hospital care for women with difficult births. Her death may have been from natural causes, possibly childbirth, perhaps a fatal miscarriage – husband Thomas did not marry again until 1665 and had four children, the first became the 3rd Viscount Fanshawe.

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 all over the countryside. Her horse is black with white blazes, or in other versions, ghostly white. She has been seen swinging from the sycamore tree below which lies the treasure she stole. Though her body is buried in Ware she is a much travelled and troubled spirit; it is the stuff of folklore.

There is nothing to connect Katherine with the crime of highway robbery. She was born into a wealthy family and married into another. By an accident of birth she found herself in the middle of a Civil War in which family fortunes were lost and family life ruined. The Fanshawe’s were rewarded by Charles II with the title of Viscount Fanshawe; father and son both represented Hertford in Parliament. Katherine on the other hand, found herself the target for unspeakable crimes. History has not served her well. I think it is time to let her rest in peace – as Lady Katherine Ferrers.

A shortened version of this article was published in Hertfordshire Countryside July 2002. Then 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 but which draws heavily on Lady Ann’s memoirs.

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.’

Katherine’s husband was imprisoned by Cromwell in 1659 following the Booth uprising in the North and not released until 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 which has been discussed above.

I have since been contacted by the curator of the Valence House Museum who was able to confirm that in 2003 when Robin Fanshawe contacted me the painting was still in the hands of the Devonshire branch of the family. However, in 2004 the portrait came to Valence House Museum to join the other 48 Fanshawe portraits given in 1963. There are portraits of her husband Thomas and her step-father Simon. Portraits of many of the Fanshawe’s are held at the Valence House Museum.

©2009 John Barber

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