The Wicked Lady in English Folklore

The Wicked Lady in English Folklore

Katherine Ferrers - the Wicked LadyThese 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

Continued from the Civil War:

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.

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