Hello! Today’s post is part of a blog tour for Katherine Clements newest novel, The Silvered Heart. I previously reviewed The Crimson Ribbon on this blog and loved it so I’m really excited to be involved in this blog tour. For more information on the book and where to find it please see the end of the post. For now I hope you enjoy a very interesting post kindly written by Katherine Clements on ‘The Real Highwaywomen of the 17th Century’. 🙂
Women of the Road: The Real Highwaywomen of the 17th Century
The story of Lady Katherine Ferrers, alleged highwaywoman of popular legend, 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. The myth is entertaining enough, but I wanted to explore the reality behind the romance, and one question was key: Were there really women working as highway robbers in the 17th century?
We’re all familiar with the folklore figure of the dashing highwayman – from Dick Turpin to Adam Ant, it’s an image that has excited the popular imagination for generations. The concept of the gentlemen thief has been around for centuries, becoming prominent during the early modern era, 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. But sometimes women were more than convenient bait. The Middlesex Session records covering 1549-1688 contain several cases of women accused of ‘robbery with violence’. The nature of these crimes is often not elaborated, leaving us to wonder about the circumstances of these events and those accused.
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 activity, but stories of her career as a highwaywoman during the Civil Wars are almost certainly invention.
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. 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. 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 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 must apply to earlier decades, especially during the anarchic years of the English Civil Wars, when people often turned to a life of crime to make ends meet. The threads of evidence, stretching back through the centuries, suggest that highway robbery was not the realm of men alone.
But what of our 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.
The legendary figure of Kate Ferrars, the infamous highwaywoman, is brought gloriously to life in this gripping tale of infatuation, betrayal and survival.
‘The distant thrum of galloping hooves conjures nothing but doubt and fear these days.’
1648: Civil war is devastating England. The privileged world Katherine Ferrars knows is crumbling under Cromwell’s army, and as an orphaned heiress, she has no choice but to do her duty and marry for the sake of family.
But as her marriage turns into a prison, and her fortune is decimated by the war, Kate becomes increasingly desperate. So when she meets the enigmatic Ralph Chaplin, she seizes the chance he offers. Their plan is daring and brutal, but it’s an escape from poverty and the shackles of convention. They both know if they’re caught, there’s only one way it can end…
Be sure to check out the other posts in The Silvered Heart book tour! 🙂