May 27, 2016 · 9:55 pm
In an earlier blog I mentioned what was possibly one of the few true stories of a Highwaywoman, now for some whose reality is much less certain.
I first came across the most famous of all legendry highwaywomen in Haunted England by Christina Hole (1941), a fascinating collection of traditional ghost stories, which includes the tale of the wicked Lady Ferrers.
Markyate Cell, near Dunstable, was long haunted, and perhaps still is, by the ghost of the “wicked” Lady Ferrers. She is said to have taken to highway robbery in the seventeenth century from sheer love of excitement and power. She used to leave the house by a secret way at night and ride about disguised as a man, robbing such belated travellers as were abroad on Watling Street and killing those who showed signs of resistance.
She had a secret room prepared against emergencies which was reached by a concealed staircase in the kitchen chimney. Here she fled one night, after being badly wounded in a fight, and died at the foot of the staircase. Her body was found there next morning, and after her funeral the staircase was bricked up. But if the family hoped the curious circumstances of her death would be forgotten, they were disappointed.
Her ghost haunted the neighbourhood, sometimes swinging on the branch of an old tree under which she was supposed to have buried the proceeds of her robberies, sometimes riding along the roads or over the tree-tops. She was also seen near the kitchen chimney and in various parts of the house. Like Peg O’Nell, she was regarded as the author of every local misfortune, and three serious fires in the house were ascribed to her.
Historians have pointed out that, for example, Lady Ferrers never lived in Markyate Cell, and though she had owned the property it had been sold years before she died. However folk tales have never allowed truth to get in the way of a good story and this is a good story. It was read by a, sadly almost forgotten but very fine, novelist Magdalen King-Hall. Inspired by the tale she wrote Life And Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton (1945), this novel was dramatized as The Wicked Lady a classic 1945 film starring Margaret Lockwood (and a very poor 1983 remake starring Faye Dunaway).
This tale includes one detail that is to be found in most stories of Highwaywomen, and which I think almost guarantee’s its fictional nature, she is supposed to have dressed as a man and ridden a horse. Whilst cross dressing is, of course, perfectly possible, riding astride is more doubtful. If she had learnt to ride she would naturally have been taught to ride side saddle, riding astride is a very different skill. To learn this would have taken time, and would have to have been accomplished in secret.
This is just one of the reasons I find the following story doubtful.
Oxford Journal – Saturday 23 July 1763
We find the following extraordinary Letter in the London Chronicle of this Day:
SIR, July 19
You may depend on the Truth of the following Robbery. – Last Friday a Gentleman and his Lady were attacked on the Harrow Road by a supposed Highwayman, who demanded their Money with the usual Imprecations, making them dismount. The Gentleman, after delivering his Money, imagining all was over, was going to remount, when the Robber unbuttoning, shew’d herself to be Woman, and insisted he should go into yonder Lane to her a Favour; which being backed by his Lady, he withdrew with her. Being under a thick Hedge, the real Highwayman made his Appearance, and insisted that the Gentleman’s Spouse should retire with him for the fame Purpose, saying, One good Turn deserves another. All being reconciled, they were about part, when our former Highwayman whisper’d the Gentleman, that she heard the Ticking of a Watch when under the Hedge; and should be glad if he would make her a Present of it: which with some Reluctance he did. We hear these Blades are of the Hatters Gang; and that the Posse of a certain Magistrate is now in Pursuit of them. I am your constant Reader and humble Servant, R. C.
An extraordinary letter indeed.
I think I should return to the ghost of the wicked Lady Ferrers
The last record of her appearance being early in the present (20th) century, when she was seen by a number of people at a parish tea. One cannot help wondering whether this manifestation does not go to prove the survival of a sense of humour in ghosts; it is difficult to imagine Lady Ferrers taking an interest in anything so humdrum as a parish tea except from a desire to frighten the company.