Moll Cutpurse (HUM220)

For those interested, here is another version of Moll Cutpurse’s (Mary Frith’s) life.

from A Book of Scoundrels 


THE most illustrious woman of an illustrious age, Moll Cutpurse has never lacked the recognition due to her genius. She was scarce of age when the town devoured in greedy admiration the first record of her pranks and exploits. A year later Middleton made her the heroine of a sparkling comedy. Thereafter she became the favourite of the rufflers, the commonplace of the poets. Newgate knew her, and Fleet Street; her manly figure was as familiar in the Bear Garden as at the Devil Tavern; courted alike by the thief and his victim, for fifty years she lived a life brilliant as sunlight, many-coloured as a rainbow. And she is remembered, after the lapse of centuries, not only as the Queen-Regent of Misrule, the benevolent tyrant of cly-filers and heavers, of hacks and blades, but as the incomparable Roaring Girl, free of the playhouse, who perchance presided with Ben Jonson over the Parliament of Wits.

She was born in the Barbican at the heyday of England’s greatness, four years after the glorious defeat of the Armada, and had to her father an honest shoemaker. She came into the world (saith rumour) with her fist doubled, and even in the cradle gave proof of a boyish, boisterous disposition. Her girlhood, if the word be not an affront to her mannish character, was as tempestuous as a wind-blown petticoat. A very ‘tomrig and rump-scuttle,’ she knew only the sports of boys: her war-like spirit counted no excuse too slight for a battle; and so valiant a lad was she of her hands, so well skilled in cudgel-play, that none ever wrested a victory from fighting Moll. While other girls were content to hem a kerchief or mark a sampler, Moll would escape to the Bear Garden, and there enjoy the sport of baiting, whose loyal patron she remained unto the end. That which most bitterly affronted her was the magpie talk of the wenches. ‘Why,’ she would ask in a fury of indignation, ‘why crouch over the fire with a pack of gossips, when the highway invites you to romance? Why finger a distaff, when a quarterstaff comes more aptly to your hand?’

And thus she grew in age and stature, a stranger to the soft delights of her sex, her heart still deaf to the trivial voice of love. Had not a wayward accident cumbered her with a kirtle, she would have sought death or glory in the wars; she would have gone with Colonel Downe’s men upon the road; she would have sailed to the Spanish Main for pieces of eight. But the tyranny of womanhood was as yet supreme, and the honest shoemaker, ignorant of his daughter’s talent, bade her take service at a respectable saddler’s, and thus suppress the frowardness of her passion. Her rebellion was instant. Never would she abandon the sword and the wrestling-booth for the harmless bodkin and the hearthstone of domesticity. Being absolute in refusal, she was kidnapped by her friends and sent on board a ship, bound for Virginia and slavery. There, in the dearth of womankind, even so sturdy a wench as Moll might have found a husband; but the enterprise was little to her taste, and, always resourceful, she escaped from shipboard before the captain had weighed his anchor.

Henceforth she resolved her life should be free and chainless as the winds. Never more should needle and thread tempt her to a womanish inactivity. As Hercules, whose counterpart she was, changed his club for the distaff of Omphale, so would she put off the wimple and bodice of her sex for jerkin and galligaskins. If she could not allure manhood, then would she brave it. And though she might not cross swords with her country’s foes, at least she might levy tribute upon the unjustly rich, and confront an enemy wherever there was a full pocket.

Her entrance into a gang of thieves was beset by no difficulty. The Bear Garden, always her favourite resort, had made her acquainted with all the divers and rumpads of the town. The time, moreover, was favourable to enterprise, and once again was genius born into a golden age. The cutting of purses was an art brought to perfection, and already the more elegant practice of picking pockets was understood. The transition gave scope for endless ingenuity, and Moll was not slow in mastering the theory of either craft. It was a changing fashion of dress, as I have said, which forced a new tactic upon the thief; the pocket was invented because the hanging purse was too easy a prey for the thievish scissors. And no sooner did the world conceal its wealth in pockets than the cly-filer was born to extract the booty with his long, nimble fingers. The trick was managed with an admirable forethought, which has been a constant example to after ages. The file was always accompanied by a bull, whose duty it was to jostle and distract the victim while his pockets were rifled. The bung, or what not, was rapidly passed on to the attendant rub, who scurried off before the cry of STOP THIEF! could be raised.

