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

These pages on Katherine Ferrers and the legend of the Wicked Lady form the basis for a longer essay now available as an eBook for just US$0.99 (see below). For ease or reading it has been split into four chapters.

Introduction – early life and background to the legend
Katherine Ferrers and the English Civil War
The Wicked Lady in English folklore
Evidence for and against Katherine Ferrers

Katherine Ferrers is the subject of a popular legend and for those who may not know the story, it is retold briefly below.

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.

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 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.

h 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.

Katherine Ferrers and the English Civil War >>>

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