Saturday 11 March 2017

Women of the Road: The Real Highwaywomen of the 17th Century by Katherine Clements

When you picture a highwaywoman, you probably think of something like this…

Margaret Lockwood as The Wicked Lady, 1945.

Or this…

Illustration by Eric Fraser from Folklore Myths and Legends, 1973.

We’re all familiar with the romantic folklore figure of the dashing highwayman – from Dick Turpin to Adam Ant, it’s an image that has excited the popular imagination for generations. It was certainly part of the attraction when I first started researching the legend of an infamous female highway robber, the Wicked Lady, for my novel, The Silvered Heart.

The story of Lady Katherine Ferrers is brimming with classic romance: the young, orphaned heiress, forced into a marriage of convenience, turns to a scandalous life of crime with her handsome lover. You can read about the legend and my take on it here. The myth is entertaining enough, but I wanted to explore the reality behind the romance, and I had to answer one question first: Were there really women working as highway robbers in the 17th century?

The concept of the gentlemen thief has been around for centuries, but the famous examples are all men, with swooning female accomplices – or victims – falling under their charismatic spell. I was convinced the reality could not be so neat. But is there any evidence?

As early as the 13th century, there are records of female robbers working the highways, usually as part of a gang or with their husbands. Whole families might make a living this way, with wives and children acting as lookouts or decoys. Sometimes women were more than just convenient bait. The Middlesex Session records, covering 1549-1688, contain several cases of women accused of ‘robbery with violence’. In one case of 1564, one woman was hanged for robbing another at Hammersmith, then no more than a village on the road out of London. But in most cases, the nature of these crimes is not elaborated.

Famous female criminals could certainly make a name for themselves. Mary Frith, better known as Moll Cutpurse, became a notorious, celebrated figure of the London underworld in the 17th century. She made a living through thievery, and other dubious activites, but stories of her career as a highwaywoman during the Civil Wars are almost certainly invention. The Newgate Calendar (a compilation of accounts of criminals and their crimes, published in the 18th century) claimed that Moll, a passionate Royalist...

‘went on the highway, committing many great robberies, but all of them on the Roundheads, or rebels, that fomented the Civil War against King Charles I … A long time had Moll Cutpurse robbed on the road; but at last, robbing General Fairfax of two hundred and fifty jacobuses on Hounslow Heath, shooting him through the arm for opposing her, and killing two horses on which a couple of his servants rode, a close pursuit was made after her by some Parliamentarian officers quartering in the town of Hounslow, to whom Fairfax had told his misfortune. Her horse failed her at Turnham Green, where they apprehended her, and carried her to Newgate.'

Moll would have been in her fifties by this time; an unlikely age to have taken up a such a risky and physically demanding enterprise, and there is no documentary evidence to support these flights of fancy, reported long after her death.

But there is evidence of women working as accomplices in highway robbery if we look hard enough. Susan, Lady Sandys, wife of infamous gentleman robber Sir George Sandys, was implicated in his crimes several times and charged twice, though she escaped her husband's eventual comeuppance. After his execution in 1618 it’s believed she continued to act as accomplice to her son and even, possibly, in her own right. A broadside ballad of 1626 describes her as the ‘wicked Lady wife’. Is this our first Wicked Lady of legend?

Indeed, the transgressive figure of the cross-dressing, lawless woman became a feature of sensationalist literature and broadside ballads of the Restoration period (perhaps explaining the exaggeration of Moll Cutpurse’s exploits). Richard Head’s novel of 1665, The English Rogue, tells the story of the fabulously monikered Meriton Latroon, and includes encounters with several such female robbers, all loose-moraled and sexually voracious. The book was a huge success, proving that the appeal of the gentleman thief was well established, but telling us more about the public appetite for scandalous, titillating content than it does about any real woman committing such crimes.

If we look to a later but more reliable source, the Old Bailey Proceedings from 1681 – 1800, there are around 300 transcripts reporting female highway robbers. Only one case, in 1744, involves a woman, heavily disguised, acting alone and on horseback, displaying all the expected attributes of the gentleman highwayman.

The accused, Ann Hecks, was eventually acquitted on insufficient evidence, but the sheer volume of other records suggests that this was probably not a one off. If this is the case in the 18th century, it follows that the same likely applies to earlier decades, especially during the anarchic years of the English Civil Wars, when people sometimes turned to a life of crime to make ends meet. The threads of evidence, though tenuous, stretch back through the centuries, suggest that highway robbery was not the realm of men alone.

But what of my Wicked Lady? What of Katherine Ferrers? Is it possible that a woman of aristocratic birth, finding herself poverty stricken and abandoned, with very little left to loose, might take matters into her own hands? On balance, I’d say yes. Is it likely? I’ll leave that to my readers to decide.


Ms. said...

Lovely post. I'll ask for "the Silvered heart" at my library as I'm unable to purchase anything on line.

Ulla Susimetsa said...

Very interesting! I'll have to get a copy of "The Silvered Heart", it sounds just like my kind of book! :)

streona said...

The former cavaliers who had fallen on hard times after 1649 often took to highway robbery since they (unlike many impoverished former Roundheads) had no trade to fall back on (other than being a mercenary- although these were less in demand after the end of the Thirty Years War. Every one of them claimed to be doing it as a protest against Cromwell and there are many stories of Oliver Cromwell & other leading Parliamentarians such as Hugh Peters or Henry Vane being held up - all of which are total invention. Various types of criminals such as highwaymen & smugglers claimed to be some sort of (usually right-wing)dissidents such as Jacobites and every one claimed to be a "Captain" - whether they were, or more likely were not.


Forgive me - can I ask what is your source for Ann Hecks? I have tried to source in both The Newgate Calendar and Proceedings of the Old Bailey, also in various works on the subject of highwaymen; but can find nothing.