Lived in the village of Markyate near Luton
Katherine Ferrers was born at the large house called Markyate Cell, in Markyate near Luton. She was born just two weeks after the death of her father, Knighton Ferrers and at the age of 6 became sole heir to her wealthy grandfather, Sir George Ferrers. Her mother, Lady Katherine, then married Sir Simon Fanshawe, head of a royalist family whose lands bordered the Ferrers estates.
During the Civil War the Fanshawes ran into financial difficulties and Sir Simon arranged a marriage between Thomas Fanshawe aged 16 and Katherine, a child of 12, thus enabling the family to take over Katherine’s fortune and escape abroad.
Following her mother’s death Katherine was left alone at Markyate Cell with a few servants. At this stage the story is told that she met and joined forces with Ralph Chaplin, a local farmer turned highwayman. Chaplin was caught one night and hanged on the spot on Finchley Common. Not deterred by this, Katherine is said to have continued to don her highwayman’s garb of a three-cornered hat, mask, cloak, scarf and breeches and ridden forth on a black horse with white flashes on its forelegs.
Her favourite haunt was Nomansland Common, Wheathampstead, so named as it was the subject of a dispute between the abbeys of St Albans and Westminster. It is said that Katherine became a ruthless killer, murdering coach drivers and passengers whether they resisted or not. Finally in June 1660 she was mortally wounded during a hold-up and was buried, at night, at St. Mary’s church, Ware.
Despite modern day doubts as to the truth of the legend, it has survived to the present day and novels and two films have been based on it, including ‘The Wicked Lady’ starring Margaret Lockwood made in 1945. It is possible that Katherine may have been confused with another Ferrers, the 4th Earl, who was hanged at Tyburn in 1760 for murdering an old and faithful servant. He was known afterwards as ‘Wicked Lord Ferrers’. The Fanshawes were rewarded by Charles II with the title of Viscount Fanshawe and both Simon and Thomas were Members of Parliament for Hertford.
Nomansland Common near Wheathampstead is an area of heathland and woodland with open access.
The Wicked Lady Inn, Nomansland Common, Wheathampstead, St Albans
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