Here from the twelfth century up to the Reformation stood the priory of St Trinity-in-the-Wood, founded in about 1145. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was confiscated by the Crown and eventually sold to George Ferrers of St Albans, according to the Gentleman’s Magazine (1846) by Henry VIII in 1536, according to others by Edward VI in 1549. It remained in the Ferrers family until it descended to Katherine Ferrers, who married Thomas Fanshawe, afterwards Viscount Fanshawe.
Known as Markyate Cell, the house was burned down three times, the last time in 1840. Popular tradition blamed this final destruction on the malignant ghost of a highwaywoman, ‘Wicked Lady Ferrers’. The Hertfordshire historian John Cussans writes:
It is said, that in the disguise of male attire, and mounted on a coal-black horse with white fore-feet, she robbed travellers on the high way, but at length was fatally wounded, at No Mans Land, when so engaged. She was found lying dead outside a door leading, by a secret staircase, to a chamber where she changed her dress.
Cussans says that this doorway was built up, and when, after the 1840 fire, the then owner, ‘the late Mr Adey’, was demolishing much of the old building and wished to reopen it, none of the local labourers could be induced to do the work, and he had to get men from London. Opening the doorway, they discovered a narrow stone staircase leading up to a stout oak door. They broke this down, but found afterwards that it opened by a hidden spring. There was nothing in the room beyond, apart from bats.
During the final fire, many of the labourers who were trying to put it out swore that they saw Lady Ferrers swinging herself on a branch of a large sycamore tree growing near the house. So convinced were they of the reality of the apparition that they took it on themselves to saw off the branch. They were greatly surprised when Mr Adey did not reward them for their zeal. ‘Such’, says Cussans, ‘is the story of “Wicked Lady Ferrers,” which in this present year of 1878 is religiously believed in by the majority of the inhabitants of Markyate Street.’
The Victorian raconteur Augustus Hare, in 1894, added to this account that the Wicked Lady was once a familiar sight about the house. He writes:
She constantly haunts the place. Mr Ady [sic] … meets her on the stairs, and wishes her good-night. Once, seeing her with her arms stretched out in the doorway, he called out to his wife who was outside, ‘Now we’ve caught her!’ and they rushed upon her from both sides, but caught – nothing!
Others assert that she revisits the scene of her crimes, and rides the roads nightly from Markyate Cell almost to Dunstable.
The Wicked Lady’s identity is uncertain: although the story may have no historical foundation, later writers have claimed that the last of the Ferrers left a young widow, Katherine, who became the Wicked Lady, or that the historical Katherine Ferrers probably did take to highway robbery as an amusement after the failure of her marriage.
Whatever the truth behind the legend, it became famous worldwide from Leslie Arliss’s 1945 film starring Margaret Lockwood as ‘the Wicked Lady’. The story is still commemorated locally by the sign of the Wicked Lady freehouse at Nomansland, the large tract of common west of the road between Sandridge and Wheathampstead where she was supposed to have been shot.