Mary Frith was born at Barbican on Aldersgate Street in 1584, and grew up to be one of the most famous women of her age, immortalised in not one but two plays: The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside by John Day in 1610, and The Roaring Girl by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker in 1611.
A “boisterous and masculine spirit”
Her life and times have been well-documented, not least in her own words in a 1662 autobiography, and in The Newgate Calendar, which describes the “boisterous and masculine spirit” which appeared in her childhood:
She was above all breeding and instruction. She was a very tomrig or hoyden, and delighted only in boys’ play and pastime, not minding or companying with the girls. Many a bang and blow this hoyting procured her, but she was not so to be tamed, or taken off from her rude inclinations. She could not endure that sedentary life of sewing or stitching; a sampler was as grievous to her as a winding sheet; and on her needle, bodkin and thimble she could not think quietly, wishing them changed into sword and dagger for a bout at cudgels.
Crime and punishment
As she grew up, Mary got into more and more trouble. At 16 she was charged with stealing two shillings. Her uncle tried to send her to America for a fresh start but she jumped overboard and swam ashore before the ship sailed.
Mary got her name, Moll Cutpurse, by stealing purses in the area around St Paul’s cathedral. An accomplice would distract the target while Mary cut the strings of their purse, detaching it from their belt.
She was in and out of prison and was burnt on the hand four times, a common punishment for thieves. She also acted as a fence for stolen goods. One of her other roles was as a pimp and go-between, finding young women to be mistresses for men and men to be lovers for married women.
“Indecent and manly apparel”
She became a recognisable figure around town, drinking in taverns with men, smoking a long clay pipe, and wearing men’s clothing: breeches and a doublet.
According to The Newgate Calendar: “This she took to from her first entrance into a competency of age, and to her dying day she would not leave it off… She was a great libertine, she lived too much in common to be enclosed in the limits of a private domestic life.”
She even appeared on stage at the Fortune Theatre in 1611, singing songs and playing the lute.
In her autobiography she records a court case in which:
some promoting operator set on by an adversary of mine, whom I could never punctually know, cited me to appear in the Court of the Arches, where was an Accusation exhibited against me for wearing indecent and manly apparel
As punishment she was sentenced to stand at St Paul’s Cross wearing a white sheet during the Sunday morning sermon. However Mary gleefully points out that as she was not ashamed or repentant the punishment was pointless:
They might as soon have shamed a Black Dog as Me, with any kind of such punishment; for saving the reverence due to those who enjoined it, for a half-penny I would have Traveled to all the Market Towns in England with it, and been as proud of it as that Citizen who rode down to his Friends in his Livery-Gown and Hood.
“Thou shame of women”
Mary’s friend the showman William Banks once bet her £20 that she would not ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man. She accepted the bet, and even bought a trumpet and a banner to go along with.
Riding on Banks’ famous horse Marocco, Mary proceeded “undiscovered”, and amused herself in imagining she was “Squiresse to Dulcinea of Tobosso”, until she reached Bishopsgate and faced an unpleasant reminder of the danger she faced:
where passing under the Gate a plaguey Orange Wench knew me, and no sooner let me pass her, but she cried out! Mal Cutpurse on Horseback, which set the people that were passing by, and the Folks in their Shops a hooting and hollowing as if they had been mad; winding their cries to this deep note, ‘Come down thou shame of Women or we will pull thee down’.
I knew not well what to doe, but remembering a Friend I had, that kept a Victualling House a little further, I spurred my Horse on and recovered the place, but was hastily followed by the rabble, who never ceased cursing of me, the more soberer of them laughing and merrily chatting of the Adventure…
So came late into Shoreditch, where I paced the same way back again to the winning of my Wager, and my great Content, to see my self thus out of danger, which I would never tempt again in that nature.
“She’ll stand alone, and none come nigh her”
At some point towards the end of her life Mary was incarcerated in Bethlem Hospital, but was released in 1644, apparently cured of insanity. Later still The Newgate Calendar records that at 74 years old:
Moll being grown crazy in her body, and discontented in mind, she yielded to the next distemper that approached her, which was the dropsy; a disease which had such strange and terrible symptoms that she thought she was possessed, and that the devil had got within her doublet.
She died in 1659 and was buried in St Bride’s churchyard, Fleet Street. John Milton wrote an epitaph which was engraved on a marble headstone, later destroyed in the Great Fire of London, in which he celebrates her unique and rebellious spirit:
For no communion she had,
Nor sorted with the good or bad;
That when the world shall be calcin’d,
And the mixd’ mass of human kind
Shall sep’rate by that melting fire,
She’ll stand alone, and none come nigh her.