How Mary Frith’s reputation changed from bawdy rogue to defender of the patriarchy.
When James VI of Scotland took the English crown in 1603, it was heralded as a blessed return to normality. For the previous forty-one years, the natural order had been put on its head by the reign of Elizabeth I, a woman performing the ultimate male duty. Elizabeth’s reign had necessarily been an act of political transvestism. She presented herself as the Virgin Queen, the chaste goddess, but also as the guardian of divinely ordained power; she wore dresses from the neck down, but the crown upon her head remained inherently male. “I have the body of a woman,” she famously reminded her people, “but the heart and stomach of a king.” Elizabeth’s accession sparked a preoccupation with masculine women in England. Within twenty years of the beginning of her reign, there were reports that females had been seen strutting along the streets of London wearing men’s breeches and doublets, in brazen contravention of the law. When the writer William Harrison encountered some of these imposters in the capital he swore that it “passed my skill to discern whether they were men or women.”
For centuries, clothes had served as a marker and enforcer of one’s station in life. Yet, Elizabeth feared that the rapid growth of England’s cities, and the spending habits of an emerging class of wealthy merchants, was causing what one contemporary commentator termed “a mingle mangle of apparel … So that it is verie hard to knowe who is noble, who is worshipfull, who is a gentleman, who is not.” To address the confusion, Elizabeth issued eight proclamations against “excesse of apparel,” dictating what fabrics, colors, and styles each social rank were allowed (or, more often, not allowed) to wear. None but the sovereign and her immediate family were permitted to wear purple silk, for instance, and all but the nobility were obliged to wear woolen caps on certain days. Similar steps were taken against cross-dressing among the sexes, but to little effect.
If any had hoped that the coronation of James, the long-awaited adult Protestant male, would tilt the world back on its axis, they were disappointed. During his reign, the phenomenon of the London “Roaring Girl” reached its apotheosis in the form of Mary Frith, a smoking, cursing, thieving, braggart who spoke and—most shocking of all—dressed like a man. In the guise of the semifictional character Moll Cutpurse, Frith became an urban legend in every sense of the term, encapsulating much that was exhilarating and terrifying about London life in the years when the city began its mutation from medieval city into modern metropolis. To the burghers and the zealots, she was a despicable inversion of all that was good and godly; the criminal underworld cheered her, while artists and pleasure seekers immortalized her as the personification of a town where anything was possible.
For a short time, she was noisome, irrepressible London in human form, sharp-elbowed, loudmouthed, and strong-willed. But in the years immediately after her death, she was reclaimed as a defender of hierarchy and patriarchy, a transformation made possible by eighteen of the strangest, most radical, and most violent years in British history, when civil war and revolution created “a world turned upside down”; when, for a brief moment, all the most basic assumptions about society were tossed into the air; and when, in comparison, a girl wearing slacks really didn’t seem like such a big deal after all.
From Frith’s first appearance in the historical record, it’s clear she was trouble. In 1600, age sixteen, she was up before magistrates accused of stealing two shillings and eleven pence from a man in the Clerkenwell area of London. Two years later, she stood trial for a similar offense; in 1610, she was found not guilty of stealing ten pounds’ worth of money and jewelry in Southwark. Around this time, according to one account, she escaped a ship destined for Jamestown, perhaps in the party of new settlers that saved the colony from collapse after the Starving Time. The tale is probably apocryphal, but it expresses an essential truth. In the seventeenth century, Jamestown represented the absolute opposite of London, making it the perfect place for a wayward young woman to be put back on the straight and narrow. The notion that Frith rejected this fate makes for an impeccable genesis story, a prologue to the semimythical figure she was about to become.
Repeated scrapes with the law would have gained any woman a degree of notoriety. What elevated Frith to celebrity status was that she conducted her criminality in men’s clothing. When she was barely into her twenties, titillating stories of her behavior began to circulate through London. In 1610, not long after she’d been cleared of burglary, she was well-known enough to be the subject of a play by John Day titled The Madde Pranckes of Mery Mall of the Bankside. The following year, Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker had her as the eponymous lead of their celebrated play, The Roaring Girl, or, Moll Cutpurse. This being the indecorous world of Jacobean theater, the character of Moll Cutpurse wasn’t put on stage to be spat at. Rather, she was the play’s unlikely moral center. Being neither fully male nor fully female, as it seemed to Middleton and Dekker, she was perfectly placed to ridicule and question the follies of both sexes.
