England’s First Female Highwayman, The Dreaded 'Wicked Lady,' Was A Former Heiress

In the 17th century, highwaymen terrorized England's roads. Men like Dick Turpin and Claude Duval robbed stagecoaches and took from wagons, causing so much harm that England doled out capital punishment for wearing a disguise on the high roads. But Turpin and Duval weren't the only highway robbers. Katherine Ferrers, a former heiress who lost everything, turned to a life of lawbreaking, becoming England's first female highwayman. 

Lady Katherine Ferrers was born into England's aristocracy. She lived in a sprawling Tudor mansion granted to her family by King Edward VI. And Lady Katherine was the sole heir to her family's fortune. But when her mother married a thieving nobleman and then married Katherine to his son at just 14 years old, the young heiress lost everything but her house. Left an orphan when her mother passed, Lady Katherine learned the art of highway robbery from a farmer and donned a black mask to rob coaches. 

She became known as the Wicked Lady, and her reign of terror went beyond simply thieving. Lady Katherine single-handedly created a wave of terror in Hertfordshire, setting houses ablaze and even slaying a constable. But living as a destitute heiress by day and a highwaywoman by night caught up with Lady Katherine. 

  • Ferrers Was Born Into Wealth And Privilege, Until Tragedy Struck
    Photo: John Lord / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    Ferrers Was Born Into Wealth And Privilege, Until Tragedy Struck

    Katherine Ferrers was born in 1634, the sole heir to her family's fortune, including the majestic Markyate Cell manor house. The heiress should have been set for life as one of the richest women in Hertfordshire.

    But tragedy struck the Ferrers family multiple times. Katherine's father passed two weeks before she was born. Then, her mother squandered the family fortune, leaving a marriage alliance as the only way to secure Katherine's future. At just 14 years old, Katherine was married off to Thomas Fanshawe, who took her money. Katherine's mother soon passed, leaving the young heiress completely broke and abandoned.

  • The Teen Bride’s Husband Took Her Money
    Photo: BBC Paintings / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Teen Bride’s Husband Took Her Money

    The Fanshawe family set Katherine Ferrers to seek a life of ill repute by robbing her family twice. First, Simon Fanshawe married Katherine's mother. He recklessly spent the widow's money, until the English Civil War forced the Fanshawes into hiding. Simon convinced Katherine's mother to marry off her 14-year-old daughter to his son, Thomas Fanshawe, who was 16 years old. 

    The marriage gave the Fanshawes another opportunity to enrich themselves at Katherine's expense. Thomas and his family soon fled with Katherine's money. The newlywed teen's mother passed, leaving Katherine with a massive mansion and very little money. 

  • The Desperate Heiress Turned To A Highwayman For Help 
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Desperate Heiress Turned To A Highwayman For Help 

    Just a teenager, Katherine Ferrers became a recluse in her mansion. During that time, she met Ralph Chaplin, a farmer who lived nearby. Chaplin was a farmer by day, but at night, he transformed into a highwayman. 

    Chaplin became Ferrers's mentor, training her as England's first female highwayman. Chaplin robbed stagecoaches and joined a group of highwaymen that terrorized England's roads at night. Although she was a lady and an heiress, Ferrers reportedly joined the profession, enriching herself through highway robbery. 

  • Ferrers Wore A Black Mask And Rode A Black Horse To Rob People
    Photo: Hogweard / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Ferrers Wore A Black Mask And Rode A Black Horse To Rob People

    Ferrers quickly earned the nickname the Wicked Lady. The heiress donned a three-cornered hat and a black mask to hide her identity, along with a black cloak and dark breeches. She rode a black horse, emerging at night to attack coaches and terrorize their passengers.

    Like other 17th century highwaymen, Ferrers hid her activities by riding at night. But it was a dangerous profession: the average life expectancy of a highwayman was just 28 years.