A fine wit, a charming Tongue, and a humour brisk and gay

 

These snippets form an overview of the exploits of Mary Carleton (1634-73), one of the most fascinating women of the 17th century.  Fraudster, thief, and multiple bigamist, Mary’s life reads like a Hollywood film. Her quick wit and sheer audacity demonstrate that not all early modern women were models of convention and respectability.

Little is known of Mary’s early life.  As a young woman she married a shoemaker from Canterbury, and had two children who died.  Unhappy in her marriage, she charmed a ship’s mate into allowing her to join a voyage to Barbados, but at the last minute her plans were discovered by her husband and she was forced to abandon her travels.  Thwarted in her attempts to escape, Mary retaliated by simply marrying someone else, in fact a surgeon from Dover.  Indicted for bigamy, the case was dropped when Mary managed to convince the authorities she had at the time believed her first husband to be dead.

Following this brush with the law, Mary travelled to the continent, and quickly acquired a knowledge of several European languages. Establishing herself as Maria de Wolway, she returned to London with a flash new wardrobe and an array of fine jewels. She also carried several fake letters which attested to her ownership of rich estates and land.  Passing herself off as a wealthy eligible woman, she soon attracted the attention of several men, including an inn keeper called King.  He told his father-in-law, Carlton, of Mary’s wealth and it wasn’t long before Carleton’s son John, a lawyer’s clerk aged eighteen, had acquired some posh clothes of his own, and charmed Mary into marriage. However, once it became apparent that Mary wasn’t all she seemed, the Carletons had her dragged off to prison, where she became something of a celebrity.  She was even visited by Pepys on 29th May 1663.  Her subsequent trial was something of a farce.  The Carletons could only produce one witness, and Mary insisted on her noble status, claiming the Carletons had invented her vast wealth themselves.  She was acquitted on all charges, to the great delight of the general public.  A play about her, A Witty Combat, was soon in production, and she even appeared on stage, playing herself at the Duke’s Theatre in 1664.  Pepys records in his diary ‘saw The German Princess acted—by the woman herself … the whole play … is very simple, unless here and there a witty sprankle or two’ (15 April 1664; Pepys, Diary, 5.124).

For the next seven years Mary exploited her celebrity status and acquired a string of lovers, deceiving and defrauding them  all. In addition she created several new identities supported by more false papers. In 1670 she was caught stealing a silver tankard and sentenced to hanging, which was eventually commuted to transportation to Jamaica in 1671.  However she somehow managed to return to England, having adopted yet another identity, and she went on an audacious crime spree, committing a spectacular fraud, which gained her over £600 in cash and goods (roughly £50,000).  Mary was eventually apprehended for stealing a piece of plate, and when the turnkey from Newgate recognised her as The German Princess, she was once more incarcerated.

She appeared at her trial dressed in an Indian gown, a silk petticoat, and white shoes tied with green laces. Her hair had been crimped according to the latest style.  Having confessed her sins, Mary was hanged at Tyburn on 22nd January 1673.  Her story was told repeatedly in the years following her death, and she was the inspiration for more pamphlets than any other domestic criminal of the age. One author declared her to be ‘a Looking-glass, wherein we may see the Vices of this Age Epitomized’.

Her epitaph reads as follows:

Under this Cannopy of Stone,
Who lies? if you would have it known,
‘Tis German Princess, no worse Body,
Come now to her last Hole, at Noddy:
She was a Woman Great and High-born,
But late advanc’d higher at Tyborn:
Where by the Hangman, and the Carter,
She was Instaul’d Lady o’th Garter:
She came a Lass, as far as Bantam,
And now she sups with Margret Trantam.

Sources: Janet Todd – DNB; Memories of the life of famous Madam Charlton (1673)

 

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3 Comments

  • June 25, 2011 - 12:13 am | Permalink

    Ah Dainty, what a great story, a cross between Alex Kingston and Lady GaGa (with her Indian gown and silk petticoat and her crimped hair etc) how could they hang some one like that. Payed the price for thinking she was free. And eh! I quite like a bad girl too!

  • January 10, 2011 - 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Thank you. Wonderful isn’t she. She was smart enough to have nobbled someone much higher up the ladder. Her life would make a brilliant romp of a film.

  • January 9, 2011 - 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful post! I love clever “bad girls.” If only Mary aspired higher to royalty rather than the innkeeper’s son, she might have ended up as another Duchess of Portsmouth. *g*

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