Thus was the craft of thieving practised when Moll was enrolled a humble member of the gang. Yet nature had not endowed her with the qualities which ensure an active triumph. ‘The best signs and marks of a happy, industrious hand,’ wrote the hoyden, ‘is a long middle finger, equally suited with that they call the fool’s or first finger.’ Now, though she was never a clumsy jade, the practice of sword-play and quarterstaff had not refined the industry of her hands, which were the rather framed for strength than for delicacy. So that though she served a willing apprenticeship, and eagerly shared the risks of her chosen trade, the fear of Newgate and Tyburn weighed heavily upon her spirit, and she cast about her for a method of escape. Avoiding the danger of discovery, she was loth to forego her just profit, and hoped that intelligence might atone for her sturdy, inactive fingers. Already she had endeared herself to the gang by unnumbered acts of kindness and generosity; already her inflexible justice had made her umpire in many a difficult dispute. If a rascal could be bought off at the gallows’ foot, there was Moll with an open purse; and so speedily did she penetrate all the secrets of thievish policy, that her counsel and comfort were soon indispensable.

Here, then, was her opportunity. Always a diplomatist rather than a general, she gave up the battlefield for the council chamber. She planned the robberies which defter hands achieved; and, turning herself from cly-filer to fence, she received and changed to money all the watches and trinkets stolen by the gang.

Were a citizen robbed upon the highway, he straightway betook himself to Moll, and his property was presently returned him at a handsome price. Her house, in short, became a brokery. Hither the blades and divers brought their purchases, and sought the ransom; hither came the outraged victims to buy again the jewels and rings which thievish fingers had pinched. With prosperity her method improved, until at last her statesmanship controlled the remotest details of the craft. Did one of her gang get to work overnight and carry off a wealthy swag, she had due intelligence of the affair betimes next morning, so that, furnished with an inventory of the booty, she might make a just division, or be prepared for the advent of the rightful owner.

So she gained a complete ascendency over her fellows. And when once her position was assured, she came forth a pitiless autocrat. Henceforth the gang existed for her pleasure, not she for the gang’s; and she was as urgent to punish insubordination as is an empress to avenge the heinous sin of treason. The pickpocket who had claimed her protection knew no more the delight of freedom. If he dared conceal the booty that was his, he had an enemy more powerful than the law, and many a time did contumacy pay the last penalty at the gallows. But the faithful also had their reward, for Moll never deserted a comrade, and while she lived in perfect safety herself she knew well how to contrive the safety of others. Nor was she content merely to discharge those duties of the fence for which an instinct of statecraft designed her. Her restless brain seethed with plans of plunder, and if her hands were idle it was her direction that emptied half the pockets in London. Having drilled her army of divers to an unparalleled activity, she cast about for some fresh method of warfare, and so enrolled a regiment of heavers, who would lurk at the mercers’ doors for an opportunity to carry off ledgers and account-books. The price of redemption was fixed by Moll herself, and until the mercers were aroused by frequent losses to a quicker vigilance, the trade was profitably secure.

Meanwhile new clients were ever seeking her aid, and, already empress of the thieves, she presently aspired to the friendship and patronage of the highwaymen. Though she did not dispose of their booty, she was appointed their banker, and vast was the treasure entrusted to the coffers of honest Moll. Now, it was her pride to keep only the best company, for she hated stupidity worse than a clumsy hand, and they were men of wit and spirit who frequented her house. Thither came the famous Captain Hind, the Regicides’ inveterate enemy, whose lofty achievements Moll, with an amiable extravagance, was wont to claim for her own. Thither came the unamiably notorious Mull Sack, who once emptied Cromwell’s pocket on the Mall, and whose courage was as formidable as his rough-edged tongue. Another favourite was the ingenious Crowder, whose humour it was to take the road habited like a bishop, and who surprised the victims of his greed with ghostly counsel. Thus it was a merry party that assembled in the lady’s parlour, loyal to the memory of the martyred king, and quick to fling back an offending pleasantry.

