Lady Katherine Ferrers
“The Wicked Lady of Markyate”
There have been many reports of horses found in the fields surrounding the Markyate area in mornings, looking as though they had been ridden hard, tired and covered with foam. These horses were thought to have been ridden all night by the ghost of Lady Katherine Ferrers who has now become known as ‘The Wicked Lady’.
One winters night in December 1970 the manager of the Wicked Lady Pub, Douglas Payne, was out walking his dog on Nomansland Common when he heard the sound of a horse galloping fast towards him. The terrifying reaction of his dog told him that he was not imaging anything. Mr Payne looked but could see nothing at all. The galloping horse passed so close he felt as though he could have reached out and touched it.
For several generations Markyate Cell had been the home of the Ferrers family. Around 1635 only Sir Knighton and his elderly father, Sir George Ferrers, remained. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Sir Knighton married the beautiful heiress Lady Katherine Walters of Hertingford, but he died within the year and not seeing his child that Lady Katherine was carrying. Sir George Ferrers died a few months later they were both buried at Flamstead. Lady Katherine gave birth to a daughter whom she also named Katherine at Markyate Cell. Soon after, lady Katherine returned to her family’s home in Hertingford with the young baby. A rich young widow during the time the country was in the grip of Civil War was not to remain a widow for long, especially as many of the King’s supporters were hard driven to survive and desperate for money. She was persuaded to marry a strong Royalist supporter Sir Simon Fanshawe of Ware Park. Soon Sir Simon Fanshawe was on the run from Cromwell’s men when Parliamentary forces overran Ware Park.
Lady Bethell at Hamerton in Huntingdonshire gave Lady Katherine and her small daughter refuge. The young Katherine was to remain with her mother there until she reached the age of twelve, which was the legal age for a girl to marry then. Sir Simon Fanshawe wanted to gain control of the young Katherine’s large estate and enlisted the help of a willing priest, John Laycock, to marry her to his sixteen year old son, Thomas Fanshawe – Katherine’s own stepbrother. The marriage was doomed from the start as young Thomas returned to the family estate in Ireland and Katherine remained with her mother and Lady Bethell until they both died. Aged eighteen the young Lady Katherine, alone and neglected by her husbands family, decided to return to live by herself back at her father’s home, Markyate Cell. It was here that she met the farmer Ralph Chaplin, also from Markyate, whose land overlooked the busy thoroughfare of Watling Street.
It was not unusual for young men from good families to be highwaymen as a means of earning another income. Ralph Chaplin, a dashing young fellow, farmer by day and notorious highwayman at night, must have made a great impression on the lonely, yet adventurous Katherine. Soon, Katherine was enjoying the thrills of being a highwaywoman.
Katherine hid her highwaywoman’s disguise in a secret room in Markyate Cell. Built into the kitchen chimney was a concealed staircase leading up to the secret room, and there was a secret passageway that led from her bedroom to the stables. By day Lady Katherine was the beautiful, young lady of the manor, but as night fell she wore her highway disguise and become the merciless highwaywoman who would stop at nothing, not even murder, to get her demands. She was said to hide in the trees and jump down upon her unexpected victims.
It’s not known how long or often Lady Katherine and Ralph Chaplin preyed on travellers around Markyate, but while out robbing a baggage wagon on Finchley Common, North London, Ralph Chaplin was shot dead. Overcome with grief and anger, Katherine terrorised the people of Markyate. She burnt down homes while the occupants slept, murdered the constable of Caddington on his own doorstep as he answered a summons, and farm animals were found slaughtered. The people and travellers in Markyate feared for their lives. No one would have thought that a beautiful rich young woman could do all this.
On the way to the Inn at Guster Wood near Wheathampstead, the driver of a wagon full of supplies picked up two men in need of a lift. They climbed into the wagon and sat amongst the bales and baggage. Dusk was falling as they were passing through Nomansland Common where Lady Katherine lay waiting ready for ambush amongst the trees. She suddenly appeared and shot dead the driver without warning. Katherine still unaware of the passengers among the supplies and was fatally wounded when one of them shot her. Katherine fled ridding as fast as possible back to her home but died by the entrance to her secret door.
