‘The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas…’
So opens the Alfred Noyes poem, The Highwayman. I loved that poem at school, and have remembered the opening lines ever since I was nine years old. So when I read about Lady Katherine Fanshawe – the noblewoman who was also a highwaywoman, I could hardly resist researching her fascinating life! Whilst uncovering Katherine’s story I found that the real history and the legend did not always agree. For one thing, there are discrepancies about Katherine’s date of death and place of burial, and little survives of hard-core evidence as to her activities during the English Civil War.
Despite the legend, there is actually nothing of substance to link Lady Katherine with any sort of highway robbery, although it is likely that there was robbery and plunder on the roads at this period because of civil unrest; crimes that could have been attributed to her.
The legend however is irresistible. Two films have been based on the idea, both called ‘The Wicked Lady’, in 1945 and 1983. There was also another novel; The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton, loosely based on Katherine’s life. The fact that the legend has survived so long is a testament to its appeal.
But could I re-imagine it, paying attention to the facts whilst keeping true to the interest of the legend? Could I keep her exploits as a highwaywoman?
For my story I have drawn on both her real life, and aspects of the legend. Nowhere in the real history is Katherine’s lover, Ralph Chaplin, traceable, although he always features in the retelling of the legend as the person who persuaded her to robbery in the first place. For a novelist, these gifts of mysterious characters with no background fuel the imagination, and Ralph features in my novel and the second part of my Highway Trilogy will be his story, told from his point of view. Of course I have tried to make him as real as possible, and, as many young men were at that time, excited to try new idealistic ways of living, following the break-down of the established order.
I was concerned however to pay attention to the real evidence, and – without giving too much away, to supply likely scenarios which could have led to the interpretation we have today. John Barber, on his excellent website on Lady Katherine, poses the idea that her life may have accrued some of the story of ‘Maude of Allinghame’ (1833), a Victorian ballad that tells the story of a noblewoman who robs a young suitor and later the Mayor of Redbourne. This seems to be a likely possibility, although parts of Katherine’s legend are undoubtedly true. She was forced to marry tragically early; her stepfather did squander her fortune; the real Markyate Manor does have a secret passage.
Suffice it to say, there is plenty of highway action in Shadow on the Highway – muskets, moonlight and madness.
SHADOW ON THE HIGHWAY is published by Endeavour Press and is aimed at teens and adults from aged 14+
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