Monday, June 09, 2008

The Lady Macbeth of the Chilterns

A lengthy ride with my cycle club yesterday, up and down the Chilterns till we reached Wendover. Traversing this landscape made me think of someone who haunted it for far, far less innocent reasons back in the 17th century, the intrepid Susan Higges. That’s her, dressed as a man, murdering a woman who has seen through her disguise (well, notionally her, it could just be a generic man-stabbing a woman woodcut, as could the scene of her hanging also be from stock).

I suppose Susan Higges might be well known to those scholars who have been interested in cross-dressed women, amazons, women murderesses: the ballad here has the lot.

As you will see, Higges ran a honey trap at home. She must have been a very, very forceful personality, and we get a good insight into contemporary sexual attitudes in the willingness of the young men she ‘surprised’ with her maids to buy her off from denouncing them to the Church courts.

But away from this domestic scam, Higges was a highwayman/woman, and part of what makes this a particularly good ballad is its lurking assent to her own pride in her audacity in the role, as she showed herself a good woman ‘of her hands’.

By slipping back into her gender and its roles when pursuit was hot, Higges had a long career on the road, until her fatal encounter with a woman sharp enough to see through her disguise, and foolish enough to tell her as much. Rather than admit that the game is up, or open herself to blackmail, Higges stabs her victim, who coughs or spits out three drops of blood onto Higges’ face.

We have two interpretative possibilities. I can very well imagine that there have been cases where a murderer becomes hysterically convinced along the lines of ‘what, will these hands ne’er be clean?’ Or the ballad writer, to spice up the confession brought on by Higges’ conscience, started thinking of Macbeth himself, with reminiscences of Lady Macbeth and her husband’s conviction that ‘maggot-pies and choughs and rooks’ will bring forth ‘the secrest’st man of blood’: “Each hour I thought that beasts and birds / this murder would reveale / Or that the ayre so vile a deed, / no longer would conceale.” Something in the air would betray the crime … Now, these convictions that Providence would intervene are not solely Shakespearean. The murderers in Arden of Faversham cannot scrub up his blood, which seems to spread as they try to expunge it, in A Warning for Fair Women there’s the solemn swapping of anecdotes:

I have heard it told, that once a traveler,
Being in the hands of him that murdered him,
Told him, the fern that then grew in the place,
If nothing else, yet that would sure reveal him:
And seven years after, being safe in London,
There came a sprig of fern borne by the wind,
Into the room where as the murtherer was,
At sight whereof he sodainely start up,
And then revealed the murder.

But blood, and conscience, and a woman of masculine courage: if not Macbeth, what else would you remember, if you were a ballad writer cranking out a piece on the latest murder? Just as the woodcut artist added in the necessary devil to the picture of a murder, the balladeer was inclined to think along supernatural lines, and chose the best guide of all.

Here’s my transcript:

A true relation of one Susan Higges dwelling in Risborrow a towne in Buckinghamshire, and how shee lived 20. yeeres, by robbing on the high-wayes, yet unsuspected of all that knew her; till at last, comming to Messeldon, there robbing a woman; which woman knew her and called her by her name: now when she saw she was betrayed, she killed her, and standing by her while she gave three groanes, she spat three drops of blood in her face, which never could be washt out; by which whee was knowne and executed for the aforesaid murder at the assises in Lent at Brickhill. To the tune of, The worthy London prentice. , Printed at London : for F. C[oles] dwelling in the Old-Baily, [ca. 1640?]

To murne for my offences

and former passed sinnes

This sad and doleful story

my heavie heart begins:

Most wickedly I spent my time

devoid of godly grace

A lewder woman never liv’d

I think in any place.


Neere Buckingham I dwelled

and Susan Higges my name,

Well thought of by good Gentlemen

and farmers of good fame:

Where thus, for twentie yeeres at least

I liv’d in gallant sort:

Which made the Countrey marvell

to heare of my report.


My state was not maintained

(as you shall understand)

By good and honest dealings

nor labour of my hand

But by deceit and cozening shifts,

the end whereof we see

Hath ever beene repaid with shame,

and ever like to be.


My servants were yong country girles,

brought up unto my mind,

By nature falce and beautifull,

and of a gentle kinde:

Who with their sweet enticing eyes,

did many youngsters move

To come by night unto my house,

in hope of further love.


But still at their close meetings,

(as I the plot had laid)

I stept in still at unawares,

While they the wantons plaid,

And would in question bring their names

except they did agree

To give me mony for this wrong

done to my house and me.


This was but petty cozenage

to things that I have done:

My weapon by the high way side

hath me much money won:

In mens attire I oft have rode,

upon a Gelding stout,

And done great robberies valiantly

the Countries round about.


I had my Scarves and Vizards,

my face for to disguise:

Sometimes a beard upon my chin,

to blind the peoples eyes:

My Turky Blade, and Pistols good

my courage to maintain :

Thus tooke I many a farmers purse

well cram’d with golden gaine.


Great store of London Mercahnts

I boldly have bid stand,

And shewed myself most bravely,

a Woman of my hand:

You ruffling Roysters every one,

in my defence say then

Wee women still for gallant minds

may well compare with men.

The second part, to the same tune.

But if so be it chanced,

the Countries were beset,

With hue, and cryes, and warrants,

into my house I get:

And I so being with my Maids,

would cloake the matter so,

That no man could by any meanes,

the right offender know.


Yet God that still most justly,

doth punish every vice

Did bring unto confusion

my fortunes in a trice:

For by a murder all my sinnes

Were strangely brought to light,

And such desert I had by Law

as Justice claim by right.


Upon the Heath of Misselden,

I met a woman there,

And rob’d her, as from market,

homewards she did repaire,

Which woman cal’d me by my name,

and said that she me knew:

For which even with her lives deare blood,

my hands I did imbrew.


But after I had wounded,

this woman unto death,

And that her bleeding body,

was almost reft of breath,

She gave a groane, and therewithal,

did spit upon my face,

Three drops of blood that never could

be wiped from that place.


For after I returned

unto my house againe,

The more that I it wash’d

it more appeared plaine

Each hour I thought that beasts and birds

this murder would reveale

Or that the ayre so vile a deed,

no longer would conceale.


So heavie at my conscience,

this wofull murther lay,

That I was soone enforced,

the same for to bewray,

And to my servants made it knowne,

as God appointed me:

For blood can never secret rest,

nor long unpunisht be.


My servants to the Justices,

declar’d what I had said;

For which I was attached,

and to the Jayle convey’d,

And at the Sizes was condemn’d,

and had my just desert:

Even such a death let all them have

that beare so false a heart.


So farewell earthly pleasure,

my quaintance all adue,

With whom I spent the treasure,

which causeth me to rue.

Leave off your wanton pastimes

lascivious and ill,

Which without Gods great mercy,

doth soule and body kill.


Be warned by this story,

you ruffling Roysters all:

The higher that you climbe in sinne,

the greater is your fall:

And since the world so wicked s,

let all desire grace,

Grant Lord that I the last may be

that runneth such a race

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