The name Markyate is derived from the Old English words mearc and geat and means ‘the gate at the boundary’, presumably between Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. In the 12th century, with the consent of his abbot, a monk went out from st Alban’s and into the woods to seek a place to make a hermitage. God guided him to Caddington, not far from Watling Street. There he lived a solitary life, until a woman came to him, Christina of Markyate, in the firm belief that she too was called to a silent life of contemplation. He duly fastened her into an adjoining cell, where she was walled in for for four years! She saw nobody in all that time, only coming out to walk at dusk when she would see not a soul, supporting herself through her exquisite needlework. She was (unsurprisingly) taken over by heavenly visions, and when the original monk died she had gathered quite a following and was allowed to set up a priory under Benedictine rule. The seal of the Priory can be seen right, and more about Christina’s extraordinary life can be found here.
The Priory did not fare well during the dissolution because it had become run down, and there were charges of corruption and lack of chastity brought against the nuns. The Priory was eventually demolished in 1537, and Markyate Manor was built on its footprint, although it is still sometimes known as Markyate Cell – George Ferrers retained the name when he bought the land in 1548. The Ferrers family controlled this land when Markyate Cell was the home of Katherine Ferrers, also sometimes known as The Wicked Lady, a title I am hoping to overturn!
The Manor was left to Katherine by her mother, but it was soon in the control of her uncle, Simon Fanshawe, and she was forced into an arranged marriage with his nephew, Thomas Fanshawe. After that, the story gets even more interesting as the legend credits her with being a notorious highwaywoman. She lived in the house through the years of the turbulent English Civil War, much of it alone as her menfolk were away fighting. She finally died there, having been mortally wounded trying to rob a coach on Nomansland.
Her ghost has been seen dressed in highwayman clothes riding her horse at full gallop, and in 1840 part of Markyate Cell was destroyed by fire, and the blaze was blamed on Lady Katherine. Whilst helping to put out the fire several locals said that they felt a ghostly presence and that they were being watched, by the ghost of Katherine. But Katherine is not the only ghost that haunts this building – in the late 1850s workmen repairing a wall saw the figure of a nun. Perhaps this was the anchorite Christina. The nun has been seen several times since, walking in an avenue near St John’s Church.
In 1957 the bypass around Markyate was being built. A night watchman was sitting by his brazier one night when he looked up and saw someone warming their hands by the fire. The figure was that of a young man who promptly vanished as the night watchman was looking at him. Was this an appearance of Markyate’s legendary Phantom who may also haunt Hicks Road and the High Street? Luton Paranormal Society
There has always been a mysterious man, Ralph Chaplin, associated with the legend, although I can find no trace of him in historical records. That gave me fuel for thought, and led to the story-line for ‘Spirit of the Highway’.
Like to know more? check out this article in the Daily Mail for a summary of the life and legend of Lady Katherine Ferrers (Fanshawe).
Spirit of the Highway is out today, published by Endeavour Press. It is suitable for teens 14+ (and adults too!).