Saturday 13 July 2019

Markyate Manor – Home of The Wicked Lady

by Deborah Swift 

I am not the first writer to be inspired by the life and legend of Lady Katherine Fanshawe. The first novel based on her life was by Magdalen King-Hall who wrote a book called The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton in 1945. I have a copy and it is exciting reading, though long-winded in the telling by today’s standards. The book was a smash hit in its day and was made into a film - The Wicked Lady. 

The film starred Margaret Lockwood in the title role as a nobleman's wife who secretly becomes a highwayman to relieve her life of boredom. The mystery of why she would take such an extreme action was the sensation of its day – women were supposed to be safe at home doing the housekeeping! The film had one of the top audiences ever for a film of its period, 18.4 million – a staggering number. I can remember my mother talking about it as one of her favourite films.

It was such a hit that the film was re-made in 1983 and starred Faye Dunaway in the lead role, but the film was a total disaster and earned Faye Dunaway an award for the Worst Actress.

The legend is set in and around Markyate Manor. The name Markyate is derived from the Old English words mearc and geat and means 'the gate at the boundary', presumably the boundary between Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. On the original site was a hermitage, which housed the nun Christina of Markyate. Known for being taken over by heavenly visions, she gathered quite a following and she founded a priory on the site under Benedictine rule. More about Christina's extraordinary life can be found here

The Priory did not fare well during the Dissolution and was demolished in 1537. The much more elaborate Markyate Manor was built on its footprint, although it is still sometimes known as Markyate Cell - the cell being the original hermitage. George Ferrers retained the name when he bought the land in 1548. The Ferrers family controlled this land when Markyate Cell was the home of Katherine Ferrers, also sometimes known as The Wicked Lady

Markyate Cell

After the death of her husband, Katherine’s mother re-married. The land was soon under the iron control of Katherine’s step-father, Sir Simon Fanshawe. Worse, at only twelve years old, Katherine was forced into an arranged marriage with his nephew, Thomas Fanshawe, so that he could retain control of the estate.
Picture from Project Gutenberg

After that, the story gets even more interesting as the legend credits Katherine with being a notorious highwaywoman. She lived in the house through the years of the turbulent English Civil War, much of it alone as her menfolk were away fighting. She finally died there, so the legend goes, having been mortally wounded trying to rob a coach on Nomansland. 

Her ghost has been seen dressed in highwayman clothes riding her horse at full gallop, and even in 1840 when part of the manor was destroyed by fire, the blaze was blamed on Lady Katherine. Whilst helping to put out the fire several locals said that they felt a ghostly presence and feared they were being watched by her ghost. But unsurprisingly, she is not the only ghost that haunts this building - in the late 1850s workmen repairing a wall saw the figure of a nun. Perhaps this was the anchorite Christina? The nun has been seen several times since, walking in an avenue near St John's Church.

In 1957 the bypass around Markyate was being built. A night watchman was sitting by his brazier one night when he looked up and saw someone warming their hands by the fire. The figure was that of a young man who promptly vanished as the night watchman was looking at him. Was this an appearance of Markyate's legendary Phantom who may also haunt Hicks Road and the High Street? Luton Paranormal Society
There has always been a mysterious young farmer associated with the legend, although I can find no trace of him in historical records. His name, according to local lore, was Ralph Chaplin. I have re-imagined him as a fiery young man who wants to change the old order by joining the radical Diggers Community. The legend of his relationship with Katherine led to the story-line for 'Spirit of the Highway'. I thought the history would appeal to young adults, with its touch of the paranormal, and be a good introduction for newcomers to the period of the English Civil War.

Like to know more about the legend? check out this article in the Daily Mail for a summary of the life and legend of Lady Katherine Ferrers (Fanshawe).
Deborah’s website 
Twitter @swiftstory

also worth looking up is Katherine Clement's excellent adult novel about the same legend, The Silver'd Heart.
Image sources: wikicommons unless cited

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