Thursday 11 February 2016

The Real Wicked Lady by Katherine Clements

Today is paperback publication day for my second novel The Silvered Heart, so between sips of celebratory fizz (or more likely a huge pot of tea) it seems only right to post about the woman, and the legend, that inspired the book.

Here’s the book blurb…

1648. Orphaned heiress Lady Katherine Ferrers is forced into marriage for the sake of family honour … but with Cromwell’s army bringing England to its knees, her fortune is the real prize her husband desires. As her marriage becomes a prison and her privileged world crumbles, Katherine meets her match in Rafe – a lover who will lead her into a dangerous new way of life where the threat of death lurks at every turn…

Enter Kate Ferrers, highwaywoman, the Wicked Lady of legend – brought gloriously to life in this tale of infatuation, betrayal and survival.

The popular legend of Lady Katherine Ferrers is classic high romance: a young, orphaned heiress is forced into a marriage of convenience, her inheritance squandered by a neglectful, dissolute husband. Desperate and frustrated, she finds escape and adventure with a dashing local highwayman.

But there is no happily ever after for our heroine. Her lover is hanged. Driven insane with grief, she dies tragically, shot during a hold up. Her body is discovered at the foot of a concealed staircase, at her family home, Markyate Cell. She is buried, shrouded in secrecy and shame, to be remembered ever after as the wandering ghost of Hertfordshire folklore: the Wicked Lady.

It’s a swashbuckling adventure that has inspired novels and films, the most famous, a 1945 version starring James Mason and Margaret Lockwood. But the life of the real woman with whom the legend has most often been associated, tells a different tale. Katherine Ferrers certainly suffered grief, hardship, and the devastation of a family fortune, as did many women during the English Civil War and its aftermath, but did she really turn to crime? And what does her story tell us about the position and fate of women during this tumultuous time in British history?

Margaret Lockwood as The Wicked Lady

Those are the questions that intrigued me when I first encountered the legend some years ago. Delving deeper I found that we know very little about the real Katherine, but there is enough information to piece together a picture of her life. We can trace her from Hertfordshire origins, via Oxford, Cambridgeshire and London, to her final resting place at Ware. Her family connections to prominent Royalists gave me insight into her intimate circle and her likely experiences and attitudes during the civil wars and the difficult years that followed. We know something of her financial hardship, her husband’s involvement in Royalist conspiracy rings and military uprisings, and his resulting imprisonment in the Tower. The challenge and opportunity for me was to merge these tantalising facts with the fiction.

The only known portrait of Katherine Ferrers, recently restored at Valence House Museum

It’s easy to imagine the scenario as legend tells it. The English Revolution really did turn the world upside down for many people, and for more than a decade, aristocratic families who believed they had a right to their inherited status and wealth found their estates taken away, heavy fines and taxes imposed, and in some cases, no choice but to live a life of poverty in exile. Married women, considered the property of their husbands, and with no means of their own, were forced to cope with painfully reduced circumstances that were the very opposite of the life they had been raised to expect. It’s not unreasonable to conceive that some may have taken matters into their own hands.

And such women were not necessarily powerless. Many rose to the challenges of war and misfortune, exhibiting great fortitude and strong political views, changing the world around them through a variety of means. Katherine's relative by marriage, Anne Fanshawe, who appears in the novel, is just one example of a woman who suffered great loss, adversity and danger but wielded considerable political influence via her husband. Her writing still influences our view of Civil War women today.

In other social spheres, women were prominent in radical political movements, some demanding equal rights with men. Female preachers and prophets played key roles within new religious sects and published their ideas in pamphlets and tracts. Women took over family businesses, defended their homes and even took to the battlefield. Once sampled, these freedoms might have been hard to give up.

I’ll be clear: The Silvered Heart is not a biography; it’s a work of imagination and I make no claim that my version of Katherine’s life is the truth. The mystery of how she became the Wicked Lady of legend remains obscure. The book is my attempt to answer these questions: What if Katherine really was a highway robber? What would have driven a woman to such extreme lengths? And what might have been the devastating results?

Me reading from The Silvered Heart with Katherine looking on

Katherine Clements


Sue Purkiss said...

It sounds like an interesting story. But was there a happy ending in your version? I'm guessing not...

Katherine said...

Interesting post. And happy publication day!