Shadow on the Highway by Deborah Swift

‘The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas…’

So opens the Alfred Noyes poem, The Highwayman. I loved that poem at school, and have remembered the opening lines ever since I was nine years old. So when I read about Lady Katherine Fanshawe –  the noblewoman who was also a highwaywoman, I could hardly resist researching her fascinating life!  Whilst uncovering Katherine’s story I found that the real history and the legend did not always agree. For one thing, there are discrepancies about Katherine’s date of death and place of burial, and little survives of hard-core evidence as to her activities during the English Civil War.


Despite the legend, there is actually nothing of substance to link Lady Katherine with any sort of highway robbery, although it is likely that there was robbery and plunder on the roads at this period because of civil unrest; crimes that could have been attributed to her.


The legend however is irresistible. Two films have been based on the idea, both called ‘The Wicked Lady’, in 1945 and 1983. There was also another novel; The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton, loosely based on Katherine’s life. The fact that the legend has survived so long is a testament to its appeal.

But could I re-imagine it, paying attention to the facts whilst keeping true to the interest of the legend? Could I keep her exploits as a highwaywoman?

For my story I have drawn on both her real life, and aspects of the legend. Nowhere in the real history is Katherine’s lover, Ralph Chaplin, traceable, although he always features in the retelling of the legend as the person who persuaded her to robbery in the first place. For a novelist, these gifts of mysterious characters with no background fuel the imagination, and Ralph features in my novel and the second part of my Highway Trilogy will be his story, told from his point of view. Of course I have tried to make him as real as possible, and, as many young men were at that time, excited to try new idealistic ways of living, following the break-down of the established order.

I was concerned however to pay attention to the real evidence, and – without giving too much away, to supply likely scenarios which could have led to the interpretation we have today. John Barber, on his excellent website on Lady Katherine, poses the idea that her life may have accrued some of the story of  ‘Maude of Allinghame’ (1833), a Victorian ballad that tells the story of a noblewoman who robs a young suitor and later the Mayor of Redbourne. This seems to be a likely possibility, although parts of Katherine’s legend are undoubtedly true. She was forced to marry tragically early; her stepfather did squander her fortune; the real Markyate Manor does have a secret passage.

Suffice it to say, there is plenty of highway action in Shadow on the Highway – muskets, moonlight and madness.

SHADOW ON THE HIGHWAY is published by Endeavour Press and is aimed at teens and adults from aged 14+

Paperback and ebook

More on Lady Katherine Fanshawe

Deborah’s website 


Researching historical fiction – The Lady’s Slipper

lady's slipper woodcut

Many people have asked me about how I do my research and how much time it takes to write a historical novel. So in this post I will take a little about my process, and also tell you about some of the some of the books I found invaluable in my research for my first book, ‘The Lady’s Slipper’ – a novel of orchids, obsession and murder.

My approach was not to try to know everything, but to read some general books on the 17th Century to get a broad picture, and then to start to write the book, filling in the gaps in my knowledge later. I keep a large notebook which is full of questions, for example, “How much was a loaf of bread in 1660?” “In a small village would there have been a bakery, or did people bake at home?” “What sort of bread? Millet? Wheat? Rye?” The answer to the last question was that in Westmorland where the book is set bread was called “clapbread” and was a flat cake made of oats, and it would keep for nearly a month. Houses had special oak cupboards built into the walls to keep the bread over winter –  frequently the answers are not what you expect but even more interesting.


Westmorland Clapbread – a form of oatcake

So after getting the overview I write my story, but I am left with a bulging and quite daunting note book full of questions. I take a deep breath, start at the beginning again and find out the answers and facts and decide if they help or hinder the story.  I enjoy the “detective” element of finding out the answers to obscure questions! I read a lot of non-fiction and I am eternally grateful to the “real” historians who supply me with the answers. Books such as The Weaker Vessel by Antonia Fraser which gives a record of women’s lives in the Civil War in their own voices, and Restoration London by Liza Picard which was indispensable for information about daily life. Another favourite was Birth, Marriage and Death by David Cressy, which was always on my desk.

When I began writing The Lady’s Slipper I had no idea that my characters were going to end up on a ship, and of course I knew nothing at all about sailing ships, not even modern ones. No matter how many books I had read on the 17th century beforehand, it was unlikely I would have found out what I needed to know about Dutch Flute sailing ships without doing some very specific research. So I forced myself to read Patrick O’Brian’s books which are all set at sea, and what he doesn’t know about tall ships would probably fit on a postage stamp. They are the sort of historical fiction I would never normally pick up, but they are excellent. I found out by emailing The Maritime Museum that the cow was stabled “aft”, and that foodstuffs such as corn were often sealed in dried mud to keep them fresh on board.

To write about people’s homes I spent time at a number of old houses including Levens Hall, which helped me to create Fisk Manor, the home of Geoffrey Fisk in the novel. There is nothing like walking down a 17th century staircase and feeling the polished wooden banisters and seeing the light pour in through mullioned windows. At Swarthmoor Hall I sat and wrote a scene at a gnarled and polished oak table where George Fox the Quaker leader may have sat when he lived there with Margaret Fell. After such an immersion in the past it feels very strange then to get in my car and zoom away!

The botanical facts about the orchid I researched through interviewing members of the Cypripedium Committee, a sort of plant mafia set up to protect the Lady’s Slipper. They meet behind closed doors and the location of the last remaining plant in Britain is a closely guarherbalded secret even today. The single-minded enthusiasm of these men, and their dedication to preserving the plant for future generations gave me confidence in my heroine, Alice Ibbetson’s obsession with it. But I also read novels such as The Orchid Thief and Tulip Fever, which treat similar themes.

Having worked as a costume designer I could not resist the Northampton Shoe Museum where there are many shoes on display. In The Lady’s Slipper Ella the maid is envious of her mistress’s slippers, and below you can see a pair from the museum that I used as reference whilst writing.

Often the research throws up new plotlines and then I will re-write scenes or chunks of the book to incorporate little-known or exciting research. I think to write historical fiction you have to enjoy this aspect of it because you are going to do an awful lot of it. When people ask me how long it takes to research the novel they are thinking in terms of a finite time, but actually I am researching all the time, my living room always has a pile of ten or twelve “current” books I am dipping into, not to mention photocopies of the diaries of Pepys and George Fox and other helpful 17th century scribblers. Did I forget to mention the internet? Hard to imagine now, how I ever did without it. Invaluable for unearthing academic papers from all over the world.

George FoxBook dep slipper