But the house in Fleet Street was a refuge as well as a resort, the sanctuary of a hundred rascals, whose misdeeds were not too flagrantly discovered. For, while Moll always allowed discretion to govern her conduct, while she would risk no present security for a vague promise of advantages to come, her secret influence in Newgate made her more powerful than the hangman and the whole bench of judges. There was no turnkey who was not her devoted servitor, but it was the clerk of Newgate to whom she and her family were most deeply beholden. This was one Ralph Briscoe, as pretty a fellow as ever deserted the law for a bull-baiting. Though wizened and clerkly in appearance, he was of a lofty courage; and Moll was heard to declare that had she not been sworn to celibacy, she would have cast an eye upon the faithful Ralph, who was obedient to her behests whether at Gaol Delivery or Bear Garden. For her he would pack a jury or get a reprieve; for him she would bait a bull with the fiercest dogs in London. Why then should she fear the law, when the clerk of Newgate and Gregory the Hangman fought upon her side?

For others the arbiter of life and death, she was only thrice in an unexampled career confronted with the law. Her first occasion of arrest was so paltry that it brought discredit only on the constable. This jack-in-office, a very Dogberry, encountered Moll returning down Ludgate Hill from some merry-making, a lanthorn carried pompously before her. Startled by her attire he questioned her closely, and receiving insult for answer, promptly carried her to the Round House. The customary garnish made her free or the prison, and next morning a brief interview with the Lord Mayor restored Moll to liberty but not to forgetfulness.

She had yet to wreak her vengeance upon the constable for a monstrous affront, and hearing presently that he had a rich uncle in Shropshire, she killed the old gentleman (in imagination) and made the constable his heir. Instantly a retainer, in the true garb and accent of the country, carried the news to Dogberry, and sent him off to Ludlow on the costliest of fool’s errands. He purchased a horse and set forth joyously, as became a man of property; he limped home, broken in purse and spirit, the hapless object of ridicule and contempt. Perhaps he guessed the author of this sprightly outrage; but Moll, for her part, was far too finished a humorist to reveal the truth, and hereafter she was content to swell the jesting chorus.

Her second encounter with justice was no mere pleasantry, and it was only her marvellous generalship that snatched her career from untimely ruin and herself from the clutch of Master Gregory. Two of her emissaries had encountered a farmer in Chancery Lane. They spoke with him first at Smithfield, and knew that his pocket was well lined with bank-notes. An improvised quarrel at a tavern-door threw the farmer off his guard, and though he defended the money, his watch was snatched from his fob and duly carried to Moll. The next day the victim, anxious to repurchase his watch, repaired to Fleet Street, where Moll generously promised to recover the stolen property. Unhappily security had encouraged recklessness, and as the farmer turned to leave he espied his own watch hanging among other trinkets upon the wall. With a rare discretion he held his peace until he had called a constable to his aid, and this time the Roaring Girl was lodged in Newgate, with an ugly crime laid to her charge.

Committed for trial, she demanded that the watch should be left in the constable’s keeping, and, pleading not guilty when the sessions came round, insisted that her watch and the farmer’s were not the same. The farmer, anxious to acknowledge his property, demanded the constable to deliver the watch, that it might be sworn to in open court; and when the constable put his hand to his pocket the only piece of damning evidence had vanished, stolen by the nimble fingers of one of Moll’s officers.

Thus with admirable trickery and a perfect sense of dramatic effect she contrived her escape, and never again ran the risk of a sudden discovery. For experience brought caution in its train, and though this wiliest of fences lived almost within the shadow of Newgate, though she was as familiar in the prison yard as at the Globe Tavern, her nightly resort, she obeyed the rules of life and law with so precise an exactitude that suspicion could never fasten upon her. Her kingdom was midway between robbery and justice. And as she controlled the mystery of thieving so, in reality, she meted out punishment to the evildoer. Honest citizens were robbed with small risk to life or property. For Moll always frowned upon violence, and was ever ready to restore the booty for a fair ransom. And the thieves, driven by discipline to a certain humanity, plied their trade with an obedience and orderliness hitherto unknown. Moll’s then was no mean achievement. Her career was not circumscribed by her trade, and the Roaring Girl, the daredevil companion of the wits and bloods, enjoyed a fame no less glorious than the Queen of Thieves.

