The 17th century always seemed like a ripe old bawd: loud, boisterous and with a penchant for a pretty rogue. Overflowing the busks of the 16th century, and with no interest for the baroque frippery of the century that would follow, the 1600’s were born out of taverns and plague, plots and intrigues, typhoid and flowers.
It was a lively time; one that welcomed audacity that was tempered with grace – a type of messy elegance that was not out of place on a muddy road, balancing instruments of persuasion, bullets primed.
It was the time of the highwayman.
These ‘gentlemen of the road’ were common to all centuries, but they seemed to thrive with a guilty panache during this one. And as the 17th century seemed to possess a special bravura, it saw the blooming of a special kind of flower, ragged yet fragrant: the highwaywoman.
There was the shoemaker’s daughter, Mary Frith: ‘The Roaring Girl’, branded four times for thievery, escaping the gallows by the fortuitous means of a 2,000 pound bribe. In her supposed ‘Confession’ she stated: “I held very good Correspondence now also with those Grandees of this function of Thievery”.
Joan Phillips, respectable, beautiful and “…eminent for picking of pockets and shoplifting at all country fairs and great markets…” Hung in 1685, her body was gibbeted: left to rot in a cage to serve as a deterrent to all would-be miscreants, as well making sure that it could not be removed for proper burial by her friends.
The ‘Wicked Lady’, Lady Katherine Ferrers, was an aristocrat and an heiress – her portrait shows a face framed with curls and pearls and a smile that is both dangerous and discreet. Married at 14, she took to the road in her husband’s absence – whether out of boredom or in order to build up her stumbling fortunes it has never been said. A whimsical combination of the two situations would be the best guess. Legend has it that she was shot during a robbery and later died of her wounds: she was 26 years old.
Now, there is a ballad from around this time – known as “Sovay” or “Sylvia” or “Sylvie” – that tells a very pretty story.
It is about a young woman, about to be married, who is determined to test the loyalty of her fiancé. She comes upon an idea, a typically lively one, born from the earthy and daring mindset of the 1600’s.
Her lover, who has been away, is traveling back into town – she knows when, which coach he will be taking, down which rutted path it will be traveling. The clever lady has decided to dress as a highwayman and waylay this vehicle, shivering with harness and brass traces protesting, and demand all goods that were held inside.
Should her young man willingly give up all his valuables, including his engagement ring, she would shoot him dead.
It is easy to imagine her standing thus: the sweeping velvet hat, feathers curling to her shoulders, a dark cape reaching to her chin, heavy boots obscuring the feminine sweep of calf and thigh. Brazen lace cuffs cowered in the breeze that raced unimpeded across the flat coaching road, obscuring hands that fingered two flintlock pistols. It is easy to hear the clear, brave voice state the demand, both romantic and criminal: “Stand and deliver!”
Her lover did not. And they lived happily ever after.
“I did intend and it was to know
If that you were me true love or no
For if you’d have give me that ring she said
I’d have pulled the trigger I’d have pulled the trigger and shot you dead.”