The play seems to have been a hit; it cemented Moll Cutpurse in London’s ever-swelling cast of totemic characters. Loved, loathed, and constantly talked about, Frith capitalized on her notoriety by making an appearance at the end of a 1611 performance of The Roaring Girl, at the Fortune Playhouse, dressed as a man, carrying a sword, and dancing a jig. Cross-dressing was, of course, a staple of English theater: a number of Shakespeare’s most famous works toy with the theme, and boys regularly took on female roles, a practice that rankled the country’s growing ranks of devout Calvinists. The sight of a woman in men’s dress, however, was provocative, even in the zone of suspended reality the stage provided.
Frith’s daring is precisely why she, rather than any of the other cross-dressing women who had emerged since the 1570s, so fascinated the public. When the first cases emerged, many thought that women who wore male clothes were prostitutes, advertising with their physical appearance that they had jettisoned all sense of propriety. But there was never any suggestion that Frith was a prostitute, nor that she was attempting to communicate something about what we would term her sexuality. As Peter Ackroyd writes, “in the twenty-first century [Frith’s cross-dressing] might be seen as a token of sexual identity; in fact it was a token of urban identity.” Frith’s male clothes were the uniform of swagger, agency, and individualism; they allowed her to live the sort of fleet-footed, urban existence that appealed to her, one that was typically off limits to women. And, as her performance at the Fortune shows, she also loved wearing men’s clothes because in the bustling streets of London, she was guaranteed to be seen in them.
Inevitably, her exhibitionism didn’t go unpunished. On Christmas Day 1611, she was arrested and sent to Bridewell Prison. In February, she was made to do public penance dressed in a white sheet. The famed letter writer John Chamberlain reported the scene to a friend. “She wept bitterly and seemed very penitent,” he wrote, although he suspected this was all for show: “It is since doubted she was maudlin drunk. Being discovered to have tippled off three quarts of sack before she came to her penance.” In any event, she was deemed to have served her sentence and sent back into the maw of the city.
As she approached thirty, it’s possible that Frith felt pressure to make an honest woman of herself. Although later accounts of her life maintained that she only had use for men as partners in stealing and drinking, in 1614 she married Lewknor Markham, who may’ve been the son of the playwright Gervase Markham, keeping her theatrical connections alive. The reformation wasn’t permanent. In 1617, she was up before the beaks again.
Soon after that, public concern about cross-dressing women reached a new pitch, although historians struggle to identify evidence that the practice was suddenly on the rise. In 1620, two pamphlets were published, Hic Mulier (“Mannish Woman”) and Haec-Vir (“Womanish Man”) fulminating against the creeping menace of gender inversion. That same year, the king himself urged men of the cloth to “inveigh vehemently and bitterly in their sermons against the insolence of our women.” On hearing the news, John Chamberlain wrote in one of his letters, “the world is very far out of order, but whether this will mend yt God knowes.”
In the case of Mary Frith, at least, it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference. In yet another trial in 1624—during which she confirmed that she hadn’t seen her husband for years—Frith was found guilty of importing beaver-fur hats, a transgression against the sumptuary laws that deemed these precious commodities suitable for noble gentlemen only. Indeed, the papers connected to the case allege that she was up to her old ways in every sense: harboring crooks; swearing and blaspheming; frequenting taverns and smoking tobacco. It’s also apparent that her main source of income was from “fencing”: she would receive stolen goods and broker their return to their owners. It was as though having given birth to the myth of Moll Cutpurse, Frith felt obliged to keep her alive.
