Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Feature • MOLL CUTPURSE — The Real Roaring Girl • 2003

1611, London: The Roaring Girl, a comedy by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, receives its world première, and who is there but the ‘roaring girl’ herself, Moll Cutpurse, one of the most notorious characters in London’s underworld, so infamous that she was even immortalised in print by Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones.

Far from being a cameo role, Moll’s fictional self acts as a go-between for Sebastian Wengrave and Mary Fitzallard, the star-crossed lovers of the piece. Due to Sir Alexander, young Wengrave’s father, taking a dim view of his bride-to-be, Sebastian pretends to pay court to ‘the Roaring Girl’ in order to force his father’s compliance. Moll’s knowledge of London lowlife coupled with a form of manly virtue helps her agree to gull Sir Alexander, a man of arrogant and avaricious virtue. Despite Sir Alexander’s attempt to entrap Moll, all’s well that ends well, to cut a long story short.

Allusions to Shakespeare and his plays are not unfounded, as Middleton is credited with not only jointly writing Timon of Athens, but having a hand inMeasure for Measure as well. Closer inspection of key scenes involving Hecate and the witches in Macbeth also reveal his trademark as it is stylistically at odds with that of Shakespeare’s. The text of The Scottish play has lyrics from two songs that appear in Middleton’s own play The Witch.

Middleton, who co-wrote the classic tragedy The Changeling with Thomas Rowley, was one of the most successful playwrights of the period. His considerable comic and satiric talents were balanced by a keen observation and his work seldom fell into caricature. Apart from his masterpiece, he also wrote To Catch the Old One, one of the best comedy of manners, as well as co-writing The Roaring Girl with Thomas Dekker. 

Dekker was no slouch as a dramatist himself. Being part of the Henslowe group, he produced a prodigious amount of plays in order to keep the company supplied with new and original material. True, plays were often hastily makeshift but brightened by his charming use of verse and his capacity for credible characterisation, a trait he shared with Middleton. His best plays included The Shoemaker’s Holiday, The Honest Whore: Parts I & II and Old Fortunatos. Many of his plays were written in collaboration with John Ford and William Rowley. With Middleton, he created a play that celebrated the public’s endless fascination with that killer combination of celebrity and crime. From the Krays to Chicago, many writers have attempted to sate, or explain, the enthusiasm for killers and thieves. Major criminals such as Jonathan Wild inspired John Gay to write an opera and Henry Fielding to use Wild’s life as a metaphor of Britain’s first true Prime Minster, Sir Robert Walpole.

Besides providing the foundation for the modern British novel, Henry Fielding (along with his magistrate brother, John, the ‘blind judge’) helped found the modern British police force. With the formation of the Bow Street Runners in 1749, based — ironically enough — on a system used by the master thief-taker Jonathan Wild, the days of the highwaymen were numbered. Between 1749 and 1771 nearly three hundred were executed on the gallows at Tyburn, where Marble Arch now stands.

Highwaymen may have been eulogised in song, verse and fiction over the years, but in reality they were hardened criminals, far from the romantic hero or loveable rogue portrayed in the epic poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes or William Harrison Ainsworth’s mythologising of Dick Turpin’s life in his historical novel Rookwood. Turpin was little more than a petty criminal, murderer and horse thief whose legend is far removed from his squalid end at the hangman’s noose. Yet the myth still continues to enrapture us. Adam Ant once had a number one hit with a song called Stand and Deliver and the video culminated in the execution of the singer. Considering Ant’s descent into — alleged — madness, some would say this was rather apt.

‘Deliver your money!’ was actually the standard cry of the highwayman but, before Fielding and the Bow Street Runners, they could mitigate the noose with wholesale bribery. One highwayman, Francis Jackson, knew full well how to avoid the ‘Newgate Drop’ or gallows: ‘He can’t be hanged,’ said Jackson, ‘who hath Five Hundred Pounds at his Command.’ One who used this knowledge to its full extent was a young woman called Mary Frith, who would become better known as Moll Cutpurse.

Image of Mary Frith from title page of The Roaring Girl [Wikipedia]

Image of Mary Frith from title page of The Roaring Girl [Wikipedia]

Frith was the daughter of a shoemaker, who never cared for dolls and other girlish pursuits. Always a tomboy, she grew up to be a pickpocket, a thief and occasional fortune-teller. Her reputation was sealed by her ability to flout authority and cock a snook at the moral arbiters of the day. She was no longer Mary Frith but Moll Cutpurse and she would become the greatest felon to rob on the highways of southern England, a greater highwayman than Dick Turpin, Claude Duval or John Rann.

What led her to highway robbery was an early tiring with the prices offered by fences for her ill-gotten gains. Believing she could do better, she set up on her own, as a receiver, and began to amass a fortune. It was around this time that she started to ride out from town onto the surrounding heaths and accost passengers of coaches traversing the treacherous roads into London and relieving them of their valuables.

Moll’s new-found wealth afforded her a large house, maidservants and a footman, where she amused herself with lovers of both sexes despite being no raving beauty. She was a hardy soul, a big, strong woman, who smoked at a time when women rarely, if ever, indulged in such mannish behaviour. Her voice was so powerful that it was capable ‘of drowning all the city’ and it was this ability to pass as a man that led to her success on the ‘gypsy’s ribbon’.

Besides enjoying the rewards of her profession, she also knew how to buck the system. In 1612, at the height of her fame and notoriety, she was forced to do penance at St Paul’s Cross, fortifying herself with six pints of sack. She eventually served out her sentence whilst no doubt nursing a monumental hangover. Her treatment was mild, in comparison, to that meted out to her fellow felons, as testified by the corpses swinging from gibbets by the side of the roads leading to the metropolis.

Even in old age, she remained unbowed when, at the advanced age of sixty, she held up General Fairfax on Hounslow Heath, robbing him of all that he had and leaving him with a wounded arm. On this occasion she was swiftly apprehended but bought her way out of trouble for the princely sum of £2,000.

Finally, at the ripe old age of seventy-five, Moll expired, the cause of death being dropsy. She left behind her a handsome bequest so that her friends could celebrate the restoration of Charles II. Buried in St Bride’s church, close to her home in Fleet Street, she asked to be interred with the breach of a pistol pointing skywards so that she could be as preposterous in death as she had been in life.

Howard Watson © 2003

Originally published on R&V 06-02-03


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