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The REAL Wicked Lady of Markyate. By John Buckledee
(This article was first published in The Luton News and Dunstable Gazette on November 3, 2004. It was
written with the help of Mrs Valerie Carr, a former owner of Markyate Cell).
It’s hard to believe, but the sweet young teenager in this portrait is the “Wicked Lady” of legend, notorious
after stories about her became the source for a series of books and films.
Locals say she led a double life – mistress of a mansion by day and a highwayman by night. Her secret was
discovered, it’s said, when she was shot during an attempted robbery. Fatally wounded, she died before she
could reach a secret staircase to her room at Markyate Cell, the Gothic building which still stands in parkland
alongside the Watling Street near Dunstable.
People said her body was still dressed in man’s clothes when it was discovered, and so the scandal began.
The tale was embellished over the centuries and became world-famous in 1945 after it was featured in a
hugely successful film, The Wicked Lady, starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason.
The film, scenes for which had to be reshot for American distribution because the ladies’ dresses were too
revealing, was remade in 1983, this time with Faye Dunaway as the rich young heiress whose unhappy
marriage tempted her into a life of crime.
But few people have seen the portrait of the REAL “Wicked Lady”. It has been privately owned by her family and only now can it be reproduced.
A version of Katherine Fanshawe’s picture was included in a family history published in 1929 (no mention of a highwayman!) but this is the first
time the original portrait has become available.
It has been donated to the Valence House Museum in Dagenham, under an agreement made by the family of the late Aubrey Fanshawe, and
joins 48 other Fanshawe family pictures which were given to the museum in the 1960s.
Numerous historians have examined the stories about Katherine Fanshawe, to try to separate the facts from the fiction.
The REAL Katherine, nee Ferrers, was born on May 4 1634 at Bayford in Hertforshire and was heir to a considerable fortune, including the
mansion and farmland around Markyate. She was married in 1648, when she was not quite 14, to 16-year-old Thomas Fanshawe.
The Fanshawe family had supported King Charles in the Civil War, which began in 1642, and lost their fortune and influence when the Royalists
Katherine’s father, Knighton Ferrers, had died in 1640, and his widow had fallen for the attractive Sir Simon Fanshawe, whom she married later
that year. They were together, with the King, at his Civil War capital in Oxford in 1642, but Sir Simon’s wife died that winter, leaving him
responsible for her eight-year-old daughter. As the fighting continued (Sir Simon was at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644 and by 1646 he was
a prisoner of war) the orphaned Katherine, heir to her mother’s estate, was cared for by Sir Simon’s sister, Alice, at Hamerton in
With Cromwell victorious, the Fanshawes’ fortunes seemed to have been ruined. But they solved at least some of their financial problems by
arranging for Katherine, when she reached a marriageable age, to wed young Sir Thomas Fanshawe, son of Sir Simon’s brother. The ceremony
took place at Hamerton in April 1648, whereupon Thomas took control of Katherine’s money.
That is the true story of Katherine Fanshawe. Now the legends begin. 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 – and 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 – and 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
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. And 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
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
Dunstable people 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.