After her prosecution in 1624, Frith all but disappeared from the official records. The following year, King James died. By 1642, his son Charles I had shepherded the people of the British Isles into a brutal civil war that pitched the Crown against Parliament, and claimed the lives of one in fifty people. The conflict, predictably enough in these dress-conscious times, was potently symbolized by clothing: the puritanical “Roundhead” supporters of Parliament in plain and somber garb on one side; the “Cavalier” monarchists with flowing wigs and flamboyant suits on the other. It ended in 1649, with the unthinkable, when Charles was tried and convicted of war crimes against his own subjects and publicly executed days later. The people of Charles’s three kingdoms were stunned. It was as though the sun had been plucked out of the sky.
The king’s demise triggered an eleven-year experiment with republicanism, under the guidance of Oliver Cromwell. The wheels of that strange new vehicle of government fell off when Cromwell died in late 1658, and by early 1660, the monarchy had been restored. Between those two milestones, on July 26, 1659, Mary Frith’s life came to an end. What she experienced during the years of carnage and turmoil can’t be known for sure, but it may have taken a personal toll. The records of the Bethlem Royal Hospital—better known as Bedlam, London’s infamous mental asylum—state that she was released in 1644, two years into the war, having recovered from insanity.
It’s unclear when or under what circumstances she was committed, though one might speculate that it had something to do with her willful nonconformism. As the stronghold of Parliament’s rebellion against the king, London was in the grip of abstemious religious sects who effected a huge change in the city’s cultural life. In 1642, the suppression of plays and closure of London’s theaters were ordered; in 1644, the Globe was demolished. By 1646, the Puritans’ war on Christmas had outlawed almost all the traditional festivities, including church sermons. In that environment, it’s easy to imagine how a taboo-buster like Mary Frith might be appraised.
The restoration of the Stuart monarchy saw license and excess return to London’s streets. Theaters reopened, and women were allowed to appear onstage for the first time. The king, whose fleshly appetites resulted in seventeen acknowledged bastards, so loved actresses that he made the best-loved of them, Nell Gwynn, one of his many mistresses. London once again was a Moll Cutpurse kind of town. Within three years of Frith’s death and two years of the Restoration, a book was published, The Life and Death of Mrs Mary Frith, Commonly Called Mal Cutpurse, which purported to be Frith’s firsthand account of her many adventures. If Frith really was behind the book—and a minority of historians maintain she was—then the self-portrait is rather an abstract one. Though filled with juicy revelations about her work as a thief, a fence, and a bawd, there is no mention of her marriage or her spell in Bedlam, and the details of many incidents contradict the facts recorded in official documents.
Whether Frith was at all involved with the book, or whether, as many believe, it was the work of the publisher William Gilbertson, The Life confirmed Moll Cutpurse’s remarkable metamorphosis into an emblem of the good old days before the war, back when people had morals and a sense of decency. She boasts of having once genuflected before the king when other “Saucy Rogues” in London wanted his head on the chopping block, and that she was “the onely declared person in our street against the Parliament.” In what she describes as a time of “holy Cheats and sanctified Delusions,” when the city mob assumed superiority over a divinely ordained monarch, Frith’s perverse character, her desire to invert all social norms, made her the voice of reason. The vices she clung to—drinking, bull baiting, bawdry—almost seemed like virtues when practiced in defiance of the Puritans’ proscriptions. Though she boldly confesses to stealing coins and trinkets, she suggests that she never countenanced the ultimate act of larceny committed by the Roundheads: the theft of the king’s God-given power. Among a regicidal shower of ne’er-do-wells, Moll Cutpurse suddenly shone like a diamond in dog shit.
Thus, in the hands of a canny publisher, the most outrageous woman in England became a smiter of radicalism and conservative heroine. Yet for all the obvious propaganda, there are lines in The Life that sound as if they could only have been spoken by Frith herself. “I doe more wonder at my self than others can do,” she says at one point in a wistful aside. It sounds tantalizingly like a real person communicating an emotional truth about this life of notoriety that she had led, as do the book’s final lines. “Let me be lay’n in my Grave on my Belly, with my Breech upwards, as well for a Lucky Resurrection at Doomsday, as because I am unworthy to look upwards, and that as I have in my Life been preposterous, so I may be in my death … and there’s an END.”
Edward White is the author of The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America.