Her appearance and her black horse found roaming in the grounds identified her as the highwayman of Markyate. Lady Katherine’s body was taken secretly at night to the Church of St. Mary’s in Ware but was not laid to rest in the Fanshawe’s family vault. The door to her secret hide away was bricked up for more than a hundred years, when in 1840 part of the house was destroyed by fire, which was thought to have been caused by the ghost of Katherine. None of the local workmen would work there, so men were called in from London. They opened the entrance and broke down the oak door (later they found a hidden spring which would have easily opened the door). They were disappointed not to find anything but dust and cobwebs. They hoped to find the ill-gotten treasure that was reported to have been hidden in the grounds. There has been no report of the treasure being found, but there is a little rhyme that children in that part of Hertfordshire still sing today.
‘Near the cell there is a Well
Near the well there is a Tree
And under the Tree the Treasure be’
Markyate wasn’t free of Katherine for long, her ghost has been seen riding like the wind through Watling street and galloping as far as Kimpton, then swinging in the trees at the grounds of Markyate Cell. Mr Ady who lived there in 1894 repeatedly saw Lady Katherine’s ghost on the stairs and wished her good night. Once, seeing her with her arms stretched out in the doorway, he called to his wife who was outside “now we’ve caught her!” and they rushed upon her from both sides, but caught nothing. When the Markyate bypass was being made in 1957 a workman found himself warming his hands with a young man with long dark hair, slim in build, and wearing a dark knee length cloak with ornate clasps and long leather boots. The young man promptly disappeared. In 1912 a night watchman gave the same description again when the council were extending the sewer from the High Street to Hicks Road.
Separating the fact from fiction…
Did she dislike her young bridegroom? Did he ignore her wishes and waste her wealth? Did his bored young wife fall in love with a highwayman who introduced her to a thrilling life of crime? This is the stuff of legend and fiction which has grown more elaborate in the retelling. There are no authentic documents to confirm or deny the film fantasies. Many of the stories being published seem to be based very much on what appeared in the original film, which, in turn, relied on a novel (The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall).
What we DO have to examine are the deeds and legal paraphernalia about land transactions – the Fanshawes certainly sold off Katherine’s inheritance. Her manor at Flamstead, for instance, came on the market in 1654 and Markyate Cell and the farms around were disposed of in 1655.By 1660 the Fanshawes were unexpectedly back in favour. Cromwell had died, and before long the monarchy was restored to power. King Charles II was welcomed back to London in May 1680 and the following year Thomas Fanshawe was created a Knight of the Bath by a grateful monarch. He deserved that reward…not only had the Fanshawe family fought and suffered for the King but Thomas himself, having been involved in a Royalist conspiracy, had been sent to the Tower of London in September 1659. But by the time Thomas received his knighthood his 26-year-old wife was dead. Was she shot in June 1660 while riding as a highwayman on Nomansland at Wheathamstead, as legend says, or did she die while with her husband in London celebrating the King’s return?
Katherine was buried at St Mary’s, Ware, on June 13, 1660, described in the parish register as “Mistress Catherine Fanshawe” (her name is spelled in various ways). There had been no children –some stories suggest she died in childbirth. Much has been made of the fact that her funeral took place in the evening, as if a disgraceful secret were being covered up. But apparently such timing was not unusual in those days.
Had she died while trying to ride back to her secret staircase at Markyate? Well, we know that her husband (described by the diarist Samuel Pepys as “a witty but rascally fellow, without a penny in his purse”) had sold Markyate Cell five years previously, in 1655, so there is a significant dating flaw in the tale of that fatal adventure. And no-one is even sure that the couple had ever lived at the Cell – it had been let out to various tenants whose names are recorded in local documents.That’s all a huge disappointment to the people of Markyate, who quite enjoy the possibility that the ghost of “Lady Katherine” can still be seen galloping across the park.It can be a creepy place. It stands on the site of a Benedictine Priory, converted at great expense into a grand house in 1540 and rebuilt in 1908 after a fire.
Sir Thomas Beecham, the conductor, lived there in 1916. And there IS a secret chamber. It was discovered by workmen in the 19th century behind a false wall abutting a chimney stack. News about this undoubtedly added fuel to the legends.When the film The Wicked Lady was made the then-owner of the Cell, Ernest Sursham, refused to allow filming in the grounds. He did not want to encourage sightseers. And the Cell today remains very much a private home. Dunstablians might be fascinated to know that that an archway near the house, added in the early 20th century, was designed to be similar to the ancient Anchor Archway, still preserved in High Street North.