‘Enter Moll in a frieze jerkin and a black safeguard.’ Thus in the old comedy she comes upon the stage; and truly it was by her clothes that she was first notorious. By accident a woman, by habit a man, she must needs invent a costume proper to her pursuits. But she was no shrieking reformer, no fanatic spying regeneration in a pair of breeches. Only in her attire she showed her wit; and she went to a bull-baiting in such a dress as well became her favourite sport. She was not of those who ‘walk in spurs but never ride.’ The jerkin, the doublet, the galligaskins were put on to serve the practical purposes of life, not to attract the policeman or the spinster. And when a petticoat spread its ample folds beneath the doublet, not only was her array handsome, but it symbolised the career of one who was neither man nor woman, and yet both. After a while, however, the petticoat seemed too tame for her stalwart temper, and she exchanged it for the great Dutch slop, habited in which unseemly garment she is pictured in the ancient prints.

Up and down the town she romped and scolded, earning the name which Middleton gave her in her green girlhood. ‘She has the spirit of four great parishes,’ says the wit in the comedy, ‘and a voice that will drown all the city.’ If a gallant stood in the way, she drew upon him in an instant, and he must be a clever swordsman to hold his ground against the tomboy who had laid low the German fencer himself. A good fellow always, she had ever a merry word for the passer-by, and so sharp was her tongue that none ever put a trick upon her. Not to know Moll was to be inglorious, and she ‘slipped from one company to another like a fat eel between a Dutchman’s fingers.’ Now at Parker’s Ordinary, now at the Bear Garden, she frequented only the haunts of men, and not until old age came upon her did she endure patiently the presence of women.

Her voice and speech were suited to the galligaskin. She was a true disciple of Maltre Fran�ois, hating nothing so much as mincing obscenity, and if she flavoured her discourse with many a blasphemous quip, the blasphemy was ‘not so malicious as customary.’ Like the blood she was, she loved good ale and wine; and she regarded it among her proudest titles to renown that she was the first of women to smoke tobacco. Many was the pound of best Virginian that she bought of Mistress Gallipot, and the pipe, with monkey, dog, and eagle, is her constant emblem. Her antic attire, the fearless courage of her pranks, now and again involved her in disgrace or even jeopardised her freedom; but her unchanging gaiety made light of disaster, and still she laughed and rollicked in defiance of prude and pedant.

Her companion in many a fantastical adventure was Banks, the vintner of Cheapside, that same Banks who taught his horse to dance and shod him with silver. Now once upon a time a right witty sport was devised between them. The vintner bet Moll �20 that she would not ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch astraddle on horseback, in breeches and doublet, boots and spurs.

The hoyden took him up in a moment, and added of her own devilry a trumpet and banner. She set out from Charing Cross bravely enough, and a trumpeter being an unwonted spectacle, the eyes of all the town were clapped upon her. Yet none knew her until she reached Bishopsgate, where an orange-wench set up the cry, ‘Moll Cutpurse on horseback!’ Instantly the cavalier was surrounded by a noisy mob. Some would have torn her from the saddle for an imagined insult upon womanhood, others, more wisely minded, laughed at the prank with good-humoured merriment. Every minute the throng grew denser, and it had fared hardly with roystering Moll, had not a wedding and the arrest of a debtor presently distracted the gaping idlers. As the mob turned to gaze at the fresh wonder, she spurred her horse until she gained Newington by an unfrequented lane. There she waited until night should cover her progress to Shoreditch, and thus peacefully she returned home to lighten the vintner’s pocket of twenty pounds.

The fame of the adventure spread abroad, and that the scandal should not be repeated Moll was summoned before the Court of Arches to answer a charge of appearing publicly in mannish apparel. The august tribunal had no terror for her, and she received her sentence to do penance in a white sheet at Paul’s Cross during morning-service on a Sunday with an audacious contempt. ‘They might as well have shamed a black dog as me,’ she proudly exclaimed; and why should she dread the white sheet, when all the spectators looked with a lenient eye upon her professed discomfiture?’ For a halfpenny,’ she said, ‘she would have travelled to every market-town of England in the guise of a penitent,’ and having tippled off three quarts of sack she swaggered to Paul’s Cross in the maddest of humours. But not all the courts on earth could lengthen her petticoat, or contract the Dutch slop by a single fold. For a while, perhaps, she chastened her costume, yet she soon reverted to the ancient mode, and to her dying day went habited as a man.

As bear baiting was the passion of her life, so she was scrupulous in the care and training of her dogs. She gave them each a trundle-bed, wrapping them from the cold in sheets and blankets, while their food would not have dishonoured a gentleman’s table. Parrots, too, gave a sense of colour and companionship to her house; and it was in this love of pets, and her devotion to cleanliness, that she showed a trace of dormant womanhood. Abroad a ribald and a scold, at home she was the neatest of housewives, and her parlour, with its mirrors and its manifold ornaments, was the envy of the neighbours. So her trade flourished, and she lived a life of comfort, of plenty even, until the Civil War threw her out of work. When an unnatural conflict set the whole country at loggerheads, what occasion was there for the honest prig? And it is not surprising that, like all the gentlemen adventurers of the age, Moll remained most stubbornly loyal to the King’s cause. She made the conduit in Fleet Street run with wine when Charles came to London in 1638; and it was her amiable pleasantry to give the name of Strafford to a clever, cunning bull, and to dub the dogs that assailed him Pym, Hampden, and the rest, that right heartily she might applaud the courage of Strafford as he threw off his unwary assailants.

So long as the quarrel lasted, she was compelled to follow a profession more ancient than the fence’s; for there is one passion which war itself cannot extinguish. When once the King had laid his head ‘down as upon a bed,’ when once the Protector had proclaimed his supremacy, the industry of the road revived; and there was not a single diver or rumpad that did not declare eternal war upon the black-hearted Regicides. With a laudable devotion to her chosen cause, Moll despatched the most experienced of her gang to rob Lady Fairfax on her way to church; and there is a tradition that the Roaring Girl, hearing that Fairfax himself would pass by Hounslow, rode forth to meet him, and with her own voice bade him stand and deliver. One would like to believe it; yet it is scarce credible. If Fairfax had spent the balance of an ignominious career in being plundered by a band of loyal brigands, he would not have had time to justify the innumerable legends of pockets emptied and pistols levelled at his head. Moreover, Moll herself was laden with years, and she had always preferred the council chamber to the battlefield. But it is certain that, with Captain Hind and Mull Sack to aid, she schemed many a clever plot against the Roundheads, and nobly she played her part in avenging the martyred King.

Thus she declined into old age, attended, like Queen Mary, by her maids, who would card, reel, spin, and beguile her leisure with sweet singing. Though her spirit was untamed, the burden of her years compelled her to a tranquil life. She, who formerly never missed a bull-baiting, must now content herself with tick-tack. Her fortune, moreover, had been wrecked in the Civil War. Though silver shells still jingled in her pocket, time was she knew the rattle of the yellow boys. But she never lost courage, and died at last of a dropsy, in placid contentment with her lot. Assuredly she was born at a time well suited to her genius. Had she lived to-day, she might have been a ‘Pioneer’; she might even have discussed some paltry problem of sex in a printed obscenity.

In her own freer, wiser age, she was not man’s detractor, but his rival; and if she never knew the passion of love, she was always loyal to the obligation of friendship. By her will she left twenty pounds to celebrate the Second Charles’s restoration to his kingdom; and you contemplate her career with the single regret that she died a brief year before the red wine, thus generously bestowed, bubbled at the fountain.